Not every lawyer can say he has crawled through the belly of an Israeli army tank scrubbing out bilge. “Every 600 hours, they take the engine out for reconditioning,” says Morris Soronow, a B.C. lawyer and litigator. “What is left is a lot of grease, oil, and sand and if this is not cleaned out, when the refurbished engine goes back in, it will gum it up.”
Cleaning tanks is just one of the volunteer tasks Soronow has taken on during the two decades in which he’s spent three to six months of the year in Israel working for different charities and causes. “Volunteering and charity are the rent we pay to be on the earth,” he believes. While donating half of one’s work year to volunteer efforts may seem extraordinary, even more remarkable is that Soronow has been able to do it while keeping a thriving Vancouver law practice going. With his Israeli-born wife Anney, he now keeps a home in Tel Aviv and another in Vancouver, which serves as his home office.
The “rent” Soronow pays today is in the form of delivering food to the needy for the Tel Aviv Food Bank. “It’s a little different than here,” he says, explaining individuals in need apply to the local food bank and municipality. If approved, they are supplied with delivered groceries. “Most people [in need] don’t have a vehicle,” he says, adding he loads up his car three times a week and travels a delivery route around the city.
It’s a day job that leaves him open to work during the evenings on legal files. “I only do civil litigation,” he says, adding that if he did solicitor work, it would be impossible to work from Israel, as there is almost daily required filings of papers. But, technology, such as low-cost, long-distance calls, e-mail, Skype, and faxes, has made it possible to practise law even an ocean away from Canada. From 7 p.m. onward — that’s 9 a.m. Vancouver time — he’s on the phone or computer researching cases or talking to other lawyers.
Most of the cases he handles now (he’s shed his retail clients as his time in Israel increased) are referrals from other lawyers who have been unable to reach resolution on disputes. He fills out any documents online and e-mails them to the law firm for which he contracts and the in-firm lawyers handle the processing. This streamlined practice method made it possible to close his shared downtown office and moved it into his home. When he’s in Israel, an answering machine — which he checks daily — picks up calls.
“Lots of motor vehicle accidents, medical negligence, estates and wills, and commercial disputes,” he says, describing the cases he takes into court. He schedules trials for his time in Vancouver, usually April through October. During winters, he’s in Tel Aviv where, he says, the weather is not unlike moderate Vancouver “but with less rain.” “Most of these cases take two or three years to go to court,” he says, adding he hasn’t run into scheduling difficulties because of his passion for volunteering. Lawyers usually agree upon the time and length of the trial and then place it into a court registry for that date. “Not once in 20 years, have I run into a problem with a date,” he says.
Soronow’s love for Israel stems from deep Jewish roots — four grandparents immigrated in 1904-05 and arrived in Winnipeg founding a large family of lawyers. Soronow, his late father (a Queen’s Counsel), a brother, three uncles, and four first cousins have all been called to the bar. Soronow was also raised within a Holocaust-conscious family and the Zionist movement. After graduating university in Winnipeg with a Bachelor of Arts in 1966, he decided to spend a year in Israel, joining thousands of hippie-era young people drawn to the allure of the kibbutzim, large communal farms. Kibbutzim meaning “bringing together” fitted the social ideology of the era’s youth. It was an adventure.
“At the time, you had a sense of pioneering a country. The country’s population was less than two million — surrounded by more than 40 million Arabs who wanted to drive you into the sea,” he recalls. “I picked apples, oranges, and grapefruit as during the day you worked in the fields.” The evenings exercised the mind. They were filled with interesting discussions and learning. “The people who ran these kibbutzim were often called ‘farmers with books’ as so many of them were so well educated, but they were also dedicated to rebuilding the land,” he says. It was an exciting era of new liberal ideas, new challenges, and intellectual debate and discovery. There was also an international flavour as inductees met youth from other countries.
This kind of right-of-passage experienced in the ’60s is something that youth today have missed, says Soronow. “For the young lawyer, the competitive environment today doesn’t allow that kind of freedom for exploration that we had 43 years ago,” he concedes.
Soronow returned to Canada after the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours began in June 1967 and entered law school, graduating from the University of Saskatchewan in 1970. He decided against joining the family firm as he no longer wanted to live in a climate which every year seemed to toss up yet another “worst” winter ever. He headed for Vancouver and was called to the B.C. bar in 1971.
But, Israel always drew him back. He became involved with Sar-El, a national volunteer organization that grew out of the 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee where Golan Heights settlers, serving in the army, were unable to harvest ripened crops. A call for volunteers brought hundreds from the U.S. A year later, Sar-El was born with volunteers from 30 different countries handling projects ranging from army support activities, tourism, working in army warehouses and nursing homes, and aiding disabled veterans.
Since his family was grown, Soronow and his wife opted to join this Israeli volunteer support organization about 20 years ago. Soronow helped in army support. “You don’t do any military work,” he says, adding it was mainly cleaning tanks, mechanics, or working in the office. But, the experience kept him grounded. “It gives you a whole new perspective when you are dropped from a 20-year senior litigator to a lowly private,” he says. Over the years, the months spent volunteering grew from three to just under six. About 12 years ago, the couple decided to purchase a home in Tel Aviv. Long-distance commuting became a lifestyle.
Soronow, though, doesn’t see his lifestyle as remarkable. He has met several other Toronto lawyers who commute to Israel, but there are many more from the U.S. who work as he does. Instead, Soronow sees his 39-year legal career as one that has led to rich, rewarding experiences contributing to his legal, Canadian, and Jewish communities. The richness comes not from monetary gains — a senior litigator’s paycheque does take a hit doing what Soronow does. “I’m making about half of what I did 20 years ago,” he says, but it’s made up for through the satisfaction of working for the betterment of one’s community.
Leaving a “bigger estate to my children” has not been a goal, whereas “setting an example of professionalism and volunteerism has,” says Soronow.