We are a group of authors, artists, human rights advocates, scholars, rabbis, Jewish communal professionals and others who are concerned by the growing scarcity of Jewish-led social justice in Canada. We call for a renewed social justice effort to shine a Jewish light on issues of power and vulnerability in Canada.
Taking inspiration from Jewish values, Jews have, historically, been active at the forefront of every social justice movement in North America. Jewish social activists have a great legacy of addressing issues of justice, human rights, equity and dignity for all human beings. From being a strong voice on poverty, to supporting organized labour, to in engaging in interfaith and inter-ethnic dialogue, the Canadian Jewish community was long a model for others. And the community’s ongoing fight against anti-Semitism was never simply about protecting Jews from prejudice, but also about fostering a culture of human rights and dignity for all Canadians.
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Yet, with the important exception of the concerted move by many synagogue congregants across the country to open their hearts to Syrian refugees, we have found that issues around poverty, racism and dignity for the country’s most vulnerable – as well as for suffering populations around the globe – have taken a back seat in the organized Jewish community to the much narrower agenda of Israel advocacy.
We seek to build on the Jewish legacy of social justice commitments by suggesting the creation of a coalition similar to the U.S.-based Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, which captures 52 organizations under a Jewish umbrella. Such an endeavour would elevate, expand and enhance the work of national Jewish movements and rabbinic groups in Canada as well as the array of organizations currently working in areas of refugees, immigration and resettlement, domestic abuse, poverty, hunger, addiction, and employment. It would also bring together individuals unattached to specific organizations who nevertheless bring a range of similar values and expertise.
At present, most of the existing Jewish community organizations involved in helping the vulnerable are direct service agencies. A new and enhanced Canadian Jewish coalition would not only seek to forge linkages across them, but would enable the community to identify strategies to address deeper structural social ills. In partnership with other communities, such a coalition would be well placed to suggest new responses to systemic forms of oppression in Canada and beyond.
For many Canadian Jews, Jewish activism and repair of our world, popularly known as tikkun olam, are central to their Jewish identity. Yet they currently lack substantive outlets in the Jewish community for deep engagement. For all of us, Canadian democratic values along with Jewish values call us to respond to systems that continue to marginalize, disempower and cause harm.
Moreover, the level of resources, organizational finesse and social capital that our community possesses, and our acute historical experience of being a collective outsider, makes us well placed to live and model a collective politics of compassion in the service of economic and social justice.
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How do we, as Canadian Jews, engage in the great issues facing our country? How can our advocacy organizations become directly accountable to the values held by the public they seek to lead? And does Judaism call on us to care only for our own, or to create a world rooted in justice and dignity for all inhabitants? These and many other questions need answers, and we hereby initiate the conversation. In the darkness of winter, let us strive to relight the candle of Jewish participation in our tradition of tikkun olam.
Philip B Berger
Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi Ed Elkin
Bernie M. Farber
Rabbi Steven Garten
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow
Rabbi Aaron Levy
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
Rabbi Schachar Orenstein
Rabbi Deborah Zuker