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The Wellspring of Jewish Life at York

May 13, 2015 | Campus, Judaism

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The first time I found my way to York’s sprawling (and then mostly barren) campus was as a teenager, to help assemble a Jewish magazine called Images. I was tagging along with my older sister, who was somehow involved in the publication (though she never attended York). This would have been in 1979 or so. Little did I know how much Jewish community life, or York University, was to feature in my future. This blog series is intended to paint a picture of Jewish life at York – not the stories you will typically read, but the more interesting and personal ones. Each entry will be by a member of the York community – past and present – with a story to tell. The first one will be my own.

I have come to know York in three distinct phases covering three different decades. I first encountered Jewish life at York as an Osgoode student in the 1980s. Osgoode had by then for many years represented a beacon for Toronto’s Jewish community. Even though formal barriers had come down, the legal community still bore the vestigial remains of a period of segregation and exclusion – there were still “Jewish” law firms that had been established when Jewish lawyers were turned away from establishment firms – and Jewish lawyers disproportionately turned to fields like criminal and labour law to defend the rights of vulnerable groups. Stories of Bora Laskin’s challenges in finding an articling position, and the exclusion faced by Jewish professionals in a host of fields, shaped the Toronto cultural landscape of my youth. Life at Osgoode and York at this time was infused with Jewish values and a focus on social justice.

York was a rich and textured academic environment in which to explore the place of Jewish ideas against a contemporary backdrop of pluralism and shared legal and political commitments. After a stint of graduate study and legal practice, I returned to York as a junior member of faculty in the late 1990s, cross appointed between Osgoode and the Political Science Department of the then Faculty of Arts at York. In my second year, I proposed to teach a new course – Social Justice, Human Rights and Jewish Law. If the leitmotif of Canadian constitutional culture is the protection of minority rights (whether expressed in the founding conflict between French and English communities, or the existential challenge of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, or simply the integration of myriad new and disparate communities through immigration) then I thought Canadian law students might learn a great deal from exploring these issues from the perspective of Jewish Law. Jewish legal traditions developed within an “outsider” community that needed to be able to live alongside the norms and rules of other more powerful communities around them. Jewish legal approaches to public life – social safety nets, taxation, promotion of critical debate and dissent, protection of the vulnerable, etc., represent a rich trove of ideas to draw on. The first meeting of the class happened to take place on September 11, 2001, which left an indelible mark on the class. Our discussions in the weeks that followed all took place in the shadow of loss.

I returned to York as Dean of Osgoode in 2010, and in this role, I have had an opportunity to re-engage with Jewish life at York in entirely new ways. For example, I joined the Centre for Jewish Studies and with colleagues there arranged for the travelling “Faces of the Ghetto” photo essay exhibit to be hosted at Osgoode in 2013. The exhibit consisted of depictions of “ordinary” life from the Lodz Ghetto in the 1940s. This exhibit gave rise to compelling talks at Osgoode on topics ranging from post-genocide trials in Rwanda to the role of lawyers and judges in Nazi Germany. But more moving were the personal connections. Survivors and their families came to Osgoode (some for the first time) to see the photos and to remember. I ran into an Osgoode student will little connection to the Shoah who had just struck up a moving conversation with an elderly woman who had just come from the exhibit in the Law School cafeteria. She said it was the most impactful moment of her legal education. The exhibit also had a personal connection. My own family came from Lodz. My Grandmother and her brother left before the war, and their parents, siblings, cousins and community all were to perish in the Ghetto.

Jewish life at York is not without its tensions, particularly surrounding issues of Israel and the complicated issues at play in the conflicts of the Middle-East. These tensions can test the ties that bind York as a community. In these moments, I have always preferred engagement to ideological rigidity – these tensions all represent opportunities to grapple with the experiences, perspectives and hopes of others. They also represent moments to come to terms with my own experiences and perspectives. Half of Toronto’s population are people born outside Canada, and this has never been a more vibrant and exciting place to live and work. I am now a rarity at York. I grew up in Toronto and so did my parents (and on one side of the family, my grandparents). This leads to wonderful moments of “Jewish geography.” At reunions and alumni events, a lawyer will almost always come up to me and announce “are you one of the Toronto Sossins? Are you related to…”

While I remain proud of these Toronto and Jewish roots, they also have propelled the desire to reach beyond them – to reach out and build relationships with diverse communities and individuals, and to explore what it means to build a truly inclusive university. For this reason, my encounter with and participation in Jewish life at York is a wellspring – continually replenished by those around me and something I draw on in new ways all the time!

The Exchange: Spotlight on York

Martin Lockshin: Jewish Life at York University
Daniel Ferman: Jewish Life at York: 2006-2010
Adam Hummel: York Made Me a Better Jew

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