Human Rights Walkway Ceremony held on Canada Day in Cote Saint-Luc
I was very proud to co-chair the July 1 Côte Saint-Luc Human Rights Walkway ceremony with Councillor Mike Cohen. Following a Canadian Citizenship ceremony and preceding the kickoff of Canada Day celebrations at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park, we honoured those who spoke out and fought for Jews oppressed in the former Soviet Union, Syria, Ethiopia and elsewhere.
Mike and I had very personal experiences in this area. He served as the national director of communications for Canadian Jewish Congress from 1988 to 1999. Canadian Jews, and those in Montreal very specifically, had played a critical and influential role in allowing the ‘prisoners of zion” to leave the former USSR. Mike and I participated in the emotional Simchat Torah rallies where thousands congregated in Phillips Square (“Turn Phillips Square into Red Square” was our catch phrase). Together we marched to the Soviet Consulate. Leading the way were a group of Dynamic Women calling themselves the Group of 35 and a polished speaker and advocate in Martin Penn. Marty was employed by the CJC for many years as the staff person for the Soviet Jewry dossier. He would ultimately leave that post and go to rabbinical school, remaining very much involved in the movement.
By the late 1980s, the Soviet-Jewish protest movement had achieved far more than its founders had expected. The large majority of Soviet Jews applying to emigrate were being permitted to do so, and inside the Soviet Union, for the first time since the Communist revolution of 1917, a yeshiva was established. In early 1990, more than ten thousand were leaving Russia monthly. On several occasions I was in Israel on Federation CJA missions where we went to Ben Gurion Airport to welcome the new Israelis as they stepped off the plane. In the mid 90s I flew from the Ukraine to Israel with new immigrants, an exciting and memorable experience.
We owe a lot to individuals like Martin Penn, who sadly suffered a debilitating stroke more than a decade ago. He lost his greatest gift – the ability to speak. Unfortunately Marty was unable to be with us on Canada Day.
In addition to Soviet Jewry, we are focusing on two other movements – Ethiopian and Syrian Jewry. Mike and I were very much occupied with these dossiers as well. I served as co-chair of the Jews in Arab Lands committee and the Syrian Jewry Task Force at Canadian Jewish Congress.
The story of Ethiopian Jews is an interesting one and local lawyer Stan Cytrynbaum was a hero on that front. He was present for the ceremony on July 1. As for Syrian Jewry, Toronto’s Judy Feld Carr was nothing short of a miracle worker and has been one of my heros since I met her and served as her local chairman in Quebec region. Judy is a Montreal-born, former music teacher, and grandmother of 10 and was responsible for the rescue of 3,228 Jews from Syria over 28 years. Steven Spielberg out to produce an extraordinary movie on this incredible woman.
Darryl Levine, Cote Saint-Luc director of public affairs and communications has produced a 20-minute mini-documentary called “Human Rights Activists for Oppressed Jews in Foreign Lands.” The video features interviews with Irwin Cotler and Stan Cytrynbaum. Professor Cotler, who today is the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal, discusses his involvement, including serving as the legal counsel for political prisoners in the Soviet Union. Stan provides a personal account of how the first learned about Ethiopian Jews and later helped create a movement in Canada to draw attention to their plight and advocate for their rescue. The video is available at CoteSaintLuc.org.
Our mini-documentary is meant to educate young people about these events and to inspire them to join or create human rights movements of their own.
The Human Rights Walkway was inaugurated in 2000 and is dedicated to men and women who, through their actions, have promoted and defended human rights. This will be the tenth plaque unveiled on the walkway.
Many of the past honourees have been people who put their lives on the line in many parts of the world. By selecting a movement of people—many of them local—we wanted to highlight the fact anyone, anywhere can help those in need, even from the safety and comfort of our suburban homes in Canada. Professor Cotler, Stan Cytrynbaum, and Judy Feld Carr are three examples of a movement that helped rescue hundreds of thousands of people.