Alexandra Gerson, centre, says a few words at a Jewish talent show put on by Radio VERA last year. (photo from Radio VERA)
“I have a dream: I want to bring together Russian-speaking and English-speaking Jews in Canada, to unite them into one seamless whole. All I do, my Radio VERA included, is serving that goal,” said Alexandra Gerson, a co-owner of VERA.
This year, VERA celebrates its 10th anniversary. Timed to coincide with that milestone, the radio station is helping bring the concert Le Chaim to Richmond’s Gateway Theatre on Feb. 3.
“VERA is an acronym of the words Vancouver Jewish Russian Association, in Russian,” Gerson explained. She said VERA’s roots lie in her previous radio program, Russian Voice, a pre-taped one-hour weekly show in Russian, which launched in 2001 with the financial support of David Stevens. The program had mostly Jewish content, but it didn’t last long. From its inception, Gerson said she received multiple antisemitic threats and her car was vandalized. Home-grown Russian extremists were not happy with a Jewish program called Russian Voice, she said, and they kept harassing her. Concerned for her young daughter’s safety, with the police urging caution, Gerson eventually closed the program, but she didn’t give up her love for radio. “You can listen to the radio anywhere, in your car, in your home or office, working or resting,” she mused.
Her radio work brought her into the midst of the Zionist movement in Canada. “I’ve lived in Canada for 24 years,” she said. “My father was a Zionist, and Jewish ideas are dear to me. I’ve always liked being a Jew. I work for the Jews of Canada. I’m an official representative of the World Zionist Organization in Canada, and my Radio VERA is an integral part of my work. It promotes Jewish ideas and is a pro-Israel station. I come to the studio every morning, turn on the microphone, and say, ‘Hello, Jews!’ And feel proud.”
Gerson’s pride in her Jewishness pushed her towards attending seminars and workshops on Jewish leadership. During one of them, in 2003, she met Dmitry Shiglik, an American businessman and a dynamic figure in the Russian-Jewish world. He became a steady backer of her then-new endeavor, Radio VERA, which broadcasted its first show in 2008.
“VERA broadcasts live five days a week, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.,” Gerson said. “It’s the most expensive time, when everyone is in their cars, heading for work. We exist because of our generous donors: Yosef Wosk, Alex Kivritsky of the HiFi Centre and, of course, Dmitry Shiglik, my co-owner.”
She stressed that VERA is not, and hasn’t been for a long time, a Russian radio broadcast. “It stopped being ethnic years ago. We do interviews about what is of interest to everyone. For example, North Korea is on people’s mind these days, so we did an interview with the editor of the Russian newspaper in Seoul.”
Every morning, listeners of VERA can expect relevant and time-sensitive interviews in two languages: Russian and English. “We do interviews in whatever language our guest prefers,” said Gerson. “Our hosts switch languages fluidly, as the situation demands. We’re the only radio station in Canada, maybe in the world, with such an approach. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Russian- and English-speaking people often have different mentalities, born in different cultures, so we have to use different techniques of conducting interviews.”
VERA, which is part of Fairchild Radio 96.1 FM, has interviewed most Canadian politicians, top people from the Russian and Israeli governments, international performing artists and athletes, writers and musicians. They usually conduct two interviews each show.
“At first, our listeners were almost exclusively local Russian pensioners, listening for the language,” said Gerson. “As we continued our bilingual policy, a middle-aged group joined in for content in both languages. Then we added overseas and non-Russian speakers, who regularly tune in to our programs. In a way, they know us better in the U.S.A. than in Canada. We have listeners in Israel, Russia and Europe. There are two ways to access our programs: live on the radio during the broadcast or online through our website, where we keep the archives of all the programs we’ve done in 10 years. Our site has up to 15,000 visitors a day.”
Despite the large amount of traffic and the work needed to produce a two-hour program five days a week, VERA has only three employees. “Pavel Manugevich and Denis Manzar are both my co-hosts, and Alex Kivritsky is our CEO,” Gerson said. Manugevich “has been with VERA since the beginning; he is a professional journalist. Denis Manzar has been co-hosting VERA programs for two years; outside the studio, he is a lawyer and a documentary filmmaker.”
Through her work on VERA, Gerson personifies a cosmopolitan blend of Jewish, Russian and Canadian. In 2014, she was named Russian-American Person of the Year in the media category. According to its website, the honour is presented by Universal Awards Management and the World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry, with support from the American Council for World Jewry. Gerson – the only Canadian to have received the honour – shared her award with American-Russian journalist Victor Topaller, who is also Jewish.
But Gerson isn’t resting on her accomplishments. She is always looking for ways to bring the Jews of Canada together, no matter their points of origin. As an example, three years ago, VERA started a new multi-faceted platform that goes beyond the radio.
“We have our annual sports day,” Gerson explained. “We organize the annual festival of Jewish children’s art and various Jewish holidays. Every year, we take 40 of our listeners on a trip to Israel, and we frequently promote concerts of Jewish performers.” It is in the latter regard that VERA is sponsoring the upcoming gala concert Le Chaim, which is the brainchild of Mikhail Gluz, artistic director of the Solomon Mikhoels Cultural Centre in Moscow.
“I’ve known Mikhail Gluz for several years,” said Gerson. “We first met in Moscow and, afterwards, regularly exchanged emails and swapped ideas. He told me about his new project, Le Chaim, a traveling show of Russian-Jewish performers from Russia, Israel and North America. He wanted to tour Le Chaim across Canada and the U.S., performing in any major city that would offer a venue, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the state of Israel. It is the first such project in Canada organized by Russian Jews in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut.”
In addition to celebrating Israel’s Independence Day, the concert, which will also feature a documentary and historical footage, commemorates the 20th anniversary of the International Solomon Mikhoels Festival of Arts and is dedicated to International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“When I heard about Le Chaim, I wanted to bring it to Vancouver, to coincide with the 10th birthday of Radio VERA,” said Gerson. “Mikhail was not eager at first. He said it wasn’t a commercially viable suggestion, the Vancouver Jewish community being much smaller than the other cities on their itinerary. But Yosef Wosk supported the idea and donated the money to make it possible.”
One of the performers in Le Chaim, Jewish jazz singer Alla Reed, has visited Vancouver before. “I loved it,” she said on the telephone from Russia. “Other cities have clean air or beautiful nature or thriving culture or receptive audience, but Vancouver has it all together. And it also has wonderful people, like Sasha [Gerson] and her Radio VERA. I look forward to meeting my friends and singing in Vancouver again.”
For more information on VERA, visit veracanada.fm. Tickets for Le Chaim on Feb. 3, 7 p.m., can be purchased via VERA or from Gateway Theatre at 604-270-1812 or gatewaytheatre.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].