I recently returned from Australia, where I presented at Limmud Oz, a Jewish festival of learning. One thing – among many – that struck me about the community was that on more than one occasion, Limmud sessions or other parlour meetings at which I spoke, opened with a public acknowledgment of the elders of the Gadigal people (in Sydney) and the Boonwerung people of the Kulin Nation (in Melbourne).
Similar acknowledgments are becoming more common in locales across Canada – references to the Metis Nation at events in Winnipeg, the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh in Vancouver, the Wendat, Anishewabe and Massasagua in Toronto and the Algonquin in Ottawa. But I have only heard this done once in a Jewish context – and that was at a Jewish Voices for Peace event in Ottawa, as the host was introducing a public debate at which I presented.
Ittay Flescher, a Jewish educator at Mount Scopus Memorial College, a day school in Melbourne, has been one of many educators to call for his school assemblies to open with a similar acknowledgment, and feature signs on classroom walls “acknowledging country,” in Australian parlance. His shul, Shira Hadasha, a partnership minyan, also incorporates such a statement in its Prayer for Australia.
Flescher has gone deeper in raising awareness, having introduced a Grade 9 Aboriginal studies course. These students were in kindergarten when the government issued its historic 2007 apology for the Stolen Generations policies, whereby Aboriginal children were taken from their parents to be raised by whites – Australia’s version of Canada’s terrible Sixties Scoop.
Named Yorta Yorta Beyachad (beyachad means “together” in Hebrew), the course is anchored in a little-known event which bound Australia’s Jewish community in Shepparton to one William Cooper of the Yorta Yorta tribe. Having been one of the first to launch an Aboriginal civil rights movement in 1938, Cooper – a person with no status, no voting rights and no formal citizenship, as was the case among Aboriginals in Australia at the time – turned his sights to another oppressed people. Appalled by the events of Kristallnacht, Cooper marched to the German consulate in Melbourne to present a petition denouncing “the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany,” an act of protest which stayed virtually hidden until it was discovered by a Melbourne archivist in 2002.
Each year, Flescher takes his students to Yorta Yorta country in partnership with the Australian Jewish social justice organization Stand Up. For three days, they meet with elders, learn traditional dances, discuss issues around identity, and deepen their understanding of Aboriginal history. They visit Cummergunja, one of the Catholic missions where Aboriginals were forcibly placed in 1889. They even managed to visit Cooper’s grave where they recited Kaddish for the victims of the Shoah. “It was an incredibly moving and humbling experience,” Flescher said.
The Canadian Jewish community is beginning to tackle the issue as well. The CJN reported in May on a Jewish teen cultural exchange to the Nipissing First Nation Reserve. And in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, several Jewish groups including Ve’ahavta, the Toronto Board of Rabbis, the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and CIJA (Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) signed a “statement of solidarity and action.” Bernie Farber, former head of Canadian Jewish Congress and now head of Mosaic Institute, has been at the forefront of moves to advance deep and thoughtful discussion about the fate of the First Nations.
These are all encouraging. And like the dancing of the hands before reciting the shabbat candle blessing or the kissing of the mezuzah before entering a room, there is something powerful about a ritual-like statement at the beginning of a Jewish gathering to acknowledge who came before us and how we can help repair the wrongs inflicted — even if most of us, or our ancestors, were fleeing our own private horrors when we arrived at the shores of this great country.