Ezra S. Shanken has been busy since arriving in Vancouver. (photo from Ezra S. Shanken)
“I said at our AGM that I want a Federation today that is with you in your brightest and darkest times, not because of what you give but because of who you are, and I intend to spend my years here using that statement as a driver of my performance.”
A praiseworthy benchmark for Ezra S. Shanken, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s new chief executive officer. Since he began in June, he has been busy, attending the launch of JHub in Richmond, participating in Federation’s June 16 annual general meeting, attending several community events, appearing on the radio show JFSA Voice, helping organize the community response to the Israel-Hamas conflict, joining volunteers at the Surrey Fusion Festival’s first-ever Israel pavilion, visiting various local community institutions, traveling to Israel, the list goes on.
Born in New York City, Shanken grew up in Teaneck, N.J. He is the third generation of Shankens to be involved in Jewish communal service. “For me, this is a family business of sorts,” he told the Independent, adding, “… that is something I take great pride in.”
His father was cultural arts director at the Jewish community centre when Shanken was in nursery school, before becoming an inner city high school teacher. Shanken’s grandfather flew 55 missions over Europe in the Second World War as a bombardier and then became a rabbi; he also participated in the Freedom Rides, which successfully challenged segregation in interstate bus terminals in the American South. “He is a true inspiration and I keep a picture of him and his bomber crew on my wall in my office,” said Shanken.
While Shanken has become a community professional, he admitted in an interview with ejewishphilanthropy.com that his career in this field was unexpected. About his move to Colorado after college, he told the online publisher, “The idea was to go for a year to escape from NYC, but that one year turned into eight years and into the building block to who I’ve become as a Jewish communal professional.”
Needing a job, he applied to the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado. He credits Susan Kramer, now JEWISHcolorado chief development officer, with seeing something in him. “I went from somebody seeing something in me to me seeing something in myself to having an opportunity to see something in other people and help them along,” he told ejewishphilanthropy.com.
Shanken was at JEWISHcolorado for six years, working there in different capacities, ultimately becoming senior manager of the young adult department and major gifts. He also co-founded E-3 Event in Colorado, an organization focused on arts-based events for younger Jews (20s through early 40s). Shanken comes to Vancouver from New York, however, where he directed Emerging Leaders and Philanthropists at UJA-Federation of New York from mid-2011.
Growing up through the public school system – but attending Jewish summer camp (Ramah in the Berkshires) – Shanken did his undergraduate degree in political economics at the University of Hartford, where he was president of Hillel, and his graduate work in nonprofit management at Regis University.
“As a kid, I wanted to be a garbage man, fireman, fighter pilot but by high school I had the experience of going to Washington, D.C., and volunteering during the Clintons’ second inauguration, and that got me on to the idea of being involved in public service,” Shanken told the Independent.
Internships in his “junior and senior years of high school for a local Jewish congressman … connected to internships and experiences far out into the future,” he added.
Now, at 34, he is one of the youngest CEOs in the Federation system. And his approach has reflected that, with Shanken having been an avid user of social media throughout his career.
“I have been a big believer in social media as an outreach tool in Jewish communal work,” he said. “There is no question in my mind that if we want to engage the next generation of Jews, we are going to have to engage in the social media space. I am active on Twitter under the handle @eshanken, Facebook and Instagram. I love to share what I and we are doing every day with my followers and friends because what we do and where I get to be is truly special.”
While encouraging people to follow him on any of these media, he noted that the internet has limitations with respect to its ability to bring people and ideas together.
“To this date, I never turn down an offer to have coffee, and judge the success of my week by how many people I get together with.”
“It is my opinion that, to date, there is not a platform that replaces two chairs, a table and cups of whatever you choose,” he said. “My goal in using online platforms is to move the relationship offline. When I was developing the young leadership department at the Colorado Federation, I found the best thing we did was have hundreds of coffees where we asked young professionals, ‘Under what circumstances could you see yourself getting more involved in the organized Jewish community?’ To this date, I never turn down an offer to have coffee, and judge the success of my week by how many people I get together with.”
Informal and formal discussions will determine Federation’s – and the community’s – future trajectory.
Said Shanken, “We will be entering into a strategic visioning process with the goal of having these types of conversations. The ultimate goal is to move from strength to excellence in each of our fields of practice. For me, personally, I am more interested in the processes over the product. Creating long-lasting change in Jewish communal life is like speeding up the rotation of the earth a little at a time so people don’t fall down.”
About relocating to the other side of the continent? “Rachel and I feel truly blessed to be here in Vancouver,” said Shanken of his and his wife’s move here. “We have been blown away by the beauty of the scenery and the warmth of the community. The biggest challenge for us was figuring out how to sort our garbage at the house but once we figured that out we saw such value in it. Work-wise, my summer has been dominated, like many in our community, by the crisis [in Israel-Gaza]. However, through the crisis, I have seen the community come together in beautiful ways to show their support for Israel and each other during this difficult time.
“This community has one very special thing going for it because of the hard work of those who are around me and came before me,” he said. “We have rabbis who have built relationships across the streams of Judaism and agencies that, on the whole, get along with each other. I take it as a personal mission to keep those relationships strong because with relationships like we have, the sky is the limit to what we can accomplish.”