2012 Twenty-First Century Concerns CSJO Conference Keynote by
Maxine Hermolin

CSJO CONFERENCE - May 26, 2012 – Rutgers University, New Jersey

Theme: Twenty-First Century Concerns: Economic, Environmental, Educational and Then Some

What I’d like to focus on today is a look at why organizations such as ours were formed in the first place, why they exist today and why they should continue to exist. To answer questions concerning the relevance of our organizations, we must understand and remember where we come from, what the roots of our movement are and what the relevant social issues were that mobilized people to form such organizations ... and further to link those issues to Twenty-First Century Concerns: Economic, Environmental, Educational ... the theme of this year’s CSJO conference. I happen to believe that these organizations are still very relevant and to explain why, I plan to use the example of my organization - the UJPO - the organization in which I grew up - as a microcosm within the larger secular Jewish movement: It started with my Bubby - who came to Toronto in 1932 - a young widow with 3 children. Her introduction was through the LeynKrays (the Yiddish Reading Circle). That led to sending her children - my mother, my aunt and uncle to the Morris WinchevsyShule and summers at Camp – which continued down through the generations of my family. How to explain an organization with a more than 80-year history is somewhat of a challenge ... so let’s begin! Yesterday ....The UJPO and its forerunner the Labour League (a fraternal and cultural organization) were founded by Eastern European immigrants who came to Canada in the early part of the 20th century. They had first-hand experience of pogroms and wanted to create a better world for their children in their new home. They gravitated to socialism believing that the promise of socialism would eliminate anti-Semitism. The vast majority who settled in Toronto were poor and working class. They toiled in sweatshops for long hours and low wages. They lived in overcrowded conditions. Their belief in socialism and their commitment to a more humane world where equality would prevail was borne out of these sweatshops and sub-standard living conditions. As strangers in a strange land, they bonded together to deal with their feeling of isolation. Mutual benefit societies or “landsmenschaft”emerged. One of those was the Labour League Mutual Benefit Society - formed in 1926. Similar groups formed across Canada - and in 1945 they joined forces to become a "national" organization which was renamed the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO). They were visionaries and were committed to a besserevelt (a better world) and in taking care of each other. They built an organization and institutions that would meet the needs of a generation of immigrants. Out of that vision were born a multitude of cultural initiatives from within which to celebrate “mameloshn” and a progressive view of the world: “leynkrays” (reading circles); “kulturvinkls” (culture corners), choirs, camps, drama groups, dance groups, mandolin ensembles, orchestras, sports clubs. They established a mutual benefit society which provided sick benefits and death benefits to their members. They were in effect pioneers of medicare. They acquired burial grounds. They established a credit union which offered loans at very low interest rates. They were in the forefront of the labour movement and helped to form unions. They fought anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms. They fought exploitation. They fought for world peace and a better more just world for all. Our choir, which began in 1925 as the FreiheitGesangsFarein (the Freedom Choral Society) grew and was renamed the TJFC in1934. During its heyday the choir, with more than 100 voices, performed on the stage of Toronto’s prime concert venue Massey Hall with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and world class artists including Paul Robeson and Jan Pearce. They bought land and built a camp that would allow poor and working class parents an affordable summer holiday for children and families. In the political climate of the 1930’s, in order to purchase the property, they had to arrange for a Ukrainian sympathizer to buy the property as CNR (Canadian National Railways) would not sell the property to Jews at that time. In fact, there was a sign at the entrance of the park “no Jews or dogs allowed.”Camp Naivelt and Camp Kinderland became an important piece of the UJPO mosaic. It is one of the jewels of our community. A place where lifetime friendships were forged; where we learned about the issues of the day; where we sang songs around the campfire late into the night - union songs, peace songs, Yiddish songs of struggle; where we held concerts and lectures. Camp was like an extension of our Shules (“fun kemptsuShule” “fun Shule to kemp”). [They didn’t need face book ... their social network was the community they were shaping together.] The glue that held them together was Yiddishkayt, a love and respect for the Yiddish language, the mameloshn of the Eastern European working class. There was a cohesiveness to the community they built - created out of living in close proximity to each other; they shared a culture, a language, a class politics. The organization survived the Challenges the Cold War, black-listing, expulsion from Canadian Jewish Congress, political upheavals, a split in organization which contributed to a decline in the organization. In the 60’s and 70’s we were one of only a few organizations that worked in solidarity with the civil rights movement in the U.S. We were the only Jewish organization active in the anti-Apartheid movement and opposed to the war in Vietnam. Our active involvement in the peace movement, in the women’s movement, in the labour movement continued. It seemed that nothing was too hard for them ... they put their heart and soul and every ounce of energy into the work of the organization ... whether it was standing on a picket line, marching for peace, rehearsing for cultural programs, organizing fundraising bazaars. It was all important. So, what’s the relevance today ... they did all that great work ... their accomplishments are impressive ... so we can just sit back and relax and bask in the glory of those achievements and reap the benefits of their hard work, right? I don’t think so. Let’s take a look at HOW THE GROUND HAS SHIFTED IN JEWISH COMMUNITY, IN UJPO, IN the WORLD - some 50 years later.

  • no longer living in close proximity to each other
  • further removed fromYiddish as a mother tongue
  • diversity in the compostion of our communities
  • worsening economic conditions
  • unpopular to speak out against the occupation or Israel''s government policies

Today identity as a Jew is a choice - often it is one of many commitments - and only one of the many ways in how people see themselves.Identifying as a secular-left-Jew no longer involves a Yiddishkayt that integrates one’s experiences as a person concerned with social justice, or labour rights, or feminism, as comfortably as it did for earlier generations whose entire lives were lived within this community. We’ve talked a bit about where we came from. We’ve identified the shifts in today’s world so how does that awareness help us today? What are some of the modern day struggles for freedom, equality and justice? In Canada, we no longer have to fight to establish universal health care, or form unions, or minimum wage or universal education - we fight to protect them and we have other challenges. OCCUPY:The economic inequality continues to grow exponentially between the haves and the have-nots. Even though they may evict us from countless parks and squares across North America - the ideals of standing up for freedom, equality and justice prevail. And so, we support the Occupy Movement which is addressing the inequities in our societies and speaks for the 99%. Through learning, conversation, community, and protest this global movement of people from all walks of life has already demonstrated the power of the people to rise up and challenge injustice. ENVIRONMENT:Today - We have a much better understanding of the effect of our actions on the environment and are taking concerted actions to remedy the situation such as taking a stand on the oil sands issue, preserving agricultural land. Food sovereignty is an important issue today - While more than enough food is produced to feed the global population, levels of hunger and malnutrition continue to escalate. ECONOMIC: Today - The depression is over but we have the impact of austerity, foreclosures, industry shifting to developing countries. This translates to unemployment and weakened economies. Wages, jobs and social services are being cut in the name of profit, wealth and “austerity.” EDUCATION: Today - Much like the current economic situation, education is much less accessible; tuition fees are climbing. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so does access to education. Today’s master’s degree is yesterday’s bachelor’s degree. Job opportunities for graduates are not guaranteed. In Canada for the past 100 days and more, in Montreal, students continue to make headlines by protesting against rising tuition fees.... they have created a social movement.Cutbacks are prevalent in the school system - particularly on extracurricular activities, the arts & recreation - and we’ve all read and heard about how detrimental that can be to a child’s development and youth experience. CLEARLY, there are different struggles today that demand our activism. We’re grateful to our foremothers and forefathers for their efforts to make a better world and we owe it to them to continue to strive for the values that underlie our movement. So, now we’re fighting to protect and preserve human rights; we’re aligning ourselves with the occupy movement, with workers to protect the unions; we’re getting involved in the environmental movement and in ensuring food sovereignty. Proudly today we continue – UJPO (in Toronto, Winnipeg & Vancouver), Shule, Camp, Choir In Toronto our assets include our building, The Winchevsky Centre and Camp Naivelt.For sure we have experienced shifts.... keeping up with change has been a challenge.Certain elements have stood the test of time ... it may look different today but it continues. In our multi-faceted structure - over the years - there have been weaker parts and stronger parts of the organization.For a time Camp was suffering; now it is vibrant and revitalized and there is a waiting list for cottages and the culture and politics thrive as does the camaraderie. Our Shule is now in its 84th year of operation. During that time, the format and enrollment has fluctuated in response to the ever-changing needs of the community. Recently we introduced a program for pre-schoolers and their grownup which has been very successful. Our Choir has continued for the duration of the organization. - it's membership has fluctuated - but it has managed to stay relevant. There are choirs today also in Winnipeg & Vancouver The Yiddish Reading Circle which once bonded the organization still exists today but it continues as a small group. And the UJPO is once again reclaiming its position as a progressive voice in the Jewish community and the community at large. The offerings of programs have changed over time - but the sentiment has not changed - in order to stay current we have made the necessary changes. We have marked several milestone anniversaries of the UJPO, the Shule, the Choir and Camp Naivelt - again a testament to the importance and endurance of organizations like ours. We are proud that our organization has influenced many people to go on to make significant contributions to the world - in the fields of medicine, law, the arts, and politics. This is a testament to the relevance of our organization's philosophy. Today - we are forging links and building partnerships in the community: Culture continues to be important. We have strong ties with the Ashkenaz Festival of New Yiddish Culture which takes place every two years in Toronto. The next festival is this Labour Day weekend.

  • Our choir performs at Ashkenaz.
  • Camp Naivelt was featured at Ashkenaz - with an exhibit.
  • AvromYanovsky’s art - political cartoonist - was featured at Ashkenaz.

This past year our Shule partnered with Ashkenaz in the Schools to bring the program - A Jewish Music Journey through the ages ... to our students.

  • by participating with other Yiddishist groups in planning events for HEW and Jewish Book Fair.
  • by our connection to and strong support of Outlook magazine, Canada’s English-language journal of progressive Jewish thought

In recent years, we have organized 3 Solidarity Tours to Israel/Palestine & last fall sponsored a Fact Finding Mission to Venezuela - led by UJPO members. Today - UJPO is active on a number of political fronts. In the anti-occupation movement, we have forged alliances with other groups with the same outlook to bring prominent speakers, hold forums and panels, screen films. Our new UJPO banner has been part of many political protests and rallies this past year: including Stop the Cuts rallies last fall, the Rally for Peace & Friendship in support of Indigenous Land Rights and at the Workers Unite Rally in celebration of May Day. Closer to home we have contributed deputations in connection with the Lawrence Heights Revitalization - the low-income neighbourhood where our Centre is situated.

It’s not unusual for the UJPO to host events that are deemed controversial. But did I ever think I would be at the centre of a scandal in the Jewish community and media. It all began when the UJPO sponsored Never Again for Anyone - a panel featuring speakers including Hayo Mayer who survived Auschwitz and is committed to Palestinian freedom.We were criticized by Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and UJA Federation for providing a platform for those who promote “the end of Israel as a Jewish state.” Leaders of UJA and CJC consider principled critics of actions of the State of Israel to be “self-hating Jews” and “anti-Semites” And we were informed that CJC and UJA could not continue their affiliation with us. As a democratic organization that encourages pluralism and open democratic debate, we decided to proceed with this event. We stood up against the attempt by CJC and Federation to suppress and manipulate us. We were determined not to be intimidated or silenced. In the end, by speaking out - by going out on a limb - there was a positive outcome.We received an onslaught of supportive messages from individuals and groups.People respected and were motivated by such a stand and we gained new members as a direct result.We established a Social Justice Committee to ensure that we continue to be the Jewish voice of social justice in our community. This is a strong indication that there is a place for organizations such as UJPO. In conclusion: Yesterday - The organization was founded by Eastern European immigrants - struggling to make ends meet ina new home. Their goals were clear, concrete and tangible - it was certainly not easy but it was definitely more defined. Today- Our community is more diverse - several generations removed from Eastern Europe and ‘mameloshn’ which helped to bind people together - today, we are working to respond to the diverse needs of our changing communities. Tomorrow - Tomorrow’s world will be different too and the challenges will change. But will issues of community be relevant?

  • of economic security
  • of educational needs
  • of environmental concerns

No doubt these issues will still be relevant. As will the pillars upon which our movement has been founded: sustaining Jewishness as a culture, history, tradition and way of life rooted in social justice. Today’s youth will inherit our rich legacy. From the wisdom of our forbears, to our leaders today, to our children, we are all links in the chain. It is our hope that today's youth will be influenced and inspired and motivated to carry the torch and BE committed to preserve and enhance the rich cultural traditions of our people.

As a third generation member of our community, I cherish the values that I have been instilled with - the Yiddishkayt, veltlekhkeyt and menshlekhkayt. These influences - in no small measure - helped to shape the person I am today.

CSJO annual conferences are one way to hold our organizations and our movement together. Enter into the conference workshops with curiosity and engagement. The struggles, the hopes & dreams, the culture, the politics will all continue to play a role as we take on the challenges of Twenty-First Century Concerns: Economic, Environmental, Educational ... and then some![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]