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May is Jewish Heritage Month in Ontario

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Irving Abella speaks at the launch of Jewish Heritage Month. [Leigh Brown photo]

TORONTO — The history of Ontario Jews provides insight into all immigrant groups in Canada, according to Irving Abella.

The author, historian and York University professor shared his thoughts on Ontario and Canadian Jewry as keynote speaker for the launch of the province’s second annual Jewish Heritage Month at Toronto’s Lipa Green Centre April 30.

Dara Solomon, director of the 40-year-old Ontario Jewish Archives, said she was excited to be launching a new photo exhibition titled Being Jewish in Ontario: A Pictorial Celebration.

 The exhibit was co-organized by the Ontario Jewish Archives and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). It focuses on five aspects: community builders, culture and leisure, ritual and observance, teaching and learning, and tikkun olam.

It will be on display at 10 venues over the month, including several public libraries, Jewish community centres and Vaughan City Hall. Other events during the month include walking tours, talks, performances, and a series of exhibits at Baycrest.

Abella said Jewish students know next to nothing about the history of Jews in Canada. “That is a shame, because it’s fascinating, colourful, important, and deserves to be known.”

He suggested that the Jewish community’s greatest contribution to the province may have been that it “paved the path for the culturally diverse society we have become.”

Ontario is the first “and hopefully not the last” province to celebrate Jewish Heritage Month, said Joel Reitman, a board member of both UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and CIJA. May is also Jewish American Heritage Month in the United States.

Eglinton-Lawrence Liberal MPP Mike Colle, the driving force behind Bill 17, which declared Jewish Heritage Month and was passed in February 2012, said he grew up in a Jewish area at College and Grace streets. His mother did piecework on Spadina Avenue and later was employed by a high-end Jewish tailor for 25 years.

Colle, a former history teacher with an Italian family background but a passion for Jewish history, reflected on the accomplishments of Jews across Ontario.

“We’ve got to make sure these stories are not forgotten,” he said.

He cited as one example the late David Goldberg, a Hamilton lawyer and former RCAF pilot in World War II who was shot down over France. Goldberg walked back to England, signed up to fight again, and flew more than 235 missions in all.

Thornhill Tory MPP Peter Shurman, who co-sponsored Bill 17 with Colle and MPP Cheri Di Novo, said that his riding is home to the largest Jewish community in the province, he said.

Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of the federation, spoke of the Jewish community’s “fervent desire to build community together.”

Multiculturalism is the legacy of the early immigrants, Abella said. “If they could become fully Canadian and yet maintain their unique identity… then any minority could.”

But the Jewish presence in Canada goes back at least 250 years, almost to the beginning of European settlement, Abella said.

In the War of 1812, every single Jew of military age enlisted to fight off the invading Americans, he noted. Among them were the first Jews in the British Empire to become officers.

The 1840s marked a high point in Jewish life in the province, with no restrictions, quotas or antisemitism, he said.

But Abella cautioned against romanticizing the past, citing a history of quotas, restrictions and antisemitism in the middle of the 20th century.

“It changed at the end of World War II with the help of sympathetic politicians and courts.”

Ontario was the first province to adopt anti-discrimination laws in housing, he added.

For a full listing of Jewish Heritage Month events, go to jewishheritagemonth.ca.

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