Between Pesach and Shavuot (while we are counting the Omer), it is customary to read and study a chapter of Pirke Avot — The Sayings of the Fathers — each Shabbat afternoon. Pirke Avot is the ninth of ten tractates found in Nezikin (Damages), the fourth volume of the six-volume Mishnah. It is a collection of ethical teachings of the rabbis from the 2nd Century BCE – 200 CE which guide us to live a sacred life.
One of my favorite of these teachings since my childhood – which hangs on a wall in my office – is by Rabbi Hillel:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when? (1:14)
These three short verses have defined how I view myself in relationship to others — whether members of my family, my community, or the world — and compel me to look outside of myself and beyond the familiar: to learn about the other, to respond to the needs of the other, and to defend the rights of the other.
We Jews have a long history of hardship and struggles against anti-Semitism, but we also have a long and rich history of helping others in their times of greatest need. We have often led the fights for human rights and against racial and ethnic prejudices and stereotyping. We have been the stranger, so we have a heightened sensitivity to those in our own midst who are treated as the stranger. In fact, the Torah repeatedly teaches us that this sensitivity brings with it an obligation to identify with and to protect the other.
One such community living in our midst right here in Toronto is the Roma, who are known and referred to as “Gypsies”. The Roma community both here and in Europe has long suffered from ethnic prejudice and stereotyping. Most of us are ignorant about the history and culture of the Roma. Few of us know that the same pejorative terms used against the Jews have been and are used against the Roma. Few of know that the Roma were also targets of the Nazis, who murdered over 500,000 of them. Few of us know about the history of the Roma in Toronto and their current situation.
I would like to invite you to attend a special Roma awareness and educational event on June 5 at 7:30pm — Why the Roma? — that is sponsored by a new HBT Social Action Initiative chaired by Freda Ariella Muscovitch.
A distinguished panel of speakers at this event includes:
- Rabbi Dow Marmur
- Mary Jo Leddy (community activist and recipient of the 2011 Gunter Plaut Humanitarian Award)
- Anna Porter (publisher of Key Porter Books and the author of Kasztner’s Train)
- Bernie Farber (former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress) and
- Gina Csanyi-Robah (educator, human rights activist, and the Executive Director of Toronto’s Roma Community Center)
The topics discussed will include:
- Who are the Roma?
- Why should Jews care about them?
- What is happening in Hungary today?
- A deconstruction of how the Roma are represented in our community and an examination our own negative stereotypes
- Current initiatives designed to enhance Roma inclusion
After the panel discussion, there will be a reception celebrating Romani culture and Roma Rising Canada (a community-based education initiative to help support Canada’s Roma in their fight against racism and prejudice). There will also be a photo exhibition of successful Roma living in Toronto and Europe.
Please join us for this enriching and stimulating event.