The following is an edited excerpt of a speech given by Senator Linda Frum to the Senate Committee on Human Rights on May 10, to present her legislation to enact Canadian Jewish Heritage Month.
As a member of Canada’s proud Jewish community, I am delighted to have had the privilege to have sponsored Senate Public Bill S-232, An Act Respecting Canadian Jewish Heritage Month, the result of a bipartisan, bicameral effort to formalize, in law, a time each year to celebrate the contributions of the Jewish community to Canada.
It is apropos that this bill is being studied in the Senate during the month of May, a month that is meaningful to the Jewish community. Since 2006, when it was enacted by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by former president George W. Bush, the month of May has been recognized by the U.S. government as the time to celebrate the contributions of the American Jewish community.
In his remarks celebrating Jewish Heritage Month in 2010, then-U.S. president Barack Obama said:
“This month is a chance for Americans of every faith to appreciate the contributions of the Jewish People throughout our history – often in the face of unspeakable discrimination and adversity. For hundreds of years, Jewish Americans have fought heroically in battle and inspired us to pursue peace.
“They’ve built our cities, cured our sick. They’ve paved the way in the sciences and the law, in our politics and in the arts. They remain our leaders, our teachers, our neighbours and our friends.”
Across the United States, you will find a wide range of activities during Jewish Heritage Month, from lectures at the Library of Congress and National Archives, to cooking classes and Klezmer music performances throughout the country.
In Ontario, Jewish Heritage Month was established in 2012 and is also celebrated in the month of May.
Since its adoption, Jewish Heritage Month has received widespread support among citizens, community organizations and local governments throughout Ontario.
For example, a photo exhibit showcasing Jewish life in Canada is on display at the city hall in Vaughan, Ont., for the duration of this month. In Toronto, the annual Jewish Film Festival is held during Jewish Heritage Month to celebrate and appreciate Jewish filmmaking from around the world.
May is also the month that Israel celebrates one of its more joyful public holidays, Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day.
And soon, we hope, with the passage of Bill S-232, Canada will also have a national Jewish Heritage Month of its own.
By establishing Jewish Heritage Month in law, Parliament will be signalling to Canadians that this month is to be recognized each and every year. In light of the recent report by B’nai Brith stating that anti-Semitic incidents in Canada last year were the highest on record, this official embrace of the Jewish People and the Jewish culture by Canadians can only help to promote the values of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion.
Another advantage of enshrining this month formally in law, is that it gives community organizations the lead time they need to plan events.
The European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage hosts Jewish heritage week throughout Europe each year, which brings over 120,000 visitors to the many events that take place throughout the continent. One of the keys to their success is that they are able to plan the events and inform stakeholders far in advance.
Having that lead time is especially helpful because the Jewish community has contributed to this country in so many ways and there is thus so much to discuss and celebrate.
The earliest Jewish settlers arrived in Canada in 1768, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that Jews arrived here in any significant numbers.
Most Jewish refugees came to Canada with nothing other than a sincere desire to build a safer, more prosperous future for their children, and to embrace the country that so openly embraced them.
Fleeing pogroms and anti-Semitism, primarily in Russia and eastern Europe, Jewish exiles settled across Canada, from coast to coast. In fact, the two oldest synagogues in Canada are in Sydney, N.S., and Victoria.
Another significant wave of Jewish refugees arrived in Canada after World War II, when Montreal became home to the third-largest population of Holocaust refugees in the world. In total, Canada accepted 40,000 Holocaust survivors.
Today, Canada is home to nearly 400,000 Jewish people, the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, after Israel, the United States and France.
To properly measure the immense and diverse contributions that have been made by Jewish Canadians to our society, we would have to survey nearly every aspect of human endeavour – be it in academia, the law, politics, medicine, business, philanthropy, science, art, entertainment, even food.
It is my hope that with the establishment of Canadian Jewish Heritage Month, all Canadians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, will have the opportunity to better understand the culture and history of Jewish Canadians, as well as to celebrate the integral role that the Jewish community has played in shaping Canada into one of the very best countries in the world in which to live.
Linda Frum is a Conservative senator from Ontario.