Rabbi Susan Tendler, her husband Ross Sadoff and their daughters Sofia and Daniella moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Richmond, where Tendler is the new spiritual leader of Beth Tikvah Congregation. (photo from Rabbi Susan Tendler)
Moving to a new city and starting a demanding and highly visible new job would be a challenge in the best of times. For Rabbi Susan Tendler, the recently arrived spiritual leader at Richmond’s Beth Tikvah Congregation, and her family of four, it was a little more complicated.
Not only has the COVID pandemic added complexity to every detail, the family was moving from the United States. This meant that, once they made it to British Columbia after a long, though enjoyable, drive across the continent, during which they took in some national parks and historical sites, they had to go into two weeks of quarantine in their new home.
The lemons of COVID were turned to lemonade by the reaction of the Beth Tikvah community. Tendler calls their reception “extraordinarily unbelievable.”
They arrived at the house, which had been equipped with bedding, toiletries, kitchenware and small appliances, a stocked pantry and refrigerator, and almost everything the new arrivals could want.
“People would from a distance greet us and somebody brought us dinner every single night that week. And people checked on us and would just drop off some milk or whatever we needed for the next week,” she said. While her husband, Ross Sadoff, returned to the States to collect their other vehicle, the rabbi and her daughters, 10-year-old Hannah Sofia and Daniella, who is 8, settled into quarantine.
“My girls and I sat in kind of a tent in our driveway,” she said, while congregants brought socially distanced greetings. “They drove by, honked at us and welcomed us. They had signs and balloons to make us feel welcome. The community, honestly, has gone above and beyond and really demonstrates what a caring community could be and just really made us feel welcome.”
The family moved from Chattanooga, Tenn., where Tendler had been rabbi for eight years at the Conservative B’nai Zion Congregation. She also served on the faculty of Camp Ramah Darom, in the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
She grew up in Virginia and previously held positions in congregations there and in North Carolina. Her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia is in religious studies with concentrations on Islam and Judaism. At the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, she received her rabbinical ordination and her master’s of education in informal Jewish education. She also completed a two-year rabbinic track at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She describes herself as “an ardent Zionist.”
Coming to Canada generally and Beth Tikvah specifically seems bashert. Tendler and Sadoff met at a wedding at the Richmond shul. In fact, that was one of three coincidental meetings that happened before Tendler decided maybe she should consider them an omen.
“I started thinking, wow, maybe I should pay attention to this,” she said. “Why do I keep running into him?”
She had first met Sadoff in New York, when she was en route to Israel and he was rooming with a friend of hers. On a different trip to Israel, for a cousin’s bar mitzvah, the pair met again. The Beth Tikvah meetup was third time lucky.
Relocating to Canada was not in the cards until recently, but it was something like a long-held dream.
“My husband used to say to me years ago, hey, do you think we can move to Canada?” Tendler recalled. “I’d say, Ross, I’m a female rabbi. The chance of that, at this point in time, is very slight. A decade ago, there were many fewer female rabbis in Canada.”
In fact, Tendler is the first female pulpit rabbi in a Conservative shul in British Columbia.
A few factors account for the family’s attraction to Metro Vancouver. For one thing, they wanted a Jewish day school, which Chattanooga has not had for a number of years.
“We are very excited about RJDS [Richmond Jewish Day School] because we think it will offer the flexibility that our kids will greatly benefit from,” she said.
The family loved Chattanooga, but even at one of the most diverse public schools in town, not being Christian was sometimes an issue.
“In some ways, we felt like we were undermining our family values,” said Tendler in the context of raising their kids. “We just wanted them to fully embrace and love who we were raising them to be and the values we were raising them to honour and realizing that, in some ways, we were undermining them constantly.”
A lockdown that took place after false alarms of a threat at the kids’ school made Tendler and her husband ponder school security and the prevalence of gun violence in their country.
“We say things are going to be different but nothing changes,” she said. “I went to Washington, D.C., after the shooting in [Parkland] Florida and we say things are going to change but nothing changes. At some point, you have to do something different. The lobbies are too strong and we can’t even talk in the States about gun safety. It’s all like, you’re taking away my rights. Well, what about public safety?”
Possibly above all, the family just thought that British Columbia would feel like home.
“I think that, in many ways, my family moved here for holistic health reasons,” she said. “We just wanted a place that felt healthier and was more aligned with our values.”
Even comparatively small things like an efficient recycling program make Tendler feel kinship with her new hometown. “It’s a small thing but, in general, I just feel that our values and what we want to teach our children are more in line with Canada, at least with British Columbia and Vancouver, with open-mindedness and, I would say, respect for other people.”
While the transition to their new hometown was complicated, they made the best of it. During the transcontinental road trip, they stopped at sites like the St. Louis Arch, the Badlands, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore.
“We took some little hikes and saw bison and prairie dogs,” said Tendler. “It was fun.”
The new black granite memorial wall at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery in New Westminster allows people to memorialize loved ones buried in other cities. (photo from Schara Tzedeck)
What’s new at the cemetery? Not a question one tends to ask, but the Schara Tzedeck cemeteries in New Westminster and Surrey have seen some significant upgrades and additions in recent months.
At the New Westminster cemetery, which saw its first burial in 1929, 50 graves that did not have headstones have received permanent markers. More than 100 others will ideally also see stone markers added in the coming years as the cemetery board’s Chesed Shel Emet Fund is replenished.
There are plenty of reasons why a grave might not have a permanent headstone, according to Howard Jampolsky, executive director of the Schara Tzedeck Cemetery Board.
“Sometimes, somebody had no family, maybe they were destitute, alone in the world,” he said. “Sometimes, the families just don’t have money; sometimes, one spouse dies and they get a headstone and the other spouse dies and there is no one to put the headstone.”
Whatever the reasons, the graves, some dating back to the 1950s, had temporary markers.
The Chesed Shel Emet Fund was set up primarily with donations from cemetery board members, Jampolsky said, and the first batch of 50 headstones was purchased for these unmarked graves and placed in the last few months.
“We were hoping to do a big unveiling ceremony, where all the graves would be unveiled and we would invite the community,” he said. But COVID intervened. He hopes such a ceremony will occur in the future.
The headstones cost about $525 each and the board is welcoming donations from the community to the fund so they can proceed with placing more stones.
Also at New Westminster, a new black granite memorial wall has been created to commemorate people who are buried in other places.
“Sometimes, someone lives in Vancouver their entire life and they die and get buried in another place, maybe they’re sent to Toronto or Israel or somewhere else,” Jampolsky said. “This is an opportunity to memorialize somebody who lived in the city and contributed to the city’s life and they don’t have a headstone here. The other possibility is people who have parents or family buried in other places where they live and don’t have the ability to go and visit. If you want to come on the yahrzeit, you can come and put a rock on top of that.”
The New Westminster cemetery also has seen a green irrigation initiative recently completed.
“We spend a lot of money irrigating our green grass here, a lot of water,” he said. “We used potable city water.”
They have now drilled a well and are also capturing rainwater, which is pumped through the irrigation system. Not only is this better for the environment, Jampolsky said, but the $150,000 cost will be recouped in about eight years at current water rates. He sees the greening initiative as in keeping with Jewish burial tradition, which is respectful of the land, rejects concrete casings and does not include embalming.
In other significant news, the Surrey cemetery, which had its first burial about a dozen years ago, now has a chapel. Until now, funerals at the Surrey site were graveside only. A sad irony is that the pandemic has meant that, after the first couple of funerals in the new chapel, services had to be again curtailed to graveside only, and with limited attendance.
The $500,000 structure was completed in late 2019 and reflects the philosophy of the board, Jampolsky said, that all members of the community be treated equally. Those being buried in New Westminster had funerals in a chapel, while those in Surrey did not. The new Surrey chapel was funded within the existing budget, but, if a community member wanted to contribute to the chapel, Jampolsky said, naming opportunities could be considered.
“The other thing we’re doing in Surrey is spending more time and effort and money to make Surrey look a lot nicer,” he said. “We are doing more landscaping work, we’re planting flowers and doing things that make it look very, very nice. We’re putting a lot of effort into that property.”
The Surrey cemetery contains about 2,000 plots while the much older New Westminster site has about 10,000. While approximately 5,000 of the New Westminster plots are filled, Jampolsky acknowledges that he can’t accurately predict how long the cemetery has before it is full.
“It really depends,” he said. There are about 80 burials annually in New Westminster. That would suggest about 60 years before it is full. But the community is growing quickly, so perhaps it would be only 50 years. At the same time, a plot may be purchased and not used for decades, he said. If a young family purchased plots today, it is reasonable to assume some burials might not occur until the 22nd century.
A new book on an incendiary topic turns out to be not quite as expected. The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, by Kenneth S. Stern, may be the most comprehensive assessment of the (at least) 20-year battle on North American campuses between pro-Israel and anti-Israel forces.
Jewish and pro-Israel readers picking up the work might anticipate a litany of horrors, anti-Zionist if not antisemitic incidents, brawls, screaming matches, vandalism, boycotts and the like. There is that. But Stern argues that the perception that campuses are aflame in anti-Zionist rage is simply not true. More, he offers proof that the pro-Israel side is far from innocent of engaging in disgraceful tactics, too. There is ill will and there are bad actors on both sides. Most unexpectedly, as much as the book is about the conflict, it is more than anything an exercise in applied ethics on the topic of free expression.
Stern is the director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, an attorney and an author. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism and he was a lead drafter of the Working Definition of Antisemitism. He is also, it appears, something close to a free speech purist. As such, he rails against efforts by Israel advocates who have organized campaigns to censure (and censor) anti-Israel voices. He doesn’t let the other side off easily, either, calling out acts of harassment like drowning out pro-Israel speakers with the “heckler’s veto.”
The book, from New Jewish Press, an imprint of University of Toronto Press, begins with an empirical assessment. In institutions of higher learning in the United States, Israel is an issue in very few, he writes.
When speaking with Jewish audiences, Stern asks for a show of hands to gauge perceptions on anti-Israel attitudes. He asks for guesses on how many American colleges have divested from Israel.
“Many seem surprised when I say ‘zero,’” he writes. “There are relatively few campuses where Israel is a burning issue, and every year the number of pro-Israel programs … is usually at least double the anti-Israel ones. There are over 4,000 campuses in the U.S. – in the 2017-18 academic year, 149 had anti-Israel activity.… So the campuses aren’t burning.”
He does not dismiss the extreme tensions on a few campuses, however.
“[O]n some campuses where anti-Israel activity is prominent, pro-Israel Jewish students may feel marginalized, dismissed or vilified, sometimes with antisemitic tropes.” Identity politics and the conflation of Jewish people with “whiteness” creates racial conflict. “[T]he labeling of Jews as white becomes a problem when shared victimhood becomes a sacred symbol, a badge of honour, a precondition to enter a club of the oppressed. Antisemitic discrimination is rendered invisible.”
Though bigotry may play a role in the discussion, Stern does not see constructive resolutions in neologisms like trigger warnings, safe spaces and microaggressions.
“Faculty should have the right to give trigger warnings if they want, but I never do, and I think the idea is a horrid one,” he writes. “I teach Mein Kampf. It’s disturbing – get over it. College should prepare one to be an adult, and there are no trigger warnings after graduation day. Why are we encouraging students to be ostriches? Shouldn’t they, rather, be learning how to navigate things that will likely unsettle them over the rest of their lives?”
He quotes CNN commentator Van Jones, a strong civil rights proponent, who opposes “safe spaces” on campus: “I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take the weights out of the gym. That’s the whole point of the gym.”
Stern contends a fundamental error has been made in defining terms.
“We want campuses that are open to expression – including, perhaps even especially, difficult and disturbing ideas – but which protect students from real harassment and intimidation. Hate speech codes were efforts to say that ideas themselves can harass and intimidate. Ideas can and should make one uncomfortable (a comfortable college education is a wasted college education). But harassment is something different.”
Strategically, he argues, trying to censor hateful ideas is self-defeating and advances hate agents by martyring them.
“By trying to censor, rather than expose and combat, speech the students perceived as hateful, they were actually helping the alt-right and white supremacists,” writes Stern. “It’s no coincidence that the white nationalists in recent years have wrapped their racist and antisemitic messages around the concept of free speech. Why would progressives allow these haters to steal the bedrock democratic principle of free speech, disingenuously saying that this is what their fight is about? By trying to deny alleged racists platforms, progressives are helping white supremacists recast their vile message as noble protection of a right.”
Another strategic failure, he argues, is buying into the Palestinian narrative’s good/evil dichotomy.
“Israel’s case is best understood as inherently complex and difficult; playing into the ‘all bad’ and ‘all good’ binary of the other side renders those complexities invisible,” he writes.
The conflict on campus spills over, of course. Israel has created a list of 20 organizations, those that urge boycotts of the country, for instance, and bars their members from entering the country. Stern sees this as counterproductive: “You don’t make the case that blacklists (especially of academics) are proper if your goal is to oppose blacklists. You are conceding the argument.”
He gives an example of an anti-Israel campus activist who defends his group’s refusal to meet with Zionists “over cookies and cake” because “you Jews, in all due respect, you wouldn’t sit down with Nazis for tea and cake.”
He also reflects on the “Standards of Partnership” adopted by Hillel International, the Jewish campus organization, which proscribe engaging with groups or individuals that deny Israel’s right to exist, or who delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard Israel, who support BDS or who exhibit “a pattern of disruptive behaviour towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
Writes Stern: “For those who are not yet ideological soldiers, but want to learn more, and want to do it around their campus Hillel, what sense does it make that adults are telling them they can only bring in certain types of speakers? Yes, the adults defined BDS as hateful. But does it make sense to tell students they have to go elsewhere than the Jewish address on campus to hear about it firsthand from those who support it?”
The litany of bad behaviours on all sides of the ideological divide is likely to make readers of Stern’s book uneasy, whether the reader is Zionist or anti-Zionist. But it is a rare and uncompromising testament to free expression that should give genuine free speech advocates an uplift, particularly in an era when ideologically driven regulation of expression and ideas, especially on campuses, has left many advocates of core liberal, academic values feeling beleaguered.
Services in the Schara Tzedeck auditorium, with social-distancing measures in place. (photo by Camille Wener)
In early March, Canadians were just beginning to take COVID-19 seriously. Then, in what seemed like an instant, the province shut down all places where people gather. Religious organizations were forced to close their doors – in some cases for the first time in more than a century – and rethink everything about how they engage with their congregants.
In a survey of rabbis and synagogue leaders across British Columbia after a summer of COVID, what emerges is not so much a story of hardship and difficulty but of resilience, creativity and a paring away of the superfluous to rediscover the most elemental things that we seek from spirituality and community.
The loss of life, the horrible illness and difficult recovery have directly affected thousands of British Columbia families, but we have fared better than many other jurisdictions. Even those not directly affected by the virus itself have had heartbreaking occasions, such as losing loved ones to other causes without family beside them, funerals and shivahs conducted online and, of course, the various burdens and isolation experienced by older people, those who live alone or others who are especially vulnerable.
As we approach High Holidays that are assured to be unlike any we have experienced before, there is an air of anxiety, but more evident is a flexibility and commitment to make the holidays as meaningful as possible. Although close coordination has taken place through RAV, the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, every congregation is finding its own way and the holidays in most cases will occur along a spectrum of hybrid in-person and online services, most with multiple smaller, shorter programs. Services that routinely occur outdoors, such as Tashlich, will be joined in some cases with shofar-blowing and other services held out of doors. Despite all, reaction among rabbis is that community engagement and flexibility have made these months far better than could have been predicted in March.
“From day one, our motto was, we are not ramping down, we are ramping up,” said Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. His Conservative shul, Beth Israel, had not previously done programs or services online but, within 24 hours of the shutdown, all activities had moved online.
Zoom, an online meeting platform that almost no one had heard of before the pandemic, has proved a lifeline for individuals and communities, including almost all synagogues in the province. The platform’s interactivity allows individuals to participate in services, make virtual aliyot, engage in back-and-forth with teachers and guest speakers, and participate from home in numbers that rabbis say are routinely higher than in-person programs in “normal” times. “The social community of the synagogue’s remained intact,” said Infeld.
Most of Beth Israel’s congregants will experience the High Holidays from home, online. “It’s only the people who are leading the services and/or their families who will be in the building,” he said.
Provincial regulations permit a maximum of 50 people in any gathering, with social distancing enforced. For synagogues, that number varies based on the size of a sanctuary and the reality is that, to ensure two-metre separation, smaller synagogues will be able to accommodate far fewer than 50.
For the Orthodox Congregation Schara Tzedeck, however, online Shabbat and holiday services are not an option.
“We’ve had to think very creatively,” said Camille Wenner, executive director of the synagogue. “This was the first time in 110 years that our doors closed for davening,” she said.
People who had made minyan every week of their life suddenly couldn’t.
“That was really difficult,” said Wenner. “That’s why it was so important for us to mobilize a chesed committee to connect with everyone and make sure that everyone was OK. That’s how the idea of Shabbat in a Box developed and the idea of feeding people and making them feel that that ritual of Shabbat is still very much alive, you don’t have to be here to do it, we can still do it together.” That concept will be extended to Rosh Hashanah in a Box, which will go to more than 300 households.
Schara Tzedeck was the first Orthodox synagogue in Canada to reopen to limited in-person services, on June 1. “It was nerve-racking,” Wenner admitted. The usual single Shabbat service has been increased to two. Hand sanitizers and masks are required. Those who do not bring their own siddur are handed a newly cleaned one. Additional custodial staff are on hand to wipe down the entire sanctuary between services. An online registration program allows congregants to see how many of the 50 seats remain available.
For the holidays, services will be expanded to meet demand, she said. Rabbis and cantors who work in day schools and elsewhere in the community have volunteered to lead smaller services, which will occur in various places throughout the building and may even take place under a tent in the parking lot, if need be.
“The services will be condensed to about two hours instead of the regular five,” she said. “Right now, we’re looking at six or seven services back to back starting at 6:30 in the morning.”
The Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture normally doesn’t run programming through the summer. But, this year, the Sholem Aleichem Speakers Series has continued every Friday on Zoom and Exploring Jewish Writers, on Saturday mornings, also has continued through the summer, said Donna Becker, the centre’s executive director. “Both of them are better attended on Zoom than they were in person,” she said.
Peretz Centre holiday services will feature Stephen Aberle singing Kol Nidre, but the usual musical program, which sees the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir interspersed with the audience, is obviously out of the question.
This year’s High Holidays will be the first since the inception of the progressive congregation Ahavat Olam in 2004 that will not be held at the Peretz Centre. Said board member Alan Bayless: “We would prefer not to use computers for Shabbat or High Holiday services, but we believe that virtual services are necessary for our community this year given the danger of the coronavirus.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg of Chabad Lubavitch BC, said the 10 Chabad centres in the province are all adopting protocols appropriate for their congregants’ needs. He worries that, with daily infection reports often heading in the wrong direction, the province may re-impose stricter regulations by the time the holidays roll around. Either way, he suspects many or most people will be marking the holidays at home. “It’s the reality,” he said. “It’s a question of what works and what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
On the positive side, online learning has skyrocketed.
“The amount of study that’s going on by Zoom is absolutely unprecedented,” Wineberg said. “That’s the silver lining. I have a feeling that it will continue once this pandemic is over, God willing as soon as possible, I think people are going to continue learning that way. You have the convenience of sitting in your home and participating almost as if you are there – that’s the new reality.”
The Reform synagogue Temple Sholom had a running leap at livestreaming services, so some of the infrastructure was well in place before the pandemic. The difference now is the effort they are going to not just to allow people at home to observe, but to participate in the services. Classes, webinars and other programs have been expanded online. The Men’s Club and the Sisterhood have moved their programs onto Zoom. The accessibility means Temple Sholom programs are reaching new audiences, often far outside Vancouver.
The summer weather has allowed the synagogue to hold some events in parks and in the courtyard behind the shul. Still, Rabbi Carey Brown has no illusions that these High Holidays will be like any other. For one thing, only clergy will be in the sanctuary.
“It will be really different,” said Brown, who is the synagogue’s associate rabbi. “We are working really hard to put together High Holiday services and experiences that will help people feel the sense of the season, both the newness of the new year and the reflectiveness of the season.”
The Okanagan Jewish Community, which does not have a permanent rabbi, has depended on volunteers to deliver programs and services. The Kelowna-area centre has seen significant growth, and is running an 11-person conversion class and various adult education programs on Zoom. As great as all that is, Steven Finkelman, the centre’s president, thinks this might be a tough year financially for the group, a concern expressed by several interviewees. Revenue generated at the High Holidays and through in-person galas or other fundraising events in normal years is likely to suffer this year.
While online programming has proven hugely popular, there can be no denying that this experience has resulted in some missed opportunities. Rabbi Philip Gibbs of West Vancouver’s Conservative shul Har-El, has pangs of regret when he thinks back to the grand plans the synagogue had in January for a year of innovation and new initiatives.
“I was very excited about both the scale and the types and the variety of programming – more cooking events or culturally focused programs that really were going to give our community the chance to gather and engage in a really fun, exciting and meaningful way,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost that opportunity.”
The challenges and opportunities of the High Holidays will be met with one or more services on different days, he said. While he and his congregation are making the best of the situation, Gibbs laments the loss of in-person collective connection.
Similarly, Rabbi Hannah Dresner of Or Shalom, which is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, grieves the loss of some in-person connections. However, she feels that Zoom can provide an intimacy that a large group gathering might not. As well, not only are out-of-towners joining Or Shalom’s offerings, but the rabbi and others are surfing programs throughout the Jewish world and beyond.
“I just think it’s a time when the world is our oyster,” said Dresner. “Spiritually you can look for whatever kinds of workshops you want, so people are experimenting a lot more.”
Or Shalom will hold successive Tashlich services at False Creek, each accommodating congregants in limited numbers. For the well-being of ducks and other birds, Or Shalom members drop leaves rather than bread in the water.
“I love the creative challenge, but I can’t say it doesn’t keep me up at night,” Dresner said, laughing. “I hear a lot of rabbis say, I didn’t sign up for this. There’s nothing that we’re doing that I signed up for.”
This extraordinary time has forced and invited rabbis and others to reconsider everything. The changes have made her reflect on “what’s at the heart of the service, what do we really need, what’s extraneous, what makes it tedious? Because it cannot be tedious. It’s got to be tight, shorter and beautiful.”
Rabbi Levi Varnai of the Bayit in Richmond concurs that the crisis forced a reckoning. “If a synagogue is not doing services – and we don’t do services online – what do we do? It got us thinking to the real core of what a synagogue is really supposed to be about,” he said.
As an Orthodox shul, the Bayit cannot stream services on Shabbat or the holidays, but they have expanded classes throughout the week and held socially distanced events at Garry Point Park. Pre-Shabbat events help people prepare for the Sabbath and regular phone calls and visits by the rabbi and volunteers to speak with people from a distance and drop off packages keep a sense of community alive.
Now that limited in-person gatherings are permitted, the shul’s size permits 25 congregants. But even that is not quite as it was. “It’s coming in, praying and going, which is great because it’s more than we had before that,” he said, but there’s no food and no kibbitzing.
The holidays will see multiple services and people can arrange to be there specifically for Yizkor but perhaps not come for the entire day.
The chaos of shifting suddenly from the way things have always been done has not left Varnai a lot of time to reflect. But, when pressed, he acknowledged how surreal it is.
“It’s a huge change to the regular Jewish life that I’m accustomed to since I was a young boy, since my bar mitzvah, praying three times a day with a quorum of others,” he said. It’s a stunning transformation, but entirely within Jewish tradition. “We always put safety and well-being and health first.”
He puts the whole thing in perspective. “Our people came out of the centuries and had to go through a lot worse,” he said. “Not going to synagogue is not fun but, thank God, other generations were challenged with much greater hardships and we’re relatively blessed.”
Beth Hamidrash, the only Sephardi synagogue in Canada west of Toronto, counts among its congregants Dr. Jocelyn Srigley, a microbiologist who is a director with the infection prevention and control branch of the Provincial Health Services Authority. Rabbi Shlomo Gabay and shul president Eyal Daniel credit Srigley with helping guide them through this difficult time and say it was on her advice that their synagogue was the first in the city to close.
Despite the challenges, however, engagement is better than ever, said the rabbi. Daniel added that synagogue membership has actually jumped 20% since the pandemic began, something he credits to an increased desire for meaning, and also a direct outreach he began when he became president in June to encourage occasional attendees to commit to membership.
The strange situation has also helped strengthen relations between Beth Hamidrash and the two Sephardi congregations in Seattle. They virtually co-hosted an Israeli historian speaking on Medieval Spain, for example.
Probably no rabbi has had an experience quite like Rabbi Susan Tendler. The new spiritual leader at Richmond’s Conservative shul Beth Tikvah arrived in the midst of the lockdown with her family from her previous posting in Chattanooga, Tenn. The family then had to quarantine for 14 days, with community members dropping off prepared meals and greeting the family from a distance. Despite that unusual arrival, or perhaps because of it, she has reflected on big things.
“While I would never wish the pandemic on this world or on any person, really, this is an opportunity for renewal,” she said. “We do all have to reconsider what we’re doing and what our goals are and find new paths for reaching them.”
While hoping that services might return to normal in the not-too-distant future, she acknowledged that the very term sanctuary implies that every congregant must feel secure. “At a minimum,” she said, “it has to feel safe.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to reflect that Or Shalom is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, not the Reconstructionist movement, as stated in the original online and print versions.
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken holding a T-shirt featuring Dr. Patricia Daly, vice-president of public health and chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health. The Facebook post thanks Daly for always being there, throughout COVID-19, “behind the scenes providing valuable support.” (photo from facebook.com/jewishvancouver)
The largest capital project in the history of British Columbia’s Jewish community – the redevelopment of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver site – is going ahead as planned, despite the pandemic. This and many other projects are continuing as planned, says Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken, in part because the agency has been preparing for a crisis for more than a decade.
As the Jewish Federation is set to launch the 2020-21 annual campaign, the Independent spoke with Shanken about the achievements and challenges of a year that started out relatively normally and veered suddenly into the utterly extraordinary.
While the COVID-19 crisis wreaked havoc on communities worldwide, and upended 2020 in unpredictable ways, Shanken said that Federation has been prepared for a crisis and that means the community remains in a position of economic and social health. After the 2008 economic recession, the organization launched a multi-year planning and allocations process intended to smooth economic ripples and equip partner agencies with reliable income expectations.
Federation raised $10.3 million this year – $8.9 million through the 2019 annual campaign and $1.4 million in special targeted funds from donors toward specific high-priority community needs such as supplemental education, to expand Jewish Family Services’ food hubs and to increase outreach to suburban and remote Jewish communities. Dr. Jonathon Leipsic was campaign chair. Alex Cristall, Federation board chair, and Shanken, provided a comprehensive overview of the year’s achievements in the 2019-20 annual report, available online at jewishvancouver.com.
When the pandemic struck, Federation launched an emergency campaign to help agencies meet the challenge of providing services to their constituencies while confronting the health crisis and its associated economic implications. The amount raised so far is not being announced, but $505,000 in funding has been released, for services like food and housing supports through JFS; to the JCCGV to help with service delivery; to supplemental and day schools to assist with tuition subsidies and transitions to online learning; for emotional support for seniors through the Jewish Seniors Alliance; and more.
A crisis like COVID, said Shanken, can have unintended consequences in helping communities overcome divisions and work together to reduce duplications of effort.
“Crisis often opens the door for opportunities for collaboration that never would have existed before for myriad political reasons,” he said. “People have far greater clarity around what the big picture looks like when they are in crisis. They are willing to forgo those smaller, often political complications that don’t allow for the advancement of big-ticket projects.”
Programs and projects that were underway before COVID include a Jewish Day School Council, chaired by Hodie Kahn, which began a year ago to undertake a benchmark study on the costs of education for each of the five schools in Metro Vancouver’s Jewish community. The findings of the report are expected to point the direction toward new funding models for Jewish education.
Community security also remains top of mind. This year saw the largest number of community organizations receive federal funding for security upgrades to facilities – Federation’s community security advisory committee, chaired by Bernard Pinsky, helped secure more than $225,000 from the federal Security Infrastructure Program. Security training sessions were provided to 160 community members.
A significant portion of campaign funds support programs abroad, including in Israel, especially in Vancouver’s partnership region, the Upper Galilee Panhandle. A connection with Jews in far-eastern Russia is also enjoying support from Vancouver’s campaign.
The challenges presented by the pandemic brought out the best in the community, Shanken said.
“It’s unprecedented in its negativity and it’s unprecedented in its positivity,” he said. “It’s unprecedented in the way that we are seeing need but it’s also unprecedented in the way that we are seeing cooperation to address that need. It’s really been a beautiful thing to see the community come together, agencies across the spectrum working together to ensure that we really have a great community as we come out of this.”
He recalls a phone call he received at the height of the lockdown.
“Somebody called me up one time when we were knee-deep in this thing and said to me, you know, Ezra, if you want to go through a crisis, go through it with the Jewish community, because we do it better than anybody,” he said. “I actually think that there is some truth to that. We really are very, very good at coming together at these critical moments. You see that materializing in the way that our agencies are working together, the way our donors are working together, the way our volunteers are coming now to serve, people are delivering food packages, over 1,300 people are being fed a week, that’s being done on the backs of volunteers and amazing professionals, multiple agencies working in conjunction with each other to make that happen. And that’s only possible because people’s best selves are emerging during this moment.… What strikes me is we really, really do, as a Jewish community, show our best selves in times of crisis.”
Shanken credits Eldad Goldfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, for forging ahead with plans for the redevelopment of the site.
“I think people are still very passionate about seeing this project move forward,” said Shanken. “We are committed to continue to walk down the road. I can’t tell you when we will get a shovel in the ground, but I will tell you we have not put this on hold.”
Though this has been a most unusual year, so far, Shanken is bullish on the Metro Vancouver Jewish community.
“I believe it in my soul that the best years for our community have yet to happen,” he said. “We have had an amazing run over the past decade or more. Our community is incredibly strong, well positioned to emerge from COVID better than it’s ever been. But, for us to emerge in that way, it requires a commitment from our community to seize on the moment and bring us to that place that I know we can get to. The call that I would have for people is to join up, because we have an unprecedented opportunity to do truly great things for this community and to make us even stronger than we’ve ever been.”
Akilah Allen-Silverstein, a co-founder, with Sara Yacobi-Harris and Daisy Moriyama, of No Silence on Race. (photo from NSR)
Amid a global reckoning around race, a group of Canadian Jews of colour is calling on the community to advance inclusivity and racial equity in Jewish spaces. And rather than generalized good wishes for more equality, No Silence on Race has created nine pillars to guide community organizations through a comprehensive process.
The group emerged at the end of June, when founder Sara Yacobi-Harris and co-founders Akilah Allen-Silverstein and Daisy Moriyama released a letter to the community introducing their work and their nine pillars.
“We are Black Jews and non-Black Jews of colour,” the letter said. “We are Jewish community board members, educators and leaders. We write from a place of love for our Jewish identities and community, while also grappling with the cultural erasure, exclusion and structural racism that we experience in Jewish spaces. Nevertheless, we are compelled to be in Jewish community because it is who we are.”
They began by sending the letter to agency leaders and posting it on Jewish social media and discussion platforms. Organizations circulated it further and began to request meetings.
“We are working to make a change in the culture, recognizing that the Jewish community is multifaceted in identity and making sure there is an awareness and an education around the diversity of the Jewish community,” Allen-Silverstein told the Independent in a recent interview.
In addition to asking individuals and organizations to sign their open letter, the group is asking community agencies to issue statements of their own and commit to the nine pillars.
The nine pillars guide agencies through developing allyship and educational approaches around race, as well as relationship-building. They move from more general approaches to applied processes such as hiring an equity consultant and developing inclusive employment and recruitment policies; creating leadership strategies for Jews of colour in the organization and amplifying their voices. The process is anticipated to evolve over three- to five-year periods. The entire text is easily accessible online at nosilenceonrace.ca.
“We are asking every organization to make a public statement, but, within this public statement, it’s not just about solidarity or signaling that you’re with us or you feel the same,” said Allen-Silverstein. “Our pillars are intentional in that the first three are ‘free’ and we’re very cognizant that it’s COVID right now and a lot of these organizations are just working to keep the lights on. But the first three pillars –allyship and education and relationship-building – these are things that will mostly be individual work. The organization can help facilitate by sending out reading lists, book lists, articles to give people the context, because, if you just run ahead and skip to steps four, five, six, you’re trying to create proposals or rules and guidelines without the context of the education to understand where the issues are, what people of colour have faced for years and their experiences within the Jewish community, and we are not going to be putting together any policies that actually make sense or help.”
No Silence on Race is cautious to express that, in employment and recruitment, the group wants to avoid tokenizing. “Tangible efforts could include mentorship programs for Jews of colour to be groomed for leadership positions,” she said. “We realize that takes time but that should just be done intentionally.”
Working to amplify the voices of Jews of colour, Allen-Silverstein added, means not just expecting Jews of colour to come and share what “for some of us can be very painful and exhausting, to do this for free constantly.”
Allen-Silverstein, a financial planner, is the daughter of an Ashkenazi father from London, Ont., and a mother from St. Kitts in the Caribbean. Jews of colour, she said, can come from intermarriage, but the broad category also includes Sephardim, Mizrahim, Ethiopians “and others who have always been Jews of colour,” she said.
Acknowledging and condemning antisemitic remarks and actions that have come from some prominent African-American athletes, artists and religious figures, as well as some incidents within the Black Lives Matter movement, Allen-Silverstein said the incidents speak to a communication problem.
“It just shows the breakdown between both communities,” she said. “I think, if you look historically, the similarities and the oppression that both communities have faced, we should be allies more than any other two groups. It’s sad. All we can do is honestly be that person who tries to explain it to both sides and that generally happens.”
Amid the hundreds of chapters of the Black Lives Matters movement, she acknowledged, there are some who have expressed extreme ideas. Allen-Silverstein sees two approaches in response.
“Sometimes, it’s noise and we really have to ignore that. One person speaking out and saying something stupid doesn’t mean that everybody else feels that way, and I think we need to be careful not to do that,” she said. The other step is to get to the root of the matter – “Let’s figure out where they’re getting this terrible message,” she said.
There has been forward movement in the fight for racial equality, as well as some backsliding, over many decades. Like others working for racial justice, Allen-Silverstein looks at the current moment with cautious optimism.
“It is inspiring that people are really listening and seem really genuinely interested to move forward, to acknowledge past things that have been done, whether it’s unconscious or consciously as well,” she said, adding that there appear to be more people engaging in the issue. “We are seeing, too, many things that make it very obvious that there was an element of people within the community who just considered these issues not theirs and not something they needed to participate in. That, for us, wasn’t acceptable as people who obviously walk both lines, being both members of that community and the Jewish community.”
Annamie Paul is running to succeed Elizabeth May as leader of the Green Party of Canada. (photo from Annamie Paul)
Annamie Paul wants to be the first woman of colour and the first Jewish woman to lead a political party in Canada. But, in the process, the human rights lawyer and former diplomat who is running to succeed Elizabeth May as leader of the Green Party of Canada has been taken aback by the overt antisemitism thrown at her since it became widely known that she is Jewish.
“You almost can’t believe what you’re seeing,” said the Toronto native, who has worked extensively overseas. “There are very explicit comments questioning my loyalty to Canada because I am Jewish. There are those who have suggested that I am seeking to infiltrate the party on behalf of Zionist elements.”
Paul said what disappoints her most is the almost complete silence from others when antisemitic posts are made on social media, such as the Facebook group for Green party supporters.
“The comments were whispers at first, innuendo, and now they’ve become very explicit,” she said. “If people are allowed to make these comments unchecked, it really emboldens them and that’s definitely what I’ve noticed over the last week or two.”
Amid a litany of such comments – including items not directly targeting her but equating Israelis to Nazis on Green-oriented social media sites – only one single individual not on her campaign team has called out the offensive posts. At the urging of Paul’s campaign, moderators removed some of the most disturbing ones.
“It’s taken me aback,” she said. “It wasn’t something I was fully prepared for, to be honest.”
She differentiates between people who are deliberately provocative and those who are uninformed.
“I accept that there are a certain number of people who still need to be educated … and, while it’s perhaps not my responsibility to do that, I’m willing to do that because I think if I can create a little more understanding, then that’s important,” she said.
Paul spoke at a Zoom event organized by Congregation Beth Israel and moderated by Rabbi Jonathan Infeld on July 8. That conversation was primarily about Paul’s life, Jewish journey and career. In a subsequent interview with the Jewish Independent, she delved more deeply into policy and her experiences with antisemitism and racism.
Born in Toronto to a family from the Caribbean, she was among the first students in Toronto public schools’ French immersion program. Her mother, a teacher, and grandmother, a nurse and midwife, worked as domestics when they arrived in Canada. Her mother went on to get a master’s of education and taught in elementary schools for more than three decades; her grandmother became a nurse’s aide.
Paul credits her mother’s broad-mindedness and spiritual bent for the openness that led her to embrace Judaism in early adulthood. Paul was converted by the Hillel rabbi while completing a master’s of public affairs at Princeton University. She also has a law degree from the University of Ottawa. She chose Ottawa in part because its law faculty emphasizes law through an Indigenous lens. In addition to seeking at an early age to be an ally to Indigenous peoples – she started law school at 19 – she saw parallels between the Canadian situation and her own heritage as a member of the Black diaspora.
“We have been stripped of all of the things that Indigenous peoples are fighting for still in this country,” she said. “Through colonialism, we lost our identity, we lost our culture, our language, our religions. We really can’t tell you anything with any great degree of precision about our ancestors. When I saw other peoples fighting for those things, I understood intuitively how important it was.”
Paul has worked as a director for a conflict prevention nongovernmental organization in Brussels, as an advisor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and as a political officer in Canada’s mission to the European Union. She co-founded and co-directed an innovation hub for international NGOs working on global challenges and has served on the board and advised other international NGOs, including the Climate Infrastructure Partnership and Higher Education Alliance for Refugees. She is married to Mark Freeman, a prominent human rights lawyer and author. They have two sons, one in university in London, U.K., the other in high school in Toronto.
Returning to Canada after spending about 13 years abroad, Paul looked at Canadian politics with fresh eyes. While she had been courted to run provincially by the Ontario Liberal Party in the early 2000s, she opted to run federally for the Green party in 2019. She took about 7% of the vote in Toronto Centre, which was won by Finance Minister Bill Morneau. She is one of nine candidates running for Green leader.
She chose the Green party because, she said, “we don’t have time to fool around with the climate emergency.”
“I celebrate the compromise that is the spirit of Canadian politics,” Paul said. “This is the Canadian way. But there are some things that you simply have to do all the way or it really doesn’t work. One of those things is the climate emergency. If we don’t hit our targets, then we are setting ourselves up for disaster. The Liberals, the NDP, the Conservatives, they’re just not committed to that goal and so I wanted to make it clear that I was aligning myself with the party that was very, very committed to reaching those targets.”
COVID-19, for all the health and economic devastation it has wrought, also presents opportunities, said Paul. In Canada, federal and provincial governments came together and political parties set aside partisanship to an extent. Canadians who may have been skeptical that a massive challenge like climate change could be ameliorated see what concerted governmental action – and massive investments – can look like. “[Canadians] know that money can be found if it’s needed and they know that we can mobilize very quickly,” she said.
The billions of dollars being invested into the economic recovery should be directed toward projects that explicitly advance a green economy, she said, such as a cross-Canada energy grid that produces electricity from renewable sources to be shared throughout the country. This is just one of a range of opportunities that Paul sees emerging from this extraordinary economic challenge.
“For a country as wealthy and well-educated as Canada, if we want to be, we can really be first in line for all of this,” she said. “It’s exciting.”
The Green leader has limited constitutional authority in a party dedicated to grassroots policymaking, Paul said. If party members adopt a policy that challenges the leader’s core values, the leader may be required to walk away. Such a scenario emerged in 2016 after the party adopted a resolution to boycott Israel. Following a showdown, the resolution was rescinded and May carried the party into the subsequent election. As a result, Paul said, the party is on record supporting Israel’s right to exist and opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Paul opposes the Netanyahu government’s Jordan Valley annexation plan because she believes it contravenes international law. But she also urged vigilance against those who might mask their antisemitism in anti-Zionism. And she stressed the unlikelihood of pleasing everyone on either side of the Israel and Palestine divide.
“I don’t feel that there’s anything these days that you can say in terms of that conflict where you’re not going to attract criticism that you were too soft or you were too hard,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”
But, while she doesn’t have the magic answer to resolve the longstanding conflict, her background in diplomacy and international law makes her confident in asserting that negotiated settlement is the route to any eventual solution.
“Dialogue always has to be the preferred option,” she said, adding that international law must be applied to all sides. “State actors, non-state actors, they are all subject to international law. Their obligation is to respect international law and to protect fundamental human rights. There are no exceptions to that.”
At a time when North Americans and others are facing our histories of racism and injustice, Paul finds herself at an opportune intersection.
“I’m very aware of what I represent as a candidate,” she said. “I’m a Black woman, I’m a Jewish woman.… I know people are very interested in my identities and I embrace that…. I would say, though, that [I hope] people will take the time to get to know me and not to create a one-dimensional image of me simply focused around those identities. I feel that I’m very prepared because of the work I’ve done, my academic studies, etc. I’m very well prepared to take on this role and all of the elements of this role.
“You’re not just an environmental advocate as the leader of the Green party, for instance, you also need to be able to talk about foreign policy, you need to be able to talk about economic theory, you need to be able to talk about rural revitalization and what are we going to do about long-term care and should we decriminalize illicit drugs. You need someone who is three-dimensional and I know that I’m three-dimensional and I hope people remember that.”
As a Jew of colour, Paul also has insights on antisemitism in the Black Lives Matters movements and racism in the Jewish community.
“The Black diaspora is not a monolith,” she said. “The Jewish community is not a monolith, either. Don’t ever take the actions of some members of the community as an indication of how the entire community feels.… I would just say don’t let that push you out of wanting to support the community in the way that you should. In terms of Black and Indigenous lives in this country, the statistics just take your breath away. Not just the criminal justice statistics but also health, education, life expectancy, they are really very troubling and those communities need as much help as they can get from people who really understand, who have suffered a great deal of persecution historically, as well, and have had to create opportunities and overcome barriers and still do.”
The leadership vote takes place Sept. 26 to Oct. 3. The deadline to join the Green party to vote in the election is Sept. 3.
Launching within hours of each other in May, the Canadian Jewish Record and TheJ.ca come at journalism from different perspectives.
Like print media as a whole, Jewish newspapers worldwide have been struggling in recent years. The coronavirus, with its economic impacts, was the last straw for Canadian Jewish News, which announced its closure in a message to readers April 13, with the words: “Everything has its season. It is time.”
From the ashes of that flagship media outlet, though, has emerged not one but two new ventures – and rumours of a possible revival of CJN itself.
Launching within hours of each other in May, the Canadian Jewish Record and TheJ.ca come at journalism from different perspectives and the people behind them think there’s room for a range of online voices, even if a national hard-copy print media option isn’t in the picture.
The Record is the brainchild of Bernie Farber, former chief executive officer of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, and Ron Csillag, a longtime reporter and editor with CJN, whose writing has appeared in the Jewish Independent. TheJ.ca, which has been in the planning stages longer, was started by Winnipeggers Marty Gold and Ron East. The editor is Dave Gordon, a Torontonian whose writing has appeared frequently in the Independent, as well as scores of other Jewish and non-Jewish publications.
Farber and Csillag admit they don’t have a business plan beyond getting writers and editors to work for free – and they see their online venture as a stopgap that would probably cease or merge were CJN to return. The individual rumoured to be considering a rebirth of the paper opted to not comment for this story.
Farber, who was with CJC from 1984 until it was subsumed by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in 2011 and served as its head from 2006, said they launched CJR on the fly, trying to fill a need in the immediate aftermath of CJN’s demise.
“Our goal is not to become a new Canadian Jewish News,” he said. “When and if they were able to come back up … we would find some way to amalgamate. Nothing is written in stone…. We expect to continue into the fall at this point, hopefully.”
The online news and commentary site operates under the auspices of a nonprofit organization and has no money to speak of, other than enough to cover registration fees and miscellaneous costs, said Farber.
“Everybody who wrote and who is continuing to this day to write for the newspaper is doing it pro bono,” he said. “These are skilled, professional journalists who are, for the most part, people who are used to being paid for their work and have chosen to do this as a donation at this time to the community. It really is a grand mitzvah, Canadian Jewish-style, and it’s working.”
The platform got 22,000 hits in the first week, said Farber, who serves as publisher. “It’s going up from there almost exponentially.”
The model upon which their editorial approach is based is akin to CJN, he said, with a range of opinions represented.
“We’re trying to have a big tent,” he said. “We already got into some hot water because we published a piece by Dr. Mira Sucharov. She’s a wonderful writer, she’s on the edge, people don’t like what she writes, but tough shit. People are allowed to have their opinions.”
JI readers will be familiar with Sucharov’s writing. As for coverage of Israel-related topics, Farber said they will follow a similar open approach.
“It’s not that we don’t support Israel,” he said. “We’re a news source, we’re an information source. We run opinion. We’re not going to [say] you can only write good things about Israel or good things about the Jewish community. We want there to be some spark to it where people can say, no, I disagree with that. We do have an option for feedback and we do get letters to the editor. That’s the Jewish community, right? They are vibrant, they come from all over the place and we want to be able to reflect that.”
Farber and Csillag are well-known figures in the Jewish and larger Canadian scene, which is one of the reasons, they say, that the president of York University reached out to them before releasing a much-awaited report of an investigation around a violent confrontation on campus last November between pro- and anti-Israel groups. The Record got embargoed exclusive access to the report before other media. “It demonstrates how, in a short period of time, we have become a reasonable voice in the community,” Farber said.
Csillag, the editor, said they chose, at the launch on May 21, to “flood” the site with stories to keep readers engaged and coming back. Now, the aim is to post two stories a day plus any breaking news.
“People are talking about it, people are complaining about it,” he said. “I got my first bit of hate mail, which is good. That’s when you know you’re making a difference.”
Finding writers to work for free has not been a challenge. “People have been coming out of the woodwork. I never knew that pretty much everyone on the planet was a writer,” Csillag said, laughing.
Challenges they have not ironed out, they admit, include finding reliable reporters outside Ontario and a steady source of news from Israel, since they don’t have the resources to pay for a news service.
If CJN is not revived, Farber said, “I think we have to get together with serious-minded people within the community and say the CJN is gone and we are here. We don’t have a real business model to be honest. What you see is what you get…. We would have to ramp up to a real business model.”
Farber added that Canada, with the world’s fourth-largest Jewish population at 400,000, should be able to sustain at least two national Jewish media platforms.
That confidence is shared by Gordon, who equates the situation to the old joke about the Jew who, when rescued from a deserted island, was asked why he built two synagogues on the island. One, he told rescuers, was his shul; the other was the one he would never set foot in.
TheJ.ca has been in the planning stages for more than a year. Gordon came on a few weeks before launch. Like the Record, TheJ.ca has little overhead, since everyone associated with it works remotely. They have a few investors and some steady advertising agreements. The online nature of the platform also means no printing or distribution expenses.
Gordon touts the diversity of the large stable of writers.
“One of the things that I think is our proudest asset are individuals from the widest array possible, individuals who are liberal to conservative, Jew and Arab, religious to secular,” he said. “We have four gay columnists, we have Jews of colour who are contributing, we have coast-to-coast contributors and, in that respect, I want to say that, not only do we deliver the unexpected, but we represent the previously unrepresented.”
On Israel coverage, though, they aim to determine suitability of opinions based on the “three Ds” formulated by Natan Sharansky to determine if criticism of Israel is antisemitic: delegitimization of Israel, demonization of Israel, and subjecting Israel to double standards.
“In terms of Israel, we’re not going to make it a secret: we’re very pro-Israel, very Zionistic,” said Gordon. “It’s a good read to say that we are centre-right. We will still strive to maintain a kind of balance in terms of Israel reporting … we will tilt from time to time liberal but not left.”
Their aim is to post a batch of new content twice a week.
While Gordon is based in Toronto, TheJ.ca was born in Winnipeg. Marty Gold, a longtime broadcast journalist and publisher, and Ron East, a former pro wrestler and physical education teacher who has also been involved in publishing, are longtime friends who were critical of existing Jewish media.
East is son of the late Israeli military commander, author and counterterrorism expert Yoram Hamizrachi East. When Winnipeg saw an influx of Israeli immigrants a few years ago, the father and son launched a Hebrew-language publication to help the newcomers navigate their city. The 500 copies were routinely snapped up, he said.
The idea for the new media platform came after Gold and East felt that the established Jewish media and communal organizations in the city were not adequately confronting anti-Israel activity.
“There wasn’t really a pro-Israel, Zionistic platform out there,” said East. “We found that our local media here in Winnipeg, as well as when we started looking at Canadian Jewish News and others, were giving more and more room … and more and more credibility to what we would describe as anti-Israel, anti-Zionistic and, in some cases, pro-BDS Jewish movements. Those voices became louder and louder and the Zionistic pro-Israel voices seemed to be drowned out. We felt that it was important to provide a platform that would allow for those voices.”
While TheJ.ca is an online media platform, they are mooting a print digest that might be issued a couple of times a year. They are also working on a way to format content so that it can be easily downloaded and printed for people who prefer to hold their newspaper in their hands. Also in the hopper are plans for region-specific landing pages, so readers in Vancouver or Halifax, say, could access both items of national and international interest, as well as local news relevant to them.
The design of their site, said East, is particularly aimed at reaching younger readers. They credit Gordon’s experience in the field for bringing together a diverse group of writers from across the country.
The Jewish media scene has faced unprecedented challenges in recent years. The emergence of the internet more than two decades ago has undermined print media of all types, with publications for small or niche demographics experiencing particular challenges as well as advantages. The pandemic, which led to an unprecedented global economic shutdown in March, had immediate repercussions. Much of the advertising in the Independent, for example, is for upcoming community events, all of which were summarily canceled. Non-essential retailers closed, making advertising extraneous.
The Independent has continued publishing on a reduced schedule.
Winnipeg’s Jewish Post & News announced in April that it was ceasing printing, but started publishing a print edition again at the end of May.
The difficulties nearly led to the dissolution of the world’s oldest English-language Jewish newspaper, Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, which was saved by a conglomerate of philanthropists. The rival Jewish News, which had also announced its liquidation and was set to merge with the Chronicle before the surprise bailout, will, for now, continue publishing independently.
In an article recently about the state of Jewish journalism, the Times of Israel reported that New York’s Jewish Week made a dire plea for support and a leader in the American Jewish Press Association – of which the Independent is a member – acknowledged that COVID has presented a serious challenge to an already struggling sector.
The world’s third-largest Jewish community, in France, is in a different boat. In the 1980s, the French government opened radio airwaves to private groups and Jewish radio stations play a role in that country similar to the role newspapers play in most other Jewish communities.
Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Al-Issa receives an award, virtually, from Sacha Roytman-Dratwa, director of the Combat Antisemitism Movement. (screenshot)
During a worldwide virtual event this month involving Jewish leaders and government officials from various countries, one of the leading figures in Sunni Islam was recognized for his work opposing antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Al-Issa is the secretary-general of the Muslim World League and is a former minister of justice of Saudi Arabia. The Muslim World League is funded by the Saudi government, is based in Mecca and positions itself as a force for modernization and moderation in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world. Earlier this year, Al-Issa led an historic trip of senior Muslim clerics and leaders to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The online event, titled How Muslims and Jews Can Combat Anti-Semitism Together, featured Al-Issa via video from Saudi Arabia, joined by U.S. government officials including Sam Brownback, a former senator now ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and Elan Carr, special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism. The event was sponsored by the American Sephardi Federation and the Combat Antisemitism Movement, which bills itself as a non-partisan, global grassroots movement of individuals and organizations, across all religions and faiths, united to combat antisemitism. The organization’s director, Sacha Roytman-Dratwa, presented Al-Issa with the movement’s first annual award recognizing Muslim leadership against antisemitism.
“We have been reminded that, even in countries as advanced and multicultural as the United States, misunderstanding and mistrust is dangerous when allowed to fester,” Al-Issa said in an address that was translated from Arabic. “It can lead to anger, violence and social divisions that help no one. Everywhere in the world, we face challenges in building the bridges of communication, partnership and friendship. But, in a world with many complicated threats, from terrorism to global pandemics, our partnerships are more important than ever.”
He talked about the unifying global fight against coronavirus which, he said, “does not care if a person is Muslim or non-Muslim, Jew or non-Jew, Christian or non-Christian … rich or poor, educated or non-educated.”
That unity is a model for opposing the spread of hatred and intolerance, he said, even as extremists attempt to exploit the current uncertainty to push hatred and division.
He spoke of his visit in January to the death camp in Poland, as well as his numerous visits to synagogues and Jewish museums.
“I stood united alongside my Jewish brothers and said, ‘never again.’ Not for Jews, not for Muslims, not for Christians, not for Hindus, not for Sikhs, not for any of God’s children,” said Al-Issa. “History’s greatest horror, the Holocaust, must never be repeated.… The 1.1 million people murdered at Auschwitz were human beings, just like any other, just like any Muslim. And even though it has been 75 years since the gates of the Auschwitz death camp were torn down, creating a better world for future generations is a constant struggle that we must not give up on.”
He cited murders of Muslims in New Zealand, Christians in Sri Lanka and Jews in the United States as indications of the work remaining to be done.
“Whereas Jews and Muslims lived centuries together, in these last decades we have sadly grown apart,” he said. Since taking the helm of the Muslim World League in 2016, he has tried to build bridges with Jewish and Christian communities. He has also been vocal in fighting Holocaust denial in Muslim circles.
“There are those who still try to falsify history, who claim the Holocaust, the most despised crime in human history, is fiction,” he said. “We stand against these liars, no matter who they are or where they come from, for denying history can only serve to further the aims of those who perpetrate hateful ideas of racial, ethnic or religious purity.”
Continued genocides, in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and now Myanmar, show that the lessons of the Holocaust are universal, he said.
“Muslims have a responsibility to learn them, heed the warning of history and stand as part of the international community to say, ‘never again,’” Al-Issa said. “We will act together to make just peace a reality for Jews and Muslims, and for all people, religions, civilizations and cultures.”
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver were among 125 partners presenting a global commemoration of the 77th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising recently.
Beginning and ending with stirring renditions of the “Partisans’ Hymn,” the online event, which also commemorated the end of the Second World War 75 years ago, featured a long list of singers and performers from Hollywood, Broadway and elsewhere, including Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Mayim Bialik, Whoopi Goldberg, Adrien Brody, Lauren Ambrose and dozens more.
We Are Here: A Celebration of Resilience, Resistance and Hope, which took place June 14, was produced by the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Sing for Hope, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and the Lang Lang International Music Foundation.
“Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”) is generally called “The Partisans’ Song” or “The Partisans’ Hymn” in English and is an anthem of resilience amid catastrophe sung at Holocaust commemorative events. Written in the Vilna Ghetto by Hirsh Glik after he learned of the six-week uprising by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, its stirring concluding lines translate as, “So never say you now go on your last way / Though darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day / Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near / Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, ‘We are here!’”
Other musical performances included a Yiddish rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” adapted and performed by pianist and singer Daniel Kahn; “Over the Rainbow,” from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg, two friends from the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, against the spectre of a darkening Europe; and “Es Brent” (“In Flames”), a musical cri de coeur written in 1936 by Mordechai Gebirtig after what he viewed as the world’s indifference to a pogrom in the Polish town of Przycik.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of the state of New York, spoke of his father, the late former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who helped ensure the creation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the world’s third-largest Holocaust museum.
One of the other presenting partners, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is the longest continuously producing Yiddish theatre company in the world, now in its 105th season. It was founded to entertain and enlighten the three million Jews who arrived in New York City between 1880 and 1920.
Sing for Hope, another partner, believes in the power of the arts to create a better world. Its mission is to “bring hope, healing and connection to millions of people worldwide in hospitals, schools, refugee camps and transit hubs.”
The Lang Lang International Music Foundation aims “to educate, inspire and motivate the next generation of classical music lovers and performers and to encourage music performance at all levels as a means of social development for youth, building self-confidence and a drive for excellence.”
The program, which runs approximately 90 minutes, is available for viewing at wearehere.live.