After 91 years of existence, the Canadian Jewish Congress appears to be on life support and is unlikely to celebrate anniversary number 92. The one-time proud national Jewish advocacy organization lost its mojo a number of years ago. And while it still has some stars in its midst, notably CEO Bernie Farber (right) in Toronto, I believe the time has indeed come to pull the plug. What allows me to present such a strong position?
The fact that CJC remains an entity at all is quite a feat to begin with. I was hired in the spring of 1988. At the time the head office was a beautiful building at 1590 Dr. Penfield Avenue called the Samuel Bronfman House Museum and Archives. The CJC was established in 1919 at a convention held here at the Monument National Theatre. For decades it gained notice for excellent work combatting antisemitism, defending Israel and advocating for oppressed Jews in the former Soviet Union and in Arab lands. There was even as a social advocacy arm and an outreach component for small Jewish communities.
Doors opened wide whenever the CJC came calling, be it to politicians from any level of government or the media. During the three year term of Professor Irving Abella as president, he himself was treated like a head of state. His predecessor, Les Scheininger, was another outstanding performer while Moshe Ronen, whom as chairman of the executive and later presidentwas equally impressive.
CJC played a crucial role in enticing the federal government to adopt legislation to prosecute and deport Nazi war criminals. I remember when I was hired. My new boss Jack Silverstone welcomed me a board and asked that I organize a press conference on Parliament Hill in a few days time so that CJC could report on a meeting it had scheduled with the Justice Minister regarding Nazi war criminals. I turned out to be the driver to Ottawa. My passengers were Silverstone and Professor Irwin Cotler, then a CJC past president and now of course the Liberal MP for Mount Royal. I personally called most of the media in Ottawa and was I surprised with the respect the CJC name attracted. The turnout was strong. People really wanted to hear what we had to say.
And so it went. CJC was truly an independent organization. Yes, we were funded by the Jewish federations of Canada, but we had our own board of officers and a National Executive. There was true representation from coast to coast. Every three years we had a National Plenary Assembly and attracted more than 1,000 delegates from across the country who debated and voted on policy resolutions and elected a new corps of officers. On several occasions there were heated elections, most notably in 1995 when Goldie Hershon narrowly defeated Thomas Hecht in a fierce battle.
In 1998 word came down that the CJC head office was to move to Ottawa. This was being touted a progressive development. I felt otherwise and began looking elsewhere, landing at the English Montreal School Board as head of communications and marketing. CJC did maintain a presence here. Thanks to the hard work of Abe Smajovits, the head of finance, a deal was struck with Concordia University to take over the management and cost associated with the building on Dr. Penfield. In return, Smajovits’ accounting department, a graphic artist and the National Archives would remain in place at no cost to the community.
The decision to give up this valuable real estate just made CJC more dependent upon the federations. Initially, the Ottawa office seemed like a good fit. But when executive vice-president Jack Silverstone stepped down to become the chief of staff for a federal minister, he was replaced by Farber and Toronto became the new de facto head office.
Oh yes and how was Smajovits rewarded for his clever move to save the community money? His position and that of his two assistants were abolished. He took them to court and won a significant judgment for unlawful dismissal. It was appealed by CJC and went to the Court of Appeal, where a ruling is expected in the spring.
For CJC, the writing was on the wall when the Canadian Council for Jewish and Israel Advocacy (CCJIA) was established a few years ago. Gone was the CJC’s autonomy. All of sudden this new entity provided the marching orders. National Plenary Assemblies went from exciting three day affairs to a one day gathering in a synagogue. When Montrealer Sylvain Abitbol and Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa both declared their candidacy for president a few years back, the “democratically elected” representative of the Canadian Jewish community bartered a partnership. A potential exciting election race was halted and the two became co-presidents. The National Executive also ceased to exist, the latter not such a bad thing given the fact meetings occurred at great cost only about twice a year and not a lot could be accomplished.
There are people like Bernie Farber and head of government relations Eric Vernon whom are real gems. I hope that the new entity being created to replace CJC, the Canada-Israel Committee and the university advocacy group finds prominent places for them.
What will become of the CJC regional structure? Only Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia had true regional bodies. The others were all clones of their local Jewish federations.. Here in Montreal, CJC lost a lot of credibility when it was rechristened the Quebec Jewish Congress (QJC). Despite many protests from the community, the name change went ahead. The QJC is not very effective or visible. Its time has come to be cast adrift.
The Jewish community is well served by B’nai Brith Canada, which does not rely on federation dollars to exist. Ditto for the Canadian Jewish Public Affairs Committee and organizations like the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.
My sources tell me that takeover of CJC is a done deal and will be ratified this month at a board meeting of the United Israel Appeal of Canada. They even have a code name for the entity set to take over from CJC, CIC and university advocacy: Newco. Shimon Fogel, for many years the head of CIC, will be the big boss.
For those of us in the Jewish community, this will not mean a thing. The CJC that gained respect across the globe (and I know because I represented the organization in places such as Israel, Poland, Switzerland and in every province in Canada) has been gone for years. It was a shadow of its former self.
The federations wanted it this way. They had a plan which took a number of years to execute, taking an organization which was most effective and ultimately making it irrelevant. I feel badly for someone like Farber, probably the brightest Jewish advocacy expert in this country. He has stood up to hatemongers and delivered countless lectures and presentations to spellbound audiences. His talent has been underutilized. It is time for Bernie to become a politician. For Stephen Harper’s Tories, I could not think of a better star Jewish candidate in the Toronto area than him. Add B’nai Brith Canada executive vice-president Frank Dimant into the mix as a potential Tory Senator and our community will really be well served.
Yes, it is sad in a way to bid adieu to CJC. Had they stayed put on Dr. Penfield Avenue, they would have survived to celebrate a 100th anniversary. Below is a story which appeared in the National Post:
Sarah Boesveld, National Post • Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010
The legacy of Canada’s oldest Jewish organization may soon be at risk if its umbrella group pursues plans to form a central advocacy group for Jewish Canadians, observers say.
The 91-year-old Canadian Jewish Congress, founded by Montreal Jews who left Europe after the First World War, could be amalgamated into a larger unified Jewish public affairs organization if members at two board meetings in early December vote in favour of it. The Canadian Council for Jewish and Israel Advocacy, which oversees the CJC and four other Jewish groups, has been drafting the restructuring plans for months and says the community would be stronger and more efficient if there’s a consolidation of decision-making and and public affairs.
But though the CJC board says it’s all in favour of a more streamlined approach to advocacy, they worry the name and identity of their time-honoured institution will get lost in the shuffle, said vice-president Barbara Bank.
“We hope that it will not do anything to in any way undermine or destroy that very valuable brand and that it won’t relegate the Canadian Jewish Congress to the garbage bin of history,” she said. “We believe [that would be] a monumental error in judgment.”
Ms. Bank, who gets a vote at the December meetings, fears the group will be “dissolved” should it fold into whatever the new group -- which would include the Congress, the Canada-Israel Committee, the University Outreach Committee, the Quebec-Israel Committee and UIA Federations Canada – becomes.
“It’s important that people feel empowered, it’s important that people feel included -- that [the group] is truly the voice of the Canadian Jewish people,” said Ms. Bank. “That’s why we feel our legacy is historic – it’s synonymous with Canadian Jewry.”
Earlier this year, the CJC struck a sub-committee and crafted its own recommendations for the new group, which included keeping the Canadian Jewish Congress name and playing up the group’s heritage in the new mandate. The sub-committee sent unsolicited recommendations to the The Canadian Council for Jewish and Israel Advocacy committee in the summer, but have yet to receive a response.
Reached Tuesday, CIJA’s acting CEO Susan Davis would not comment on the restructuring except to say the process has been an ongoing one that is “not a public issue.”
“It’s a community issue and we’re growing it organically within the community,” she said, adding that hundreds of people have seen the plans, which remain confidential to the public in a brief called the “Newco Document.”
In a recent interview with the Canadian Jewish News, chair Steven Cummings said it’s important for Canadian Jews to speak with one voice, and a consolidated group would allow for that.
“We feel that the issues that are of most importance to the Jewish community really leach into each other,” he said. “Whether they’re issues around anti-Semitism, around anti-Israelism, difficulties on campuses...all of them are informed by the core values we have in the Jewish community around human rights and the dignity of all people.”
He was not available for comment on Tuesday and Ms. Davis would not speak to the timeline and specifics of the plan or respond to the CJC’s concerns about its identity.
Still, there are frustrations over the plan, which seem to stretch beyond the CJC itself, with emotional stakeholders entering the fray. Andrew Cohen, whose great-uncle Lazarus founded the CJC, is angered by the proposed re-organization. He compared the plans to the amalgamation of small towns or villages into a larger city – those areas can lose control and services, he said, all without the benefit of a tighter bottom line.
“This is a dangerous, ill-considered decision,” he said. “You don’t just throw [an historical organization] away like a piece of tissue, in the same way you don’t raze a heritage building.”
He argues that the organization is working well and meeting the needs of Canadian Jews.
“This is not an argument for perpetuating waste or inefficiencies or something that has long passed its purpose,” said Mr. Cohen, who is president of The Historica-Dominion Institute, Canada’s largest independent history, heritage and culture organization.
In the week or so before the plan goes to vote, community members are just waiting to see what happens. Though the CJC has come forward with its concerns, Ms. Bank said they hope their wishes are considered if the plan is accepted by CIJA and UIAFC, which is a fundraising body for Jewish organizations