Reflecting on our Jewish journey

Last Shabbat we were once again tragically reminded of the horrific impact of hate, and of the price that we often pay as a community simply to be able to live our lives as Jews. The attack also provides us with an opportunity to consider what an incredibly meaningful and significant few days lie ahead for us as a Jewish people. Various holidays and commemorations will shed light on the incredible, tragic and miraculous journey we have taken as a Jewish community over the past century, both here in Toronto and around the world.

Today marks the beginning of the second annual Canadian Jewish Heritage Month, enacted into law by the Federal government in 2018 as an opportunity for all Canadians to reflect on and celebrate the incredible contributions that Jewish Canadians have made to our country.

As part of Jewish Heritage Month, the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA), a department of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, will be leading more than 50 schools and 3,000 students from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) on Jewish heritage walking tours of Kensington Market. Led by teachers at the TDSB's Toronto Urban Studies Centre, students will take part in an unforgettable experiential learning opportunity. Beginning in the historic Kiever Synagogue, students will learn about the history of Toronto's Jewish community and the challenges, antisemitism and opportunities they faced in the early 20th century.

Another OJA project taking place in May, called Storefront Stories, is an exciting new site-specific exhibition that explores the stories of the former Jewish businesses that once thrived on the streets of Kensington Market. These memorable bakeries, butcher shops, bookstores, and ice cream parlours shaped the wonderfully eclectic nature of the neighbourhood that we all still love today.

The most important goal of these projects is for people from all walks of life, and students largely from schools with very few Jewish students, to develop empathy for the Jewish experience and to be exposed to Jewish life and Jewish contributions to society. At UJA Federation, we see this type of exposure and education as a crucial step in helping to build relationships and dialogue between people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. We know that mistrust among people is often is born of ignorance or unfamiliarity, and as a community we have felt the brunt of that mistrust so often throughout history, most recently with the terror attacks at synagogues in Pittsburgh and just last Shabbat in San Diego, and most profoundly in the horrors of the Holocaust.

That’s why I believe it is fitting that on the first night of Jewish Heritage Month, UJA’s Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre will bring the community together to commemorate Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day, at an event that will feature participation from Holocaust survivors and descendants, community members, leaders, and students of all faiths. The fact that we now live in a society that overwhelmingly embraces its Jewish citizens does not mask the reality that many around us still promote hatred toward our community. We know this is true because we remain the most targeted minority group in Toronto when it comes to hate crimes.

I believe Holocaust education, which draws a direct line between the promotion of racism and its violent effects, is one of the most important tools we possess to counter growing hatred and antisemitism. The robust education and the programs offered to students year-round at the Neuberger Centre have taught generations of people how the promotion of prejudice and hatred can lead to violence.

A week after Yom HaShoah, we will again join as one to rejoice the most unlikely outcome of the Holocaust – the creation of the State of Israel, the first Jewish state in more than 2,000 years. Today, Israel, which is such an important and central part of UJA Federation’s efforts, and indeed our own Jewish community here in the GTA, are thriving and shining beacons for the power of the human spirit. A community, a nation and a people born out of tragedy, reaching unimaginable heights despite all the obstacles thrown our way.

This month provides us an opportunity to reflect on our collective journey. To remember the struggles and terror we have faced at home, in Israel and around the world, and to be reminded that we must stand firm against hatred at all times. And, to celebrate our perseverance and the powerful sense of unity that we all feel as proud, engaged and connected Jews.

Adam Minsky