L’Dor Vador is a new series, focusing on the virtues of political engagement passed down from generation to generation in the Jewish community. In honour of Ontario Jewish Heritage Month, CJPAC has chosen to feature the Caplan family and their long tradition in politics for our first L’Dor Vador feature.
This is the first in a series of profiles that will feature families from across the political spectrum who have made civic action and public service a ‘family business’. If you have suggestions for additional Canadian Jewish families that have passed the value of political action from generation to generation please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Caplan family brings true meaning to the words L’dor Vador; political engagement has been passed down in their family from generation to generation. As a family who has been highly involved with the Liberal Party for many years, the Caplans have become a household name in Ontario provincial politics.
On May 21st, we had the pleasure of speaking with Elinor, and two of her children, David and Meredith, regarding intergenerational politics. Elinor Caplan has served at all three levels of government. She was an MPP for the riding of Oriole from 1985 to 1997, and served as an MP for the riding of Thornhill from 1997 to 2004. In fact, Elinor was the first Jewish woman to serve as a cabinet minister at both the provincial and federal levels. Elinor’s son, David, succeeded her as an MPP for the riding of Oriole, serving from 1997 to 2011, and was also a cabinet minister. Finally, Elinor’s daughter, Meredith, is the former Executive Vice President of the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) and currently sits as the Victory Fund co-chair.
For Elinor, her political involvement predates her election to the provincial legislature. Prior to her election to Queen’s Park in 1985, Elinor was a Riding Association President, a campaign manager for David Smith, and a city councilor. We were surprised to learn that Elinor was actually raised in a Conservative household before marrying a fellow Liberal.
Elinor’s political involvement had a significant influence on her family from a young age. In fact, political involvement in the Caplan family dates back to early childhood for both David and Meredith. David explains, “My involvement began when I was about eight years old, my parents were very active even before they were elected in supporting many Liberal candidates, I remember going to a number of different campaigns and putting up signs or folding letters on doors.” However, Elinor never pushed her children into pursuing a political career. Meredith notes, “I think what they did was really let politics be an everyday part of our lives – conversations at the dining room table, involving us in the campaigns – I think by exposing us to it.” Despite the positive aspects of growing up in a political household, there were times when Meredith struggled with her partisan identity, as she questioned whether her Liberal affiliation was truly rooted in her own views or that of her family’s. But, after careful reflection, Meredith concluded, “No – I really am a Liberal based on the values of the Liberal Party and my own beliefs.”
It is fair to say that for the Caplans, politics is a family business — creating an interesting and often comical dynamic. We asked the Caplans if they had ever experienced any funny family moments in their political endeavors. Meredith recalls the night before David’s election, when the Caplans were driving around the city putting up ‘vote today’ stickers and signs. Some people from ‘the other side,’ as Meredith calls them, were knocking down David’s signs. In response, Elinor stuck her head out the window of the truck and started yelling, “I see you, I know what you’re doing, you better stop that!” Meredith chuckles as she recalls, “They look around and they see Elinor Caplan yelling at them. It was hilarious.”
Beyond those light-hearted moments, political life has enabled the Caplans to express a strong sense of Jewish identity. Elinor explains, “The values of my Jewish heritage: the importance of community, the sense of active participation, and the ethics of honesty and integrity were all part of what I attempted to practice when I was in elected office.” Elinor was actually surprised upon learning that she was the first Jewish woman cabinet minister in Canadian history. “It had never occurred to me to look at it through a Jewish history lens, but then I realized that that was part of who I was.” Meredith expressed a similar opinion. She explains, “My interest in being involved at all comes from my sense of equity and charity and that there are people who have a harder time in this world than others and that we need to do things to make a society where people can achieve their potential, where there is good education and good healthcare and all those kind of Liberal values that I think are synonymous with Jewish values: education, teaching our children well, and making sure that all members of society are taken care of.”
Because the Caplan family has been so immersed in politics thus far, we were curious as to whether this political tradition will carry forward for generations to come. Referring to his two sons, aged 17 and 12, who he describes as an athlete and an artist, David says he would encourage them to become involved in politics if that was something they wanted to do. However, “if they chose to have different ideologies or values and principles, I would certainly respect and honour those.” For Meredith, although her kids are still very young, she says she would encourage them to get involved because “it has been such a positive part of [her] life. But [she] wouldn’t push them to do it.”
After just this brief interaction with the Caplans, it was clear to us that their passion for politics is undeniable. They are a shining example of L’dor Vador, having carried on the tradition of political engagement from generation to generation. The Caplan family has shaped communities across Ontario. The influence of their Jewish values is best expressed by David, who attributes the path of his public life to early Jewish teachings such as Rabbi Hillel’s famous three questions. Twenty centuries ago, Rabbi Hillel asked, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?” and, “If I’m only for myself, then what am I?” These questions articulate the importance of both advocating for and voicing your interests, as well as the imperative to contribute to shaping the community we are a part of. Rabbi Hillel’s final question transcends generations, “If not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel and the Caplans illustrate the importance of taking initiative in shaping the community we inhabit – there is no better time than now to start.