COVID-19 continues to impact our community. Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver estimates that local needs may increase by 50% over the next year. Therefore, it has established the Community Recovery Task Force, chaired by Risa Levine.
The purpose of the task force is to examine the myriad operational and financial issues facing our community as a result of COVID-19, and to assist Jewish Federation in responding to these challenges and changes, both presently and in the long-term. Through consultation with Federation’s partner agencies, the task force will be assessing the consequences of the pandemic on vulnerable community members, as well as on the ability of community organizations to deliver their core programs and services. Task force members will be looking to new, innovative approaches to enhance community organizations’ capacity, and recommending solutions that will support a strong, resilient and financially stable recovery as well as future sustainability.
The task force members have all held leadership roles with a variety of community organizations, and collectively represent the diversity of our community in terms of geography and life stage. In addition to Levine, they are Andrew Altow, Jill Diamond, Michelle Gerber, Hodie Kahn, Candace Kwinter, Shawn Lewis, David Porte, Justin L. Segal and Isaac Thau.
The task force is an integral part of Federation’s response to COVID-19, as is its three-phase approach to recovery. In phase one, it released targeted emergency funds in the first few weeks of the pandemic to address immediate and urgent community needs. As a second phase, it is currently working closely with major donors to maintain their support through the next two annual campaigns and to consider making contributions above and beyond their campaign gifts to support community recovery. In the third phase, every community member will have an opportunity to make a difference in our community’s recovery through participating in the annual campaign, which officially launches in September.
To learn more about the task force, to read the latest annual report or to donate, visit jewishvancouver.com.
– excerpted from the weekly email message of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken
Screenshot of Noa’s official website, where she shows that she retains a sense of humor towards the press: “Believe half of what you hear and nothing of what you read! :)”
Internationally known, award-winning Israeli singer and songwriter Achinoam Nini – who has served in the Israel Defence Forces, who has been a goodwill ambassador for Israel and who has been honored for her peace work – has been invited to headline the Vancouver Jewish community’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations this year. Apparently, this is a controversial choice for some in our community.
Nini (widely known as Noa) is clear about her political views and, so far, her critics have come up with the following to explain their upset at her invitation. She hates – a strong word, but it applies in this case from what we’ve read – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. She rejected an award from one artists organization and resigned from another because they honored someone she thought was too right-wing. She may have written in a since-deleted Facebook post that she supported B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence and New Israel Fund for their work supporting peace. In 2012, she expressed hope that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas could help bring peace to the region. Also in 2012, she took part in an alternative Remembrance Day event organized by Combatants for Peace, which describes itself as “a group of Palestinians and Israelis who have taken an active part in the cycle of violence in our region: Israeli soldiers serving in the IDF and Palestinians as combatants fighting to free their country, Palestine, from the Israeli occupation.” The ceremony mourned Palestinians and Israelis who had been killed in the conflict.
One of her critics has compiled a curious mix of her posts to supposedly show why she is an inappropriate choice to perform, including: “We believe in two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, supporting, protecting and nurturing each other…. We believe in three simple steps: recognize each other, apologize to each other and share the little we have.” We, too, believe in two states for two peoples, and in reconciliation.
With plenty of Vancouverites apparently scouring the internet for “evidence” against her, there may be more to come. Nini’s political views are not above criticism. Nobody’s are. But she stands behind her opinions, acts on her beliefs, and is very clear about who she supports – some people might be surprised that B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence are not among those listed on her website as groups she endorses – and who she doesn’t support. Unlike some of her local critics, who are hiding behind the anonymity of social media and don’t put their names and reputations behind their opinions, Nini owns her views. Whether or not you agree with her, that’s worth respect.
Should we be inviting someone with whom we don’t all agree to headline our Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremonies? What about someone who criticizes the Israeli government?
We who love and support Israel understand that holding a large community-wide celebration once a year feels good and offers a sense of solidarity. But what kind of Jewish community is it that doesn’t brook differences in opinion? Such uniformity certainly does not reflect one of Israel’s – and Judaism’s – greatest attributes and secrets to continuity: openness to debate and discussion.
Skipping over what Judaism says about character assassination, the harm that can be done with words, the fact that lashon hara is worse than theft because money can be repaid but the destruction of a person’s reputation can never be completely mended, is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed when making out a Yom Ha’atzmaut invitation list?
As we argued in this space last week, it is our view that boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) is a movement steeped in racism (though not everyone who supports BDS is an antisemite, of course). Rightly, Canada, the United Kingdom and other democratic countries formally condemn BDS. If we were to draw a red line not to be crossed, support for BDS might qualify as a deciding factor in whether or not to bring an artist to perform at a Yom Ha’atzmaut – or any – event. It also might not.
Despite what the emails in your inbox might say, Nini has explicitly said that she is against BDS. At most, she might associate with groups that might have supporters that also support BDS – groups that are legal in Israel and part of the vital discourse there.
In a democracy, all voices that don’t incite hatred against an identifiable group are to be, if not welcomed, at least tolerated. This includes those who believe that Nini should not sing for Vancouverites on Yom Ha’atzmaut this year. However, the right to speak is not predicated on being right. This applies to Nini as well as her detractors.
Some people are demanding that the invitation for Nini to perform at our Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations be rescinded. If successful, it won’t matter much to Israel’s future, or to Nini’s. We should not overinflate our self-importance. But such an act – a boycott of Nini – would certainly affect our community’s future. It would be a signal of intolerance, of closed-mindedness and an unwillingness to brook the very presence of a Jew, an Israeli, a veteran of the IDF and a great singer, simply because some disagree with her politics – and, worse, that we rely on innuendo and rumor to make our decisions. How solid a foundation is that upon which to build our community? What lesson would that teach our children? This is what we talk about when we talk about Achinoam Nini.
As of Nov. 24, the Government of Canada was processing 4,511 applications for privately sponsored Syrian refugees (not including Quebec, which has its own procedure). The map shows communities where private sponsors have submitted an application. (image from cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/welcome)
Vancouver’s Jewish community is mobilizing to welcome refugees from Syria. The federal government has announced that 25,000 Syrian refugees will come to Canada before the end of February. While most of those will be government-sponsored, groups of Canadians, including many in the Jewish community, are leaping at the opportunity to be a part of the resettlement project.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Anglican church to streamline the process. The federal government has a number of sponsorship agreement holders, which are established, experienced groups that are engaged in aiding refugees on an ongoing basis. To expedite the process, the Jewish community is primarily working through the partnership with the Anglican Church of Canada so that synagogues and other Jewish groups that may want to sponsor can do so efficiently.
“The Anglican diocese, rather than setting up a separate relationship with each of the synagogues, proposed that there be one memorandum of understanding with the Jewish community,” said Shelley Rivkin, Federation’s vice-president for planning, allocations and community affairs. “We will be the holder of the memorandum of understanding so the synagogues will raise the funds and issue a tax receipt. The funds will then come to us and be in a restricted account and, as those funds are distributed, they will go directly through us so that the diocese is not having to deal with multiple parties.”
Or Shalom Synagogue has already raised two-thirds of the funds necessary to sponsor three families. Natalie Grunberg, a member of the Or Shalom Syrian Refugees Initiative, said they are expecting their sponsored refugees as early as January. The group has launched a series of events, including a concert of Syrian music, to raise awareness and money for the project. The federal government estimates the cost of sponsoring a refugee family for a year to be about $30,000, but Vancouverites involved in the process are working on an assumption of about $40,000, based on housing costs here.
Or Shalom is working through existing partnerships they have built over the years. Rather than going through the Anglican church, they are working with the United Church of Canada. Grunberg acknowledged that some in the Jewish community have differences with the United Church’s stand toward Israel, but the priority was to expedite the refugee sponsorship process and they believed working through existing relationships would be most effective.
Grunberg is noticeably proud of her congregation’s efforts so far.
“We’re a very small synagogue and we’re sponsoring three families,” she said.
Through existing relationships with the Syrian community here, Or Shalom will focus their sponsorship efforts on reunifying families that already have some members in Metro Vancouver and also on members of the LGBT community.
Temple Sholom is also rallying for refugees. Almost immediately after announcing the idea during the High Holidays, the synagogue raised enough money to sponsor one family.
“We’ve now decided to sponsor a second family,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz.
He acknowledges that there have been some anxieties among his congregation about bringing Syrian refugees here.
“I met with every person that voiced that concern to me,” he said. “I met with them personally. We talked about it. We talked about the people that we are bringing in – they were concerned about terrorists coming across – we talked about the difference between private sponsorship, as we are doing, and what we’ve been seeing in Europe with refugees flooding across borders … that we were sponsoring families with young children, that our sponsorships were family reunification, so they would have real roots here in B.C., particularly in Vancouver. We acknowledge the fears but at the same time we also recognize that this is a crisis and that the Jewish tradition teaches us quite clearly to love the stranger. Israel is doing things for refugees on the Syrian border right now with their hospitals and we had to do our part.”
Moskovitz cites Torah as the basis for his enthusiasm.
“Thirty-six times in the Torah, in the Bible, it says to love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land,” he said. “The Jews were once refugees ourselves and this goes all the way back to the land of Egypt and the slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh, where we were running for our lives; in that case from the famine, according to the biblical story, and the Egyptian people welcomed the Jewish people, welcomed us in and gave us food and shelter and we lived there for 435 years, according to the Bible. From that and so many other times in the Bible, the most often-repeated commandment in all of Jewish tradition is to love the stranger, to love the immigrant; love the stranger, because that was you once.”
More modern Jewish history is also a factor, he added.
“We are largely still here even though throughout our history people have tried to destroy us because at critical times in our history some people took us in,” said Moskovitz. “We like to think we did it all by ourselves and there is no doubt that there is a tremendous resiliency of the Jewish people but, at the same time, we have been the beneficiary of others sheltering us at times of mortal danger.”
Congregation Beth Israel has created a task force to look into possibly sponsoring a Kurdish Syrian refugee family. Executive director Shannon Etkin said the group will analyze the resources available within the congregation community to provide for a family beyond the minimum requirements set out by the federal government.
Other synagogues, organizations and individuals who may not have the resources to directly sponsor a refugee or family are being encouraged to support on-the-ground efforts by the Joint Distribution Committee, which is aiding refugees in Turkey and Hungary. This support is being organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
“They’re doing a lot of direct aid for women and children and also doing some work with frontline responders,” Rivkin said.
Leah Stern in Haiti, where she was helping orphaned and abandoned children. (photo from Leah Stern)
While London-based journalist and content producer Leah Stern was unable to be the guest speaker at this year’s Choices, the annual campaign event of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s women’s philanthropy, the Jewish Independent had the opportunity to chat with her over the phone prior to her scheduled talk. Hopefully, she will have the chance to come to Vancouver on another occasion, as she is a fascinating and accomplished person.
Born and raised in Miami, Stern made aliya after graduating university. In her career to date, she has been the face of the evening news on the Israel Broadcast Authority and a correspondent for CNN, she has liaised with the Vatican on behalf of the Israeli government and worked with nonprofits in South America. She is currently communications director in London, England, for OurCrowd, a high-tech, crowdfunding platform created by venture capitalist John Medved, for which she travels to Israel every couple of months. This is only a partial resumé.
JI: You made aliya in 2002. What led to that?
LS: Growing up in Miami Beach, everyone was very materialistic, focused on clothes, cars, houses, etc., and I wanted to run away from it all. My brother went to Israel to serve in an elite military group during the Second Intifada and my mother and I decided to follow him there. She went first, I came after.
JI: How did you get into journalism?
LS: That started with a program I saw in Miami on CNN with coverage of Scuds falling in Sderot and I saw a woman running in fear along the street. Suddenly, I thought, I need to be there in the thick of it all. When I finally went, I was only 21. At first, when I arrived, I could not find a job, so I folded laundry, made pizza and worked as a housekeeper.
JI: What happened next?
LS: I decided to volunteer for the Magen David Adom (MDA). That consisted of a week indoctrination course and then riding in the back of an ambulance to callouts. My first call was to a bus bombing in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003. I remember riding in the back of the ambulance, going at 100 miles an hour, running through red lights and then we came upon the shell of the bus. My first memory is seeing the bodies of college students my age, all sitting exactly as they were in that last moment before the explosion, one was reading a book, one was eating a sandwich. That picture still resonates with me today.
JI: Did that experience have an impact on your career?
LS: I did the MDA job for about three months. I was so affected by it I decided to … blog about it. I sent articles back to Miami. I wanted to give a different view than the jaded coverage by CNN and Fox. I thought I could make an impact on people by reporting the truth of what was happening through my eyes, and not through the eyes of the foreign press that did not understand the contextual background to the story.
JI: You also worked for the Jerusalem Post?
LS: Yes. I applied and got an internship as the funeral reporter. I did that for awhile but I wanted to go to the next level. So, I applied to IBA, the Israel Broadcast Authority, the only government-run, English-speaking channel in Israel, to be a news anchor. I bombed the audition. I said, “Baby Netanyahu” instead of “Bibi Netanyahu.” I thought I would never get the job. But the bureau chief called me that night and said, “You were absolutely terrible but there is something about you. Come in tomorrow for another screen test.” So, I studied the names of all of the people in the Knesset and practised in front of the mirror, and I got the job.
JI: What happened at IBA and where did you go from there?
LS: I started off as a newsreader but eventually my boss let me go out in the field. I went out as a one-woman band. I went and bought a video camera and all the equipment. I would mic myself up and take my camera out on a tripod and do the interview, write the text and send it to my editor in three-minute news package format while sitting in the front seat of my Peugeot. These were some of the most incredible days of my life, being in the thick of things.
It was during this time that I came to realize that there were so many stories that were not being covered, i.e. co-existence, Israeli doctors working with injured Palestinians, stories that I felt would change the world’s perception of what was happening in Israel. So, I started to tell them and sent some to CNN and they must have liked them because I got invited to Atlanta and met with Ted Turner, who offered me a job as a correspondent. Wolf Blitzer sort of took me under his wing.
JI: What were some of the stories you covered for IBA and CNN?
LS: I was sent all over, to Ethiopia to cover the migration of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel … to the Vatican to cover the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. I went to Baghdad and Kabul and all over the Arab world.
JI: Were you concerned about any danger in covering some of these assignments?
LS: No. I was a CNN producer, an American journalist on an American passport and did not at any time feel in danger. I was running on pure adrenalin, and was determined to tell the story for people who did not have a voice.
JI: You accompanied the Israel Defence Forces during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. What was that experience like?
LS: For me, this was the first time that I found myself reporting on a big story alongside the major players of the world media…. I had just interviewed Ariel Sharon and was forming my own opinion on this. I was conflicted, lots of questions were running through my mind, like, was the government right? What were these people entitled to? [Stern ended up making a documentary about the experience, called Disengagement (2006).]
JI: Were you treated any differently for being a woman reporter?
LS: War reporting is a man’s world. Here I was a young, blond, American, female journalist with not great Hebrew, with an English accent, with very seasoned male war reporters, trying to be one of the guys. I had to earn the respect. It was not easy. It took time.
JI: How did people react to you in the various areas you visited?
LS: Good reporters get people to open up to them and to trust them. You have to ask the tough questions, be relatable, get people to be real. I let people know I would tell their story … like they told it to me.
JI: Has your attitude towards covering the news changed over the years?
LS: I always remember the quote from Abba Eban, “To be a realist in Israel, you have to believe in miracles.” My time in Israel was one miracle after another. When I did my first stand up in front of the camera during the Second Lebanon War, a rocket landed near me and I was not afraid. I felt as if the camera would protect me and I was so dedicated to telling the story that I did not think of any danger. But one of my colleagues, Steve Sotloff, was beheaded by ISIS, and that was a wake-up call for me. I would not go back to some of those countries now even though I have been offered opportunities to report in Iran and Syria.
JI: In addition to reporting, you did a three-year diplomatic stint at the Vatican as a liaison for the Israeli government. What was that like?
LS: I studied Italian because I had to read 20 newspapers a morning and brief the Israeli ambassador on what Italians were saying about Israelis. Twice a week, I also got to sit in on meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and his cardinals…. I learned what it meant to be an Israeli diplomat in the Vatican. It was very interesting but it was also the first time I had to be careful about being open about my Israeli and Jewish status.
JI: What does your future hold?
LS: I am writing a book, but I am not sure what to focus on. I think writing a memoir is a bit egotistical at the age of 35. I have been roaming the world for 15 years, I am ready to put down some roots and I am getting married again next year.
JI: Do you have any advice for women considering career options like yours?
LS: I believe in tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. I think the best advice I can give is to be strong and to follow your dreams. Remember that small things make a difference. Don’t be afraid to try. Put yourself out there. Make an impact.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
A film that brings Palestinian and Israeli women together in a weight-loss group. Who would have thought that was possible? American-Israeli Yael Luttwak did, and she made it happen. Luttwak, the keynote speaker at Choices, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual women in philanthropy event, held on Nov. 1 at Congregation Beth Israel, captivated the audience with her story.
“The idea came to me at a time when
I was attending Weight Watchers in Tel Aviv,” said Luttwak. “The peace process had broken down and Ariel Sharon had been hospitalized and I had this image of Sharon and [Yasser] Arafat jogging together on the beach and working it all out. It struck me, as I listened to women in my group who were uninhibited in sharing their struggles with health and weight and body image, that there was so much humanity in that room. What if we could capture this humanity and bring together women who otherwise would never have an opportunity to meet?”
She set out to find women who would be willing to participate in this social experiment. She approached Orthodox women, West Bank Muslims, American-born settlers and Bedouins. Fourteen women agreed to get involved. The Jerusalem Cinémathèque in East Jerusalem became the meeting place. Filming took six weeks.
The women metamorphosed during the process, as they started to come to the meetings in nicer clothes and make-up, and they began to share their thoughts (and recipes). “This was the first opportunity for Arab women to meet Jewish women that were not soldiers, and for Israeli women to meet Arabs that did not want to kill them. At the beginning, everyone was nervous, but very polite (unusual for the Middle East) but, within a few hours, they were all talking and sharing stories.”
The women found common ground on many issues that emphasized their similarities. Even when there was political turbulence, violence on the streets of Jerusalem and curfews, the Arab women would cross the checkpoints to attend the meetings. When Luttwak asked what it was about the group that kept them coming, they answered that it was their only opportunity for hope. And so, the 2007 documentary A Slim Peace came to be. It premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and screened in the United States on Sundance Channel.
While promoting the film, Luttwak was approached by English philanthropist Dame Hilary Blume, who offered to seed fund more women’s groups. She told Luttwak, “Don’t waste your talent on films. You have hit on something. You are building bridges. This is your destiny.” As a result, the nonprofit Slim Peace developed and, over the past eight years, it has opened 33 groups in six cities and two countries. Luttwak said, “It’s a train I cannot stop.” She has also been able to keep making films about contemporary issues. Her final messages – we all have to do our part for tikkun olam (repair of the world) and to never give up hope.
Prior to Luttwak’s talk, Ricki Thal addressed the audience: “My name is Esther Zuckerman Kaufman and I was born in Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 11, 1920. I was one of the Jews on Schindler’s List.” Everyone’s attention caught, Thal then told the story of her grandmother and grandfather, Leon, both saved by Oskar Schindler. They never spoke about their wartime experiences and the family had no idea that they were Schindler Jews until they all went to see Steven Spielberg’s movie. That moment changed Thal’s life. It led her to explore her family’s history, to participate in March of the Living on two occasions, as a student and as a chaperone, and to become involved in the Jewish community. Kaufman died in 1999 but not before she appeared in New York on The Phil Donahue Show to tell her story to television audiences. Thal finished almost as she began: “My name is Ricki Thal and I was born in Vancouver in 1979 and I am proud to be the granddaughter of Esther and Leon Kaufman.”
CBC television personality Belle Puri emceed the night, co-chair Debbie Jeroff gave opening remarks and Stephen Gaerber brought greetings from Federation. Two video presentations, a raffle and a meal catered by Susy Siegel completed the night, and then 500 Jewish women went out into the rain inspired, full of good food and hope.
Neil Pollock, chair of the Jewish Federation annual campaign. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
There’s just under one month left to contribute to the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign, which supports dozens of local community organizations, as well as partner agencies in Israel and overseas. The Jewish Independent spoke to this year’s campaign chair Neil Pollock via email about his reasons for being involved, and the importance of the campaign to the community.
JI: You’ve taken over the general chair position from Harvey Dales. I know you’ve done so much community work, but did he offer you any advice specific to the campaign that you could share?
NP: Harvey is a good friend, and working as his wingman for a few years before succeeding him as campaign chair was a tremendous learning experience for me. Harvey is, as we all know, a terrific leader and great asset to this community. In fact, if I recall correctly, it was at one of his last meetings as chair that Harvey inspired the concept for our new face-to-face incentive, which has been so well supported by donors and canvassers.
This year, every time a donor meets with their canvasser in person, an additional $500 will be donated to the campaign. It’s an important way we’re engaging in genuine conversations about our community and its needs, as well as donors’ values and interests. It’s also a key way in which we’re growing the campaign. If anyone reading this wants to meet face to face, but doesn’t have a canvasser, just contact the Federation office and they’ll set it up for you.
JI: What motivated you to take on the position of general chair?
NP: I thought I might be able to help out the community a little, and I was honored to be asked to serve. My wife, Michelle, and I have made a very conscious effort to live and practise our Jewish values – especially tikkun olam, chesed and tzedakah. We do this through our volunteer work in the community, and in our home with our children. It’s made our kids more aware of the responsibility we all share in building a better, stronger community, and of all of us being responsible for each other.
JI: The campaign theme is “Securing Our Future.” What does that mean to you in terms of the Jewish community?
NP: The theme has a few meanings. In one sense, it’s about community continuity and engaging the next generation – two of the priority areas for our work. We need to continue to fund young adult programming through Hillel and Axis. We also need to support innovative new Jewish education programs that will reach the more than 850 children in underserved areas who aren’t currently receiving any Jewish education. We live in this incredible city, but the cost of living is so high that many people are struggling with how they can stay connected Jewishly. Nearly half of community members are living outside the city of Vancouver, and funding new programs that reach them where they live is critical to their community involvement.
In a very literal sense, it’s about making sure everyone in our community feels safe. Our Federation has been very proactive in terms of security, conducting a community-wide training program and providing grants for security upgrades, but security is an ongoing need in our community. We need to increase funding for our community institutions so they remain safe, and ensure emergency preparedness.
What some people might not realize is that, every year, Jewish Federation receives more requests for support than there is funding available. On top of that, there are critical programs and services that need more funding than they currently receive. If we want to secure our community’s future, we need to close these gaps while at the same time addressing the issues of affordability and accessibility.
JI: Are there any special projects/ causes that the campaign is hoping to fund?
NP: We’re seeing a real shift in our community that’s creating issues of affordability and accessibility. More and more families are moving to underserved communities outside of the city of Vancouver. It’s just too expensive for them here. When they move, they become beyond the reach of most of our community institutions. We need to find new ways to make community accessible for them. For many of those who live close to the centre of Jewish community life, the cost of doing so is creating other barriers, notably affordability. The high cost of living here has a direct impact on the ability of regular families to engage in Jewish life. These are the issues Federation is addressing through the campaign and in coordination with its partner agencies.
JI: What is the campaign goal this year?
NP: Last year, we reached a record result of $8 million – and we are determined to surpass that. As community needs continue to grow and evolve, so must our response, so must the campaign.
JI: Until when does the campaign run?
NP: The campaign runs from September through to the end of November, which is very short, compared to other communities. One of the reasons we’re able to raise funds in such a condensed period is the incredible work of our canvassers. Supporting them in their work is something I’m passionate about, and we’re putting special emphasis on that this year. We’ve worked with a group of generous supporters to develop a new incentive: for every new canvasser who joins our team, an extra $1,000 will be donated to the campaign. Twice the mitzvah!
Left to right are Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver CEO Ezra Shanken, campaign chair Dr. Neil Pollock, women’s philanthropy chair Lisa Pullan, board chair Stephen Gaerber and major donors co-chairs Alex Cristall and Andrew Merkur. (photo from JFGV)
On Sept. 17, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver kicked off this year’s annual campaign with a new event: FEDtalks. Featuring brief TED-style talks from four speakers – the Hon. Irwin Cotler, Eli Winkelman, Dafna Lifshitz and Rabbi David Wolpe – more than 700 community members attended the event at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
“Each speaker delivered a message that was Federation related, from the refugee and migrant crisis, to caring for those facing hunger, to leveling the playing field in Israel’s periphery, to inspiring people to connect more fully with their Jewish identity and values,” said Jewish Federation chief executive officer Ezra S. Shanken. “Their messages were our messages, and they reflected the soul of who we are as a Federation.”
Cotler addressed issues important to the Vancouver Jewish community – and, indeed, to the world – with particular emphasis on Syria and the refugee and migrant crisis. As a well-respected parliamentarian and human rights lawyer, he brought depth and breadth of knowledge on the crisis.
Winkelman shared her story of turning the simple act of baking challah into acts of social justice by founding Challah for Hunger, which now has 90 chapters on college campuses in three countries. Her work was recognized by President Bill Clinton, who highlighted Challah for Hunger in his book Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World.
Lifshitz, CEO of Appleseeds Academy, addressed her organization’s work bridging the digital divide in Israel’s periphery and, in particular, the [email protected] program that is supported by Jewish Federation. Through [email protected], at-risk youth in our partnership region of the Upper Galilee receive specialized computer training that catapults them into highly-skilled, well-paying jobs, thus helping break the cycle of poverty.
Wolpe, who was named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine, also addressed the refugee and migrant crisis, but from a Jewish perspective. He closed the evening with an inspirational message that united the community through the shared values of chesed, tzedaka and tikkun olam.
The Vancouver Jewish community’s central fundraising initiative, the annual campaign supports critical social services, Jewish education, seniors programs and young adults programs, and fosters ties with our partnership region in Israel. To donate or volunteer, visit jewishvancouver.com/what-to-give/annual-campaign.
Left to right, shinshiniot Ophir Golumbek, Tomer Tetro and Lian Swissa are volunteering with various organizations in the Greater Vancouver Jewish community. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
For the first time, Vancouver is participating in the Shinshin program through the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (JFGV) in conjunction with the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Shinshin is an acronym for shnat sherut, meaning year of service, which is exactly what the three 18-year-olds who arrived on Aug. 31 are here to provide the Vancouver Jewish community.
The project, which is co-funded by JFGV and the beneficiary agencies, is an outreach program created by the Jewish Agency to give exceptional Israeli youth a meaningful gap-year experience that furthers the objectives of the Jewish Agency for promoting goodwill and education about Israel. According to Vancouver’s shinshin coordinator, Lissa Weinberger, the program has been wildly successful and popular among the Jewish communities that have had the chance to host Israeli teens in the past. JFGV had planned to begin hosting Shinshinim in 2016 but because of the enthusiasm of participating agencies, they fast-tracked the program and made it happen this year.
Shinshin has been embraced by communities in England, the Netherlands, South Africa, North America and South America, growing from 54 participants last year to 100 this year. The Israeli youths volunteer with young people in schools, synagogues, Jewish community centres and other Jewish organizations to build awareness and give access to a teen perspective on Israel. According to Weinberger, the program has been so effective at building relationships between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish youth that there is a plan to grow it to 300 Shinshinim within five years.
Weinberger said that the young women in Vancouver – Ophir Golumbek, Tomer Tetro and Lian Swissa – will be working six days a week for the next nine months, with a few weeks off spread over that time.
“When we were discussing their schedule, we were told to keep them busy. They were coming to give back, not sit around,” Weinberger said.
The Shinshiniot (feminine plural) will be hosted by local families during their stay, a different family every three months. The host family experience is crucial to the program as it gives the youths a soft landing here in Vancouver, in a family environment.
Jennifer Shecter-Balin will be hosting one of the Shinshiniot for the first term. She spoke for her family when she said, “We are excited for the experience. I have been communicating with Ophir via email and I have been thoroughly impressed by her maturity, enthusiasm and introspection.”
In an interview with the Jewish Independent the day after their arrival, the three young women were indeed bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. Golumbek will be working primarily with students at Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT), with the Temple Sholom Sunday school as her Sunday job. Tetro will divide her time between the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and Congregation Beth Tikvah. Swissa will be working with King David High School, Congregation Beth Israel and Richmond Jewish Day School.
Each one of the Israelis comes with a history of volunteerism and leadership, as well as an impressive command of English. None of them comes from an English-speaking home in Israel but all are eloquent and clear in their goals for their year of service in Vancouver.
Golumbek explained why she applied to the Shinshin program. “I have family in the U.S., third cousins, and they all went on Birthright and I saw how it made them [connected to] Israel. Some came back to study and one made aliya. Each one of my cousins told me about a person who influenced them to love Israel and I wanted to build that connection for people here.”
Swissa echoed Golumbek’s interest in building connections with local Jews and added, “I believe that Jewish people have a shared history and we should create a shared present and future. We are here to learn about Vancouver and Judaism outside of Israel, as much as we are here to share our love of being Jewish in Israel.”
It’s not surprising that 18-year-olds who can express these types of ideas when jet-lagged were selected from the 1,700 applicants to the Shinshin program. Swissa and Tetro have leadership experience and a strong basis in working with other Jewish teens from a two-year program they did in high school called the Diller Teen Fellowship, which brought them to Chicago and Baltimore, respectively, when they were in grades 10 and 11. Their experience working within a pluralistic Jewish environment has prepared them for their work in Vancouver. Golumbek participated in a special program of her Scouts called Seeds of Peace in Maine, which brought together Israeli, American, British, Palestinian and Egyptian teens to work on building relationships and tackling issues of conflict.
When asked how they feel about being away from their families, they all teared up slightly. Swissa is the youngest of seven children, so it’s a shock for her to be without family here, while Tetro will miss her 5-year-old sister. Golumbek has a brother who is finishing his army service this year and, while she said she will miss her family, she looks at this year as an opportunity to get ready for being away when she goes into the army, while making an impact and making new connections. She said, “Our host families will be like a new family … we are grateful for the chance to come here, to make a mark. Thank you is a small word for what everyone has done for us so we could be here.”
Tetro spoke for all three volunteers when she explained what they hope for the year to come. She said, “We are so excited because this is a brand new program and nobody knows what to expect, but we are also stressed because we want to make the best impression. We want to build a really good base for next year so all of the kids will be eagerly waiting for the next Shinshinim to come.”
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
Rabbi David Wolpe joins FEDtalks on Sept. 17 at Queen E. Theatre. (photo from Facebook)
When the man Newsweek calls the most influential rabbi in America gets up to speak in Vancouver this month, he may be as surprised as the audience by what he has to say.
“I really never know exactly until I get up to speak,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, who will be here Sept. 17 as one of four speakers at FEDtalks, the annual campaign launch of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. “I do this somewhat spontaneously and it will depend somewhat on what I hear the other people say because I don’t want to repeat what they would say.”
His talk, Inspiring Jewish Life, will address “something about the way in which our efforts have surprising and unanticipated consequences both in our community and in the world,” he told the Independent in a telephone interview.
Wolpe has also been dubbed one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of eight books, including the bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. His most recent book, David, the Divided Heart, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards. He has taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College and UCLA. He is a prolific writer and commentator.
Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, of which about half of the congregation are Jews of Iranian origin, which gives him an acute perspective on the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 world powers.
“I would say in the Iranian Jewish community in L.A., the consensus is fairly strong against the deal,” he said. “It’s not unanimous, but it’s fairly strong.”
Wolpe sees a glimmer of hope but overall fears the deal is a bad one.
“The biggest reason for optimism long term is that the Iranian population is so young … and that many of those young people don’t support the theological or political views of their leaders,” said the rabbi. “That’s the reason long term for optimism and, of course, Iran and the United States have had an alliance in the past. Maybe one day that could be renewed.
“There is plenty of reason for worry, however,” he continued. “I, myself, oppose the deal. I think most of my Iranian congregants do as well. But whoever is correct about this deal, or no deal, I think that the prospect that Iran will get a nuclear bomb is both frighteningly real and just plain frightening.”
Wolpe is the son of a rabbi and has been taken aback by the persistence of global antisemitism across generations.
“When I started out in the rabbinate, I really did believe that, unlike my father’s rabbinate … antisemitism wasn’t going to be the theme of Jewish life anymore,” he said. “I really thought that. I thought it was on the wane. So, the resurgence through Europe is disheartening and pretty scary.”
Wolpe traveled in Europe this summer and sees little reason for optimism. “I wish I did,” he said. “The mood in Europe is very pessimistic.”
He believes that the United States is relatively well inoculated against antisemitism.
“Unlike the countries of Europe, the United States did not have an identifiable majority and minority,” he said. “Most antisemitism arose when there were the French and the Jews, the Germans and the Jews, the Russians and the Jews. The Jews were the clear, identifiable minority in most of these countries. That’s not true in America. We are a patchwork of minorities and, as a result … to be a Jew is not to be the one who stands out as being different.… America has historically not been a place that is hostile to Jews. Are there antisemitic acts? Yes. But I don’t see any serious signs that [tolerance toward Jews is] changing or threatens to change.”
Wolpe will be speaking at the event during the Days of Awe and said it is a good time to reflect on the positive.
“Rosh Hashana is really about our sense of gratitude, about the gift of everything that we have because we are showered with blessings,” he said. “Even though we focus on all the dangers and difficulties of our lives, we are just bursting with wonderful and extraordinary and often unprecedented blessings in our lives.”
Eli Winkelman was just looking for a way to fit in at college. But her quest for a niche resulted in an international philanthropic phenomenon.
Winkelman’s passion for making challah caught fire with fellow students and she ended up founding one of the most familiar – and foodie-friendly – philanthropic endeavors in the Jewish community today.
Challah for Hunger is now known to thousands of students on campuses throughout Canada, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Volunteers gather to make the irresistible braided loaves, then sell them to fellow students and divide the profits between a local charity and a designated national cause.
Winkelman, who founded the international movement, will be one of four speakers at FEDtalks, marking the launch of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign Sept. 17. She will speak on Chesed (Loving-kindness).
Winkelman’s expertise in challah came, as it has for centuries of women, through her mother. But where some recent generations have let the challah thread drop – who has time to knead, braid, bake? – Winkelman’s choice to become vegan sort of changed history.
“I decided to become vegan in high school and [her mother] said, ‘OK, but you’re making your own challah,’” she recalled.
When she arrived at the Claremont Colleges outside Los Angeles in 2004, Winkelman started baking challah for Shabbat dinners at Hillel.
“People heard that I was baking and they showed up to learn from me randomly,” she said. “And every week they came back and they complained that all their friends were eating their challah. So, I saw that there was demand for bread and demand for the activity of making the bread and I thought that we should scale up and do it for a good cause.”
Within two or three months of starting school, Winkelman had launched Challah for Hunger, selling 15 loaves. Her group started out baking in the dorm kitchen, then moved into the kitchen of the campus interfaith centre. They eventually got permission to use the dining hall kitchen.
The national charity is MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Local chapters can determine the cause to which they want to allocate the other 50% of profits. Some chapters, like at Emory University in Atlanta, have been supporting the same cause for years (in Emory’s case, a refugee assistance agency). Other campuses operate differently. At Stanford, for example, the chapter partners with other clubs every week and they choose a different designated recipient each time.
“Different chapters approach it differently, which I really love because they are figuring out how they want to be givers,” she said.
Winkelman is no longer operating the organization’s day-to-day activities – she’s started a business in Austin, Tex. – but she is on the board of directors and closely follows the progress. There are now more than 70 chapters worldwide, each baking 30 to 300 loaves, usually weekly. Sometimes they defy tradition and add chocolate chips, cinnamon sugar, sun-dried tomato or other innovations. Canada’s sole chapter is in Montreal.
Baking and sharing bread is an ancient, symbolic and ritualized process. Challah for Hunger makes it social in a way that may be particularly suited to undergrads finding their place and new friends.
“Part of how I define Challah for Hunger is doing it together and doing it on a regular basis so that it becomes a community,” she said. “For me, that is core to the organization. That’s how people learn and grow, by interacting with each other. Especially when you’re baking bread, your hands are engaged in something so you’re busy and that means that you can have a conversation or not have a conversation or have whatever kind of conversation you want with the person next to you. It really doesn’t leave any awkward quiet time.”
For more information about and tickets to FEDtalks, visit jewishvancouver.com. Interviews with fellow speakers Irwin Cotler and Dafna Lifshitz appeared in previous issues of the Independent, and Rabbi David Wolpe will be featured next.