Left to right: Ilan Pilo, Michelle Pollock, Dr. Neil Pollock, Wendy Eidinger Spatzner and David Goldman. (photo by Robert Albanese)
Vancouver supporters of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) gathered in their finery at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver on June 3 to celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday and pay tribute to philanthropists Neil and Michelle Pollock.
Michelle Pollock is a former lawyer, the immediate past president of the board of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and has co-chaired the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign’s women’s division for six years, as well as supporting Jewish education, among many other causes. Dr. Neil Pollock is chief surgeon and medical director of Pollock Clinics. He has undertaken teaching missions to Rwanda, Congo and Haiti, as well as being involved in philanthropy at home and abroad.
JNF Pacific Region president David Goldman welcomed the crowd – who had to pass a few dozen protesters on their way into the hotel – and introduced the evening’s emcee, Michael Nemirow, a friend of the Pollocks, who is also involved in various community organizations and activities. “I’ve done the math, and we have around 11 hours of speeches and entertainment for you this evening, but we’ll try to compress it into three,” Nemirow said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
After Maurice Moses led the audience in O Canada and Hatikvah, B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin took the stage. She praised JNF for its work in the “restoration and preservation of the Jewish homeland,” which covers everything from ecological to social to security initiatives. Austin also commented about the Pollocks, highlighting Neil Pollock’s work in Rwanda to prevent the spread of HIV.
Galit Baram, consul general of Israel for Toronto and Western Canada, focused her remarks on the 70th anniversary of Israel, “the only democracy in our region, a bastion of democracy.” She described its strengths in the areas of human rights, medicine, multiculturalism and technological innovation. She said Israel is led by people “both on the right and on the left who love their country with all their hearts” in the face of multiple existential threats. “We rely on our friends who share common values, and Canada, our ally, is among them,” she said.
“The success of Israel did not happen in a vacuum,” said Baram, citing JNF as a key organization in supporting the state, one in whose name every Israeli has a tree planted. She also spoke of JNF’s contributions in a multitude of activities, including supporting soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and her “personal favourite,” the building of a protected playground in Sderot in an area that has suffered shelling from Hamas and other militant groups. Baram thanked Canadians for the warm welcome and open arms with which Israeli diplomats are welcomed in the country.
After Hamotzi, chanted by the Kollel’s Rabbi Avraham Feigelstock, Ilene-Jo Bellas, former president of the JNF Pacific Region (2012-2015), was presented with the JNF Bloomfield Award by local shaliach Ilan Pilo. He described Bellas as an indefatigable servant for Israel who “bled blue and white,” a portrayal she affirmed as fact after taking the podium.
The video on the work of the JNF was introduced by JNF Canada president Wendy Eidinger Spatzner, who explained that the First Zionist Congress established a fund to purchase land in Israel and that this fund became JNF. She talked about JNF’s extensive work to “build the infrastructure of Israel,” noting that it affects the daily lives of “pretty much every Israeli citizen.”
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz then led everyone in Birkat Hamazon, before Vancouver TheatreSports performed a series of improv skits centred on the Pollocks’ life as a married couple.
The keynote speaker of the dinner was Doron Almog, a former major general in the Israel Defence Forces, who received the Israel Prize for lifetime of achievement. He discussed his role as founder of ALEH, the charity for children with developmental disabilities that the Pollocks chose to support with monies raised from the evening.
Almog spoke on the theme of commitment, as experienced throughout his life and in the work he has done for children. He shared the story of the death of his brother, a tank operator who died after being injured, left behind by his fellow IDF soldiers. Almog subsequently swore to never leave behind an injured soldier.
Almog’s son Eran, who was named after his fallen uncle, was born with a combination of autism and developmental problems, and a psychiatrist told the family that he would probably never speak, remaining at the cognitive age of an infant. “This son became the greatest teacher of my life, he taught me more than anyone about life, about commitment,” said Almog.
After his son died, Almog went to see how children like Eran are treated “in the only Jewish state in the world.” What he saw horrified him: “The first thing you saw is the stink; distorted, terrified faces; shameful things. What the hell are these places, why are they being punished more?”
Almog discovered that such children were objects of shame in Israeli society. Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974, had a granddaughter with Down syndrome who, as an adult, gave interviews to the press, said Almog. In these interviews, he continued, “she said, ‘Golda never visited me, Golda never loved me, Golda told my mom, “Never mention the prime minister of Israel having a retarded granddaughter.”’ Yigal Alon [deputy prime minister of Israel, 1968-1979] had a beautiful child who, at age 5, was taken away from the kibbutz she was born in and sent away to Scotland and he never spoke about her. And inside me I heard my son screaming, ‘My dear father, I will never complain to the media, you can send me away to Scotland and never speak of me, but, if you do that, you do not deserve even the title of “father” or even the title of human. I am the ultimate test of commitment,’ he said to me, the echo box of your bleeding brother.”
After Almog left the military, he established the village of ALEH, “a paradise where the children can have a full life. We broke the walls of stigma and shame and stereotypes.”
ALEH Jerusalem, a multi-service home for children with disabilities, now receives help from more than 450 volunteers from all over the world. Some of them, said Almog, are children of Nazis, who say they are coming as atonement for Hitler’s decision to kill people with disabilities. “The social chain is always measured by its weakest link,” said Almog, receiving a standing ovation.
After a video explaining more about ALEH, there was a video tribute to the Pollocks introduced by their children, Josh, Elliot and Shoshana. The Pollocks said a few words, after which Goldman and Pilo wound up the celebration.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
This year’s Jewish National Fund, Pacific Region, Negev Dinner honourees are Michelle and Neil Pollock. (photo from Pollock family)
For their contributions to a diverse range of philanthropic causes, Neil and Michelle Pollock are being honoured at this year’s Negev Dinner.
“Jewish National Fund of Canada, Pacific Region, is proud to have Dr. Neil and Michelle Pollock as our 2018 Negev Dinner honourees on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the state of Israel,” said Ilan Pilo, shaliach and executive director of JNF Pacific Region. “Their longtime contribution to the community and their leadership are widely recognized, as they are inspirational philanthropists who go above and beyond to involve the community in creative ways to fund critically important projects. We are very pleased they have chosen to work with JNF and ALEH Jerusalem on the Outdoor Terrace Project and the Hydrotherapy Pool, which will benefit seriously disabled children and youth in Israel.”
ALEH Jerusalem provides 82 children and young adults with comprehensive professional care, including special education, as well as medical, supportive and therapeutic care.
“I’m honoured, as I know Michelle is, for us to have been recognized and included in this legacy of community leaders and builders, a few of whom I have been privileged to meet, and who have been mentors and role models for myself and others in our community,” said Neil Pollock. “I look forward to having the opportunity to contribute to the cultivation of future leadership in our community in a similar way.”
The Jewish National Fund is important to the family, said Michelle Pollock, because the projects it supports focus on infrastructure in Israel.
“They’re all reflective of Jewish values and helping with the viability and integrity of the Jewish state,” she said.
Michelle Pollock is a lawyer who practised litigation in Vancouver before devoting herself full-time to their family. She is the immediate past president of the board of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and has co-chaired the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign’s women’s division Lion of Judah category for six years. She has been involved with Jewish education and a host of other causes.
Dr. Neil Pollock is chief surgeon and medical director of Pollock Clinics. Over more than 20 years, he has developed minimally invasive techniques for vasectomy, circumcision and frenulectomy procedures. The Pollock Technique has a greater than 99.9% success rate and results in decreased risk of post-vasectomy pain. He has undertaken teaching missions to Rwanda, Congo and Haiti, where he trains local doctors in circumcision, and said the work he has done in Africa and Haiti is among the most meaningful contributions he could make to humanity.
“Our team successfully gave our surgical colleagues in those countries the surgical training, as well as the equipment and supplies, to safely carry out surgical procedures that will save, over the years to come, thousands of lives by reducing HIV transmission,” he said. “Circumcision has been scientifically shown to reduce HIV transmission by 60%. It has been equated to providing protection equivalent to a vaccine against the disease. Sharing my technique provided the mechanism to offer in those countries, for the first time, a safe, quick, painless approach for circumcision that families would happily and readily accept. I continue to search out places around the globe where myself and my team could have similar impact for communities at risk. God willing, there will be more surgical missions in our future.”
Pollock has also developed a unique surgical training program for mohelim, who perform brit milot. He is a mohel himself and, in lieu of accepting fees for his work, advises families to donate to the
Pollock Family Philanthropy Fund at the Vancouver Foundation in honour of the lifecycle event and to support those in need in the community. The philanthropy fund supports the surgical teaching missions to the developing world, as well as organizations including the Arthritis Society, B.C. Cancer Foundation, schools, social service and community agencies.
Pollock’s involvement with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver includes four years as head of the major gifts division and, in 2015, he served as chair of the general campaign, which raised $8.3 million.
“Michelle and Neil Pollock are among the most committed volunteers in our community,” said Karen James, chair of the board of Jewish Federation. “When asked to help, they step up. The Pollocks have been involved with countless initiatives we’ve undertaken at Jewish Federation to address vital community needs…. In response to his work, Neil has been recognized by Jewish Federation’s board with the Woogman Award, for his consistent and conscientious leadership by example. The Pollocks truly help to make our community stronger.”
In addition to their shared involvement with Jewish Federation, the Pollocks support Jewish Family Services. Neil Pollock has served as a board and executive member and is a Friend for Life, a category of donors with lifetime giving of $100,000 or more. The couple also provide an annual matching gift for the Innovators Lunch to inspire philanthropy; these funds are dedicated to the Jewish Food Bank.
They additionally support the Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel, where Neil Pollock is a member of the board of governors and of the fundraising and building committee. He described the Kollel as one of the “less visible but most critical, vibrant and productive organizations in our community today, providing inspirational and educational programming through lectures, social events connecting Jewish youth, hosting Shabbat and Jewish holiday celebrations, all in a safe and accepting environment where everyone can feel comfortable – from Reform to Orthodox.
“I personally am deeply grateful to the founder of the Kollel, Rabbi [Avraham] Feigelstock, for the many hours of teaching, counseling and support that he has quietly provided for me and so many others I know,” said Pollock. “He has sought to help us develop the leadership skills and sound judgment, through both his core Jewish teachings and by cultivating menshlichkeit values, that he hopes we can be guided by in our personal, business and community work, in turn, helping us to be better equipped to meaningfully give back to our community for the years to come.”
Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu, director of the Kollel, said Michelle and Neil Pollock have truly embraced the concept of tikkun olam.
“They both contribute meaningfully; not only financially, but also give time, expertise and insight,” said Yeshayahu. “Their personal involvement in the Jewish community is priceless. We so appreciate their community involvement and care, vision and leadership, and wish them continued success in all that they undertake.”
“It was through the JNF, in my elementary school years, that I was given my earliest opportunities to participate in and contribute directly to the growth and well-being of the state of Israel,” said Neil Pollock. “This helped me to appreciate the importance for Jews to be interested in and responsible for doing our part for our homeland, which has remained with me to this day. And now, again through the JNF, we have been given this very gratifying opportunity to personally identify and support a phenomenal project – ALEH Jerusalem – to again help the state and its people in need, in a very meaningful way.”
Michelle Pollock’s connection to JNF and Israel stem from her family’s history. Her mother’s father was sent from Poland to Canada, alone, at the age of 14, to make enough money to send for the rest of the family.
“It took him too long,” she said, “and his family was wiped out.”
Pollock’s mother, as a result, was raised in a home clouded by survivor’s guilt and where the past was not discussed. But Zionism was at its core.
“Support and survival of the Jewish state was a complete, tangible imperative because of her father’s experience,” said Pollock. “I see this now, reflecting back.”
The lessons of Jewish statelessness are embedded in her family.
“I can’t separate my Jewish sense of self from my support of Israel,” she said. “It’s all tied together. It’s one and the same.”
Neil Pollock’s philanthropic vision is both local and global.
“I have seen firsthand through my many years of volunteering with Federation, culminating in chairing the 2015 annual campaign, how critical the JFGV is for our community,” he said. “It is so important to have an organization to canvass so effectively the support of our community while carefully researching and assessing the needs of our community and its constituent organizations and thoughtfully allocating our resources in a balanced way, ensuring all facets of our diverse community needs are supported.”
Supporting JFS, and specifically the Jewish Food Bank, he added, “aligns with our core values regarding our responsibility to support those less fortunate and in need of the essentials, like food, shelter, medical care…. There is so much affluence in our community that, in our minds, there cannot and will never be, any justification for leaving anyone, any vulnerable individuals, behind.”
Most of the honourees at the Negev Dinner over the years have been older than the Pollocks, who have three children in high school. Far from approaching the end of their philanthropic endeavours, both talk enthusiastically about future plans.
Michelle Pollock has been very committed to Jewish education, originally when her kids were at Vancouver Talmud Torah and, more recently, supporting King David High School.
“The kids that go there and come out of there are so proud of their cultural heritage,” she said. “It’s an interesting thing to see in teenagers. It moves me greatly.”
Now she is turning more of her focus to Holocaust education and Israel advocacy, which her family history has taught her are closely interrelated. She plans to deepen her involvement with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
“I think Holocaust education is important. But, at this critical point, where we still have survivors, it’s imperative. Every single non-Jew that you touch with the story of a survivor, that is an invaluable experience. I think we all have a duty to do whatever we can to support Holocaust education.”
“The VHEC … all I can say is wow. For the past few years, I’ve been going to their symposium at UBC. It’s really unbelievable … being at UBC and being in this very secular place and looking at all these kids that have traveled by bus all day from all over the Lower Mainland, and watching them hear the stories of survivors and ask their questions. I think Holocaust education is important,” she said. “But, at this critical point, where we still have survivors, it’s imperative. Every single non-Jew that you touch with the story of a survivor, that is an invaluable experience. I think we all have a duty to do whatever we can to support Holocaust education. And I’m a huge fan of the [Holocaust] centre.”
She also recently joined the Israel and overseas affairs committee of Federation and hopes to advocate for Israel through that and other avenues.
“I see my focus for the next long while in those two areas because I really see them tied together,” she said. “Holocaust education and Israel advocacy. I think it will grow and change. I’ll just keep finding ways to contribute.”
As immediate past president of the JCC, she is continuing a commitment that began 14 years ago, when she first joined the board. Part of her motivation is that, coming originally from Montreal, she finds it can be more difficult to stay Jewishly connected in places like Vancouver, where the community is not as deeply rooted.
“I definitely think it’s easier in some of the older, more established Jewish communities and I think my personal passion is to do whatever we can to make it easier to be Jewish and live Jewish,” she said. “I think the JCC has all the programming and all the events that help you touch on Judaism in your daily life. But, even more than that, just walking in that building makes you smile in a uniquely Jewish way.”
Also from away, in his case, Winnipeg, Neil Pollock said he is grateful for being “so graciously welcomed and accepted in this community, and for the wonderful network of friends that we are lucky enough to be surrounded by.”
He is philosophical about his plans, hoping, he said with a laugh, to get better with age, “like the great wines in my cellar.”
“Every day we wake up, we are slightly different people, remolded and growing with all-new experiences,” he said. “Hopefully, we capture and deploy the insights we gain to allow us to be more mature and effective leaders.”
He continued: “While my kids are young and at home, they will continue to be my top priority. My business has now moved to a global level, so … I am more engaged, involved and excited now about future potential than ever.
“Often, I feel over-committed with my career, family and other things that happen in my life, but, at these moments, I try to remember that I also have a greater purpose and a greater responsibility and that is the one to my community,” he said. “I believe we all have an obligation to care for others and help those who are in need. We also must ensure that our Jewish traditions and values are maintained for generations that will follow, through our support of Jewish education and local Jewish institutions.”
He wants his experience to demonstrate that anyone can have an impact on the community.
“I hope that the great diversity of backgrounds amongst our community leaders serves as an example and inspiration to the many truly talented members of our community who may have ever questioned their ability to get involved and make a difference.”
“Some community members may believe that, in order to be an influential leader and have a meaningful impact, one must come from a family with a strong history of leadership and/or affluence,” he said. “This is not the case in our community. And I hope that the great diversity of backgrounds amongst our community leaders serves as an example and inspiration to the many truly talented members of our community who may have ever questioned their ability to get involved and make a difference.”
He added: “I want to thank all the community organizations that have welcomed us and provided us with the opportunity to become involved and give back.”
Asked about how he would like people to think of him in future, Pollock said, “I would like to be thought of and remembered in a similar way, I’m sure, to [how] most people would: as an individual concerned with things other than those that are immediately self-gratifying, and who is interested and active in doing his small part to ensure that opportunities to help others were not missed, and that meaningful efforts were undertaken to ensure the Jewish community and broader community in which we lived thrived.”
The JNF’s Negev Dinner takes place June 3. Honourary chairs of the event are Alex and Jodi Cristall and Harvey and Jody Dales. For tickets and more information, visit jnf.ca/index.php/vancouver.
Temple Sholom is hosting Inspired to Act. The event will feature the comedy of Yuk Yuk’s co-founder Mark Breslin, plus the music of young local artists Liel Amdour and Adrienne Robles, and will honour the winners of the 2018 Tikkun Olam Youth Awards.
This annual spring fundraising event will take place the evening of May 6 at Performance Works on Granville Island. It will be an uplifting night of entertainment and inspiration, and the recognition of Vancouver’s Jewish youth’s efforts to repair the world, or tikkun olam.
Yuk Yuk’s is the largest chain of comedy clubs in Canada, and Breslin will keep the audience in stitches. He will also share his view that comedy is a way of life. “You don’t just perform comedy; you live it,” he said. “It’s something you do onstage and off; whether you’re in the business or not.”
After Breslin’s performance, the 2018 Tikkun Olam Youth Awards will be presented to two teenage members of the Metro Vancouver Jewish community. These young community leaders will be honoured for their vision to heal and their passion to make the world a better place. The winner of the Dreamer category will have envisioned an action plan to address an issue in need of repair, while the winner of the Builder category will have volunteered at the grassroots level to cause change.
Community members have until April 9 to nominate a candidate, who is a member of the Jewish community between 13 and 19 years of age. The Dreamers Award is $1,800, while the Builders Award is $270, and the awards are funded by the generosity of the Neil and Michelle Pollock Family Foundation. For more information and the online application, visit templesholom.ca/youth-award.
The entire community is invited to Inspired to Act. For more information, tickets or to make a donation, visit templesholom.ca/inspired.