Honouring Canadian Jewish Heritage Month

In May we celebrate Canadian Jewish History Month, which was established by Parliament in 2018.

We invite you to spend some time this month learning more about the diverse histories, cultures, and societal contributions of Jewish people in Toronto and in Canada.

Many current Temerty Medicine faculty, staff, learners, and patients are members of the Jewish community. As well, Toronto’s healthcare landscape has been strengthened by Jewish learners, staff, and faculty members from the Temerty Faculty of Medicine for over a century.

For example, the Jewish community is responsible for having founded two major healthcare institutions that now proudly serve all Torontonians, Mount Sinai Hospital and Baycrest Health Sciences Centre.

In 1923, the institution that is now known as Mount Sinai Hospital (the Hebrew Maternity and Convalescent Hospital) was founded for two purposes.

One purpose was that there were more and more non-English-speaking Jewish immigrants who needed culturally safe healthcare, who didn’t feel comfortable at the other hospitals in the city. The other purpose was that at the time, with very few exceptions, none of the other hospitals in Toronto were willing to hire Jewish doctors.

Similarly, the forerunner to Baycrest Health Sciences Centre (formerly known the Toronto Jewish Old Folks Home) was founded in 1918 so “the Jewish elderly could receive kosher meals and communicate with staff in their own language.”

Both of these institutions have expanded many times and have moved locations in the city. And, both have become highly-regarded, publicly-funded hospitals that receive ongoing support from the Jewish community and from the public. Each provides excellent care for Torontonians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, within strong commitments to diversity and inclusion.

Part of marking Canadian Jewish Heritage Month is recognizing people who have made a difference in the community.

One of the only Jewish physicians who had been allowed to work at a hospital other than Mount Sinai prior to World War II was Dr. Abraham Isaac Willinsky, who graduated from the University of Toronto medical school in 1908.

Willinsky was initially unable to find a residency position or job in Toronto due to antisemitism. However, his surgical excellence was eventually recognized to the point that by 1918, he was allowed to work at the Toronto Western Hospital.

Over the course of his career, Willinsky introduced spinal anaesthesia to Toronto and was the first surgeon to perform transurethral prostatic surgery using a cystoscope.

He was also a founding member of the Toronto Jewish Medical Association and an amateur filmmaker. You can read more about his life and career at the website of the Ontario Jewish Archives, which host a wide variety of records on Jewish society and culture.

While we can all be proud of the legacy of Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s Jewish learners, staff, and faculty members past and present, as well as of the hospitals founded by the Jewish community that are now affiliated with our Faculty, we also have to recognize that the antisemitism experienced a century ago never fully went away and is currently on the rise again.

Today’s Jewish Faculty of Medicine learners, staff, and faculty members – and patients – continue to face hatred in Toronto, in Canada more broadly (particularly evident during the recent anti-lockdown convoys), and within our own Faculty and hospitals.

As a result of this, Toronto’s Jewish doctors have had to come together to support each other and to combat antisemitism as well as other forms of discrimination.

In addition to visible acts of aggression and hatred, antisemitism also continues to function more silently within our healthcare institutions, including sometimes within the very structures and groups that are intended to support anti-oppressive work.

As a form of discrimination, anti-Jewish hate is just as real and as inexcusable as all other forms of oppression based on social identities.

Temerty Faculty of Medicine recognizes that we must all know better and do better when it comes to addressing injustice in our environments – and that includes addressing antisemitism.

To learn more about antisemitism, we invite you to consider one or more of the following resources:

Dr. Ayelet Kuper
Senior Advisor on Antisemitism
Temerty Faculty of Medicine

Dr. Lisa Richardson
Associate Dean, Inclusion & Diversity
Temerty Faculty of Medicine