Social justice | Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By (Lev 19:16)

Rabbi Schachar Orenstein of The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal recently led an exchange between Jews and First Nations youth.  Rabbi Orenstein is the founder of Teva Quebec, a Jewish environmental group.  Here he speaks with Shtetl about the Idle No More movement and the relationship between Jewish and Indigenous peoples.

Shtetl:   Can you tell us about the exchange that happened between Teva and the Mohawk community.

Rabbi Orenstein:   We’ve had a number of cultural exchanges with First Nations communities and one of them was with the Mohawk community. We did a series of exchanges with The Mohawk Traditional Council at Kahnawake. We invited Stuart Miyo Jr. [environmental activist and representative of the Mohawk Wolf Clan] to the Le Mood festival and we each shared our various creation stories.

We also went a few times to Kahnawake to learn about one another and about some of our ceremonies. What was interesting for me to learn, was just as the Jewish community has some misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Mohawk community,  and really the First Nations communities in general, they also have some misconceptions about our community. So it was a real opportunity to get past that and to learn about our various traditions and ceremonies, and to see that just as their communities have challenges, so do ours.

There was an amazing story. One of the things that happened was we brought in about 20-30 young adults to Kahnawake, and I had to leave a little bit early because I have a busy rabbinic life and I had to come back to a bat mitzvah. We explained that this was a rite of passage when a girl turns 12 years old.

There was this lovely Mohawk woman there who said she had a macrame bracelet, and just that morning she felt that it was no longer hers.  She really identitified with the idea of having a rite of passage;  this was also important in their community, and she gave us this bracelet that she made herself.  Their beadwork is very important to the Mohawks and she gave us this for the bat mitzvah girl.

Shtetl:   Why did you decide to have this exchange?

Rabbi Orenstein:   Part of our intention was to prepare for our trip up North. We had a group of about 25 young adults and we went to a community called Wemotaci. It’s the Atikamekw nation. That was a really eye-opening experience. There are only a few thousand left in the world of their tribe and they have a lot of crafts that they do with wood.

We [Teva Quebec] had gone to New Orleans in the wake of the BP oil spill with 22 high school students to help with disaster relief.  And then we thought that we don’t necessarily have to go so far away – there is service we can do closer to home.  And we heard about these forest fires. There were hundreds of fires in Northern Quebec about two years ago and they had to evacuate this reservation in Wemotaci.  Fortunately no one was hurt. It was a remarkable story in that they managed to stop the fire right on the edge of the reservation, so that no buildings were destroyed, thank God.  Because one of the eye-opening experiences that I and others found when we were there, was the overcrowding, and how many people live in such small buildings. There’s a huge problem. People are going all over Latin America for Habitat for Humanity and it looks like a lot of reservations need more habitats because of this overcrowding.

We felt that, you know- their forest is their livelihood and they’re so connected to the forest that was destroyed-  that we wanted to show some solidarity and plant some trees and so we got a federal grant to do that for cultural exchange. We went down there, and by the way, they loved our gefilte fish! We brought some food to share with them.

Shtetl:   You brought gefilte fish to share?

We wanted to make sure for our people that we were as inclusive as possible. So we had to make sure everything was kosher. So for Friday night we happened to bring some gefilte fish and that was a big hit. We invited them to our Friday night Shabbat meal.

Planting trees in Wemotaci.

We planted trees and there was a big pow wow that was going on and there were some wonderful exchanges by the camp fire…and singing. It was a very meaningful experience.

This is a reservation with less social problems. None the less, we could see the conditions of how people live. And it was moving.

Shtetl:  What would you say are some of the misconceptions that Montrealers, or Jewish Canadians in general, might have about First Nations people?

Rabbi Orenstein:   I think there are certain stereotypes that people have about First Nations based on a number of factors. But speaking about the Montreal Jewish community,  I don’t think that people are aware- beyond let’s say some of the artwork that they might see or purchase for their homes- of the richness of First Nations’ traditions, the intense spirituality. I don’t think people understand the profound connection First Nations have to the land and to nature.

As an environmentalist, and someone involved in a Jewish ecological movement, I think that we can learn a lot from them. And there are certain problems that transcend our individual communities that we have to work on together, side by side.

Another interesting piece is that people don’t realize how much we share.  Our Jewish roots are all land and nature-based. I’ve done some cultural exchanges with First Nations through the Cummings Centre For Seniors. I have a friend there, Stephanie Novak-Fernandez, and she’s brought the seniors there a couple of times to The Native Friendship Centre.

She invited me just before Rosh Hashana this past year. So I went and they have a drumming circle. And they have drum carriers – as they’re called- who have a whole ritual of music that they make with their drumming. There was an exchange and they wanted me to explain about the Jewish new year – Rosh Hashana.  So I brought my shofar.  They played drums and I played shofar and we were making music together. It was very powerful and a beautiful way to prepare for the new year, by the way. It really enhanced my Rosh Hashana.

The point is,  our shofar-  which is really this shamanic object made out of a ram’s horn-  is a reminder to us that a big part of our own tradition in the Torah, and of our ancestors was so connected to the land. The bulk of the Talmud and the Mishna [books of Jewish law] speak about agricultural laws,  about how to tithe with fruit and vegetables and trees.  We’ve become disconnected from our agrarian roots. Sometimes connecting to the First Nations, I’ve found, is a reminder of our past and some of what we’ve become disconnected from.

Rabbi Orenstein and Stuart Jr. holding the flag of the Iroquois Confederacy

So we do share,  I believe, in our roots-  a very strong connection to the land. Also, I feel this whole notion of tribes and tribalism is misunderstood.  My exposure to the First Nations has reminded me to think of the Jewish people as a family.

The idea of us also being in exile from our land for 2000 years- I think it also helps us understand their feeling of being disposessed and disconnected from their own land.  There is certainly a history of oppression.  I know a lot of holy Jewish people who are or have been involved with First Nations.  There’s a very interesting organisation called The Walking Stick Foundation with a colourful rabbi and they’re doing some very interesting work on Native and Jewish spirituality.

Shtetl:   What is your perspective on Idle No More?

Rabbi Orenstein:   The first thing that struck me right away was the name of the movement. As rabbis we’re trained to look very carefully at names. Idle No More has huge Biblical resonance. It comes from Leviticus 19:16, which we also call va’ikra. It says, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbour is dying”. Literally, it says, “Don’t stand on the blood of your friend” which in the JPS Bible and many translations is: “Do not stand idly by.”

Ellie Wiesel is one of the people who has said this is such a huge commandment. “Do not stand idly by” is the Jewish community pledge to save lives.  Wiesel has spoken about it not only in the context of the Holocaust but in all these various attrocities like Rwanda. We have to stand up as Jews. Otherwise we violate this very important precept in the Torah. He’s been jumping up and down and trying to bring attention to this. We as Jews have asked where the world was when we were being slaughtered and the answer to that is Leviticus 19:16.

Shtetl:   Are there any other references or ways in which Idle No More resonates with Jewish texts or Jewish history?

Yes. Many. That was just from the perspective of the name. And just the name itself should wake us up as Jews. And from what I can see, unfortunately, I don’t think that’s happened. In addition to that, and perhaps more importantly, we have a huge prophetic tradition. I’m thinking of Nevi’im [Book of Prophets] and the prophet Isaiah which talk about the imperative to help the needy, without food, wthout shelter. One of the strongest of all the haftarot (prophetic passages we read in the synagogue) occurs on Yom Kippur. At that time we read the very strong words of the prophet Isaiah which talk about the kind of fasts that God wants. And again, that has resonance because Chief Spence is fasting. But the kind of sacrifices that God wants are the kind of offerings that help others in the most need in the world.  For example, in the past we had a refugee from Rwanda come in before we read that passage on Yom Kippur to remind us of what we are supposed to be doing as Jews.  But we don’t have to look so far.  Just in our backyards there are people who are having a hard time very close to home. I think there needs to be conversation and dialogue. And I’m glad that it looks like that’s what’s going to be happening right now to improve the situation.

Shtetl:   When I think about a Jewish connection to Idle No More, I think of Esther who fasted before seeing the King to save the Jewish people, but even more so, I think of the Passover story and how the Pharoah’s heart was hardened over and over. What is your analysis of Stephen Harper’s refusal to see a woman on a hunger strike until a month after she stopped eating?

Rabbi Orenstein:  It’s interesting. I’ve also been thinking about the Exodus story because that’s where we are reading in the Torah right now in synagogue. I think a pivotal moment in terms of Moshe Rabenu’s [Moses] evolution as a leader is  where it says “Vayar va sivlotam“.  Where Moses saw the suffering of his people. I think it’s one thing to hear about it from a distance or see it on the news. When our group of youth went to Wemotaci to see it with their own eyes, it’s very different. I don’t know if the Prime Minister has seen things with his own eyes- or to what extent, but I’m greatful that he’s now going to be speaking and seeing directly. I think this is a huge opportunity and one that I’m praying won’t be missed because, in my humble opinion, there are many things that need to be fixed and healed and transformed. And they’re not black and white issues.

I know that some people disagree with some of the tactics and many people in the Jewish community are passionate supporters of Harper. But I think this is a huge opportunity.   If we use your Esther metaphor, for example, thinking of Chief Spence as a kind of Esther figure- which I think has a certain resonance-  one thing that Esther encouraged others to do was to fast and pray for her. And I think that’s a wonderful thing and I would call on other Jews to do this as we come closer to that meeting. That we pray that this is a historic opportunity and it should be done with respect and lead to healing and transformation for the benefit of all of us, not just one group or the other but for all nations, and for future generations.

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Jewish Social Activism

Rabbi Orenstein:   Something which is very interesting for me just as a kind of observation about the Jewish community, which dovetails with the anniversary of Heschel’s 40th yahrtzeit* last week [anniversary of a death*].  He was a great rabbi and was also a social activist. It’s very interesting to me that the American Jewish community has been more involved in social activism, certainly in the civil rights movement. Heschel and others marched with Martin Luther King.

This is one of the reasons I started this Jewish environmental organisation, because we’re so far behind. I mean, in Israel and in the States, there are Jewish environmental organisations in every major city. Here we seem to be much more quiet and accepting of the status quo in some respects.

Shtetl:   What would you like to see from leaders in the Jewish community?  There are many Jews who do not support Harper, but of course, there are others who do. Is there some nuanced way that leaders of the Jewish community can speak up to support Idle No More without alienating those who support Stephen Harper?

It’s a good question.  I have personally been inspired by rabbis who are activists as well.  People like Rabbi Avi Weiss, Arthur Waskow and many others.  Congregational rabbis don’t necessarily make the best political activists. It’s very tricky. It is easy to alienate people.

Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a book on spiritual activism and I’ve spoken with him about it, and it’s very tricky. Religion and politics can be a perilous mix. At the same time, we have imperatives that come from the prophetic writings in the Torah and we do have to stand up. This is the whole movement. Idle No More.

There are certain times when we as people of conscience and values have to stand up when we feel things are not right- and reach out to others.  I would like to see more of that. If we see Jewish leaders standing up at times like this, I do believe it can inspire the Jewish community and I think it would be healthy for our community if it would happen more.


For more on Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement listen to A Modern Day Esther, a podcast of Shtetl on the Shortwave featuring Winona LaDuke.  And, to read and hear more about the intersection of Native and Jewish communities check out Indigenous Shtetl,  a special edition of Shtetl Magazine and Shtetl on the Shortwave.