Montreal a model for other Jewish communities

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-10-11

The mid-October issue of the Jerusalem Report exploded as a naches-bomb for me. Naches, of course, is that delicious Yiddish word meaning delighting in someone else’s accomplishments. My delight stemmed from two articles in that issue demonstrating how young Montrealers are revitalizing the Jewish world. These articles raise the question of how did these transformative, creative juices start flowing in Montreal?

The first article described downtown Toronto’s vibrant Jewish scene, centring on the hip, Carlebachian “Annex Shul.” One co-founder, Richard Meloff, is a Torontonian who studied at McGill University in the mid-1990s, while the Annex’s spiritual leader, Yacov Fruchter, is a Montrealer who enrolled at McGill in 2002.

The second article was written by a Montrealer who is now a Jerusalemite, Justin Korda, executive director of ROI community, an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries, created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Korda’s article, “Innovating Jewishly,” describes how social entrepreneurs are transforming modern Jewish life at the grassroots level, social entrepreneurs being innovators who combine “the vision of a social reformer with the business acumen of an entrepreneur.”

The Montreal flavour to these welcome Jewish revolutions struck me because when I moved to Montreal in 1990, I saw a stodgy, top-heavy, uncreative Jewish community. Even the few young Jews involved in this decaying city seemed prematurely old, shmoozing their elders, not wowing their peers. Although still dining out on its Yiddishist, Zionist prime earlier in the 20th century, the city was now traumatized by Quebec separatism, which sent many young Jews packing. Montreal Judaism seemed more likely to turn Jews off than turn them – and others – on.

I asked Meloff how he explained Montreal’s success in helping to incubate exciting new Jewish expressions. “Montreal’s Jewish community was where I was when I started to feel the tug of my faith and heritage and it was a wonderful, welcoming place,” Meloff responded. He was impressed by Montreal’s ideological diversity – “there was Hillel and Chabad, Revisionist Zionists and progressive Zionists, and perhaps most critically, a tight-knit and traditional community that surrounded the school. Toronto is huge and impressive, but the community is far-flung. Montreal seemed so intimate yet still had the amenities of a significant community.” Meloff got the message that “you could do anything you wanted from a community point of view” – which soon resulted in the launching of the “Ghetto Shul,” a vibrant, intimate, student-based synagogue in Montreal which has inspired – and helped populate – Toronto’s “Annex Shul.”

Fruchter notes that Montreal’s traditionalism provides such solid grounding for Jewish life in the city, including “a fairly strong knowledge base,” as well as “strong Holocaust education and a commitment to Israel.” He also draws inspiration from leading activist Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Reuben Poupko and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz. Fruchter appreciates the “Moroccan (French) element of the Jewish community,” which “has remained distinct while adding some ‘cool’ and spicy flavour to the overall community,” as well as the “fertile ground for cross-denominational exchange” resulting from the mix of Toronto and Montreal Jews at McGill. Finally, Fruchter mentions that “Hillel and the Ghetto Shul are set up to maximize empowerment and ownership. When I was the student president of Hillel Montreal, I controlled the $50,000 program budget.”

In his article, Korda, who with his friend Sig Shore created a dynamic duo of Jewish activism during their days at McGill, added another critical element, the successful Birthright Israel program which has connected thousands of young Jews to each other and to their heritage through “transformative free trips to Israel.” Birthright Israel helped inspire the founding of the Ghetto Shul, which inspired the founding of the Annex Shul, while ROI logically flows from philanthropist Lynn Schusterman’s generous involvement with Birthright.

I would also add two important “I” words – infrastructure and investment. Montreal has a rich Jewish organizational and educational network, maintained by a strong federation and thousands of generous donors. Visionary donors such as Charles and Andy Bronfman were also critical in funding identity-oriented initiatives, small and large, which bore fruit later.

The Montreal formula, then, emerges. A traditional, literate, well-organized, and well-financed community also needs strong youth-oriented programming, empowered young leaders and an openness to new ideas. But ultimately, you need sparkplugs, young, passionate, creative people to create a new mix, putting their dynamic modern twist on our ancient, enduring, traditions.

Rabbi Hartman offers a ‘theology of response’

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 7-14-11

Although he moved from Montreal to Jerusalem in 1971, Rabbi David Hartman still inspires many Canadians with his warmth, his passion and his brilliance.

Similarly, as his new book makes clear, his experiences as a Montreal rabbi continue to shape him, too. In The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition, Hartman continues struggling with some of the dilemmas congregants shared with him. His response has triggered his bold approach to Halachah, Jewish law, as he seeks to “embrace a tradition that embraces a God who embraces life.”

A courageous thinker, Rabbi Hartman runs toward the very conflicts others flee. Struggling with the agunah question, the purgatory a woman suffers when her husband does not give her a signed divorce decree, he recalls one “major modern Orthodox halachic authority” who told him: “This is my personal Akedah,” comparing his frustration over this archaic rule with the test of faith God imposed on Abraham by binding Isaac for sacrifice. “Your Akedah,” Rabbi Hartman snapped. “Is that supposed to bring comfort to the abandoned woman whose life is passing her by?” Rabbi Hartman recoils from “this theological posturing, with its distasteful rhetoric of rabbinic helplessness and suffering.”

As a young rabbi, Rabbi Hartman was so busy encouraging his congregants to observe the commandments he overlooked what he calls “many of Halachah’s darker moral trends.” He tells the story of Peter, a 45-year-old single congregant who fell in love with Susan. Although both were serious Jews, Peter as a Kohen – a priest – was forbidden from marrying Susan, a convert. This reading of Jewish virtue when it comes to conversions, along with, as he puts it, “the systemic moral challenge of feminism,” propelled Rabbi Hartman into a “meta-halachic” search, trying to understand the central principle underlying Jewish law.

Rabbi Hartman regretfully rejects the “theology of halachic permanence” articulated by his beloved teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. In a powerful chapter asking Where Did Modern Orthodoxy Go Wrong?, Rabbi Hartman critiques Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach, which freezes Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time” and “the shifting of culture.” Hartman finds the approach “deeply inhuman,” saying, “I must part company with a view of Halachah that takes it out of history and out of human experience…. I do not think that loyalty to and love for this tradition requires exiting history or exiting life.”

Instead, Rabbi Hartman offers what he calls a “theology of response” based on the talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” The “God who hates lies” wants us to respond to our experiences, to our moral sensibilities, as they develop, to “incorporate” them “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Accepting the premise that “reality speaks,” Rabbi Hartman identifies an authentic, historically rooted, Jewish theology that allows Peter to marry Susan because “identity drawn from choice and behaviour” trumps “identify as a biological gift of the God of Israel.”

This morally driven theology will honour as a Jew the Russian-born Israeli soldier who dies fighting for the Jewish people, even if he may have some non-Jewish blood. This person-centred approach is open to honouring women as equal human beings having been “created in the image of God.” And this sensitivity to history reframes the discussion about religion in the sovereign State of Israel by welcoming new moral horizons, as well as a deeper understanding of peoplehood, loyalty, and identity with a Halachah conceived in Jewish powerlessness now applied and adapted to the new reality of Jews having power.

Critics will rush to caricature Rabbi Hartman’s argument as yet another reformer’s appeal. But serious readers of this book will realize that such a dismissal is too facile. This book is “God-intoxicated” – Rabbi Hartman’s phrase – and text-intoxicated, steeped in a passionate, erudite, creative yet reverential engagement with Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hartman is simply too learned to be ignored so easily. He knows his Maimonides and his Talmud, his Tanach and his Tosefos, rooting his humanistic halachic vision in a lively, learned, traditional reading of the sources.

In the 40 years since he left Montreal, Rabbi Hartman has been a revolutionary, doing good in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world. This prophet of pluralism, this philosopher who rejects falsehood, this rabbi of reason and reach has now posed a serious challenge to his Orthodox colleagues. It is incumbent upon them to read, respond – and maybe even reformulate, if not reform.

What the vandals could learn from their targets

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 1-27-11

On a cold Montreal night in mid-January, criminals vandalized five synagogues and a school.  Canadian leaders from left to right denounced the crime, proving that North American antisemitism today is unlike the antisemitism of Europe then or too many Arab countries now.
Antisemitism in Canada – and the rest of the civilized world – is a crime committed by marginal misfits, not an extension of state policy or local politics. As of this writing, the criminals remain at large, but we can nevertheless learn some important lessons from these outrages.

Jews should learn once again the essential lesson of Jewish unity. The criminals struck Ashkenazi and Sephardi institutions, four Orthodox synagogues, one Conservative and one Reconstructionist shul. These hoodlums target Jews, regardless of ethnic or denominational difference. We should reaffirm our mutual respect for one another. We may pray differently or believe a bit differently. We may look or sound a little different. But we are one.

That unity, of course, shouldn’t simply be because we all look the same in the antisemite’s crosshairs, but because we share a rich tradition, many similar values and a common fate. Traumas such as these are never welcome. But we should exploit them as opportunities to reaffirm our common sense of peoplehood, maintaining the Jewish tradition of making poetry out of our enemies’ perversity.

If these hoodlums are caught, I hope that – after they (or their parents) pay not just for the damage but to improve each institution somehow – they are forced to learn about their six targets. Simply learning about the six names alone would expose them to the richness of Jewish tradition and history.

Let them start with Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem to learn about King David and the Holy City of Jerusalem. Let them learn David’s psalms, which show how glorifying God elevates humanity. And let them learn how even King David was not above the law, enduring God’s punishment when he sinned by pursuing the married Batsheva. Let them learn about the Temple’s grandeur in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, a time when few humans had seen such a large structure, let alone built one.

Moving on to Yavne Academy, I would teach about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who in 68 CE established Yavne as a centre of Jewish learning outside Jerusalem so Jewish scholarship and civilization could continue – and keep us thriving – after Jerusalem’s destruction two years later. I would teach why we use the term “CE” (common era) rather than AD (anno domini) to organize the western calendar. We acknowledge Jesus as an epoch-making historical character without characterizing him as our lord – or the lord of many others who don’t believe in him.

Congrégation Sépharade Beth Rambam would provide an opportunity to introduce Rabbi Moses ben-Maimon, Maimonides, the extraordinary rabbi, doctor and philosopher who lived from 1135 to 1204. Maimonides’ life symbolizes the rich mix of western, Muslim, and Jewish cultures that flourished in medieval Spain, and flourishes now. Learning about Maimonides reveals the creative tensions between rationalism and faith, between secular learning and religious studies, with the message that we don’t have to make false choices between two good things. Life involves balancing, synthesizing and learning from difference.

I would continue the history lesson – with its life lessons – with Beth Zion Congregation, teaching how Zion, the mountain in Jerusalem, became a focus of longing and unity through nearly 2,000 years of exile. Learning of Zion flows naturally into learning about Zionism, about the remarkable return to the Jewish homeland and the unfortunate hatred this extraordinary Jewish and human enterprise endures.

Finally, I would end with Congregation Dorshei Emet, the Truth Seekers, and Shaarei Zedek Congregation, the Gates of Justice, teaching about the eternal Jewish – and human – quest for understanding and righteousness. Note that Judaism judges people by their good acts, their mitzvot, not their beliefs – by what they do not what they think.

I would end with another creative clash defining Judaism today, between modernity and tradition – and how that yielded Conservatism and Reconstructionism, as well as Orthodoxy, because Orthodoxy itself is a modern concept forged in rebellion against the Reformers of the 1800s.

Wouldn’t it be great if all antisemites learned about the richness of Jewish civilization from these synagogues and other sources? Then again, wouldn’t it be great if every modern Jew could not only take this kind of course, but teach it?

Buycott Against the anti-Israel Boycott

URGENT NOTICE TO MEMBERS OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

As some of you may know, there is an anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) conference taking place in Montreal this weekend (22nd-24th).

After consulting with various Israel-related activists and academics in the city, we have determined that a BUYCOTT will be organized this weekend.

The Israeli Consulate in Montreal recommends that we focus on Israeli wines and Ahava products. People should go to buy these products between the 22nd and the 24th (this weekend) at their own leisure.

Please disseminate this information to your mailing lists and post it to social media. We need your help, so please include this in the upcoming mail-outs of your organization.

Check out www.buyisraelgoods.org to find the closet place to you to BUYCOTT. Please ensure in your dissemination that, when people buy a product, that they send an email to Zach Paikin: zpaikin@hasbarafellowships.org so that we can keep track of how many purchases have been made.

This is focusing on the Montreal region, but isn’t limited to Montreal.

B’shalom

Jewish Identity (Jewish Partnership Online) Hosted by Gil Troy

Jewish Identity (Jewish Partnership Online), 3-23-10

http://www.jewishagency.org/jpol

Jewish Partnership Online, the Partnership 2000 eZine hosted by Professor Gil Troy, highlights Jewish values in the Partnership setting. This week’s episode showcases “living bridge” Jewish Identity activity linking Beer Sheva-Bnei Shimon with Montreal.

Center Field: ‘Queers against Israel’ – are gays blinded by hypocrisy?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-20-09 

How could hatred of Israel be so intense that it blinds people to what they usually perceive as their most basic self-interest? This past Sunday in Montreal, a few dozen marchers in the 2009 Montreal LGBTA Gay Pride parade marched against what they called “Israeli Apartheid.” Witnesses reported that many onlookers cheered these anti-Israel ideologues as they paraded by.

Similarly, in late June in Toronto 180 protesters from “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid” (QuAIA) marched in an attempt to “reignite Toronto’s queer community in the fight against apartheid,” which is the latest trendy accusation against Israel. These antics take anti-Zionism to an absurd extreme.

As I argued in a Montreal Gazette op-ed the day of the parade, identifying as “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid” defies logic, perverts history and distorts priorities. It reflects such hatred against Israel that maligning Zionism overrides all other causes, including gay liberation; it eclipses all identities, including one’s sexual identity.

The dirty little secret QuAIA must suppress is that Israel is the safest refuge in the Middle East for persecuted homosexuals, including Palestinians. In keeping with its commitment to civil liberties, every year Israel’s government actually grants some gay Palestinians legal residency to avoid Palestinian homophobic oppression. Israel is one of the few Middle Eastern countries to repeal its anti-sodomy law – from British Mandate days. Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act, as amended, prohibits discrimination against employees based on their sexual orientation or marital status. Israel has even banned discrimination in its army.

Israel’s tolerant, celebratory, live-and-let-live Mediterranean spirit, especially in Tel Aviv, disproves the caricature of the Jewish state as a dour, embattled garrison state or theocracy. Openly gay Israelis serve in parliament, others are popular celebrities. Out Magazine has deemed Tel Aviv “the gay capital of the Middle East.”

By contrast, throughout the Arab and Muslim world, including the Palestinian territories, gays are hunted down, blackmailed, imprisoned, tortured and occasionally executed. Gay Palestinians are often treated as collaborators and have been brutalized in the most horrific of ways. Nearly two years ago, in September 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created a stir when, during a visit to Columbia University in New York, he said, “We don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.”

Of course, gays found in Iran have been beaten badly – and face the death penalty. Ironically, Ahmadinejad’s calls to wipe out Israel – and the United States – did not offend as many people as his homophobia did, just as there are many more protests worldwide against Israel’s actions to defend itself than against Ahmadinejad’s efforts to oppress his people.

In addition to ignoring Israeli tolerance and Arab oppression, the QuAIA activists sloppily compare the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians with the racial oppression South Africa’s blacks and “coloreds” once endured. The apartheid regime systematically discriminated based on people’s skin colour. There are dark Israelis and light-skinned Palestinians. No Israeli law discriminates against race while many laws and strictures prohibit racism. Transplanting the term “apartheid” from the South African context into the Middle East distorts history and simply tries to libel Israel by positing a false parallel with one of the most heinous regimes of the twentieth century.

Finally, these anti-Israel activists have an odd calculus for determining their priorities. Defining their gay activism and identity through the prism of fighting Israel distorts realities. It exaggerates Palestinian suffering, treating it as the most pressing human rights issue today, despite PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent declaration: “In the West Bank we have a good reality… the people are living a normal life” – and despite the economic boom Palestinians are experiencing in Jenin and Jericho, in Ramallah and Nablus.

It invites the kind of sideshow the “Queer Against Israel-Apartheid” activists created in Montreal and Toronto, undermining their credibility as gay activists and as anti-Israel activists.
          
Alas, this is a sad but increasingly typical story. We see feminists overlooking Muslim and Arab sexism, as well as Israeli tolerance, in their zeal to bash Israel. We see academics overriding their primary professional obligation to tell the truth and acknowledge the world’s complexity in their rush to caricature Israel. When gay activists, feminists, academics and others violate their core identities and defining values to malign Israel, they only indict themselves.

Israel is not perfect, as demonstrated by the horrific murders recently at the gay counseling center in Tel Aviv. But note how Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres led the nation in denouncing that crime.

Sacrificing integrity and credibility to demonize a democracy is an irrational act of bad faith. Anyone who ignored a commitment to human rights to bash gays would be called homophobic. Why are we afraid to label those who demonstrate such hatred for the Jewish state anti-Semitic?

Quoted in “Anti-Israel demo proceeds at Gay Pride parade”

Jewish Tribune, 8-19-09

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, weighed into the debate.

“Israel is the safest refuge in the Middle East for persecuted homosexuals, including Palestinians,” Troy wrote in a Montreal Gazette commentary. “Every year, Israel’s government actually grants some gay Palestinians legal residency to avoid Palestinian homophobic oppression. Israel is one of the few Middle Eastern countries to repeal its anti-sodomy law – from British Mandate days. Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunity Act now prohibits discrimination against employees based on their sexual orientation or marital status. Israel has even banned discrimination in its army.

“Israel’s tolerant, celebratory, live-and-let live, Mediterranean spirit, especially in Tel Aviv, disproves the caricature of the Jewish state as a dour, embattled garrison state or theocracy. Openly gay Israelis serve in parliament, others are popular celebrities. Out Magazine has deemed Tel Aviv ‘the gay capital of the Middle East.’ By contrast, throughout the Arab and Muslim world, including the Palestinian territories, gays are hunted down, blackmailed, imprisoned, tortured, and occasionally executed. Gay Palestinians are often treated as collaborators and have been maltreated in the most brutal ways.”