Home Opinions Ideas Rekindling the light of Jewish social justice

Rekindling the light of Jewish social justice

Fireplace matches
Fireplace matches

We are a group of authors, artists, human rights advocates, scholars, rabbis, Jewish communal professionals and others who are concerned by the growing scarcity of Jewish-led social justice in Canada. We call for a renewed social justice effort to shine a Jewish light on issues of power and vulnerability in Canada.

Taking inspiration from Jewish values, Jews have, historically, been active at the forefront of every social justice movement in North America. Jewish social activists have a great legacy of addressing issues of justice, human rights, equity and dignity for all human beings. From being a strong voice on poverty, to supporting organized labour, to in engaging in interfaith and inter-ethnic dialogue, the Canadian Jewish community was long a model for others. And the community’s ongoing fight against anti-Semitism was never simply about protecting Jews from prejudice, but also about fostering a culture of human rights and dignity for all Canadians.


Yet, with the important exception of the concerted move by many synagogue congregants across the country to open their hearts to Syrian refugees, we have found that issues around poverty, racism and dignity for the country’s most vulnerable – as well as for suffering populations around the globe – have taken a back seat in the organized Jewish community to the much narrower agenda of Israel advocacy.

We seek to build on the Jewish legacy of social justice commitments by suggesting the creation of a coalition similar to the U.S.-based Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, which captures 52 organizations under a Jewish umbrella. Such an endeavour would elevate, expand and enhance the work of national Jewish movements and rabbinic groups in Canada as well as the array of organizations currently working in areas of refugees, immigration and resettlement, domestic abuse, poverty, hunger, addiction, and employment. It would also bring together individuals unattached to specific organizations who nevertheless bring a range of similar values and expertise.

At present, most of the existing Jewish community organizations involved in helping the vulnerable are direct service agencies. A new and enhanced Canadian Jewish coalition would not only seek to forge linkages across them, but would enable the community to identify strategies to address deeper structural social ills. In partnership with other communities, such a coalition would be well placed to suggest new responses to systemic forms of oppression in Canada and beyond.

For many Canadian Jews, Jewish activism and repair of our world, popularly known as tikkun olam, are central to their Jewish identity. Yet they currently lack substantive outlets in the Jewish community for deep engagement. For all of us, Canadian democratic values along with Jewish values call us to respond to systems that continue to marginalize, disempower and cause harm.

Moreover, the level of resources, organizational finesse and social capital that our community possesses, and our acute historical experience of being a collective outsider, makes us well placed to live and model a collective politics of compassion in the service of economic and social justice.


How do we, as Canadian Jews, engage in the great issues facing our country?  How can our advocacy organizations become directly accountable to the values held by the public they seek to lead?  And does Judaism call on us to care only for our own, or to create a world rooted in justice and dignity for all inhabitants? These and many other questions need answers, and we hereby initiate the conversation. In the darkness of winter, let us strive to relight the candle of Jewish participation in our tradition of tikkun olam. 


Mark Anshan

Philip B Berger

Frank Bialystok

Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton

Andrew Cohen

Michael Dan

Rabbi Ed Elkin

Bernie M. Farber

Rabbi Steven Garten

Adam Goldenberg

Gabriella Goliger

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Belle Jarniewski

Fran Klodawsky

Barbara Landau

Michele Landsberg

Howard Levine

Rabbi Aaron Levy

Noa Mendelsohn-Aviv

Karen Mock

Allan Moscovitch

Hannah Moscovitch

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz

Mira Oreck

Rabbi Schachar Orenstein

Zach Paikin

Derek Penslar

Avrum Rosensweig

Benjamin Shinewald

Maureen Silcoff

Alan Simons

Mira Sucharov

Jon Telch

Harold Troper

Ayelet Tsabari

Mark Zarecki

Ferderick Zemans

Joyce Zemans

Carol Zemel

Rabbi Deborah Zuker

  • DJ

    Nice and preachy. Not sure where they get their data from to support the claim of scarce Jewish social justice activism. I am not even sure what that means. I am a Jew, I am involved in anti-racism learning modules with a community organization. Does that fit the criteria?

    The narrower agenda of Israel advocacy, which I imagine is where this distinguished group of self-congratulatory experts is particular peeved about is not a sideline issue. It is, in fact, central. The Black Lives Matter movement has been infiltrated by Justice for Palestine. Trade Unions make it their business to encourage BDS amongst their members. In short, Jews have been excluded and are made to be part of the problem. This should not be a surprise to anyone. Jews continue to be painted as both the scapegoats and the instigators of injustice both locally and internationally.

    Make no mistake, this is left-wing advocacy claiming Jews are too much involved with Israel and because of the false narrative they support—of Palestinian victimhood—they claim we are leading ourselves down the wrong road. I’d like to see them be open and honest with this intent instead of dressing it up in the obscurity of this self-righteous screed.

  • nopeacenow

    There is no such thing as a mitzvah or commandment of “Tikkun Olam.” Jews are nowhere commanded to “repair the world.” In all the authoritative or traditional compilations of the commandments of Judaism, none list “Tikkun Olam”. The expression itself does not appear anywhere in the Torah or in the entire Bible.

    Those assimilationist liberals who insist that the entire “ethics of the Prophets” can be reduced to the pursuit of “Tikkun Olam” have to explain why none of the Books of the Prophets use the term. “Tikkun Olam” is used sporadically in the Talmud, but as a technical term for resolution of certain judicial problems that arise before rabbinic courts.

    The only place the expression appears in Jewish prayer is in the “Aleinu” and there it clearly has nothing at all to do with social justice. In the “Aleinu,” Tikkun Olam is explicitly explained in the prayer text itself as the quest to eliminate pagan superstition and to see God’s rule of the universe implemented. It is a theological concept, not a social, political or environmental one.

    In Judaism, the world does not get repaired by redistribution of income and wealth nor by cutting carbon emissions, but by humans subordinating themselves to God’s will.

  • Spencer Burger

    “who are concerned by the growing scarcity of Jewish-led social justice in Canada”

    Alright, I’ll bite. The above statement is utterly inaccurate and completely out of step with the reality of Jewish involvement in and Jewish-led community service organizations across the country in a host of areas. The authors don’t even to attempt to substantiate what is on its face a completely false statement in a country where the Jewish community continues to contribute so much in the areas of helping the most vulnerable. If anything, perhaps the Jewish presence in such organizations is extremely disproportionate to our size (a good thing and reflective of the community’s spirit of service to others).

    “have taken a back seat in the organized Jewish community to the much narrower agenda of Israel advocacy.” Ah so here’s the real reason for the piece. A drive by side-swipe at those of us in the Jewish community who care for the state of Israel.

    Well here’s a crazy thought: this stupid binary that the authors have created (efforts spent on Israel advocacy means less help for community involvement in Canada) is neither necessary nor reflective of a community that can spend its efforts both on improving circumstances for the most vulnerable AND ensuring a lone democratic state in a region of hostile illiberal states (and terrorist groups) receives the support it deserves.

    Instead, this seems like just another attempt by the very small minority within the Jewish community in Canada that aren’t big fans of Israel to guilt trip the rest of us into agreeing with their POV. No thanks.