Unpacking Justice Rosalie Abella’s Jewish identity

In a new film about her life, “Without Precedent,” the former Canadian Supreme Court justice reflects on the influence her Jewish identity had on her judicial career.
Canadian Supreme Court Rosalie Abella receives a Global Jurist Award from the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Center for International Human Rights on January 25, 2017 at Northwestern University in Chicago. (Photo: Randy Belice for Northwestern Law via Wikipedia Commons)

Rosalie Abella’s career has been defined by breaking multiple glass ceilings. She is the youngest judge appointed in Canadian history, the first judge to preside in court while pregnant, and the first Jewish female Supreme Court judge. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Abella is also the first refugee to sit on the bench of Canada’s highest court.

Abella’s judicial career is marked by historic rulings on equality, immigration and same-sex marriage — progressive decisions that have influenced legal landscapes globally.

In a new film about her life, “Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella,” she reflects on the influence her Jewish identity had on her judicial career.

Here’s everything we know about Justice Rosalie Abella’s Jewish identity and how her heritage has shaped her perspectives throughout her time on the bench.

Abella’s parents were Holocaust survivors

Rosalie Silberman Abella was born on July 1, 1946, in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany.

Abella’s parents, Jacob and Fanny Silberman, were both survivors of the Holocaust. Her father was born in Sienno, Poland in 1910, and her mother was born in Ostrowiec in 1917. They married on Sept. 3, 1939, two days after the Nazis invaded Poland. 

Before World War II, Fanny was a businesswoman and her family owned a factory. Jacob, the son of a bookshop owner, was an intellectual and law school graduate from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. However, under Nazi rule, Jews couldn’t practice law.

At the time, simply being Jewish and attending law school was an accomplishment in itself. Abella recounted how her father’s university enforced a ‘numerus clausus’ — a quota limiting Jewish enrollment — and that he was one of the few Jews accepted into the program in 1930. He would tell her about the segregated seating in the classrooms, known as the “bench ghetto.”

In October 1942, the couple and their 2-year old son, Julius, were rounded up by the Nazis. A German soldier shot Jacob’s father on the spot. Julius, along with Jacob’s mother Rosalia and his brothers Viktorek, Menush, and Shimon, were deported to Treblinka, a death camp located near Warsaw, where they were all murdered.

Jacob was ultimately deported to Buchenwald, a forced labor camp in Germany, while Fanny and her mother, Zysla, ended up in a different section of the same camp.

After the war, Fanny discovered her husband was in Theresienstadt, a displaced persons camp in Czechoslovakia. Despite a typhoid outbreak closing the camp to visitors, she hid behind the trash collectors for cover and successfully smuggled him out. 

Reunited, the couple returned to Poland only to find their family factory nationalized, and the area unsafe. They eventually made their way to Stuttgart, Germany along with Zysla. There, they lived among other refugees and began to rebuild their lives.

Jacob taught himself English, and was hired by the Americans in charge of the camp to head up legal services for other displaced persons in southwest Germany. 

While in Stuttgart, the couple had Rosalie in 1946 and her sister, Toni, followed two years later.

In 1950, the Silberman family was granted entry into Canada, settling in Toronto.

Navigating Canada’s restrictive policies, Jacob had to classify himself as a “tailor’s cutter” to gain entry. After World War II, it was common for Jewish displaced people to become tailors in order to meet Canadian immigration requirements in what was known as the “Tailor Project.”

Once in Canada, Jacob took up work as an insurance agent. He couldn’t practice law because he wasn’t yet a citizen, and waiting five years for citizenship wasn’t financially feasible for the family. 

Inspired by her father’s sacrifices, Abella was determined to fulfill his unrealized dream and vowed to become a lawyer herself, she said in “Without Precedent.”

While her dream of becoming a lawyer began in her childhood, Abella’s passion for the principles of justice and equity deepened as she became exposed to the broader implications of law on society.

Abella’s childhood was filled with Jewish traditions

Despite the challenges, the Silberman family thrived in Canada. Jacob built a successful career as an insurance agent until his death in 1970, and Fanny worked in real estate after he passed.

Abella’s childhood was filled with happiness and steeped in Jewish holidays and traditions, she said — something she didn’t take for granted given her parents’ pasts.

In her Supreme Court swearing-in remarks, Abella spoke in awe of her parents’ “unwavering resilience, optimism, courage, and, above all, profound gratitude to Canada for what they saw as its breathtaking generosity and opportunity.”

Reflecting on her early childhood, Abella recalled in “Without Precedent”: “Of all the houses I went into as a child, mine was the happiest.”

Abella always excelled academically

By the age of 10, Abella, affectionately known as Rosie, was already distinguishing herself as a talented pianist, winning medals, awards and appearing regularly on TV.

She was among the youngest to graduate from the Royal Conservatory of Music with a diploma in classical piano.

Abella graduated from high school with one of the highest grade averages in the Province of Ontario, attending Oakwood Collegiate Institute and Bathurst Heights Secondary School in Toronto. 

After high school, she went on to study at the University of Toronto where she earned a Bachelor of Art in 1967 and a law degree in 1970.

She was Canada’s first Jewish female judge

After graduating from law school, Abella established her own practice and specialized in civil and criminal litigation. Six years later, at the age of 29, she was appointed to the Ontario Family Court (now part of the Ontario Court of Justice).

This appointment made her Canada’s first Jewish female judge.

At the time, Abella was also pregnant with her second son, making her the first pregnant judge in Canadian history.

Abella and her husband shared a commitment to Jewish life and justice

In 1968, Rosalie married the love of her life, Irving Abella, after meeting during their time as undergrads at the University of Toronto. The couple had two sons: Jacob, born in 1973, and Zachary, born in 1976. 

Irving was a historian and professor of Jewish Studies at York University, who specialized in the history of the Jews in Canada and the Canadian labor movement. In recognition of his work shedding light on the contributions immigrants made to Canada, Irving was awarded the Order of Canada in 1993. He died in 2022 at the age of 82.

Irving’s seminal book, co-authored with Harold Troper, “None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1948,” exposes the antisemitism embedded in Canadian government immigration policies during the 1930s. The 1982 book documents how these practices resulted in Canada accepting only 5,000 Jewish refugees during World War II. Abella and Troper uncovered thousands of letters from European Jews pleading for asylum in Canada to escape the escalating Nazi threat.

The title of the book, “None is Too Many,” comes from a statement said by a senior government official who was asked in 1945 how many Jews should be admitted to Canada. The phrase, which was popularized by the book, has become widely recognized in Canada as a characterization of the prevalent antisemitism of the time.

Abella and Troper’s findings also influenced Canadian refugee policy. In the late 1970s, as Canada debated whether to accept refugees from Southeast Asia, advance chapters of “None Is Too Many” were shared with Canadian Immigration Minister Ron Atkey

The insights from the book reminded Atkey of the government’s past errors during the 1930s and 1940s, and encouraged his decision to accept approximately 200,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, positioning Canada as one of the most welcoming nations per capita for Southeast Asian refugees during that period.

Abella faced discrimination for being a progressive Jewish woman

After over 15 years serving as a judge on the Ontario Family Court, Abella was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1992 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

In “Without Precedent,” Mulroney, who was interviewed for the film before his passing in Feb. 2024, discussed his relationship with Abella and the opposition she encountered.

“The haters didn’t like her ideological bent, her career, the fact that she was a woman, and that she was Jewish,” he said.

In an earlier interview with the Globe and Mail, Mulroney reflected on criticism Abella faced, explaining: “The knock against her was that Rosie was an extremist.”

Rebutting those claims, he continued: “I said ‘That’s nuts. She is moderate, reasonable, thoughtful, and highly intelligent. She’s going to do a job that will be consistent with the growth and evolution of Canada.’”

In 1984, under Mulroney’s government, Abella delivered a historically pivotal report as a result of the “Abella commission” or officially, the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment. The report was responsible for evaluating employment practices in Crown corporations, with a particular focus on minorities.

The Abella commission developed the term of employment equity instead of “affirmative action,” and inspired the Canadian federal Employment Equity Act two years later. The legislation not only remains in effect, but also inspired similar fair-employment laws in Northern Ireland, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Her Supreme Court appointment was an inspiration to Jewish Canadians

Abella was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2004 under Paul Martin’s government on the recommendation of the justice minister and Attorney General of Canada, Irwin Cotler.

In an interview featured in “Without Precedent,” Cotler, who is also Jewish and currently serves as founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, said Abella’s appointment as the first Jewish female judge in Canada was particularly resonant for him and for the Jewish community. 

“It was like, now we’ve made it,” he said.

During her swearing-in speech, Abella shared a heartfelt reflection on her family’s history during the Holocaust and the profound influence it had on her life and career: 

“I did not appreciate, growing up, the full horror of what had happened to my parents during World War II. All I knew was how incredibly lucky I was to have such wonderful, loving, and positive people as parents,” Abella reflected. 

“They told me, whenever I asked, what it had been like in a concentration camp; what it felt like when they learned that their 2-year-old son had been killed at Treblinka; why they decided to come to Canada… how they found the optimism to have more children; what it was like for my father, a lawyer, not to be able to practice law in Canada; and what it meant to lose everything and almost everyone and start all over again.”

She continued, “This day is a tribute to their invincible optimism — about Canada, about its opportunities, and about its children.”

Her home and office are full of tchotchkes and Judaica

Abella has a love for eclectic and unusual items, filling both her home and office with tchotchkes that reflect her unique taste.

“Rosie’s office is, and was, a complete contrast to every other supreme court judge’s I’ve been,” said Charlotte Gray, a historian and author, when interviewed for the documentary. “You think you’re in some tchotchke shop in Florida.”

Her spaces are adorned with a diverse collection of peculiar objects, including unique Judaica. 

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She considers herself a collector of “peculiar objects”— art and bursts of color make her feel happy and creative, as captured in the documentary.

She joked in the film that Irving once told her it was very easy to pick out presents for her, because “he would go into the store, look for the ugliest thing, and know that I would love it.”

She embodies the Jewish value of questioning

Abella is well-known for her judicial philosophy, famously stating that: “Justice is the application of law to life, not just the application of laws to facts.”

Her approach is deeply intertwined with the Jewish tradition of questioning — a value so important that some even say “to be Jewish is to ask questions.”

In “Without Precedent,” Abella emphasized the importance of self-scrutiny and openness within the judiciary.

“Being a judge means knowing you have opinions, and being open to what you hear so that you can transcend your biases — which you must confront — and be open to the possibility that your instincts were wrong,” she explained.

She has been called “Canada’s RBG,” but doesn’t resonate with that title

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “If I have a Canadian sister, her name would be Rosie Abella.”

Abella has often been likened to Ruth Bader Ginsburg for their shared values, dedication to justice, and similar legacies as pioneering Jewish women who broke barriers in the judiciary.

However, Abella personally does not identify with the title of “Canada’s RBG,” she said in “Without Precedent.” 

“I’m honored that they think I have some resonance with someone who was really quite a remarkable woman. [But] I’m really quite different than her,” Abella expressed.

In the documentary, Abella’s children also emphasized the importance of recognizing her distinct identity and contributions, advocating that she should not be seen as “Canada’s RBG” but as “Canada’s Rosalie Abella.”

Her final Supreme Court speech was an ode to her Jewish roots

Abella reached her mandatory retirement on July 1, 2021.

Before hearing her last case, Justice Abella delivered a heartfelt retirement speech. She recounted her 45-year journey as a judge.

Abella discussed the challenges she faced as a minority in the judiciary: “People like me — female, Jewish, immigrant, refugee, weren’t exactly being appointed to the bench in droves,” she said. “So really all I was aspiring to do when I graduated from law school with 5 other women was to be a really good lawyer.”

She went on to describe her career progression as a series of opportunities, and having the “chutzpah” to take each one as it came.

“Immigrants live for opportunities, not entitlements … We’re just grateful to have careers and the chance to contribute to the country that let us in,” Abella said. “So I became a judge in 1976, and then I became whatever else they asked me to become … It was chutzpah in full flight.”

Abella concluded the speech with a tribute to her parents:

“This day, like everything else in my life, would not be possible without my parents,” Abella said, holding back tears. “They were Holocaust survivors, whose lives and families were destroyed, but whose optimism and belief in the good of people never were.”

She concluded, “And so on the eve of my 75th birthday, on Canada Day, I say to Canada on their behalf, thank you. Thank you for giving them the life they dreamed of. And for giving me a life beyond their wildest dreams. I am so proud and lucky to be a Canadian.”

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