Imam Mohammed Tawhidi once preached hatred, but now is known as “the Imam of Peace.” (photo from imamtawhidi.com)
Imam Mohammad Tawhidi once preached hate towards Jews from the pulpit, and believed the very worst stereotypes about the Jewish people. He was indoctrinated by the Ayatollah’s preachers in Iran. But, today, Tawhidi is known as “the Imam of Peace” for a reason. He’s preaching coexistence and common ground for Jews and Muslims.
In late May, Tawhidi spoke at a United Grassroots Movement event at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda, a Toronto synagogue, on how people of all backgrounds can – and should – unite against antisemitism and extremism.
An Iranian Muslim of Iraqi origin, Tawhidi sees his former peers actively engaging in hate-filled rhetoric. For example, as in years past, the politics of division and derision were widespread at the Al Quds march in Toronto earlier this year – chants included slurs against Israel and Jews.
Government officials are either incapable of preventing hatred on city streets and property, or unwilling to do so, he said. To answer problems such as these, he encouraged talk attendees to find, and bring together, as many allies as possible, to speak out and even take legal action wherever warranted.
Tawhidi’s change from preaching hatred, to becoming a friend of Israel and the Jews, did not come overnight.
First, he spoke out against ISIS war crimes in the Middle East and Africa. When he was met with condemnation from his peers, he said it opened his eyes to the radical elements that existed within his circle.
“I was still a fundamentalist, an extremist and antisemite,” he said of his views until then. “I thought I was doing this on behalf of God.”
And yet, he began thinking of how he could reconcile the slaughter of innocents in the name of Islam.
The next significant moment for the imam was when he met a Jew. Needing roadside assistance one day in England, it was a visibly Jewish man who helped him.
Later, Tawhidi was invited to a synagogue for an interfaith dialogue. Although he was skeptical, initially, of the people he was communicating with, he left the event feeling a special connection.
His decision to criticize ISIS and radical Islam and preach for peace with Israel and Jewish people was met with a severe backlash.
“I knew I would lose my community, but I also knew I would be welcomed into a new one,” he said.
If he could turn a corner, so can others, Tawhidi maintained. But if they can’t do quite that, then it’s important, he said, to at least defend the truth in public, so that the people who are on the fence or ignorant of the issues can be exposed to all sides.
It’s hopeful for us to note, he said, that the kinds of beliefs he once held are no longer normative in many parts of the Arab world. He highlighted the signatories to the Abraham Accords with Israel, which is breathing new life into modern coexistence, he said.
Further proof of the power of allies, said Tawhidi, is that he received nearly three-quarters of the vote in favour of him winning the position of vice-president of the Global Imams Council, a transnational nongovernmental body of Muslim religious leaders.
Tawhidi stresses that Islam is not a religion that hates Jews, and anything to the contrary is a perversion of the Quran.
To defend against antisemitism, he insisted that Jews and non-Jews must call it out, take legal action when merited, and bring together many communities: “Do not underestimate the power of your allies!” he said.
A staunch supporter of Israel and what he sees as Israel’s right to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), Tawhidi said, in response to a question from the Jewish Independent, “There can be no circumstances where the Israeli government should give away any land that belongs to the Jewish people. The holy Quran has made it very clear that God, the God of Abraham, wants Jews to live in that region and for Jerusalem to be their capital. That is the teaching of my Quran, and it is clearly stated in Chapter 5, verse 20 onwards.”
As for developing allies out of those who do not support Israel, yet will speak out against antisemitism, Tawhidi said, “You can’t hate a people and you can’t hate a whole country, but I guess they have issues with certain policies of that government, so they need to provide productive and constructive criticism, so that the problems can be solved, and that solutions can be placed forward.”
However, he continued, “a blanket hate on a nation or a people does not come from a person that is worth making a friend, I don’t believe.”
Jon Wasserlaufis a freelance writer, and a political science major and law student based in Montreal.
A page of the Intro to Judaism booklet that can be downloaded as part of the Periphery curriculum, which offers a framework to talk and learn about diversity within the Jewish community.
“Make space for a productive and respectful conversation” – this is the first suggested action to frame the use of the recently released Periphery curriculum.
Periphery – a film and photography exhibit exploring the ethnic diversity of Toronto’s Jewish community (jewishindependent.ca/discussing-jewishness) – came out last fall. The new curriculum builds on that 27-minute documentary. It comprises another nine short videos, all under eight minutes each, and lesson guides for students in grades 8 through 12 in both the Jewish and public school systems. There is also a guide for Jewish groups and organizations, which could be used for non-Jewish groups.
Launched by the Toronto-based nonprofit No Silence on Race and the Ontario Jewish Archives (a department of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto) with the organization Facing History and Ourselves (an American group with a Toronto branch), the curriculum is Ontario-focused. That said, most of the information is broadly based and relevant to Canadians no matter where they live, and no matter their age.
There are differences in the curricula for each of the three grade groupings (Grade 8, grades 9 and 10, and grades 11 and 12), the Jewish versus public school content, and the community dialogue package. However, the basic format and information is similar, with appropriate adaptations for probable starting points in knowledge and experience.
The common learning aims include “a greater awareness and understanding about who Jewish people are and the ethnic diversity within Jewish communities”; “Possess a stronger framework for understanding the complexities of intersectional identity, using their own identities as a foundation”; “Understand the difference between individual and group identity with a focus on belonging and recognition”; and the role of students and community members in creating inclusive community spaces. In addition, for example, the Jewish community curriculum also suggests that participants: “Discuss the intersections of race, privilege, mobility (i.e Jewish professional opportunities), power as it relates to Jewish identity and ashkenormativity.”
Before delving into the films and lesson suggestions, the curriculum offers a few activities that help frame what viewers are about to watch and discuss – beginning with making “space for a productive and respectful conversation.”
The most extensive part of the guides is the screening prompts and activities. They are organized by topics based on those of the videos, such as “Hyphenated Identities,” “Immigrating to Canada” and “Finding Strength in One’s Heritage.” They include pre-screening and post-screening questions for each film and topic, and these questions elicit self-evaluation and the sharing of stories and views on identity, race, multiculturalism, sexuality, antisemitism and social justice, as well as discussion of the experiences and opinions of the interviewees featured in the films.
The final part of the guide attempts to have participants take what they have learned out into the world, beyond the classroom or boardroom or office. For example, the title of the last section of the Jewish community dialogue is “Now What?: Social Justice within the Jewish Community and Beyond.” It begins with discussion from a global perspective – using a quote from Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis to talk about questions like, “What does it mean for us to hear from different voices of humanity?” It then highlights a quote from the Mishna and one from Pirkei Avot to further reflect on the idea that repairing the world, tikkun olam, begins within the community.
In addition to the curricula, there are related materials available to download, from worksheets to help understand the concepts being discussed and organize one’s thoughts, to an introduction to Judaism, to a glossary of terms. The poem “Unpacking the Periphery,” by Akilah Allen-Silverstein, can also be downloaded. It concludes “For each other as allies, I pray we can stand tall / Diminish the fine lines, deepen our understanding, / Listen with compassion / Listen with empathy / Act with courage / Act with reason / Because this is the season / To do better / To act on the Open Letters / To be more than trend setters / But intentional change makers.”
Left to right: Mia Givon, Lorenzo Tesler-Mabe, Kat Palmer and Erin Aberle-Palm. (screenshot from Kat Palmer)
Holocaust survivors and their descendants were joined by top elected officials and Jewish community leaders in a series of commemorations marking Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, across Canada last week.
In Vancouver, community members gathered together at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver April 27, while scores more watched remotely as the traditional in-person ceremony returned for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
Marcus Brandt, vice-president of the presenting organization, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, welcomed guests and invited Holocaust survivors to light Yahrzeit candles.
“On Yom Hashoah, we join as a community to remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust at the hands of Nazi Germany and its co-conspirators between 1933 and 1945,” he said. “It is also a day to pay tribute to the Jewish resistance that took place during the Holocaust.”
This year marks the 79th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which is the most notable of many acts of Jewish resistance to Nazism.
Marsha Lederman, a journalist who is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, spoke of the importance of telling our stories.
“When I was growing up,” she said, “the Holocaust was everywhere and nowhere. As far back as I can remember, there were hints and references. My parents talked about things happening in camp. What was this camp? I knew it wasn’t like the summer camp that I went to. I knew a lot of their friends were also at these camps, but I didn’t know the details.”
At the age of 5, Marsha met a new friend whose home was filled with laughter and extended family.
“One day, when I came home from a visit at my friend’s house, I asked my mother what was really a simple, innocent question,” said Lederman. “She has grandparents, why don’t I? My poor mother. She was caught off guard and her answer was truly horrifying – at least as I remember it, because I know memory is very faulty. But, as I recall, she said I didn’t have grandparents because the Germans hated Jews and they killed them by making them take gas showers.”
This response raised more questions than answers for the young girl, not least of which was: “What did we do to make the Germans hate us so much and do they still hate us? It was a horrible introduction to the details of the tragedy of my family and it taught me another terrible lesson: be careful about asking questions because the answers could be murder.”
As a result, much of Lederman’s Holocaust education was gained “through osmosis, rather than sitting down and asking questions,” she said.
Her father died when Lederman was a young woman and, in a tragic turn of events, her mother died just as Lederman had bought a ticket to visit her in Florida, armed with a recorder to finally ask the questions she had hesitated to broach in earlier years.
“It’s taken me years to try to figure out what I could have learned in an afternoon at my mother’s kitchen table,” she said. “I have no way of knowing these things because I didn’t ask. We need to ask and we need to tell.”
Lederman explores these questions in a book being released this month, titled Kiss the Red Stairs: The Holocaust, Once Removed.
Amalia Boe-Fishman (née de Leeuw) was the featured survivor speaker at the Vancouver event. Born in the Netherlands, she was less than a year old when the Germans invaded her country. Her grandparents were soon transported to Auschwitz and murdered.
In what is an extremely rare phenomenon, Amalia, her parents and her brother all survived the war years because a Dutch Christian resistance fighter, Jan Spiekhout, and his family hid members of the de Leeuw family in a variety of hiding places over the course of years. Amalia’s mother even gave birth to another child in 1944. (That child, as well as Boe-Fishman’s oldest son, are both named Jan in honour of their rescuer.) Their survival was a statistical miracle. The Netherlands had among the lowest Jewish survival rate of any country during the Holocaust. Of 140,000 Dutch Jews in 1939, only 38,000 were alive in 1945.
Boe-Fishman recalled the day Canadian forces liberated the Netherlands – it was one of the only times in three years that she had set foot outdoors.
“It was strange and frightening outside and close to so many strangers,” she said. “The Canadian soldiers came rolling in on their tanks, handing out chocolates, everyone smiling, dancing, waving Dutch flags. Then I was told I could go home to my real family. But who were these strangers? I did not want to leave the family Spiekhout. They were my family. After all, I had not seen my real family for three years.”
In 1961, she traveled to Israel to meet members of her family who had made aliyah before the war and to reconnect with her Jewish identity. There, on the kibbutz she was staying, she met a Canadian, whom she married and they subsequently moved to Vancouver and had three children.
In 2009, Boe-Fishman and her three sons traveled to The Hague for the investiture of Jan Spiekhout and his late parents, Durk and Froukje Spiekhout, as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
“To be together with my children, my brother, and the grown children of the Spiekhout family, this was such a moving event in our lives,” she said.
As part of the Vancouver ceremony, Councilor Sarah Kirby-Yung read a proclamation from the City of Vancouver. Cantor Yaakov Orzech chanted El Moleh Rachamim. Lorenzo Tesler-Mabe, Mia Givon and Kat Palmer, members of the third generation, as well as Erin Aberle-Palm, sang and read poetry, accompanied by Vancouver Symphony Orchestra violinist Andrew James Brown and pianist Wendy Bross Stuart, who was also music director of the program.
The following day, a hybrid in-person and virtual event was held at the British Columbia legislature, featuring Premier John Horgan.
“On Yom Hashoah, we are challenged to ensure the words ‘never again’ are supported by action,” he said. “Over the past few years, there has been an increase in antisemitism in B.C., and the Jewish community is one of the most frequently targeted groups in police-reported hate crimes. That’s why our government will continue working to address racism and discrimination in all its forms.… Today, as we remember and honour those who were lost and those who survived, we must recommit to building a more just and inclusive province, where everyone is safe and the horrors of the past are never repeated.”
Michael Lee, member of the legislature for Vancouver-Langara, spoke on behalf of the B.C. Liberal caucus.
“Every year, we commemorate this day and remember the heroes and the Righteous Among Nations who stood up to oppose the most vile, hateful oppression,” Lee said. “We recognize the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, we make a solemn promise to never forget and never again allow such horrific actions to take place. This is a responsibility that we all must carry with us not only today but every day. It is a responsibility we must be better at upholding, as soldiers at this very moment commit war crimes once again in Europe. We have not done enough. Right here in Canada, we see another year of record rises in antisemitism. We have to do better.”
Lee called on the province to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism.
MLA Adam Olsen represented the Green party.
“While time distances us from the horrific events, the memories and the stories remain steadfast in our mind and are carried and passed from one generation to the next,” said Olsen. “The Holocaust was an ultimate form of evil, persecution, oppression, genocide, complete disregard for human life, pushed to the most appalling degree…. The Holocaust is a stark reminder of the darkness, the wickedness, that can exist among us. However, it is also important to acknowledge that this is a story of strength, resilience and humanity and, to that, I raise my hands to all of the survivors, the Jewish community, that have ensured that the world knows and hears the stories. As difficult as it is to continue sharing them, we cannot stop hearing them or else we will fall victim to thinking that we have passed that now.”
Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El lamented the deaths of Holocaust survivors in the current war in Ukraine, “who died when they were cold, again, and hungry, again, and who died in the face of violence.”
“That never should happen and we all know that,” the rabbi said. “I don’t know how to make those big changes. I’m not a world leader. I’m the leader of a small congregation. But I think we are all leaders of our hearts and if each of us can make that difference, it’s got to have a huge ripple effect.”
Holocaust survivor Leo Vogel said that history records the end of the Holocaust in 1945. “But, for the people who lived through it and survived that horrible blight of human history, for them, 1945 is not when the Holocaust ended,” he said. “It continues to this very day to live in memories and nightmares and ongoing health problems.… The fascist attempt to eradicate the Jewish people must never be forgotten. The memory of the tortured and murdered cannot be shoveled underground as the Nazis did with the ashes. As children in the Holocaust, we were the youngest and, now, in our older years, we are at the tail end of those who can still bear witness.”
Vogel spoke of the unfathomable choice his parents made to hand him over, as a child, to a Christian family for hiding.
“Not long after that deeply painful decision to separate me from them, they were deported to Auschwitz and there they were murdered without ever knowing whether their desperate act to allow me to go into hiding saved my life,” he said. “I get cold chills when I think of the intense agony they went through in making their decision. It would have been their hope, I’m sure, that one day we would once again get together. That day never happened. Their pain must have been overwhelming. Many times, I have wondered what they said to each other and to me the night before they gave me away and, countless times, I have asked myself whether I would have had the strength to do an equal act when my children were young.”
In Ottawa, earlier on April 27, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted his government’s steps in fighting antisemitism, including the creation of a special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism, currently held by Irwin Cotler, and proposed legislation to make denying or diminishing the Holocaust a criminal offence.
“Earlier this year, our country and people around the world were shocked and dismayed to see Nazi imagery displayed in our nation’s capital,” the prime minister said, referring to trucker protests in Ottawa. “For the Jewish community, and for all communities, those images were deeply disturbing. Sadly, this wasn’t a standalone instance. Jewish people are encountering threats and violence more and more both online and in person. This troubling resurgence of antisemitism cannot and will not be ignored. The atrocities of the Holocaust cannot be buried in history.… We must make sure that ‘never again’ truly means never again.”
Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, picked up on that theme, noting that the term “never again” was “born out of the Jewish experience but was always intended to be universal in its application.”
“How can we witness the atrocities visited on the Rohingya, the Uighurs or the Yazidi and claim the cry of ‘never again’ has meaning?” he asked. “How can we observe the unvarnished aggression against Ukraine and assert we have taken the lessons of the Holocaust to heart?”
He said he derives hope from the fact that Canada seems to have learned the lesson of the MS St. Louis, the ship filled with Jewish refugees that was turned away from Canada and other safe havens in 1939. Now, Canada is a place, he said, “where fleeing Syrian and Iraqi refugees can rebuild their lives, where Afghani women and girls can fulfil their dreams, where displaced, wartorn Ukrainians can find safe harbour.”
“I take great pride that Canada is so committed to Holocaust remembrance and education,” said Michael Levitt, president and chief executive officer of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, “A major reason is because of the survivors who, after suffering unthinkable adversity in Europe, rebuilt their shattered lives here, in our great country. Their strength, resilience and willingness to share their deeply personal and harrowing stories have been a gift and a source of inspiration to all Canadians.”
Dr. Agnes Klein, a Holocaust survivor, spoke of her family’s wartime experiences. Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Ronen Hoffman, commended Canada on adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism.
A day earlier, at another virtual commemoration from the Montreal Holocaust Museum, Holocaust survivor Max Smart told of his family’s harrowing Holocaust experiences.
Paul Hirschson, consul general of Israel in Montreal, compared the loss of Jewish life, with its incalculable loss of talent, in the Holocaust with the explosion of Jewish talent taking place in this century.
“Jewish talent lost was one of history’s greatest tragedies,” said the diplomat. “The talent emerging is perhaps the most exciting story of the 21st century…. Antisemitism is still widespread, also here in Canada. Montreal, where many survivors found a home, is no exception. We will defeat hate every time. Hatred will never again rob the world of Jewish talent.”
On April 20, the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) voted in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The motion is in support of Palestinian liberation, which it defines as resistance against Israeli “settler-colonialism” and the occupation of historic Palestine – including the West Bank, Gaza and the present-day state of Israel.
The Hillel chapter at SFU issued a statement on April 20 denouncing the motion.
“Evidently, this motion, and the student council standing in support of it are not concerned with the safety of Jewish students on SFU campus,” reads the statement. “The adoption of the policy, which passed unanimously this evening, and which violates SFU, provincial and federal law, sets a dangerous precedent for Jewish safety, freedom of association and political mobilization on campus.”
The day after the SFSS vote, another campus group also voted on a motion related to debates over Israel.
On April 21, more than 60% of the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) voted in favour of a motion that opposed the adoption of the working definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The IHRA working definition of antisemitism was adopted in May 2016, and states that antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The document also lists many examples that could fall into the broader definition of antisemitism. Among the examples are statements about Jewish people and Israel, including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour.”
According to the QUFA motion, this definition threatens academic freedom and intersectional anti-racist and decolonial initiatives.
“The IHRA deﬁnition of antisemitism misconstrues antisemitism to include a broad range of criticism of the state of Israel, particularly targeting
decolonial and anti-racist critiques of the policies, structures and practices of Israel,” the motion reads. “Such targeted attacks, which primarily impact racialized faculty and students, will have a negative effect on the academic freedom of our members in the classroom, in their research and in campus politics more broadly.”
Jordan Morelli, QUFA president, said in an email that the motion was brought forward by individual members of the association, as is their right according to the association’s democratic processes. He also said the vote itself was preceded by a balanced discussion in which everybody who wanted to speak was given the opportunity to do so. Morelli further added that Queen’s recently revised policy on harassment and discrimination defines antisemitism in a manner consistent with the Ontario Human Rights Code policies, and that other faculty organizations at other schools, as well as at federal and provincial levels, have expressed similar concerns with the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Before the vote, Queen’s Hillel published an open letter signed by more than 1,600 people – current Jewish and non-Jewish students, alumni, family members and community members – asking the faculty to vote against the motion.
“This statement contributes to the erasure of Jewish history, religiosity and values. To exclude the Jewish community from impacted ‘racialized faculty and students’ does harm to multi-racial, long-established Jewish communities. It overwrites our lived reality of centuries of constant displacement, colonization, conquest and migration,” the letter reads.
The letter also says that the fears about restricting criticism of Israel and academic freedom do not follow from a “fair” reading of the definition, as Israel is not mentioned in the definition itself, but only in the follow-up examples of what may constitute antisemitism. The letter also questioned why it does not fall to Jewish groups to define their own oppression.
“It is our understanding that a fundamental principle of anti-oppression work is allowing affected communities to define their own oppression,” reads the letter. “It is not the place of any organization external to our community…. It is the Jewish community, and the Jewish community alone, who get to decide this. This double-standard is antisemitic.”
The Hillel letter did note that some of the faculty who proposed the motion are Jewish, but said their views are out-of-sync with the vast majority of Canadian Jews.
After the motion passed, Queen’s Hillel published a statement that said they were “deeply saddened,” called the vote “an utter disgrace,” especially because no actionable steps were suggested in the motion to combat growing antisemitism on campus. However, the statement also said they were “immensely proud” of the support shown across the community.
At McGill, a similar motion in support of Palestinian solidarity that was passed by more than 70% of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was not ratified by SSMU’s board of governors. In a statement published on April 22, the board said they could not adopt the policy because it contravened numerous SSMU governing documents, including its constitution, equity policy and Quebec law.
The original version of this article was published by The CJN. For more national Jewish news, visit thecjn.ca.
On March 30, Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez and Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti announced a new expert advisory group on online safety as the next step in developing legislation to address harmful online content.
While online platforms play a central role in the lives of Canadians, bringing many benefits to society, they can also be used as tools to cause real and significant harm to individuals, communities and the country. Harmful content, such as hate speech, sexual exploitation of children and incitement to violence, is published online every day. There are no broad regulatory requirements in Canada that apply to platforms regarding their responsibilities in relation to such content.
The expert advisory group will be mandated to provide advice on a legislative and regulatory framework that best addresses harmful content online. The group is composed of diverse experts and specialists from across Canada: Amarnath Amarasingam, Queen’s University; Bernie Farber, Canada Anti-Hate Network; Chanae Parsons, community activist and youth engagement specialist; David Morin, Université de Sherbrooke; Emily Laidlaw, University of Calgary; Ghayda Hassan, Université du Québec à Montréal; Heidi Tworek, University of British Columbia; Lianna McDonald, Canadian Centre for Child Protection; Pierre Trudel, Université de Montréal; Signa A. Daum Shanks, University of Ottawa; Taylor Owen, McGill University; and Vivek Krishnamurthy, University of Ottawa.
The advisory group will hold nine workshops to discuss various components of a legislative and regulatory framework for online safety. They will also take part in additional stakeholder engagement, including with digital platforms. The work of the advisory group will be open and transparent. The group’s mandate, the supporting materials for each session, and non-attributed summaries of all sessions and discussions, will be published.
“We conducted a consultation last year and released the What We Heard Report earlier this year,” said Rodriguez. “It’s clear that harmful online content is a serious problem, but there is no consensus on how to address it. We’re asking the expert advisory group to go back to the drawing board. We need to address this problem openly and transparently as a society.”
Facts and figures on online violence in Canada include that:
62% of Canadians think there should be more regulation of online hate speech;
58% of women in Canada have been victims of abuse online;
80% of Canadians support requirements to remove racist or hateful content within 24 hours;
one in five Canadians have experienced some form of online hate;
racialized Canadians are almost three times more likely to have experienced harmful behaviour online;
there was a 1,106% increase in online child sexual exploitation reports received by the RCMP National Child Exploitation Crime Centre between 2014 to 2019.
“Too many people and communities are victimized by harmful online content that is often amplified and spread through social media platforms and other online services,” said Lametti. “The Government of Canada believes that Canadians should have protection from harmful online content, while respecting freedom of expression.”
– Courtesy Canadian Heritage
Also on March 30, the Canadian Coalition to Combat Online Hate announced the launch of their new website, combatonlinehate.ca, providing youth, parents, educators and policymakers with strategic tools to be effective in their efforts to identify and combat online hate.
“Canadians are exposed daily to a barrage of hateful and divisive online messages that pollute social media forums with content that is antisemitic, anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Indigenous, misogynistic, Islamophobic and homophobic, and that promotes conspiracy theories. These posts, videos and memes are easily discoverable and readily shared, often masked by anonymity or given undue credibility,” said Richard Marceau, vice-president, external affairs and general counsel at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). “We know that online hate can become real-life violence. Hate-motivated murders at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue stand as notable examples. It is incumbent on all of us, before it is too late, to combat online hate with the most effective tools available.”
According to a 2021 survey by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, 42% of respondents have seen or experienced hateful comments or content inciting violence online, and younger and racialized Canadians are significantly more likely to be confronted with this hate. The same study indicated that 93% of Canadians believe that online hate speech and racism are problems, of which 49% believe they are “very serious” problems. Findings also showed that at least 60% of Canadians believe that the federal government has an obligation to pass regulations preventing hateful and racist rhetoric and behaviour online. Only 17% prefer no government involvement at all.
“We saw COVID exacerbate online hate exponentially, as stress levels and political division rose amid lockdowns. By working together, we can make the communities we are building online – and, by extension, the communities we inhabit offline – safer places for all Canadians,” said Marceau.
The website combatonlinehate.ca is organized by the Canadian Coalition to Combat Online Hate, funded by Canadian Heritage and powered by CIJA.
Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim has been at its Kensington Avenue home for 100 years. (photo by Lainie Berger / unsplash.com)
Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim is 176 years old – and it has been in its current building for 100 years now. Among those who have attended the shul over its long history are Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (who was chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine), former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, legendary musician Leonard Cohen and various members of the Bronfman family. Recently, the historic congregation made history, when it hired Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, the first Orthodox woman in Canada to become ordained.
“It remains a traditional synagogue that follows traditional Jewish law,” Finegold told the Independent. “Me being the first female member of the clergy may have been significant, but it only did so in complete consistency with halachah (Jewish law).”
Finegold was among the first group of female students to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, which is located in the Bronx, N.Y., in 2013. She has chosen as her title the term rabba, although female rabbis exist in other streams of Judaism.
“I walk up to the bimah [pulpit] like my male colleagues, but I go back and sit in the female section, because our building is 100 years old and the bimah resides in the central/men’s part of the sanctuary,” she said. “That is just what the architecture allows.”
Shaar Hashomayim split off from Congregation Shearith Israel (also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal) in 1846. Ashkenazi members – English, German and Polish Jews – wanted to practise rituals and observances more akin to what they were familiar with, rather than what was traditional for the Sephardim. In September 1922, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim moved to 450 Kensington Ave. in Westmount, where it resides to this day. After the Second World War, a school was added to accommodate the new families who had joined the congregation. Further expansion happened in 1967.
“This is among the most grand of Montreal’s synagogues. Their choir is simply like no other and the sound permeates the walls throughout during services,” said Lucy Verebes Shapiro, who, while not a member of Shaar Hashomayim, has visited the shul many times. “There is a notion of great importance about all that transpires within,” she said.
The synagogue cemetery also gets visitors, Jewish and non-Jewish, who are attracted by its denizens.
“I’m a Leonard Cohen fan and visit the cemetery every year on the anniversary of his death,” said Marta Etynkowski. “I’ve never met him, but his poetry and music have helped me through many deep, private, emotional moments throughout my life and it’s one of my biggest regrets that I never saw him while alive. It has become a bit of an annual tradition for many of his fans to pay their respects – some people leave mementos, some play his music there, others just have a private moment in front of his grave. It’s quite beautiful.”
Shaar Hashomayim has a long and rich music tradition. The services are centred around a cantor, who is accompanied by an all-male choir, the origin of which dates back to 1887.
Its museum – the Edward Bronfman Museum – holds much Judaica, including a shofar from Yemen and a few books that are centuries old. It features rotating exhibits and is open to the public.
“In the wake of the COVID pandemic, people often ask, are synagogues still relevant? I think that is because there is a misconception that synagogues are just a place of prayer alone,” said Finegold. “However, many synagogues, and ours in particular, offer a connection to community – that’s something people want. After being isolated and at home for so long, to know that there is a place that has so many doorways to access, is something that will keep the relevance and people coming in for years to come.”
Avi Kumar is an historian and freelance writer. He has lived in six countries and speaks 10 languages. His work has been published in many countries, from his native Sri Lanka to Israel and Ireland, and he has written on a variety of topics, including history, wildlife and linguistics.
As part of Fashion Blooms on March 31, Canadian journalist, media personality and fashion entrepreneur Jeanne Beker, left, will interview Israel’s Sharon Tal, head designer of Maskit. (photos from CHW)
Canadian Hadassah-WIZO (CHW) presents the second annual Fashion Blooms on March 31. The national virtual fundraising event – highlighting innovation, sustainability and the future of Israeli fashion – will feature Canadian journalist, media personality and fashion entrepreneur Jeanne Beker interviewing Sharon Tal, head designer of Maskit.
Israel fashion house Maskit was conceived in 1954 by then-designer Ruth Dayan, as a contemporary luxury clothing brand. Known for its intricate ethnic embroidery, Maskit was revolutionary in advancing economic opportunities and bridging cultural divides by employing thousands of Jewish, Arab and Bedouin women artisans. Since Tal took over the helm in 2014, she and Maskit have launched collections that are shown internationally and adored by celebrities. One of Tal’s latest designs, a peacock-embroidered caftan, was created in close collaboration with Sarah Jessica Parker and featured in the first episode of And Just Like That, the HBO revival of Sex and the City. Tal continues to honour and innovate, revitalizing a brand while earning plaudits for Maskit’s designs.
“As the former head of embroidery at Alexander McQueen and intern under Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, Sharon’s appreciation for tradition is matched only by her diligence and willingness to reinvent,” said Beker, event emcee. “She has what it takes to build upon the Maskit dynasty while also creating a legacy of her own.”
Fashion Blooms is also the Canadian debut of two trailblazing female fashion designers based out of Tel Aviv: Maya Reik Belfer, founder and designer of Marei1998, a luxury brand focused on sustainability and eco-conscious materials; and Danit Peleg, founder and creative director of Danit Peleg, known for its disruptive and innovative approach that is revolutionizing the fashion industry through open-source designs and 3D printed technologies.
Restrictions permitting, CHW centres across the country will host VIP invitation-only in-person viewing parties for Fashion Blooms. The virtual event will include an exclusive online auction, featuring fashion accessories and luxury brands, and an online vendor marketplace for a virtual shopping experience.
To register, participants can visit chw.ca/fashion-blooms. Tickets start at $40. Fashion Blooms proceeds support the CHW Neri Bloomfield Academy of Design in Haifa, Israel, supporting student scholarships and ultramodern equipment to enhance the future of the Israeli fashion industry.
The CHW Neri Bloomfield Academy of Design awards academic degrees in a wide variety of creative fields, including graphic design, architecture and fashion. This institution is building academic excellence and becoming an influencer and innovator in the world of design. It nurtures individual creativity among its pluralistic student body while instilling a sense of community and coexistence.
For more information, contact Rebecca Bowslaugh, CHW director of marketing and communications, at [email protected] or 416-477-5964, ext. 111.
CHW is a non-political, nonpartisan national network of volunteers and professionals who believe that the advancement of education, healthcare and social services transcends politics, religion and national boundaries. Over the last century, CHW has been involved in all aspects of Israeli life, supporting women, children and families in Israel and here in Canada. Learn more about CHW at chw.ca.
Rivka Campbell, co-founder of Jews of Colour Canada. (PR photo)
On Jan. 9, Rivka Campbell, co-founder of Jews of Colour Canada, spoke on the topic Harmony in a Divided Identity: A Minority Within a Minority, the third Zoom talk in Kolot Mayim Reform Temple’s 2021-22 Building Bridges lecture series.
A Jew of Jamaican descent, Campbell seeks to create a sense of community among Jews of Colour in Canada. At the same time, she works to establish dialogue with mainstream Jewish organizations and to provide a better understanding of Jewish diversity and the experiences of Jews of Colour.
Her opening remarks focused on what she labeled “the question” – that is, the unwelcoming, uninviting and off-putting line of inquiry Jews of Colour often confront when entering Jewish spaces. Though born and raised in Toronto, Campbell, like other Jews of Colour, is often asked, “Where are you from?” – the implication being that she is not Jewish.
This question, she points out, is alienating from the start and is not the kind of introduction that Jews of Ashkenazi backgrounds ordinarily face when, say, entering a synagogue.
A decisive period for Campbell occurred after getting married and starting a family. At the time, she wanted to introduce her children to their Jewish roots so that they could understand and appreciate every aspect of who they are.
“We leaped into the community with the assumption that I am a Jew and that this should be a non-issue. I am going to go to synagogue, put my kids in Hebrew school and just do stuff. I was wrong. What I didn’t reflect on was that I did not meet the stereotype, if you will, of what a Jew looks like, and it never occurred to me because I am Jewish, what’s the big deal? And I realized that for some people it was.”
The questions and comments would come even before a hello – Are you Jewish? How are you Jewish? But your last name isn’t Jewish.
“If I am a new face, then fine, we should welcome new faces. But the way to welcome new faces is with ‘Shabbat Shalom. My name is So-and-So, what’s your name? Here’s where we keep our siddurim.’ Welcome me first and the rest will flow naturally,” Campbell said.
She referred to these episodes, when she is singled out and her Jewishness is openly questioned, as “microaggressions.”
“Microaggressions are like mosquito bites at a summer camp. You might spray yourself and take other measures to prevent bites. Nothing works, so you spray yourself more and wear long sleeves and still nothing. After many efforts and layers, you finally say, ‘I can’t do this any longer,’ and you remove yourself from the place where the mosquitoes are,” she said.
For Campbell, there also have been more repugnant full-on aggressions, including having the derogatory term “Schvartze” directed at her.
“Would you continue to want to put yourself in that position? I have met and spoken to quite a few Jews of Colour who have said, ‘I am done. I can’t take it anymore.’ They do not want to subject themselves or their children to that kind of treatment. If we say there is no racism in our community, then we are fooling ourselves. All of us should feel they belong,” she said.
Campbell had a very good experience during an extended stay in Israel, where she met Jews from myriad backgrounds. In Israel, she did not feel she had to explain who she was and did not encounter the same questions she is asked in Jewish spaces in Canada. That trip caused her to realize that the Canadian Jewish community could do better and led her to start Jews of Colour Canada.
Things changed dramatically in May 2020 after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which, to Campbell, symbolized the banality of evil.
“That event made me not give a hoot whether people were comfortable or not with what I say because, until we are all uncomfortable, there won’t be change,” she said. “It really flipped the way I felt about diversity and the work that needs to be done. And that is where we sit today. And I see us as a community doing the work – we are listening and not just hearing what people are saying. You fix your own house first before you fix anyone else’s. And you cannot rest on the laurels of others, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.”
Campbell is the executive director at Beit Rayim Synagogue in Vaughan, Ont., and a board member of ADRABA, Toronto’s first 21st-century Jewish high school. She also hosts the CJN podcast Rivkush, which focuses on diversity, Israel and other Jewish topics. She is the sole Canadian recipient of the inaugural JewV’Nation Fellowship from the Union for Reform Judaism. For more information, visit jewsofcolour.ca.
The next speaker in Kolot Mayim’s Building Bridges series is, on Feb. 6, poet, author, literary scholar and internationally recognized speaker on transgender issues Joy Ladin on the topic of Jonah, God and Other Strangers: Reading the Torah from a Transgender Perspective. On Feb. 13, Reverend Hazan Daniel Benlolo, cantor, rabbi and founder of the Montreal Shira Choir for special needs adults, presents The Power of Music. To register for either or both talks, visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Governor General of Canada Mary Simon welcomed Ronen Hoffman as Israel’s new ambassador to Canada during a formal presentation ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Dec. 7, 2021. (photo from Government of Canada)
Israel’s new ambassador to Canada, Ronen Hoffman, is a hockey dad. Plus, he wants to fight terrorism and antisemitism, strengthen research and development projects between the two countries, and forge ties with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. He also needs to remember to wear his winter coat when he leaves for work.
Hoffman, 58, arrived in Ottawa in the week of Hanukkah to take up his new duties. The diplomatic post had been vacant for two years, since Nimrod Barkan stepped down in November 2019. With the instability in Israeli politics – until Naftali Bennett’s government took office in June 2021 – and the COVID pandemic hampering international travel, Hoffman wasn’t able to arrive until just a few weeks ago.
Hoffman was born to a farming family in Afula, in the Jezreel Valley. He hasn’t been to Canada since he was in his 20s, when he did some traveling after the army while working as a shaliach (emissary) to a Jewish summer camp in Atlanta, Ga. Hoffman was an aide to former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and was on the team negotiating the unsuccessful peace talks with Syria.
After earning his doctorate in 1999, Hoffman was elected to the Knesset in 2013 as a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. He did a stint as co-chair of the Israel-Canada Parliamentary Friendship Group. This is his first posting as an ambassador. He is a father of three; his partner is a scientist at the Weizmann Institute.
On Hoffman’s first Christmas in wintry Ottawa, he made a TikTok video showing him walking through Lansdowne Park, trying out his snowball throwing technique and doing some tobogganing. (He didn’t wear winter boots, though.)
CJN: Describe what it was like when you presented your credentials to Canada’s first Indigenous governor general, Mary Simon, on Dec. 7, 2021.
RH: Well, I have to say that it was a very moving and a wonderful ceremony. I went there with my family, which is here with me, my partner and my 4-year-old son, Tomer, and my team from the embassy. There were three other ambassadors that also presented: the ambassadors of the United States, Spain and Sri Lanka. It was an opportunity for us to get a little bond together and speak to each other. And, of course, meeting the governor general and her spouse and the people. I’m very happy that we had an opportunity to really do it, not through Zoom or through the internet, but really do it there, face to face.
CJN: Did you wear or bring or do anything that meant something meaningful to you?
RH: Yes. Can you see the little lapel pin on my jacket? Can you see these Canadian and Israeli flags here? Around it, we have an orange pin, in solidarity with the Indigenous people, also. It was just a little gesture, and I feel that’s part of what I’m going to do here. I would like to educate myself more on the First Nations communities here. I feel that there is a common ground for us to stand on, all of us, as the Jewish people, who for us the state of Israel is, in essence, a return of the Jewish people to our indigenous homeland and traditions and culture. My goal is to build bridges of dialogue, cooperation, collaboration with communities, and we really wanted to show that we care.
CJN: Would you say that you’re planning to reach out to the Assembly of First Nations and all the Indigenous groups … to try to meet them?
RH: Absolutely. I’m the Israeli ambassador to Canada, not only to Ottawa and not only to a specific province. It’s a big and wonderful and beautiful country with lovely people. And so, of course, I intend to travel throughout the country and meet as many people as I can and community members and heads of communities. It would be an important part of what I’m going to do here.
CJN: Let’s move on a little bit towards your agenda. You’re coming to Canada seven months after the war between Hamas and Israel, where Canada’s Jewish community experienced an unprecedented level of antisemitism not seen since the Second World War. First of all, were you surprised when you heard about what the Canadian Jewish community was feeling? And what is your mandate to deal with this here in Canada?
RH: I can’t say that I was surprised because, before I became an ambassador, I’ve been a lecturer. And, as a lecturer, I met with many delegations from the Jewish communities of North America, including Canada, who came to Israel. I heard a lot before the conflict in May about challenges and opportunities of the Jewish communities here, vis-à-vis other communities and vis-à-vis other minorities and governments. I’m aware of the antisemitism and I agree with you that the wave around the conflict in May has been a tremendous one, one that has been very significant when you compare it to previous waves.
I think that, as Israeli diplomats, my role as an Israeli ambassador to Canada is to help and to coordinate, to cooperate and to join forces in the combat of antisemitism and anti-Zionism and anti-Israel [sentiments]. They’re all connected to each other. Sometimes, some of the people would say, ‘Oh, some of these activists just want to show some criticism towards the government of Israel.’ It’s not that. It’s much deeper than that. Maybe now it’s not hidden anymore. They’re actually against the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. This is antisemitism. And I think that the Jewish communities here in Canada are not alone in facing this threat and challenge: the Israelis, your brothers and sisters and families, we all face the same kind of challenge in this respect. So, of course, part of my mandate is to work hand in hand with the leaders of the Jewish communities here, and try to find ways to combat it together.
CJN: It’s a big part of your mandate. But it wasn’t number one on the list. Your number one priority for your mandate is?
RH: It is to strengthen the relationship between Israel and Canada, which have very close relations, a very close friendship, and we have shared and we still share common values and common interests. And, like Canada, Israel is committed to human rights, to justice, to the rule of law. We are liberal democracies. We also have shared interests, for example, to combat terrorism, global terrorism, to help to create more stability in our areas, in our regions and to work together vis-à-vis opportunities and challenges. That is, I would say, my number one goal here: to continue and to strengthen those bilateral relations and the close friendship that Israel has with Canada.
CJN: What concerns does the Israeli government have about Canada’s decision during the May hostilities with Hamas to give money – about $25 million – to agencies such as UNRWA that have had a very problematic history when it comes to anti-Zionist and anti-Israel and Jew-hatred materials? How does Israel feel about that?
RH: We face some organizations, international and Palestinian organizations, that call themselves organizations that care for human rights, and they kind of hide behind that high language and terms that we are all committed to. But, actually, they are terror organizations. Our concern is that our friends around the world, including Canada, would be with us, looking at those organizations, exposing the lies and getting to see exactly what they’re doing. This is a concern in our mission and a real objective as part of our diplomatic work.
CJN: OK, so back to your mandate and what you’re here for. In a news release when you presented your credentials to the governor general, you said that you want to help with start-ups, and harness Israeli know-how to help Canada solve problems. Is there any area in particular that you want to focus on? We just finished re-upping the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement, which was re-signed under a previous Trudeau government. What more is there to do?
RH: There’s a lot to do. Look, Israel and Canada are closely working on finalizing a research and development agreement to mutually invest in know-how in joint research projects, and innovation in several fields, such as food tech, health tech, environment, energy and climate security. And then, of course, letting start-ups and the industrial ecosystem get to know each other and to develop ties and relations. We’re working on it. And I’m optimistic here. I think that we could really enlarge our relationship and find and create more joint projects on innovation. This is, again, one of the first high priorities on my agenda.
CJN: Would you say that there’s a date when they are expecting to sign it? In 2022 or 2023?
RH: There is no specific date. But, as an ambassador, I’m going to push and I’m going to try to do it as soon as possible. And it’s just one specific agreement – I have some ideas for other agreements, as well, to start MOUs [memoranda of understanding]. Every agreement or project starts with dialogue, right? So, my idea is to create more dialogue between government to government, meaning some of the ministries in Israel that are relevant to innovation, hopefully, would speak in a structured dialogue process to some of the ministries here in Canada – for example, the ministries of energy and ministries of environment, agriculture and others. And so, we’ll set a set of several bilateral dialogues that eventually, I hope, would produce new agreements.
CJN: A lot of the research work is done at the university level, though, and that brings us to the problem where a lot of Canadian universities have faced the boycott, divestment and sanctions issue, with clubs or groups of academics trying to have the BDS policies adopted. How can the Israeli ambassador and the Israeli embassy negotiate this minefield to bring about your MOUs and this cooperation?
RH: Well, I think that there are at least two ways to go about it. One is to differentiate between the political talks around campuses and the industry of lies, and cooperate in joint research: start new projects with universities, connect universities here to universities in Israel and work together on tikkun olam, of doing something that the world would be able to benefit from. We have so many other scholars and researchers who we should work with. We should fight and combat against this BDS and all these things, but, at the same time, cooperate with our friends.
CJN: I know you were involved with Canadian parliamentarians before. How does that prepare you for this job?
RH: As a member of Knesset (2013-2015), I then chaired – from the Israeli side, of course – the Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Association with Canada, and it enabled me to meet some members of the Canadian Parliament … and host them in Israel. When they came in a delegation, it helped me to understand the political system here, better, I would say. But now, when I’m here, I have to tell you that I have so much more to learn. I knew a little bit, but I have to say I’m fascinated by the political system here and by the structure and by the Constitution and the history of it. It’s different than the political system that we have in Israel. We have a multi-political party system based on coalition. We have small political parties who have been and still are the king-makers. The power of veto in our political system, it’s different. We have a prime minister and a president, but we don’t belong to any other group of countries like the Commonwealth. It’s fascinating.
CJN: Had you ever been to Canada at all before this time?
RH: When I was a student, I was sent by the Jewish Agency to be shaliach to a JCC summer camp here in North America, in Atlanta, Ga. And, every summer after the camp, we still had the visa, that would enable us to travel for a few more weeks. So, for a few summers, I remember that, after finishing the camp, I came here to Canada and I traveled, mainly in the west, I have to say, in the Rockies and in Vancouver and British Columbia, but I remember being in Toronto and Niagara Falls.
When I was a kid, I grew up in kind of an outdoor atmosphere. My father was a farmer and I was educated with a love and appreciation for the environment and for the outdoors. I remember when I first came to Canada as a traveler, the nature, the environment, the outdoors impressed me so much. And now, as an ambassador, again, this is another thing I would like to do, to learn from you in Canada – how to appreciate the environment and the outdoors. I think that Israel can contribute, but also can learn from Canada at many levels and many aspects.
Son plays hockey
CJN: So, let’s pivot to some more fun things. I was told to ask you about your son in hockey. That is a door opener to anybody in Canada – just mention that and they’ll greet you with open arms! Are you allowed to tell me? Will your son kill you? (He now plays on the Columbia University men’s hockey team in New York.)
RH: Well, he will kill me anyway, but I’m going to tell you! I have three children. Eitan is my oldest: he’s 26 now, he’s a student at Columbia University in New York. My daughter, Tamara, is 24, and she’s also a student at Columbia University in New York. And my little son, Tomer, is 4 years old and he is here in Ottawa with me.
When Eitan, my oldest, was in elementary school in Israel, hockey just started to be introduced to Israel by friends who immigrated from Russia. But since, in Israel … there was only one [ice arena at the time,] in Metula, in the north [founded with the financial help of Canadians] … they started with roller hockey. My son started when he was in the first grade, or second, and, at some point, they started to build ice arenas for ice hockey. So, he moved from roller hockey to ice hockey.
By the time when he was 16 or 17, he was the captain of the youth national team and they were part of hockey in the Europe leagues and they competed there. And, at some point, they became number two in Europe – the Israelis who had no hockey in our tradition. I was very proud then.
And now, of course, he’s in New York … and, hopefully, he could come here. We will go together to hockey games, and he will explain to me what it’s all about, because that’s another thing I need to learn, right?
CJN: But if you are a hockey dad, you would know all this stuff, like going to the arenas with your thermos of coffee and being cold. Right? You never did that?
RH: Of course I did it. I went with him to Europe. I accompanied him and, yeah, well, I know how it feels, but I still need some explanation. The teams and who’s against who. I still need to learn.
CJN: And the European rinks are different. But what number did he wear in Israel?
CJN: Any particular reason?
RH: I don’t know how it started, but it was 88 and his last name, because I’m proud of him saying our last name. Under the number 88, Hoffman.
CJN: OK. So, unfortunately, Israel is not going to be in the hockey part of the Beijing Winter Olympics. They didn’t make it, but they’re number 34 overall in the IIHF [International Ice Hockey Federation] rankings. Are you a hockey fan at all?
RH: Not a hockey fan, for sure. But now is my opportunity; now it is my opportunity to become a real hockey fan.
CJN: All right. What is the funniest thing that’s happened to you since you came to Canada as an ambassador?
RH: OK, look, it’s not that funny, but whenever I leave home and get into the car to go somewhere, I’m still forgetting to take my coat…. I’m still used to going out with almost just a T-shirt, but it’s taking me longer than I expected to get used to winter.
There’s a single destination that gets kids outside having fun, experts say, while teaching them lifelong skills. It’s called camp.
The benefits of camp are plenty, from life lessons beyond the classroom and the value of playtime to appreciating nature and building confidence and leadership skills.
“The major changes in [campers’] growth speaks tremendously of the summer camp experience,” said Troy Glover, the director of the University of Waterloo’s Healthy Communities Research Network.
Glover spearheaded the Canadian Summer Camp Research Project, a nationwide study on the effects of camp on kids. The results demonstrated that for “bubble-wrapped” youth who have been over-programmed and overprotected, camp provides a safe environment to freely learn, grow and develop their capabilities. Summer camp, according to the study, fosters emotional intelligence (or EQ), self-confidence, independence, healthy living, environmental awareness, learning, leadership and other skills that prove beneficial long into adulthood.
The core benefits of camp include building friendships and social skills; developing resiliency and confidence; becoming and staying physical; overcoming nature deficit disorder; learning the values of leadership; continuing education in the summer; and carving time for “active play.”
Friendships & social skills
It may seem scary at first to enter a whole new social world at camp. However, camp offers a crash course on meeting new people – helping children build social skills, explore their independence and improve their self-esteem, said Stephen Fine, research chair for the Ontario Camps Association. “Teamwork, cooperation and negotiation are inherent to the camp experience,” Fine explained. “Kids’ confidence levels and their ability to be in social situations increase.”
At camp, children boost their self-esteem and develop risk-taking and conflict-resolution skills as they learn to make their own decisions without their parents’ help.
Camp provides children with a “blank slate,” allowing them to try on different behaviours and identities. And the relatively short duration of a camp session decreases the cost of making mistakes.
One of the Canadian Summer Camp Research Project’s most significant findings was in the area of emotional intelligence, often referred to as EQ (emotional quotient). With EQ, which involves recognizing, understanding and managing emotions, children learn how to work, play, relate, get along, empathize and connect with others.
“It’s not just about IQ in children,” Glover said. “Research supports how EQ is more important in terms of future success…. This is an essential component of the maturation process and a skill that camp is successfully developing.”
Resiliency & confidence
Saturated with 24-hour news highlighting crimes in their communities, many parents today are overprotective of their children, “bubble-wrapping” them in order to keep them safe and sheltered. While Glover said it’s safer now, statistically, than it was when he was a child, parents are not as willing to let their kids out of their sight.
At camp, children are encouraged to go outside their comfort zone through activities such as high ropes courses, dramatic and musical performances, or wilderness camping. By allowing children to take risks and face challenges, camp helps children build their independence, resiliency, and self-esteem in a safe, supervised and supportive environment, the study found.
These invaluable life skills often translate into improvements at home and at school, said Mike Pearse, director of Camp Tawingo, a traditional overnight camp in Muskoka, Ont.
Pearse said the camp experience can be divided into the hard skills – for example, learning how to paddle a canoe, tie a knot, identify an edible plant and play a team sport – and accompanying soft skills, such as perseverance, creativity, responsibility and courage.
“At camp, every child has an opportunity to succeed,” he said.
This translates into increased self-confidence and, in many cases, an improved school experience. “I’ve had parents come to me and say, ‘My child is doing so much better in math class this year because of the confidence boost he got from camp,’” Pearse said.
Becoming & staying physical
With video games, Facebook and smartphones all vying for a young person’s attention, the national epidemic of obesity and inactivity won’t be easy to overcome. One Statistics Canada study found that only seven percent of youth aged 6 to 19 got the recommended hour a day of exercise they need.
Enter summer camp, where physical activity is well disguised in the form of fun and games, allowing youth to adopt a healthy lifestyle, often without even realizing it.
“Our study found that campers’ attitudes toward physical activity really improved toward the end of the camping session,” Glover said. “When given a choice, these campers will now choose physical activity because they realize it makes them feel good and contributes to their well-being.”
Along with banning the use of electronics, many camps provide a daily routine that involves waking up early, getting lots of physical activity, eating regular meals and spending extended periods of time outdoors.
“At camp, you’re always on your feet, always on the move, even if you’re just walking to a meal,” Glover said. “So, it’s not about forcing kids to spend 20 minutes on a treadmill, but rather easing them into an active lifestyle that includes lots of walking, engaging in team sports and playing outside with other kids.”
Nature deficit disorder
A bond with nature is sorely missing in the lives of many children today unlike a generation ago, Richard Louv writes in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It’s a world where kids may be all too aware of environmental problems, yet rarely venture out to experience the natural world, he writes.
“Camps have their own pressures, but the healing quality of nature is always there, just beyond the screen door,” Louv said.
At camp, kids are given the opportunity to see what they’re missing, and form lifelong bonds and connections with the natural world they may have never experienced before. “Even camps in the city usually have an outdoor dimension to them,” said Glover.
“Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses and, therefore, for learning and creativity,” Louv added.
Values of leadership
A leader isn’t always the loudest person in a group, or the most active. Many leaders share a range of skills and qualities that help him or her take charge: confidence, creativity in their decision-making and an understanding of teamwork, to name a few. It takes practise to become a good leader, too.
That’s where camp comes in, said Moira MacDougall, who heads teen and young adult strategies for the YMCA of Greater Toronto, a charity providing community support programs. Camp helps gradually build leadership skills, MacDougall said.
“You’re often having to rely on your teammates or cabinmates to complete an activity,” said MacDougall. “That builds in-group bonding and, in that process, what you hope the young person’s learning is either to have some voice within that group … or how to be persuasive.”
According to the Canadian Summer Camp Research Project, most campers demonstrated an increase in emotional intelligence and self-confidence, both characteristics attributed to good leaders.
As campers enter their teenage years, there are more opportunities to obtain explicit leadership skills. Most camps offer an LIT (leader-in-training) or CIT (counselor-in-training) program that walks young people through the skills they need to plan activities and programs, care for younger campers and communicate effectively.
Whether it’s by cleaning their cabins without being asked, helping younger campers find their way to the dining hall, or contributing their talents to a play or talent show, youth of all ages learn to take initiative at camp.
Learning how to take the lead essentially teaches youth how to be good citizens. “They learn that we all have a role to play to contribute to a better society, and nothing happens if you sit back and wait for someone else to act,” said Glover.
“It’s not only cognitive learning, it’s emotional learning,” said Tom Potter, associate professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. Potter has been involved in outdoor adventure education for more than 30 years.
Camp is the kind of place where children can learn canoeing, archery, life skills such as teamwork, and apply the lessons they learned during the school year in many enjoyable activities. Geocaching lessons offered at some camps, for example, teach kids scientific and math skills.
“They’re getting instant and immediate feedback, so if they do something well, they’ll get feedback; if they’re sailing a sailboat and it’s going in the right direction, they’ll get feedback on that,” Potter said. “But if the boat turns upside down, that’s OK … it’s all part of it.”
Time for “active play”
Many children today simply don’t get enough of unstructured playtime. “If you look at time in school, time at home, time watching TV, those things have either stayed consistent or gone up,” said Michelle Brownrigg, chief executive of Active Healthy Kids Canada. “But active playtime has decreased.”
Canadian children are reportedly spending an average of four to six hours a day with TVs, computers and cellphones.
Camp gives children the playtime they need while encouraging creativity and social engagement. Play not only offers children the tools to entertain themselves, it also builds their imagination.
“Kids learn to set their own boundaries, to develop in an environment that’s not necessarily focused on a competitive end, to interact with one another, to determine how to win and lose, and to trade roles and be involved in an active way with their peers,” she said.