First Nations and Jewish communities each have an interesting history. At the start of European contact many Jews believed that the First Nations were descendants from the lost tribes of Israel. As the relationship progressed through the centuries, however, many Jews began identifying with the plight of Native Americans due to the marginalization of both peoples.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Native American rights amongst Jewish communities across North America. The Montreal Jewish community is no exception and with the recent Idle No More protests they have begun educating themselves on the plight of contemporary Aboriginals in Canada and the United States.
In Montreal on November 3, Rabbi Schachar Orenstein, an orthodox rabbi for the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and co-founder of the environmental group Teva Quebec, gave a lecture at the Le Mood conference on eclectic Jewish learning. An Aboriginal activist from Rapid Lake, Wally Thomas, brought it home to the audience as the face of someone who lives in the realities of First Nations communities.
Working through Teva Quebec, Orenstein organized a cultural exchange in order to help out the First Nations community of Wemotaci in the wake of the forest fires last year. Prior to heading north, Orenstein held a cultural exchange so that Montreal youth could meet members of the Kahnawake Mohawk Nation. When the Idle No More movement gained momentum, the name struck the rabbi because of the Jewish bible verse in Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbour is dying.”
The point of the lecture was to get the Orthodox Jewish community talking on the subject of First Nations land rights. “We have in the Jewish tradition a teaching that says that a good deed done through a transgression should not be done,” Orenstein explained. “This raises the question whether we should be praying with paper that may be coming from stolen sources.”
This question poses a conundrum for the Orthodox Jewish world because many of the prayer books are printed in North America. In other words, the paper comes from the wood grown on land stolen since the first European contact.
With the help of Thomas, Orenstein was able to deliver the message that First Nations are still having their resources drained from under their feet. “As for the lands being stolen, they had to have been,” Thomas said. “We’ve been pushed in such ways. Away from our old way of living, we were forced to go into a certain way. Yeah, our ancestors got their land stolen, no doubt about that.”
Faith plays a huge role in many lives. When different groups connect for the common good and to learn from one another, the hope for a better future will burn brighter.