Left to right: Choices co-chair Debra Miller, Choices co-chair Sarah Marel-Schaffer, keynote speaker Lisa Friedman Clark, Choices co-chair Judith Blumenkrans and Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver women’s philanthropy chair Megan Laskin. (photo from JFGV)
This year marked 13 years since the inception of Choices and some 450 women gathered in the Beth Israel reception hall to mingle over dinner and support Jewish women’s philanthropy. The keynote speaker was Lisa Friedman Clark, a New York native who commanded the floor as soon as she described herself as the “luckiest unlucky woman alive.”
Clark’s story is compelling. Diagnosed in 1995 at age 23 with a rare form of ovarian cancer, she endured chemotherapy and survived the illness against incredible odds. Andy Friedman, her boyfriend at the time, stood by her side throughout and, two years later, the couple married and began what she described as a “storybook life.” The arrival of twin boys completed their new family and both were pursuing successful careers up until Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, Andy went to work on the 92nd floor of One World Trade Centre and never came home.
There were audible gasps from the audience as Friedman Clark described the details of the morning her life changed forever. “He called me after the second plane had hit and said he was in a room with all his colleagues and they had plenty of air,” she recalled. “Later, we found out that the plane had hit one floor above him and the damage to the stairwells was so bad that he and his 68 colleagues could not get down. His floor was the line of demarcation between life and death. Those on floor 92 and above died.”
“I was 39 years old with two 11-year-old boys whose hero had just been killed in one of the most horrific manners one could think of,” she continued. “One minute you’re rushing to get the kids off to school and, in a split second, your husband has been murdered and life as you knew it has ceased to exist.”
Friedman Clark’s message was devoid of self-pity. “We all walk a fine line between being a donor to Federation and being a recipient of its generosity,” she told the crowd. “We never know when our lives will change.”
Federation counselors, social workers and support groups in New York were trained to deal with families affected by terrorism and came directly to the aid of her family and others in the same situation, she said. “They were uniquely able to understand our needs, and they were also there with financial aid for anyone who needed it. This help was invaluable and, had it not been for the many people that helped me at Federation, I’m not sure where I’d be today.”
Another story that touched a chord with Choices attendees was that of Ronit Yona, an Ethiopian Jew who, as a child, was rescued during Operation Moses. She lived in Israel for several years and more recently moved to Vancouver with her husband and two sons. Yona recalled her early years as a child in Ethiopia, growing up in a village that was home to 1,000 Jews and a life that revolved around home, school and synagogue. At the age of 9, everything changed. “The Ethiopian government wouldn’t allow us to practise our customs,” she explained. “I found myself following my father through the jungle at night as he led our donkey and horses, all loaded with our entire life. My father told me that, if the soldiers found us, they would kill us.”
Yona and her family became refugees in Sudan, in a tent camp where there was no sanitation and dysentery was rife. She recalled walking four hours a day to fill heavy jugs with water for the family. Then, at 10 years old, she found herself on an airplane with other Ethiopian families en route to Jerusalem. “What I didn’t know then, as a child, was that we weren’t walking alone on that journey,” she said. “ORT helped my father train as a nurse in Ethiopia and, later, the global Jewish community gave its money, time and energy to the Jewish Agency to rescue the Jews of Ethiopia who were stranded in Sudan.”
“We are all here this evening because we care about the future of the Jewish community, here at home, in Israel and around the world,” Megan Laskin, chair of women’s philanthropy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, told attendees. “We’re celebrating making good choices for ourselves as strong women and setting a lasting example of l’dor v’dor. Women’s philanthropy is truly a force and your contributions are changing and saving lives.”
Last year, Choices generated more than $2.1 million. For information on this year’s campaign, visit jewishvancouver.com.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.