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 falafel plate at Ofra’s Kitchen. (photo from Ofra’s)
Ask Ofra Sixto what makes her Israeli-Moroccan restaurant successful and she’ll unabashedly tell you: it’s keeping a positive attitude. But it takes a whole lot of moxie, too.
After all, it isn’t easy to launch a new restaurant in the midst of an unexpected economic shutdown and to create enough name recognition that patrons are willing to line up at your door for takeout. But that all speaks to the allure of Ofra’s Kitchen, which opened this past December, just as the holiday season was coming into full swing. Sixto, who owned a Moroccan restaurant on Hastings Street with her brother years ago, said it’s been her dream to open another restaurant – this time centring on vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Her previous restaurant was called Jacqueline Moroccan Food and was named after her late sister. When her brother was forced to return to Israel, the two siblings realized they would have no choice but to close the restaurant.
Jacqueline’s “was very successful. Very,” Sixto acknowledged.
It was the venue’s eclectic Israeli-Moroccan cuisine that later gave her the idea for a vegetarian follow-up focusing on classic Israeli dishes and flavourful specialties from around the Middle East.
“There is a great need, I think, for good vegetarian cuisine,” she said.
As a “flexible vegan,” Sixto said she often has trouble finding truly appealing food when she eats out. “When I go to a restaurant and I ask, ‘Do you have anything vegetarian?’ they push a salad. I’m not a rabbit, I want something substantial, right? So, when you come to my restaurant, you actually eat food. You eat really, really good and healthy and fresh and made-on-the-spot food that makes you feel good.”
The choices run the gamut from iconic falafel and pita, shakshuka and Israeli salad to lesser-known Iraqi kube and delicately spiced Moroccan beet salad. Diners can also enjoy an array of traditionally made desserts and Turkish coffee.
Asked about her favourite dish, Sixto admitted she is partial to eggplant, which plays a starring role in several of her popular dishes. Her sabih – a Tel Aviv specialty that consists of fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, tahina and an Israeli chutney – can be ordered as a pita sandwich or as a platter. She also serves homemade babaganoush and eggplant salad, early pioneer dishes that are still popular in Israel today.
“And, of course, my falafel is the best in town,” she said. “Not only by what I say but everybody else who eats it. It’s fresh, it’s crunchy outside, it’s moist and soft inside. It’s beautiful.”
But cooking isn’t the only exceptional quality that she brings to Denman Street. A big heart and an innate sense of civic responsibility are helping mobilize a small movement to ensure that those who can’t afford to eat at Denman’s restaurants also have food to eat.
Earlier this year, Sixto noticed that the number of individuals on Denman who were homeless was growing. She said the economic shutdown, which closed many establishments and sections of streets in downtown Vancouver, exacerbated the homeless problem, forcing many people onto Denman from Robson and Granville. Rather than ignoring the issue, Sixto decided to do something to help.
“When I would walk [to work] I would see so many homeless people. I decided, you know, I need to do something about it. I have the means and I could help – whatever my capacity is, right? So, I started feeding the homeless by giving away soup and falafels.”
And her reputation began to grow. “I mean, they are hungry,” said Sixto. “They get drinks, they get food, whatever they need.”
In time, she decided she could do even more. “I decided to make it a social thing and make people be a part of the solution.”
She began letting customers know that each $5 they donated would go toward feeding an individual who was homeless. Sixto said the idea is catching on. “It’s amazingly successful,” she said.
So far, Sixto estimates she has given out in excess of 1,300 meals. She admitted that the donations she receives don’t fully cover the out-of-pocket expenses. “But it doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “It’s not about that $5 that people give. It’s about the acknowledgment of the situation.
“You know, I speak with [the people living on the street],” Sixto said. “I stop and say, how are you today? Did you eat anything? How are you feeling? They are people. They were babies. Somebody loved them or not when they were babies, you know? Something happened to these people along their lives [before they got to where] they are. Nobody chooses to live on the street because it’s fun, right?”
In June, the province of British Columbia issued a revised health order to guide restaurants in how they can operate safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Sixto has taken those rules to heart. Her seating is about half-capacity, with tables situated two metres apart. And she has some gentle ground rules: patrons must agree to sanitize (either with hand sanitizer or by handwashing) when entering the restaurant and wear a mask when walking to and from the table.
Sixto also supports the province’s request to record the contact information of at least one customer per table. According to the province’s health office, the information is retained only in case COVID-19 contact tracing is necessary. Sixto said most people appreciate the effort that restaurant owners are making to keep their venues safe and comfortable.
When it came to navigating the recent shutdown, Sixto said her landlord played a big role. “My landlord is amazing,” she said. The temporary rent reduction allowed her to keep operating – “I never closed, not even for one day.”
Ofra’s Kitchen, located at 1088 Denman St., in Vancouver (604-688-2444, ofraskitchen.com), is open Israeli hours, starting at 11:30 a.m. and closing at “8ish” in the evening.
“As long as there are people, I’m feeding them. If you come by and I am there, I will open the door and seat you,” Sixto said. “Just like Israeli hours.”
Jan Lee’s articles and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Rosh Hashanah is a time of new beginnings, a time to reflect on a year gone by and on the new year ahead. As is often the case with new beginnings, it is also a time of uncertainty. Last Rosh Hashanah, we wished one another a sweet year, unsure of the future but hopeful of things to come.
As we herald the arrival of this new year, we do so understanding that we control far less than we had thought. Normally, the uncertainty that comes with a new start is imbued with hope for the possibilities ahead. This year, however, it is uncertainty itself that dominates. As 5780 draws to a close, we have learned that we must seek what we can rely on: the strength of our community and our resolve to face these unprecedented challenges together.
In 5780, the challenges were many, and our community met them with an empowering, inspiring and united response.
When urgent help was needed, social service agencies and not-for-profits mobilized, delivering food, providing services remotely and offering support to those who needed it most. Jewish federations shifted their focus to emergency fundraising campaigns to meet the immediate needs of agencies on the frontlines, ensuring that the changing needs of our most vulnerable were met.
When COVID-19 hit, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver immediately released $505,000 in emergency funds to meet these urgent needs and continues working with donors to generate additional funds for community recovery. CIJA advocated for the inclusion of not-for-profits in government support programs, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, and helped ensure that Jewish schools were eligible. Volunteers mobilized by the thousands, responding to calls for assistance, helping the many seriously impacted by COVID-19.
Our community was tested in other ways, as antisemitism, the crafty shapeshifter that is always on the move, found new outlets during the pandemic. With Statistics Canada reporting a rise in antisemitic incidents through 5780, our community from coast to coast continued to unite, offering support where it was needed most. Indeed, this was the year we learned the many ways we could help and, for far too many, how to reach out to ask for help ourselves.
As we renew our talk of new beginnings at the conclusion of a year defined by uncertainty, many wonder: how can we plan for the year ahead?
For 5781, we must change our approach and, instead of planning according to dates on a calendar, look at our character for the coming year. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz z”l, wrote, “This does not mean, however, that, on Rosh Hashanah, one should make plans for the whole year. That would be impossible…. What one should do on this day is form a general picture of what ought to be the character and direction of this year.”
For 5781, we can accept the uncertainty of what is to come and focus on the knowledge that we can rely on the tested strength of our community. And that continued strength is up to us. We can commit to volunteering our time and, if we can, donating our money. We can commit to finding creative ways to give back and offering support to those experiencing hardship. Instead of planning large events or travel, we can plan to lean on our community when in need and support it every way we can. We can plan to check in on those who are vulnerable, to be more understanding of ourselves and others, and to be more present when given the gift of company among our loved ones.
As we reframe what planning looks like for 5781, it can be difficult to determine how best to dedicate our efforts. There are many good causes that need our help. Instead of being overwhelmed, be reassured that, for whatever assistance you can offer, there is a worthy cause, organization or initiative looking for someone just like you. Federations are great starting places. Check out your local campaign and learn what their various service agencies and not-for-profits are doing.
Though much of the past year has been uncertain, Rosh Hashanah presents us with a chance to start anew. We can still hope for and work toward a better tomorrow. The coming year will be defined not by our individual wishes and schedules but by our collective character and commitment to our community. Planning for uncertainty may seem counter-intuitive, but history has shown that we have the capacity to come together and overcome even the darkest of times. As we look ahead to 5781, amid all the unknowns, one thing remains certain: our community will continue from strength to strength.
Judy Zelikovitzis vice-president, university and local partner services, at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
We often use the High Holidays for self-reflection. Consider, we’re urged, the year that has passed and the future. For me, the pandemic and its uncertainty has made me less focused on the year to come. Instead, I’ve been taking a positive accounting of things I’ve experienced this year – and it’s actually quite a lot.
First, there’s been more time for our family to do Jewish learning and “attend” synagogue at home. It’s been easy to turn on Saturday morning services or a special lecture or a concert and expose the family to more Jewish content. The internet has made us feel welcome everywhere. This a huge leap ahead of what we often got out of “business as usual,” pre-pandemic.
Learning in general has changed. As someone who used to teach, I was wary of homeschooling. To be fair, I’ve met some very bright kids who’ve been homeschooled. I’ve also met some odd folks, so focused on their (often evangelical) religious views that it got in the way of making other connections. As but one example, once, I drove with my husband to visit a local farm that advertised sheep fleeces for sale. I’m a hand spinner, and we thought the drive would be fun. I met a large family living in a series of rundown buildings and trailers, wearing an interesting assortment of “traditional” clothing. These isolated, homeschooled evangelical kids led me into a trailer full of both wool and wasps, all eagerly telling me about their visions of the end-times. I left with some wool, but only because my husband and I couldn’t find any other way to politely extricate ourselves.
I’d been scared that, if I ever homeschooled my kids, it would become claustrophobic, bad for the kids and hard for me to catch a break. This was the case when remote schooling started in March. Getting the kids onto the online school meetings and keeping things afloat with a poor internet connection and somewhat spotty assignments from teachers was awful.
When school ended, we were relieved. I kept doing some learning with them each morning, though. Reading, math, cursive, Duolingo (online language learning for Hebrew), art, architecture and design, music and science/STEM learning have kept us busy, along with long walks, playing outside, swimming and more. Sure, I don’t have much alone time. Time for work (or even work to do!) has been limited, but that’s OK, in the circumstances.
Our kids are supposed to go back to school in person this fall, and we’ll see how long that lasts. I don’t dread homeschooling as much now. Setting our own agenda resulted in kids who may be more socially isolated, but they’ve learned a lot. They read better now in two languages, and their math has improved.
Disconnecting from the school-extracurricular activities-synagogue cycle hasn’t been bad either. Those demands came with a lot of pressure. The need to keep up, fit in, afford it and get there on time is stressful. It is easier to practise piano, play soccer in the yard or turn on the services via Zoom than to get to everything in person. Further, there’s no weird social interaction with other families about what we’re wearing, or just how hip we are. (We’re so not hip.)
Making things ourselves has been a mostly good, too – lots of cooking and other activities. Last fall, I started using my sewing machine, after years off. I took sewing lessons as a kid but never gained confidence. Pre-pandemic, I’d sewn myself a few things and remembered how to do this. Returning to it has been a great gift. I’ve figured out making masks, fixing and making clothing. Better still, because of the pandemic, I’ve been able to shop for supplies online and support small businesses selling sustainable or deadstock fabrics. I didn’t have time to go shopping for this stuff in person before the pandemic. Now, most everything is online. I can make plans for kid pajama pants, and dresses and pants for myself, in the future.
We’ve enjoyed some amazing concerts, held outdoors on our block. A talented musician/producer neighbour with a big front porch invites guests to come set up chairs and blankets, social distance and enjoy. Musicians perform for donations, and we all benefit. We’ve heard baroque, classical, flamenco, jazz, old-time and folk. If we sometimes can’t get outside as a family to hear it, the music floats up into our second-storey windows when the wind blows the right way.
Art has blossomed, not only in our family’s projects, but at the “little free art box,” which is run by an artist in the area. Much like a Little Free Library, one can open the box, take art or put art inside for others. We’ve shared kid watercolours and my handspun yarn, and received gorgeous charcoal sketches, pen and ink, and other delights. We’ve traded and celebrated the skills of others nearby. Our diverse community is rich with talent.
None of these small positive things can compensate for the many deaths and illnesses of COVID-19, nor the economic devastation to so many businesses and workers. The downsides this year have been huge. However, last night, I watched as my kids created a caravan on the blanket spread on the grass. We were listening to live music, as my mind leapt to the text I’d been learning from Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day). The rabbis are trying to explain how to make a temporary boundary around a caravan as one traveled and camped on Shabbat. They mentioned using saddles and camels, and debated how much space each person might need.
The blanket caravan consisted of several toy trains and hard plastic rhinos and elephants, lined up nose to tail in a circle. The tractate Eruvin is about boundaries – what boundaries make it safe to carry on Shabbat? In the time of coronavirus, I was transported to a different kind of caravan and boundary. Our families have “circled the wagons.” We’ve been forced to stay put and look inwards – but also to be outdoors. What value can be found in these new enforced boundaries? What positive things can come from those necessary restrictions? In our house, we can say that art, music, handmade creations and learning can be celebrated as we finish 5780 and begin 5781. It’s been a valuable time, even as illness, hardship, fear and sadness danced at the edges of every day’s newscast.
From my (socially distanced) house to yours – may we all have a happy and sweet new year, full of creation, positivity and, most importantly, good health.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
The author with her dog, Kesem. (photo from Dolores Luber)
It was mid-March. All I had been hearing and seeing on the news were the words and images related to contagion, epidemic, China’s wet markets, people enjoying the delicacy of cooked bats, pandemic and COVID-19. It was getting louder and closer, somehow it traveled from China across the Pacific to Vancouver. We were now dealing with the pandemic in Vancouver, we were in lockdown, even if the government never called it that.
In a flash, my household emptied out. My housemate, a University of British Columbia student, went back home; all her courses were now online. My boarder, a psychiatric nurse, scared of catching the virus and infecting me and her immune-compromised partner, took a six-month leave of absence from her work and joined him on a sailboat off the coast of Vancouver Island. I cleaned and organized and then it hit me – I was alone in the house with my Standard Poodle puppy Kesem. His name means “magic” in Hebrew and he truly is a wonderful companion, but….
Lockdown, what was that? We all had to create our own version. I maintained my Hebrew classes by means of Zoom, I continued working out with two personal trainers in my home gym. We did not touch each other. I went to the off-leash dog park every afternoon. We practised social distancing.
Then, a classmate of mine became hospitalized with the virus – I had not seen her for 10 days. I isolated myself for an additional week, not one of our group became ill. She is the only one I know who has contracted the virus. I was feeling proud of myself, I was managing well. As the editor-in-chief, I had produced the July edition of Senior Line magazine for Jewish Seniors Alliance on schedule. It was a labour of love, responding to the pandemic and the issues of the times. Everything was under control.
July 22 is my birthday. At the beginning of July, I began to feel very lonely. I had not seen any of my four sons, daughters-in-law or nine grandchildren for a long time. The planned family reunion in Oakville, Ont., was an event I had been looking forward to. My children had grown up in Beaconsfield, Que., and my youngest son had organized a fabulous get-together of all his friends who lived in the neighbourhood during his childhood. Photographs were collected, videos created, all plans had been made before the lockdown.
We gradually began to understand that the situation was not going to end soon; we were in it for the long haul. The reunion was canceled. I always see my children on my birthday, but, this time, I received FaceTime calls, beautiful cards, splendid flowers, but no hugs, no kisses, no warmth, no human touches. My thoughts were becoming very negative and gloomy; worst-case scenarios played in my head. I thought of moving back to Ontario to be with my youngest son; I researched buying a house in Oakville. I was experiencing symptoms of depression.
As a retired psychotherapist, I recognized the symptoms – among them, exaggerated feelings of sadness and loneliness. I made an effort to study more and read more Hebrew. I pushed harder in my workouts with my trainers. I developed and implemented a plan for the fall Senior Line magazine. By the end of July, I was thinking in a more balanced fashion. I had gotten through the rough spot and was well again.
Depression can be insidious, it can creep up on you. It is important to do a reality check with friends or family members from time to time. Isolation warps the processes of the brain. The chemicals in our brains can become unbalanced. Usually increased physical activity and enhanced social interaction can counteract the symptoms of mild depression. Beware!
Dolores Luber, a retired psychotherapist and psychology teacher, is editor of Jewish Seniors Alliance’s Senior Line magazine and website (jsalliance.org). She blogs for yossilinks.com and writes movie reviews for the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library website.
I was introduced to the Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder by a dear friend, at whose home I celebrate most of the Jewish holidays. This New Year’s, given the pandemic and that we are not in each other’s immediate bubble, I will join their seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah either outdoors, weather permit, I was looking, perhaps, to prepare myself mentally for this year’s socially distanced gathering, and a Zoom with my family in Ontario, when I thought of the idea for the cover, which is created using watercolour and ink (and surprisingly little Photoshop).
In a Sephardi or Mizrahi seder, special dishes are served of specific foods whose Hebrew or Aramaic names are linked in a blessing to another word that has the same root letters. Puns flourish. So, for example, the Hebrew word for carrot and that for decree have different vowels but the same root letters – gimel, zayin and resh – and the blessing over the carrots translates as, “May it be your will, Lord our God, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.” The word for leeks, chives or scallions – karti – is akin to yikartu, cut off, so the blessing over these vegetables is, “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”
Spinach or beet leaves also symbolize the hope that God will make our enemies retreat and we can “beat” a way to freedom. Dates carry the hope that hatred will end; the many seeds of a pomegranate that our mitzvot will be many; an apple that we will have a sweet year; string beans that our merits will increase; a pumpkin or gourd that God will “tear” away all evil edicts against us, while our merits are proclaimed. You get the idea.
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.
“Resistance” by Dorothy Doherty. Part of the Beyond the Surface exhibition now on at the Zack Gallery until Sept. 8. (photo from gallery)
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver has opened its doors again, at least partially, and the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery is presenting a new exhibition, Beyond the Surface. Art lovers can make appointments to tour the show in person. It features five local artists – Janice Beaudoin, Olga Campbell, Dorothy Doherty, Jane McDougall and Ellen Pelto – and the Jewish Independent interviewed them recently by email about their art, and how the pandemic has affected them.
“This exhibit was originally scheduled for June 4,” said Campbell. “Because of COVID, it was a bit late. It was hung on June 18, and the virtual opening through Zoom was on July 8.”
Last year, the five artists attended a five-day workshop in Victoria led by California artist Michael Shemchuk, though some of them had met before then.
“Dorothy and I have been friends for 45 years,” said Pelto. “I met her in a clay class she was instructing. I’ve also known Olga for eight years.”
“I met Olga Campbell in various art workshops in Vancouver and then spent five years on campus with her at Capilano College between 2008 and 2014,” said Doherty. “We took some classes together and worked independently in others, all the while growing in friendship.”
Doherty, who has taken Shemchuk’s workshops several times over the years, met McDougall and Beaudoin at one or another of those sessions. And Shemchuk’s teaching, especially on the paper layering technique, has been instrumental in the birth of this Zack show.
“A couple of us thought that it would be interesting to show some of the work that we had created in his workshop,” Campbell recalled. “We thought that five [artists] would be a good number to demonstrate the cohesiveness of the art, as a result of us all using the same techniques, but also showcase each of our individual styles.”
Doherty came up with the title, Beyond the Surface. She said the rest of the group quickly agreed. “I think the word surface resonated with us because we all do unique surface treatments,” she said. “Surface is really important in art and in life, but we always want people to look beyond appearances – learn about people and artwork in greater depth.”
To produce the works, the artists manipulated a surface in many ways. They layered, sanded, abraded and painted it; even cut into it to reveal what lay beneath.
Beaudoin elaborated: “Beyond the Surface is the ideal name for this show, as the technique we all used is based on the process of layering paper and paint. As we add and subtract paint and materials by sanding or scraping, each artist makes decisions about what elements to reveal and what to hide. The final surface is one that often appears aged and somewhat mysterious, providing the viewer with enticing glimpses of things that are hidden beneath the surface and leaving them to wonder what has been covered.”
In a way, this show’s unusual story echoes its title as well. While a traditional vernissage is an event where art connoisseurs mingle inside a gallery, the pandemic forced Zack Gallery director Hope Forstenzer to show and promote the art digitally.
“She did a virtual tour of our show at the JCC,” said Campbell, “and she is also interviewing each of us in our studios live via Zoom, so that people can see our art and have a virtual tour of our studios.”
The artists mused about the changes in their field and in gallery procedures wrought by COVID-19.
“My sense is that pandemic or no pandemic, artists will always make art. The biggest challenge is going to be getting the art out to the world to enjoy,” said Beaudoin. “There is always a basic human desire to stand before a work of art in person. That is definitely the best way to engage with a painting. However, there is a generation of media savvy younger art buyers who are used to purchasing things by seeing them on a computer screen. I think that galleries that are working to provide virtual viewing options are the ones that will survive. The art world, like all industries, really has no choice but to adapt.
“I also feel that it must be acknowledged that many people still find comfort in seeing art in person. The art world is known for its fun social events – and we know now that the comfort of human contact cannot be fully recreated online. My sense is the future of art shows and museums will be a carefully managed balance of socially distanced in-person viewing and virtual showings.”
“I have been fortunate,” said Campbell. “I continue to meet regularly with three other artists. We create our art at home and then share it with each other on Zoom. With another artist friend, I have been playing Photoshop tennis online. One person sends the other an image, the other person adds another image through Photoshop, and this continues until the piece is finished.… I think that we are in this for the long haul; two years, maybe more. I think that, in the future, art shows will continue in real life – in fact, it is already happening – but I do think that some of the virtual things will remain.”
“It’s hard to say how the pandemic will change exhibition practices in the future,” said Doherty. “I do appreciate all the online exhibits, as there would be no other way to see many of these exhibitions. But I really believe there is no substitute for the gallery system as we know it, with wonderful opening nights and the ability to see the artwork in person. We need that direct exchange of human energy, and the feedback we get from visitors and friends. We need access to art in galleries and to artifacts in museums – it’s how we learn. I have always said, despite my gratitude for online Zoom meetings, that the human experience is not the same. It’s flat instead of three-dimensional. We are looking at screens. We are not looking at the real person. There is no exchange of human energy online. We need direct human contact. That’s what we need to live happy, successful lives.”
For McDougall, the pandemic hasn’t changed much for her. “I think most visual artists are used to working in isolation. My art practice has remained the same,” she said. “Listening to CBC in my studio keeps me up to date on the world and, of course, most of the talk is about COVID. I feel grateful to live in B.C.
“I am generally a positive person and my thoughts reflect that. I think there will be more of an online presence for art,” McDougall continued. “And, like Hope Forstenzer’s example throughout this show, there will be interactive web calls and taped studio visits. Because of that, artists will become more involved in the galleries. Long term, I think the pandemic will pass. Art galleries and museums will always be an important element in education and sharing the past. Nothing will replace the up close and personal view of art.”
Pelto agreed. COVID has changed exhibition practices, she said, and “will inevitably change the future practice of making, exhibiting, buying and selling art. However, people will always need to see art. That will not change. People need to see it to appreciate the scale, proportions, richness of colours and textures, and to feel their evocative response. Some of the positive outcomes include the creation of more and stronger online artistic communities. The online presence increases exposure for artists, and interesting themes will emerge in art that will define the human condition of COVID.”
Beyond the Surface runs until Sept. 8.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) has recently published Parenting in a Pandemic: A Guide for the Perplexed. Part of Project L’Chaim, a new Vancouver-wide youth mental health initiative in memory of Steven Diamond, the 36-page booklet is filled with insights and practical tools from 14 mental health experts to help parents and educators support their teens through the current crisis.
New York-based Rabbi Zalman Abraham runs the marketing and strategic planning for JLI. “We are the largest Jewish adult education network in the world, operating in over 2,000 locations,” said Abraham, who has been working in this role for the past 11 years or so.
Prior to joining JLI, Abraham authored courses and books, was an editor at askmoses.com and served in various teaching capacities. He was born in Brooklyn, grew up in South Africa, and did his schooling in the United States and Israel.
“My father is very active in dealing with the opioid crisis in South Africa,” Abraham told the Independent in a phone interview. “He’s known as the ‘addicts rabbi.’ There were times when I was growing up where there were up to six or seven addicts living in our house, because there was no better alternative then…. My father was involved with hundreds and hundreds of addicts, and overseeing their rehabilitation. He ran a halfway house, so I have a little bit of a background in that area.”
Abraham’s study of Chassidic philosophy deals a lot with Torah hanefesh, which can be loosely translated as psychology. The rabbi explained that this “is how Judaism informs us about our emotional and mental state and character, which is very relevant to addressing some of the very real mental health challenges our society is experiencing today.”
JLI has been offering courses for about 20 years, said the rabbi. “Over the past 10 years or so, many of our courses have focused on continuing education for professionals. We started with the legal profession, with courses in ethics and comparative talmudic and civil American and Canadian law. These were accredited by various bar associations of states [and provinces] across North America, including … the Law Society of British Columbia – they accredit for official continuing education credits for lawyers and attorneys…. We then began offering continuing medical education for medical professionals. Over the past few years, our most successful courses have been for mental health professionals, accredited by the American Psychological Association for psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, social workers and the like.
“This is an area where Jewish wisdom informs the professional world and answers a real need. The challenge with mental illness, chemical imbalances aside, is often a result of a build-up of crisis, where a person has one crisis and another … their experiences compound, [they] have trouble envisioning a future, finding hope.… They have trouble with self-esteem, with feeling confident about life, and with finding meaning and purpose in life. These are all areas that Jewish wisdom addresses in a real way, giving people a framework within which they can find meaning and purpose.”
JLI’s international program is called My Life is Worth Living. In the Metro Vancouver area, they run the program called Project L’Chaim (“To Life”), a suicide prevention project sponsored by the Diamond Foundation in memory of Gordon and Leslie Diamond’s son Steven, whose Hebrew name was Chayim.
“We use the already existing infrastructure to educate those on the frontlines who are interfacing with teens and youth – training them to become more professionally equipped to be able to support the emotional needs of the teens in their care,” explained Abraham.
“From 2007-2017 in the U.S., there’s been a 56% rise in teen suicide. This is despite all the efforts and energies being invested in this area. This is an issue that’s getting worse and isn’t yet contained – this is in the general (not Jewish-specific) population.… There’s definitely a greater need for mental health support now than there ever was before.
“And, especially now, with COVID-19, all of this is being exacerbated. To put things into perspective, only about 10% of those who need mental health treatment get it. Even then, it’s with an average delay of 10 years between the onset of symptoms and the first treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“Stigma is a big enemy to mental health treatment. No one wants to be labeled with a mental health diagnosis and carry that around with them for life. That stigma gets in the way of people getting the help they need.”
JLI’s approach is not clinical, but is supported by a clinical advisory board that includes Thomas Joiner, author of Why People Die by Suicide and other books on understanding why people commit suicide; Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology; University of British Columbia suicide expert David Klonsky; director of suicide prevention for New York State Dr. Sigrid Pechenik; Madeline Gould from Columbia University; and Jill Friedman from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“We provide professional training to those teen-interfacing adults; training that takes many forms,” said Abraham. “They learn to identify warning signs to the risk, to create a safety plan and to intervene when necessary. They learn what resources are available and what to do in various scenarios. They’re trained to be first responders. And they can isolate and help teens in the most critical situations.
“We also engage teens in group discussions, about underlying issues that are conversations for everyone – about self-esteem, hope, finding purpose and meaning in life, coping mechanisms to deal with challenges, and so on. These are conversations had outside of the mental health framework, so as to avoid stigma.”
In the Vancouver area, JLI has connected with many Jewish organizations and doctors’ offices.
“Our goal is to put it in the hands of every parent in the Greater Vancouver area,” said Abraham, who is a father himself. “It’s a compilation of 14 articles from leading youth mental health professionals, mostly from the Jewish world … to provide support to parents, so they can support their teens during these difficult times.
“The booklet gives insight to what’s going on for teens in the mental health realm and provides a lot of practical tools. The most frequently mentioned idea in the booklet is that famous line from the safety announcement on airplanes – putting on your oxygen mask first, and then helping others. People need self-care first.
“Youth, particularly teens, are social beings needing social interaction to thrive. Many don’t have this right now due to COVID-19 restrictions. Also, youth need clarity, something they can depend on … so parents need to know how to create an open channel of communication for teens to feel safe to discuss their feelings.
“The number one hope is that parents will become more aware of what their teens are going through…. Lastly and most importantly, is that they gain some tool/ideas to help them support their teens through this.”
Visit myjli.com/index.html?task=parenting for more information or to order the booklet.
“This is just the first step of many that will be coming out,” said Abraham. “We’ve already run multiple professional trainings and we hope to do many more. This is a beginning of a big, multi-year project.”
While it may not be divine intervention that brought us technologies like the communications platform Zoom, it is undeniable that 21st-century tech has made this bizarre, scary and tragic time a little less isolating.
Much has been written and said about the tragedy of this pandemic. The loss of life worldwide is devastating and heart-rending. Families and friends have been kept apart at the best of times. At the worst of times, however, when hugs and human touch are needed most, this is especially cruel. Saying final goodbyes by telephone or on a little screen is unbearably painful.
In the meantime, though, something has happened that probably few of us anticipated when this pandemic hit us full force in mid-March. We have seen people at their best, coming together to help those who need it, checking in on neighbours and family who are isolated, taking steps that are uncomfortable for us in the short-term because it is in our collective best interests in the long-term. What could have been a time exemplified by fear and anxiety, selfishness, isolation and retrenchment has been, in so many cases, including in our synagogues and so many other community organizations, a time of unparalleled flexibility, creativity and devotion to what really matters.
We cannot overestimate the power of a comparatively simple technology like Zoom. Presumably intended as a business tool, it has exploded into our pandemic world as perhaps the new century’s version of what old long-distance advertisements promised – it’s the next best thing to being there.
Nothing can replace a hug or even just the proximity of our loved ones. But imagine the alternative of going through these past few months without small miracles like technology that lets us see the faces of our friends. Human nature tends to take for granted whatever we receive almost as soon as we’ve got it in hand. But the future we marveled at in the 1960s while watching fanciful cartoons like The Jetsons is reality today. Not the flying cars (yet) but the wall-mounted video phones are better: we hold them in our hands or sit them on our laps.
The medium is the message, said the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan. In future, people will look back and ponder how the technologies that united us in this time of isolation changed us and the way we communicate. In the meantime, we can already see that technology has led to even more engagement with learning, socializing and spiritual exploration than happened in-person before we had heard of COVID. And, while so many warn that we are on the verge of being “Zoomed out,” a recent poll contradicts this idea, finding that Canadians overwhelmingly love the freedom to connect to everywhere from anywhere. For Vancouverites, especially younger ones who are forced to move some distance from their parents due to housing prices, Zoom and similar tools can permit virtual visits without hours of time-wasting (and environmentally deleterious) travel. An hour-long business meeting that might have required 45 minutes of commuting and parking time starts and ends at the dining room table, freeing up hours per week for children, partners, housework, leisure, hobbies or sleep.
As we now prepare to celebrate the High Holidays in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined, we will depend on these technologies to deliver an approximation of normalcy. It won’t be normal, of course. But it’s normal for now. And that is a blessing.