While CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 2005 to 2011, Bernie Farber helped lead the Jewish community through challenging times.
It’s been nearly two years since he left the now-defunct organization – which has been replaced by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – to pursue other paths, and earlier this month, he received the community’s highest honour: the Charles “Chuck” Zaionz Award for Jewish Communal Service.
The award is given in acknowledgement of contributions made by a Jewish community worker who effects policy change on behalf of the community and who has dedicated him or herself in service to the community.
Farber called it the “Academy Award” of the Jewish professional service in Canada, and said he was honoured to receive it in a Dec. 2 presentation at the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre hosted by CIJA.
In his acceptance speech, Farber thanked many of his former colleagues and singled out CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel, whom he thanked for his “support and understanding” and for their 25 years of work together.
“Giants like Chuck Zaionz helped shape our community. They understood, indeed embraced, what the first leaders of Canadian Jewish Congress intrinsically understood. In fact the name CJC purposely put ‘Canadian’ before ‘Jewish’ to underscore our commitment as Canadians to Jewish values of justice, human rights and the need for us as a community to stand tall, and brave adversity while understanding what it meant to defend the underdog,” he said.
In an interview at his new downtown Toronto office – Farber is now employed with Gemini Power Corp., a hydro-electric developer working with First Nations, as senior vice-president of government and external relations – the former Congress leader told The CJN he has fond memories of his work in the community and of the man for whom the award is named.
“In 1984, when I first entered [Jewish] community service, Chuck took me, this wet-behind-the-ears kid, under his wing and taught me how to budget for the community,” he said, joking that prior to meeting Zaionz, his greatest mathematical achievement was barely passing Grade 10 math.
“He understood that money given to any Jewish community advocacy organization, like Congress, was a sacred trust. He taught me that you count every dollar like it was your own.”
Looking back, Farber said he was proud of the accomplishments he and his colleagues achieved, such as taking on neo-Nazi groups and antisemites like the Heritage Front and Ernst Zundel.
“Thanks to Congress, those guys are long gone or shadows of themselves,” he said.
Asked what made him choose Jewish communal advocacy as a career path, Farber said the decision was rooted in his family history.
“I came to it with the heart of a child of Holocaust survivors. Working with Congress just fit my heart and my will to seek justice,” he said.
“What Congress achieved was remarkable. We punched above our weight and did the work we had to do.”
He said despite being on the outside of communal decision-making, he still maintains close contact with the community and is often asked for advice or to consult on numerous issues.
But Farber added that he’s not out of the advocacy business entirely. Now that he’s working for Gemini Power Corp., owned and run by Jewish philanthropist Michael Dan, he gets to focus on justice for aboriginals.
The company helps Ontario First Nations develop hydro dams on their land for the economic betterment of their communities.
“I look at First Nations people I know, and I see them still living in ways they had nearly 100 years ago. This offends my sense of justice. Always has,” he said.
“I really feel I am now doing something that can make a difference in peoples’ lives.”
Farber added that there is an “astoundingly similar spirituality” between the First Nations and the Jewish people.
His lifelong social activism is due to his Jewish heritage.
“Again, it’s because of being a child of survivors. I came to understand that bigotry, antisemitism and racism offended my sense of justice,” he said. “I experienced antisemitism [in school] and I became driven to make changes in this world.
Working with Congress, he said, allowed him to “unpack all this baggage” in the cause of good.
In his acceptance speech, Farber concluded: “I know our community remains in good hands. We face different difficulties today, yet we remain anchored in our successes of the past, which I believe gives us strength for the future. We are fortunate to be buoyed by continuing strong lay leadership.”
CIJA called Farber a “proud fighter for human rights” and “a champion of inter-ethnic co-operation and social justice.”
Last week, he also received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal at a ceremony at Queen’s Park.