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Guest Speakers

Congregation Dorshei Emet often hosts guest speakers and lectures on a variety of topics, especially for Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur afternoon, the Ruth Richler Memorial Lecture on Shavuot, and special Shabbats and evenings throughout the year.

Past speakers and teachers have included Sheila Peltz Weinberg, Jay Michaelson, Judith Plaskow, Arthur Waskow, Ira and Judith Eisenstein, Arthur Green, Arnold Eisen, Joseph Dan, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, Susan Weidman Schneider, Lori Lefkowitz, Irwin Cotler, M.P., Jonathan Slater, J.J. Goldberg, and David Roskies.

Our most recent speakers have included Morton Weinfeld, Mitch Shulman, Dr Galia Sabar, Amir Tibon,  Ellin Besner, Gershon Hundert, Olga Gross, Diane Sasson.


Russell Copeman - October 5

Dr. Leigh Dolin - Octoober 19

Shabbat Shuvah 5780  

Guest Speaker : Russell Copeman

A Sojourner Among Us  :  A Political Life in Quebec

After Rabbi Dolin asked me to speak on Shabbat Shuvah I began thinking about a title. I hit, not a little tongue in cheek, on “A Sojourner Among Us: A Political Life in Quebec”. Because while in English sojourn just refers to a temporary stay, one of the uses of GER in Hebrew is also foreigner or alien. There is also a lot of sojourning going on in the Torah portion that we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, so the reference seemed apt.

Did I feel like a foreigner in my 14 years in the Quebec National Assembly or my 4 years at Montreal’s City Hall? I, like any elected politician was a sojourner in both those places. I even, occasionally, felt like a bit of a foreigner in our own community.

More than thirty years ago, before this very Congregation, not far from this spot but in a much more modest building, I spoke the words of Ruth to Naomi, her Mother-in-law: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

I was giving a d’var torah on the occasion of my first Aliyah, the Shabbat after my conversion. Thinking about it still moves me. I became a Jew by choice 31 years ago both for practical considerations and from conviction. I had married Bev, from a conservative Jewish family, seven years earlier. I didn’t convert at the time of our wedding because I was a practising Protestant, and didn’t know enough about Judaism. When asked by Rabbi Bernard Bloomstone of Temple Emanu-El, the only rabbi in Montreal who would marry us, if I would convert, I remember saying I couldn’t change religions as one changed shirts – it had to be more real and more meaningful. And so we were married in Montreal’s reform synagogue with my Presbyterian Minister on the bima in his robes. His presence helped the ceremony feel less foreign to my family. He read a psalm.

Our son Alex was born 5 years later. Five years during which I learned a lot more about Judaism from my wife and in-laws. I remember feeling a bit left out, a bit of an alien, at his brit milah. The combination of finding Judaism attractive and feeling that I was now a religious minority in my little family lead me to convert.

The next big decision was how. We wanted a completely egalitarian synagogue with traditional liturgical elements. Sara Saber, who we got to know through a new mother’s group, suggested Dorshei Emet. We met with Rabbi Aigen, zichrono livrakha, and I began a journey that continues to this day. I felt welcomed here. That was not always the case at other synagogues I had attended with my wife’s family before I converted. I distinctly remember one of the first times I attended Shul while I was studying to convert. In the lead up to the prayer for peace during the Amidah, I perfect stranger sidled up to me and, with some difficulty due to the height difference, threw his Tallit around me. It was Jack Wolofsky, and that moment began a valued friendship with the Wolofskys which continues today.

With the exception of my father, whom I told in a restaurant in the hope it would dampen any bad reaction, my family took my conversion pretty well. There had been a number of anti-semitic moments involving my extended Protestant family over the years, based largely on ignorant stereotyping. The matriarch of our clan, my Aunt Bev, had a very practical response to the news I was converting. Well that’s normal, she said; the family’s religion should be dictated by the mother - so Judaism it is.

I had long hoped for a career in electoral politics, and the reaction of my boss at my part-time job, who was himself Jewish, was: don’t do it, it will hurt your political career.

I never found that to be the case. In Quebec City, I was, with a number of other colleagues, already a bit of a curiosity among some because we were anglophones. Our provincial capital is pretty homogenously white, Roman Catholic and French-speaking. My good friend Lawrence Bergman and I were even more mysterious - Anglo Jews. Some of our Liberal colleagues from outside the greater Montreal area had never met a Jew. I found them to be both open minded but also a product of their experience, that is to say occasionally prone to stereotyping. There was a lot of educating to do.

My dietary restrictions (Kosher style, not strictly kosher) were an endless source of amusement and discussion. Why this and not that? Scales and fins - really? The waitresses at the Parliamentary Restaurant got to know me pretty well: “Mais la monsieur Copeman, on a un probleme ce midi. La soupe est une bisque d’homard. Vous pouvez pas manger le roti de porc, le filet mignon est enrobée de bacon et la salade contient des crevettes’’. There are worse problems in life.

Explaining, both in Quebec City and at Montreal City Hall, as I sat beneath the crucifixes in both chambers, why I couldn’t be reached on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was an annual challenge. When we invited a number of close colleagues to our son Alex’s Bar Mitzvah here at Dorshei Emet, Lawrence Bergman played shepherd and tutor for them. For many of them it was their first time in a synagogue.

Lawrence and I also invited colleagues to our Menorah lighting when we were in Quebec City during Hannukah - explaining the whys of this Jewish calendar event. In 2003, when our party came to power after two terms in the opposition, we approached the new Liberal Speaker of the National Assembly to see about placing a Chanukiah in the foyer of the building alongside the annual Christmas Tree. He turned us down, explaining, in all seriousness, that religious symbols were not permitted - this despite the presence of a crucifix in the legislative chamber. Only a Christian could tell a Jew that a Christmas Tree is not religious.

Even the act of putting on a Kippah on the five occasions I was sworn in to public office was significant, as was carrying a Tanach instead of the Christian Bible during my oath of office.

These experiences point to the dual role Judaism played in my professional, public life.

Firstly, I felt compelled not to be invisible as a Jew and to try, within my modest abilities, to educate, or at least inform people who had had little or no contact with Jews, about our history, customs and values - to try to counter the stereotypes they had absorbed over generations. This effort at visibility, and indeed pride at who we are, may seem like a modest objective. But, as Rabbi Dolin pointed out on Rosh Hashanah, even mundane day to day contact with “the other” can be a learning experience for all.

I hope some Members of the Quebec National Assembly came away from our encounters with a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.

The second role Judaism played, and continues to play in my professional life is trickier. I always tried to “do the right thing”. I didn’t always, but I tried. Politics is the art of the possible and almost always involves difficult compromises. I had Micha Chapter 6 verse 8 hanging on the wall in my riding office for many years: “He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God”.

I hold no sense of moral superiority. But I do think that my understanding of Judaism and the sense of what it is to be Jewish, even in the historical sense and even though it is not genetic in my case, has informed how I look at the world and hopefully, how I behave. “Tzedek, tzedek, teer dohf”.

I referred to my Jewishness in my resignation speech on October 22, 2008 as I rose for the last time in the National Assembly’s Blue Room to bid my fellow MNAs goodbye after fourteen years. I referred to Judaism having influenced my sense of social justice and, with a link to Yom Kippur, I apologized to the House for occasionally having offended fellow MNAs during my political career.

Trying to live by a certain set of principles has been a goal of mine. As we all know this is not an easy task, in our private lives or in our professional ones.

Being in electoral politics in Quebec is particularly challenging in this regard for a variety of reasons:

  • Our parliamentary system has not evolved beyond strict party discipline. Claude Ryan once told me an MNA could only revolt against his/her party once during their career without being severely disciplined, perhaps even expelled from the party caucus
  • Quebec, with its linguistic, geographic and religious fractures, makes broadly consensual public policy difficult to achieve
  • For decades until very recently, the sovereignty issue essentially dictated which Quebec political party one joined. If you were a federalist, you were a Liberal, a sovereignist, a member of the Parti Québécois. This produced legislators with widely different views on social, economic and linguistic policy within the same party.

This range of views, combined with our strict party discipline, too often forces Members of the National Assembly into very uncomfortable political and even moral compromises. The now regular Bonjour/Hi “crisis” in our community is a good example. This straightjacket party discipline needs to be relaxed if people are to feel that their representatives are reflecting their views.

The other significant challenge in Quebec is the clash between “majority rights”, which is a political, rather than a legal concept, and minority rights.

This clash is visible again, with the debate around Bill 21, the religious symbols legislation. Despite what many of us feel about the legislation, which I would consider odious, there is a clear fracture in Quebec society on the merits of the Bill. That fracture is threefold: linguistic, geographic and religious. By and large, caucasian francophones of a Roman Catholic background are much more likely to support the legislation than the rest of us – the GER.

The reasons for this are too complex to go into in depth this morning, but I think it involves at least three factors: the very ambivalent relationship between the French-speaking majority’s not always happy relationship with their Church; the fear of the influence of “radical Islam” in the public sphere and; a willingness to override minority rights in order to protect the majority. This is more than problematic because, as we know well, the majority cannot always be relied on to protect its minorities – that’s why we have individual and minority rights enshrined in our Constitutional statutes.

So where does that leave us as Jewish Quebecers? Again, for a variety of reason tens of thousands of us took the biblical advice of Lekh lekha and got out in the 1970s and 1980s. I remember in the 1990s being regularly told that the best and the brightest of the young people in our community had left. I often responded, with a hefty dose of irony, that all we were left with were people like me – and by their definition apparently not the best and the brightest.

Many, such as Bev and I, remained -hoping, believing, that Quebec was our home and that we could thrive here, and contribute to the life of our province. That attitude has been sorely tested over the years, and we have occasionally perhaps even regularly felt as though we didn’t entirely belong here, that we were, in fact, merely sojourners in Quebec.

But, somewhat surprisingly I, an English-speaking Jew by choice, served in elected positions where, with like minded colleagues, I managed to influence and contribute to what is know in French as “la chose publique” –inadequately translated as public policy, in my city and my province.

I never felt that I was discriminated against because of who I was. Rather, I was, we were accepted, even though that acceptance was occasionally tinged by a lack of understanding and knowledge about who we are. That is perhaps the best one can hope for professionally.

Shabbat shalom v’ l’Shanah tova

Thu, September 24 2020 6 Tishrei 5781