Jewish organizations aren’t democratic, speaker says
TORONTO — The average Jewish person in Toronto doesn’t have much say in the priorities of the organized community, filmmaker Ben Feferman said at a town hall meeting he organized last month.
One of the repeated criticisms of organized community institutions made by the 40 people in attendance at the Barbara Frum Library May 24 was that large donations are being used to construct new buildings instead of going toward Jewish education and poverty relief.
Tuition costs for Jewish day schools are skyrocketing, leaving many families unable to afford Jewish education. “Maybe we [the Jewish community] have some issues with priorities,” Feferman said.
Feferman, 28, added that while large Jewish organizations and charities such as UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, UIA Federations Canada and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs are well intentioned and do important work, they don’t operate transparently and democratically, or allocate donations in a way that everyone in the greater Jewish community would agree with.
“To what degree are we able to cast a ballot to remove the leadership?” he asked the audience.
Wayne Levin, an engineer and day-school funding advocate who was one of three other speakers at the event, said it’s not just the leaders of large organizations who can and should have an impact on community decision-making.
“We need to educate [people] and make people understand that they have a role to play,” he said.
Feferman filmed the meeting as a part of his upcoming documentary that looks at the challenges facing Canada’s Jewish community. He said he doesn’t have concrete solutions, but hopes that the community can work together to find them.
The title of Feferman’s documentary, Sha Shtil, to be released this summer, is a reference to the Yiddish phrase that means “be silent.”
Feferman, whose last documentary, The Wandering Jew, explored the Jewish attraction to eastern religions, said the title refers to a prevalent attitude in Canada’s Jewish community that encourages people not to speak up about issues.
He added that when he began filming, he was told several times by community members that he “can’t talk about these things,” and that he shouldn’t outwardly challenge the way the community is run.
“The line that everyone gives me is that we shouldn’t air our dirty laundry in public,” he said.
However, as work on his film progressed, he found people more receptive and open to change.
“Change is not always going to come from the top,” Feferman said. “It’s not always going to be spoon-fed to you. It often has to come from the grassroots.”
Feferman said he has never felt compelled to keep silent about problems he sees in the Jewish community.
“I’m not interested in making the Jewish community look good. I’m interested in making it do good.”
In addition to Feferman and Levin, the meeting also heard from two other speakers, social worker and supporter of Toronto’s homeless Lillian Freedman, and Israel advocate Esther Mendelsohn, who shared their experiences and offered opinions on where there’s room for change in Toronto’s Jewish community.
“There’s lots of work to be done” to fight poverty in the Jewish community, particularly among seniors and Holocaust survivors, Freedman said, adding that “the good news is it’s not hard and it’s not expensive.”
Related: The moral costs of Jewish day school