There is a new national Jewish community agency with a decidedly retro feel and familiar faces. Several leaders from the defunct Canadian Jewish Congress have founded Canadian Jewish Community Forum, saying they are filling a gap in grassroots activism.
Dr. Michael Elterman, who, in the 1980s and ’90s, was a two-time chair of Canadian Jewish Congress, Pacific Region, as well as regional chair of the likewise defunct Canada-Israel Committee, is a member of the steering committee of the new group. Renee Switzer, a former national executive chair of CJC, is the other Vancouverite on the committee. Other figures leading the group include past national and regional chairs of CJC, as well as senior staff of the agency, including longtime chief executive officer Bernie Farber.
The first serious discussions among the group started in January, said Elterman.“What we are interested primarily in doing is creating and resurrecting what was an essential theme that brought us all into CJC, which was that it was primarily a grassroots organization where people could become individually involved in, or take ownership of, the Jewish agenda in Canada,” he said. “I guess the feeling is that we would like to re-create that again and get people more engaged and more involved and feeling personally responsible for what happens to the Jewish community in Canada.”
The focus will be primarily on domestic affairs, he said, although the direction the group takes will be determined, first, by a major survey CJCF intends to undertake of Jewish Canadians and, later, through the sort of plenaries and democratic debates that typified CJC.
While the group boasts a wealth of experience, Elterman stressed that a young cohort is also at the heart of the new group.
With the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which effectively subsumed CJC and the Canada-Israel Committee in 2004, as well as B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Canada has no shortage of national Jewish agencies. Elterman sees room for one more.
“There were many people –– which is why you are seeing such interest in the organization – who would like to be more involved both in the setting of the agenda and in the actual participation in an organization,” he said.
The new group doesn’t intend to detract from existing agencies. “I don’t think this organization is in contrast to or competition with any other organization,” said Elterman. “The emphasis on being a grassroots, bottom-up organization, having the agenda driven by the community rather than by a particular group of people, that I think is what is going to make this unique and that is what made CJC unique.”
Organizers have not reached out to CIJA or the others as yet, he acknowledged. “If they would like to join with us, that’s great, but it’s not something that is being done jointly with any other organization,” he said.
Funding for CJCF is bootstraps for now, with members of the steering committee anteing up for federal incorporation and other essentials. The group will seek charity status to issue tax receipts and Elterman said they hope donors will step forward in time.
A priority for CJCF will be to build bridges with other communities on issues of shared concern, something at which Elterman said CJC excelled.
On the new group’s website (cjc1919.blogspot.com), a four-point statement of purpose includes a promise to “engage with other faith, Indigenous, racial, ethnic and cultural communities to find common cause in matters pertaining to the promotion of civil discourse, reconciliation, inclusivity and mutual understanding and to fight against antisemitism, discrimination, racism and hatred in all their forms. Many important issues facing society at large are viewed to be relevant to the Jewish community. If we are to have a voice in the society we are creating together, we must discuss and address issues as they emerge together as Canadians.”
Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (photo from CIJA)
Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), was in Vancouver June 20 to speak at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual general meeting. He spoke with the Jewish Independent prior to the gathering.
“CIJA does not regard itself as an independent organization with an independent ego,” he said. “We very much see ourselves as an internal mechanism of the community. We regard making a presentation at the AGM as addressing our stakeholders and providing an assessment of what value we add to the Federation program, and giving an opportunity to receive feedback.
“This takes us back to what the rationale was in consolidating different Jewish organizations together and the value of integrating all of the different silos that emerged in the Jewish community, for good reasons in their time,” he said, referring to the merging of Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canada-Israel Committee to form CIJA in 2011. “Integrating everything ensures that there is an holistic approach. It also provides us with an opportunity to show Canadians that we are not unidimensional. If I were just working within the Canada-Israel Committee, you would think that there were no issues of importance to me other than Israel, but the truth is that I am as seized with the issue of the protection of transgender rights as I am with immigration issues and having a meaningful response to the international refugee crisis.”
The dissolution of CJC and the CIC was controversial at the time, however, and there are community members who still feel their absence.
“We were never sanguine about people’s attachment to the CJC,” said Fogel. “It had a long and storied history. There were points during that history when the CJC shined as an example not just in Canada, but internationally. There was never an intent to diminish that or marginalize the importance that they had. The reality was that the political landscape changed, pressures within the community in terms of limited resources came to bear, and there was a need to eliminate the kind of competition that was emerging between one agenda and another…. Confusion was beginning about this alphabet of acronyms and who does what, and this made it obvious that there was real benefit in consolidation.”
The issues with which CJC dealt remain on CIJA’s agenda, said Fogel. “On balance, at any given time, we’re spending way more than 50% of our time and resources both staff and programming on things other than Israel,” he said.
As an example, the week prior to when Fogel spoke with the Independent, an interfaith coalition called on elected officials “to support a robust, well-resourced, national palliative care strategy.” CIJA was involved in this initiative.
“The recent discussion about physician-assisted dying (PAD) [prompted by Bill C-14] begs a larger question, one that we have been concerned about for a long time, but didn’t lend itself to the kind of focused attention that we were able to secure in the last few weeks,” explained Fogel. “All evidence, if we look at the countries that have adopted some kind of protocol with regard to PAD, points to the conclusion that almost no one in a given society accesses that option to manage their end-of-life situation.
“If we were to translate it to Canadian terms, I don’t know that we would have two dozen a year who would be availing themselves of that option. What that means is a need to ensure that resources are in place to provide support for the individual who is suffering the illness and, no less importantly, for their family members, the front-line caregivers, who are assisting and supporting the individual as they approach end of life. Because there was such a focus on PAD, we felt that it should not be lost in the course of the public policy debate that what’s really important for Canadians to appreciate is that as we are confronted by an aging population and we need to look at improving palliative care options. We had to wrap our heads around a national strategy that was going to ensure the same set of standards that are applied to other dimensions of the health-care system. A discussion now about palliative care is an important and therapeutic complement to the narrow-band discussion about PAD.”
Palliative care covers a much broader range of issues and affects a much larger group of people than PAD. With the aging population, said Fogel, “we have adult children who have become caregivers, who are being torn in multiple directions, between home responsibilities and work, between attending to their parents and attending to their children; it is costing them physically, emotionally and financially.
Accommodation in the workplace is not what it should be, and the provision of relief support is not there in an adequate way and, sometimes, not there at all; for example, in communities outside of the largest urban centres.
“We want governments to direct their attention to this. We are coming up to a new national-provincial agreement on the provision of health care in the next year or so. This is a health-care issue, not a social or political issue. It has to be seen as part and parcel of the package of health-care services that are provided, or there is no hope of getting it addressed in any kind of meaningful way.
“There are things that are unique to the Jewish community but most things are generic and we have to constantly reinforce that the experience of the Jewish community is simply a reflection of the broader experience within Canadian society,” he added. “Because we are a little more sophisticated in our infrastructure and the importance that we attach to communal organization, we are often at the leading edge of issues, so reaching out and partnering with others is both important to advance the issue and provides us with an opportunity to develop relationships that are important both for Canada as a society and for us.”
One of those to whom CIJA reached out was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – well before he and the Liberal party were elected last fall.
“There were some challenging times a number of years ago and, in that period, the Conservative party asserted themselves as a party that was remarkably sensitive and responsive to the needs of the Jewish community, not just with regards to Israel but on issues of antisemitism and inclusion,” Fogel said. “That skewed things perceptually more than they might have been otherwise, but we’ve never stopped investing in the Liberal party.
“People like Justin Trudeau were individuals who we reached out to and brought to Israel long before he was a candidate. He went with his wife and then facilitated all of his advisers to participate in trips to Israel, so we greeted the new government knowing all of the principals and having developed a very, very close and positive relationship.
“That it’s a very different government is beyond question and that’s really genetic to their whole approach to things,” Fogel acknowledged. “They attach a great deal of importance to multilateralism and that’s distinct from the approach of the previous government, which was fond of saying that it was driven by principle and principle alone. The Trudeau government sees inherent value in partnering with other countries. That brings its own challenges because, when you are just responsible for your own opinion, you can articulate whatever opinion you want; when you want to join with others, it means accommodating different views, whether they are substantially different or it’s just nuance.
“That having been said, I think that the record over the last eight months has been remarkably strong. I’m fond of pointing to what many saw as a low point as proof that things really are quite good. You will recall back on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, some were quite upset that in the initial comment from the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] there was no explicit reference to Jews. Now, I know how that happened. January is still very early days in the new government, they were still staffing up. This was a whole new government and really a whole new generation – 10 years is a long time in politics. Not everything was in place [for the Liberal government], and this was an absolutely honest oversight.
“The real test,” said Fogel, “wasn’t that a comment was released that didn’t include the word ‘Jewish’ – the test was that, within half an hour after we had flagged for them that this wasn’t being well received, a new statement was issued which was quite explicit. The degree of responsiveness that the government demonstrates for a concern expressed by the Jewish community is the real test for the quality of the relationship.”
CIJA does not take its relationship with the government for granted.
“We’re grateful for it,” said Fogel. “Even in terms of things that are Israel-related. We think the French-led initiative on an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not just unhelpful, it has the potential to push back a peace process rather than serving as a catalyst for it. Now, because of Canada’s desire to be part of the international effort on anything, doesn’t matter what, Canada wanted to participate in a conference on that a few weeks back, which we accept because that’s the orientation of this government.
“What we had asked for was for Canada to advocate for a particular direction, and they were very responsive. They made the point about nothing replacing direct negotiations and that established resolutions like [the 1967 United Nations Security Council Resolution] 242 had to be seen as the foundation for anything going forward. For good measure, they threw in that Israel was their strong ally, language which does not go way back in Canadian descriptions of the relationship with Israel.
“I don’t think it’s going to remain so consistently good on each issue that comes up,” he cautioned. “I think there will be times we differ from the government. People find it a little hard to believe, but we differed from the last government too and the relationship was sustained notwithstanding.”
One issue on which the current and previous federal governments have agreed is their condemnation of the boycott, divestment and sanction movement against Israel. The issue is high on CIJA’s agenda, of course.
“I see the BDS movement as inherently toxic,” said Fogel. “I see it as antisemitic and I see it as a base, cynical strategy. What it does is exploit the natural and rightful resonance that human rights language has. The language of human rights has become almost a secular religion and it resonates with people so, when that is the language used in order to promote and advocate for something, the default inclination of most people of goodwill would be if not to embrace it, at least to refrain from criticizing it. Yet, we know that the genesis of the BDS movement is in anything but human rights, and core promoters don’t hide their core agenda to delegitimize, isolate and dismantle the Jewish state. What I’m gratified at is that the progressive majority have come to recognize that BDS is not about critiquing a particular Israeli government or position, it’s about denying the right to self-determination of the Jewish people in a way that differentiates from the way you would treat any other group. The way that it iterates antisemitic tropes has prompted many to push away from association with BDS, so I do take some encouragement from people finally starting to apply critical thinking to and connecting the dots and saying, no, this isn’t what it appears to be.”
When asked what are the most effective strategies for the Canadian Jewish community to fight against the negative aspects of the BDS campaign, Fogel said, “I don’t think it is limited to BDS – I think the best strategies to advance understanding boil down to three things.
“We have to be intellectually honest about who we are. The Jewish community offers something valuable to the larger society, and we should be eager to share that and to use that as a way to achieve the second thing, which is to partner with others. We have much more in common with others than that which separates us. We have a rich legacy to share. We have experiences that are instructive and helpful to others in terms of challenges that they face and, very often, we find ourselves in the position of providing advice and direction.
“The third is recognizing that we have to reach out to others on the basis of what is meaningful to them. I can feel whatever I feel about anything but I will never be able to present a persuasive argument if they can’t relate to the terms of reference. This has been, I think, both our greatest source of success and the greatest source of criticism from some sectors of the Jewish community. We can’t indulge in those emotionally satisfying but superficial arguments where we pound our fist on the table and say that we’re right because we have justice on our side; because, for most, that has no meaning and we’re simply relegated to the same place as our adversaries by those who can relate to neither. We have to communicate on the basis of shared values.”
Matthew Gindinis a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.
Three men eating at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, circa 1965. Rabbi Marvin Hier is sitting on right but the men on the left are unidentified. (photo from JWB fonds; JMABC L.11568)
If you know someone in these photos, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected].
In the early 1980s, Alberta teacher James Keegstra was charged with wilful promotion of hatred for teaching high school students that the Holocaust was a myth and that Jewish people were responsible for much of the world’s evil.
For Robbie Waisman, a Vancouver businessman, news of Keegstra’s teachings revived an exchange from decades earlier that he had repressed. Waisman – at the time he was Romek Wajsman – was one of the youngest prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp, in eastern Germany. While trying to get to sleep in the crowded barracks one night, young Romek had an interaction that would resonate decades later in the lives of tens of thousands of young North Americans.
As Waisman recalled: “This one voice said, ‘Hey kid,’ addressing me, ‘if this is over and you survive, remember to tell the world what you have witnessed.’ I didn’t answer. Again, a second time. And then another voice says, ‘Leave the kid alone. Let’s all go to sleep. None of us are going to survive.’ I’m trying to fall asleep. Again: ‘Hey kid, I haven’t heard you promise.’ I wanted him to leave me alone so I said, ‘OK, I promise.’”
Yet, for 36 years, as Waisman rebuilt his life in the aftermath of the Shoah that destroyed nearly his entire family, everything he knew and most of European Jewish civilization, he remained publicly silent about what had happened to him and what he had seen. As it was for most survivors, the pain of the past was unbearable. The motivation to move ahead, to make good on the promise of survival, consumed Waisman and other survivors. Those who had spoken out in the first years after liberation were often hushed up, accused of being macabre, of living in the past, of not moving forward. Many adopted silence.
For Waisman, and some other survivors who had kept their stories private, it was the Holocaust denial that sprang up in the 1970s and ’80s that ended their silence.
Now, after speaking hundreds of times to audiences, most often of high school students, but also to churches and First Nations communities, Waisman is being honored for contributing to understanding and tolerance in Canada. He is to receive the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, which recognizes volunteers who help others and build a “smarter and more caring nation.” He was nominated for the honor by his longtime friend, Derek Glazer.
Waisman cannot estimate the number of times he has spoken or the accumulated number of individuals who have heard his story. But he has thousands of letters – most of them from young people – telling him how the experience of meeting him has changed their lives and caused them to commit themselves to humanitarianism and social justice. And, as much as he is pleased to receive the commendation from Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, it is these letters, and the hugs and words he receives from young people, that he says are the real compensation for what he does.
“These kinds of letters are my reward. Never mind the award that I’m going to be getting. This is the reward. This is what keeps us going. If I can inoculate young people against hatred and discrimination, I honor the memory and I give back for my survival,” he said.
“In most cases, when I go to speak, I get hugs from people, and I get tears, and they come and they are so grateful. I always hear this: ‘You’ve changed my life. Thank you.’”
“We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives,” said Waisman, referring to himself and other survivors who speak.
He added, “Some people think that we sadden the children,” referring to himself and other survivors who speak. “No. We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives.”
Yet, even as he is being recognized for speaking to thousands, Waisman recalled that the first time he publicly spoke of his experiences, he vowed it would be his last. Motivated by the Keegstra affair, Waisman contacted Robert Krell, a founder of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, to say he was ready to speak. A school visit was arranged and Waisman told the students of his experiences. The reaction was poor. Some students fell asleep – though Waisman thinks it was not because the narrative was boring, but the opposite: it was too graphic. The students tuned it out as a sort of emotional defence.
“I came home and I was completely out of it,” Waisman said. “I had to lock myself in a room because it was so painful.”
Krell talked him into trying it once again and, this time, Krell, a psychiatrist, was in the audience. On Krell’s advice, Waisman developed a different approach. “I tell my story, but I don’t go into details,” he said. “I tell them about my life at home [before the Holocaust], with my family, and I tell them about my life afterwards.” He usually shows a video clip that provides a graphic depiction of the Holocaust, but his own presentations put a face to the Shoah but do not dwell on the atrocities he personally witnessed and experienced.
“All in all, as you can see from the letters, I seem to connect, telling the importance of being a decent human being and the responsibility they have toward humanity to make this place a better world,” said Waisman.
It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
Waisman’s survival is an example of how many extraordinary incidents, fortunate coincidences and unlikely near-misses were required for a Jewish child to endure that era. In the dystopia of Nazism, children were deemed non-productive “useless eaters.” They also represented the future of the Jewish people, so the Nazis took special steps to ensure the deaths of as many children as possible. It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
The Wajsman family were stalwarts of the community in Skarzysko, Poland. After the Sabbath candles were lit, neighbors would pour into the Wajsman home to listen to the wisdom of Romek’s father, Chil, a haberdasher and an admired leader in the synagogue and community. Romek was the youngest, aged eight when the Nazis invaded Poland, with four brothers and a sister.
Romek’s first break came when the ghetto in Skarzysko was about to be liquidated, in 1942. One of Romek’s older brothers had been forced into labor at a munitions factory. At four in the morning on the day the ghetto was to be liquidated, Romek’s brother appeared and took him to the factory, where he would survive as a useful – if extremely young – munitions worker.
When the Russians advanced on Poland in 1944-45, the Germans moved the munitions workers into the German heartland – and Romek was taken to Buchenwald. There, he met another boy, Abe Chapnick.
“We sort of supported one another,” Waisman said. “We had numbers that we were called by in Buchenwald, but we called each other by name and kept our humanity intact.”
Buchenwald was not primarily an extermination camp, yet Waisman was well aware that if they were not useful to the Germans, they would not survive. What helped the two boys live was the fact that Buchenwald was a camp originally intended for political prisoners, not necessarily Jews, and while the Nazis ran the overall affairs of Buchenwald, many internal matters were left to a committee of prisoners. “They protected us,” said Waisman.
He remembers a particularly fateful moment.
“We were marched out in line and an SS comes up and screamed at the top of his voice ‘All Jews step out!’” Romek and Abe looked at one another. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Waisman said. “Before we could make up our minds, Willie [Wilhelm Hammann, the German prisoner who was in charge of the barrack] stood in front of us and screamed at the top of his voice at the SS: ‘I have no Jews!’”
The same process unfolded in other barracks and when the Jewish inmates stepped out, they were shot. “That was two or three days before liberation,” Waisman said.
When liberation finally came – at 3:45 p.m. on April 11, 1945, the day Waisman counts as his “birthday” – their troubles were not yet over. They were moved to better quarters but remained at Buchenwald for two months, while authorities attempted to determine what to do with millions of displaced persons across Europe.
Romek had looked forward to going home, to being reunited with his family. “After liberation, we couldn’t grasp the enormity of the Holocaust,” he said. “I saw people around me die, but I didn’t see the whole picture. I wanted to go home because I thought everybody would be at home.”
Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption.
While Waisman and Chapnick had been the youngest in their barrack, at liberation they would discover there were hundreds more children, from 8 to 18, in the camp. Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption. They acted out in ways that made their new caretakers fear them as animalistic and potentially dangerous.
“We were angry and full of rage when we couldn’t go home after liberation,” Waisman said. “We came to France and there were all these people that wanted to help us out and came to deal with us. Professionals and volunteers to help us out, people that spoke our language [but] when we wanted to speak and share some of the pain, they weren’t interested. It was too soon. Psychiatry wasn’t as advanced as it is now. They’d say, ‘We are not interested. Just never mind. Forget about it. Move on. Go back to school. Continue your schooling.’
“I can’t repeat what we told them what to do,” Waisman said, laughing. “After all, we knew best.”
Waisman would discover decades later that a report commissioned by the French government declared that these “boys of Buchenwald” would never rehabilitate, they had seen too much, been too damaged and would not live beyond 40. The report recommended that the government find a Jewish organization to look after them.
In fact, in addition to the most notable boys of Buchenwald – Elie Wiesel, the renowned author and humanitarian, and Yisrael Meir Lau, who would become a chief rabbi of Israel – almost every one went on to succeed in life beyond all expectations. For Waisman, who is still active in the hotel industry, this was a direct result of a single determined man.
“Manfred Reingwitz, a professor at the Sorbonne – he wouldn’t give up on us. He used to always give us these wonderful discussions and spoke to us about the importance of moving on. It didn’t register. He took a lot of abuse, but I remember the one crucial time. There were four of us, including myself, and he sort of said, ‘I give up’ and then he turned around … ‘By the way, Romek, if your parents stood where I am standing right now, what do you think they would want for you?’ he said in an angry voice. And, of course, we don’t answer anything and he walks away. We looked at one another and it resonated. We didn’t say anything. But we sort of began a different attitude, a different way of looking at things.”
This was the moment when Waisman and most of the others, like so many survivors, began a process of throwing themselves into careers, family and community work.
He and his sister Leah were the only survivors from their family of eight. (Leah married in a DP camp, moved to Israel and Waisman sponsored them to come to Canada in the 1950s.)
Slowly, Romek’s life took on a form of normalcy. Under the auspices of Canadian Jewish Congress, he would arrive in Halifax and travel by train to Calgary, where he would begin Canadian life with the help of a local family, start his career and meet his wife, Gloria. The couple would move to Gloria’s native Saskatchewan for two decades before coming to Vancouver.
“For, I think, close to 36 years I went on with my life,” Waisman said. The other boys of Buchenwald progressed similarly, many settling in Australia, as well as in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. “I made a life … my Holocaust experience was there, but I put it aside…,” Waisman said. “And then Keegstra came along teaching his students that the Holocaust was a myth, that it didn’t happen.” And Waisman became one of the most active survivor speakers, putting a face to history for thousands of young people.
“One and a half million Jewish children were not as lucky as I was, and the other boys of Buchenwald [were], and so I sort of began to think about it and said, ‘I made it. I have a sacred duty and obligation to [share my experiences with younger generations] and when I’m doing this I honor the memory of the one and a half million.’
“Our survival meant something,” he said. “After all these years, I felt that I had to do it, that it’s a sacred duty.”