The Canadian Jewish Experience: how an Ottawa start-up beat the odds

By Dr. Victor Rabinovitch
Board member, Canadian Jewish Experience,
Distinguished Fellow, Queens U. School of Policy Studies

Text of an introductory talk at Carleton University, in conjunction with the Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies, for the opening of The Canadian Jewish Experience exhibit in the MacOdrum Library, 3 October 2017

General introduction: the CJE exhibit in perspective

“It’s now October 2017, and Canada’s Sesquicentennial celebration, or its150th birthday, is already nine months old with just three months remaining. In the future, other people will judge the value of the national celebrations this year. Have they been successful? Are they adding to public understanding of the Canadian social and political experiment? Do they expand our vision of Canada?

My focus today is on one Canada 150 project. It isn’t an “official project” because it has not received a penny from federal or local funding. (It has received encouragement from several officials, which I will describe later.) My presentation is not a formal academic lecture on issues in the fields of public history, memory and memorialization, or archival and museological studies. But I hope a there may be a scholar who will use the Canadian Jewish Experience (CJE) as a topic for a future study, because there is a lot to learn from what our volunteer group has accomplished.

This presentation provides an opportunity to describe some details on the CJE exhibit and look at some of its background. I will do this by asking and answering a few questions – and in keeping with a Jewish Passover tradition, I’ve framed these points as ‘the four questions’.”

First question: why celebrate?

“Why did a group of volunteers create the initiative to celebrate Canada 150 from the viewpoint of Jewish experience?

The answer is complicated. It starts with an immigrant member of our Ottawa Jewish community, Tova Lynch and her Canadian husband, a former diplomat, Jim Lynch. Sometimes, there are advantages to viewing a society from the outside as this gives a particular perspective on social habits and values. (It is said that Jews have been so prominent in comedy entertainment because they view their societies partly from the outside…they can spot unusual things from this outsider’s perspective.) Tova and Jim conceived the idea that Jews in Canada should take part, AS JEWS, in celebrating the country’s 150 years. They felt we had something special to appreciate and this inspired their vision. They began to create a team of volunteers, and I was recruited along with other people because of my professional and community experience. They also looked for assistance from potential partner organizations.

As most people already know, there were episodes in the Jewish experience of Canada that were far from positive. We know that our journey in this country has its share of dark episodes. Who can forget the MS St. Louis, with more than 900 Jewish passengers who were not allowed to land in Canada in 1939 (nor in Cuba or the US)? These ordinary people were sent back to Europe, and many died in the Holocaust. Or look at some other examples. Everyone Jewish over a certain age remembers the quotas against Jews entering universities like McGill; or, the real estate covenants that prevented Jews buying homes or land in certain places; or, the restrictions on Jews entering certain clubs, such as the Rideau Club and the Hunt Club golf course, right here in Ottawa. I personally remember having stones thrown into our doorway in Lachine, near Montreal, and kids shouting “maudit Juif” at me as a child in the streets.

But the larger picture was much more positive. For Jews living in Canada from the mid 19th Century onward, the experience was one of great freedom, great opportunity. This was not a land of pogroms as in Eastern Europe. Jews were thrilled to be British subjects. They chose to fight for Canada in huge numbers, loyally and with distinction, in both World Wars.

This is why the CJE project was started and why I decided to be so committed. Our choice was to celebrate the positive, highlighting the many stories of achievement. We wanted to show how Jews have helped to build a modern country, with all of its commercial, cultural and social successes. ‘Celebrating’ for us has meant an emphasis on the positive, while also not ignoring the negative.”

Second question: what happened when the Department Canadian Heritage said ‘no’?

“When the federal government did not grant any funding to the CJE, how did the group react and adjust the project?

The federal government’s negative decision to the CJE grant request created a very hard situation, almost spelling the end of the project. The original idea was ambitious: Tova  Lynch wanted a full-scale, museum-quality exhibition. The National Capital Commission had offered a space for us to rent in the downtown area. The idea was challenging, but we felt it could be achieved.

We had applied for Canada 150 project funding by following the normal channels set out by the Department of Canadian Heritage. I cannot exaggerate how much time was spent on this, how many phone calls and emails, how many hoops we jumped through while the Department changed its own deadlines. (We’ve heard from other project applicants who received similar treatment.) And then, contrary to all our expectations, we received the bad news in mid 2016, which was much too late for any minor changes. Needless to say, we received no explanations from the Department.

Our first instinct was to give up, but Tova Lynch had been reaching out to private donors, with the intention of matching federal funding with private funding. We began to consider options for a different, smaller-scale project that would reflect our limited funding. We approached potential donors. The breakthrough came from the incomparable Asper Foundation in Winnipeg. They agreed to support a smaller project, and with their commitment a pattern was set for several other donors.

Back to the drawing boards with Tova, and our professional curator, Sandra Morton-Wiseman from Calgary, and me. (Sandra had worked in museum projects many times, so her knowledge, flexibility and abilities are simply first-class). We conceived how to cut down our content and reduce the project to something modest but still substantive. Our solution was to create a panel exhibition that combined photos, solid research and good design, supplemented by the extra content that would be included in a modern website. This would be practical and financially do-able. Our real exhibition work began.”

Third question: what content to include?

“What choices were made in selecting themes and content for the smaller exhibit?

This question is easily understood by someone who has created photo books, or written family histories, or who has worked in a professional setting as a writer, artist, or a designer. The hardest job in creating a presentation is to decide what goes in and what’s left out. The next hardest job is creating a story, a narrative, around which you structure your information.

In museum terminology this process is called ‘interpretive planning’ and its goal is the ‘making of meaning’. It starts with a key question: ‘What is the Big Idea for this exhibition?’ That is, what is the central message and how do we discipline ourselves to stay on the message? From a professional standpoint, this is a key challenge in any exhibition planning, whether large or small. The Big Idea for the CJE can be summed up in three sentences. Most Jews celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary by recognizing how we have been successful in this land. We have contributed in so many ways to making modern Canada. We are not alone in this endeavour, and praise the contributions made by other individuals and communities.

We agreed that a nine-panel exhibition of photos and texts could cover the major themes of Jewish history and life in Canada. This would be brief, of course, really a suggestive outline. If there had been space, time and funding, this information could have been explored more deeply. For example, relationships with other communities, or past challenges and setbacks, could have been described. But a panel exhibition isn’t a full, museum-style installation. It is an overview, a précis. In our CJE panels, every entry is 150 words in length. And even 150 words is a long text for a panel exhibit. The same applies to the photo captions: they must be brief.

So much effort and judgement went into the CJE wording, the selection of photos, and the balancing of information. As well, so much effort went into verifying the tone and meaning of the English and French versions. We also focused much attention on the website version of this exhibition, which was done with equal care, using the advantage of adding more content. There is a special section on the website called “Exceptional builders” which presents brief biographies of a selection of people who have been recognized with the Order of Canada. I still wish we could expand the number of people we write about. But all of this is the price to pay when timing and funding is so limited.”

Fourth question: audience reactions?

“And now the final question: What reactions has this project received from various audiences?

This has been the most positive aspect of the CJE story. While we haven’t received any public funding, we have had solid encouragement from many public and private figures. I will name several people in Ottawa to give a sense of what their words and actions have meant to us.

First, Dr. Mark Kristmanson who is head of the National Capital Commission had welcomed the idea of the CJE at an early stage of our planning, and his staff offered space to us at 30 Metcalfe Street. Because of the NCC’s decision, we were very encouraged and we felt we had a good project and the right idea. We had a place to show our product, but we had to design the product, create its content and package it.

Second, I want to mention Ottawa’s Mayor, Jim Watson, who saw the exhibit at its official opening on April 2.  He approached Tova Lynch and said: “I want this exhibit to be displayed in the lobby of City Hall”. This invitation didn’t cost the City anything, as the CJE team assumed all charges. But it fit our goal of reaching out to the broader community, and it fit the municipal idea that City Hall is a showplace for all citizens. The Mayor initiated that step for us.

The third major encouragement came from Mark O’Neill who is the head of the Canadian Museum of History and the War Museum. (Mark is my successor at these national museums, but let me assure any readers that he never spoke to me about his idea.) Mark had also attended the April 2 opening of the exhibit and he asked Tova Lynch if the exhibit panels could be placed on temporary display in the War Museum lobby. The War Museum approach to Canadian history stresses the contributions of ordinary people. One of the people mentioned in the CJE panel on military history is Barney Danson who had participated as a soldier in the 1944 D-day landing, was wounded, and later in life became Canada’s Minister of Defense and a great supporter of the War Museum. What Mark O’Neill demonstrated was that the CJE exhibit meets professional quality standards for content and balance, and it is worthy of display in a national museum. His invitation was exhilarating.

From the April 2 opening onward, we have been overwhelmed by positive feedback across the country. There is great response to Tova, who has contacted legislatures, communities, mayors, and university presidents across the country. Everything starts with the product, meaning the CJE exhibit’s quality and credibility, as well as the quality of the companion website. And so, at this time, the CJE will be shown in every province of Canada. (We have several copies fabricated and available to travel.) It will be in more than 30 universities and in community centres, City Halls, and other public spaces. We have also created local content panels for a few places, notably Winnipeg, Halifax and Vancouver.

The Canadian Jewish Experience outlines a significant aspect of Canada’s life and history. It promotes pride in all of us. It reminds us that building a successful country requires constant efforts by citizens, new immigrants, volunteers, business people, activists and ordinary well-wishers. It conveys an optimistic vision for the country, implying that all immigrant groups – and all Canadians – can succeed in improving their lives and bettering conditions for our society as a whole.

Thank you, and enjoy your visit to the exhibit and our website.”