Temple Sholom Sisterhood Choir under the direction of Joyce Cherry with pianist Kathy Bjorseth performed an afternoon concert of Jewish music at the Weinberg Residence on Jan. 13. Featured were three works by Joan Beckow, a resident of the Louis Brier Hospital and a Temple Sholom member. Beckow was an active composer and music director in Los Angeles and, for a time, was Carol Burnett’s music director. The 23-voice Sisterhood Choir has sung for the annual Sisterhood Service for a number of years, but the recent concert at the Weinberg was a first for them outside of Temple Sholom.
Some of the artists on opening night of the group show Community Longing and Belonging, Jan. 15 at the Zack Gallery. The exhibit marked Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month and ran until Jan. 27.
Eurovision 2018 winner Netta Barzilai, right, performed at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Jan. 26 to help celebrate the 18th anniversary of Birthright Israel. Here, she is pictured with Carmel Tanaka, emcee of the night with IQ 2000 Trivia. The dance party was presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver in partnership with Axis Vancouver, Hillel BC and the JCCGV.
Members of the Tikun Olam Gogos show off some of the paddles being auctioned, until Oct. 10. (photo by Paula Simson)
Last fall, Sue Hyde, dragon boat master and member of Tikun Olam Gogos (which loosely translates as Grandmothers Repairing the World), walked into a board meeting with a hand-painted paddle she had decorated herself. Her idea was to sell paddles like it to raise money for the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, which supports grandmothers in Africa who are raising children orphaned by AIDS.
Tikun Olam Gogos is a Jewish charitable organization, sponsored by the Sisterhood of Temple Sholom, and it is dedicated to fundraising for Grandmothers to Grandmothers. The board was in favour of Hyde’s idea – and one of the board members bought the paddle on the spot. Paddles for African Grandmothers was born.
Hyde had access to more than 30 vintage paddles and the Tikun Olam Gogos asked various artists to paint them. The resulting paddles are being auctioned off until Oct. 10 at tikunolamgogos.org/on-line-auction.
“The paddles were done by a selection of different artists, including one stand-up paddle done by a Syrian refugee,” Tikun Olam Gogos member Sunny Rothschild told the Independent. “The rest are meant to hang on the wall. The paddles are amazing, intricately carved as well as painted. Some are two-sided and some aren’t.”
The fundraiser will culminate with an evening concert on Saturday, Oct. 13, featuring the City Soul Choir and a meet-and-greet with the artists. Winning bidders can pick up their paddles then.
Marie Henry, the founder of Tikun Olam Gogos, also spoke with the Independent. The Tikun Olam Gogos are part of the Greater Vancouver Gogos, which includes more than 25 groups.
“I was visiting in-laws in Kelowna, and I went to a public market and saw a stall where women were selling beautiful tote bags. I found out they were supporting the Stephen Lewis Foundation,” she explained. “I came back and joined the group in Vancouver, but the only problem was I was the only Jew in the group and events kept conflicting with the Jewish calendar. ‘This is crazy,’ I thought, ‘I’m going to form my own group.’”
Henry did just that, in 2011. Today, the group, which is named after the Jewish concept of repairing the world (tikkun olam) and the Zulu word for grandmother (gogo) has Jewish and non-Jewish members. Henry said that only some of the members are actual grandmothers, with the rest being “grand others.”
There are a few hundred Grandmothers to Grandmothers groups across Canada, as well as organizations in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Tikun Olam Gogos has sold more than 2,000 tote bags, with all profits going to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. That’s some $200,000 in donations from tote bags, said Rothschild.
“The admin costs are 11% of all the monies raised, one of the lowest rates of all charities in Canada,” Henry added.
While Henry takes care of notes and minutes and other administrative details for the group, she said, “We have a lot of really talented women in the group, like Sunny, who takes responsibility for part of the group and helps run it.”
Rothschild joined Tikun Olam Gogos almost four years ago, when she was slowing down her career as a lawyer and had more time for volunteer work. She is active in sewing the group’s signature tote bags, as well as taking turns selling them at local craft fairs, where the Gogos get a chance to tell people about their work and the Stephen Lewis Foundation. “That’s the best part,” she said.
“I have a Post-it up in my house – ‘May my life be for a blessing,’” said Rothschild. “This is one of the things that I do because I want my life to be meaningful and to have mattered.”
“The reason that I started this group when I found out what they are doing,” said Henry, “is to help these grandmothers raise up to 15 grandchildren. My grandchildren live a life of privilege and I feel so horribly guilty that these women in their senior years have to suffer so horribly badly. Doing this, I feel useful. In the final analysis, we are performing tikkun olam.”
“I don’t think that the governments in Sub-Saharan Africa understand the revolution that is going to take place because of these women becoming empowered,” said Rothschild. “There are amazing stories of what women are doing, standing up for their rights. It’s really quite amazing what’s happening.”
“The support that we give them helps them to do that,” added Henry. “I see this as the same to the way that suffragettes in North America stood up for their rights, and here it’s happening in a similar way nearly a hundred years later.”
For now, Henry and Rothschild are hoping the community will come out to support Paddles for African Grandmothers at the Many Rivers to Cross concert.
“We’ll be selling tote bags,” said Rothschild. “People can buy a glass of wine, there will be food too – it will be a lovely event.”
Matthew Gindin is 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.
Robbie Waisman, left, and Chief Robert Joseph, will speak at Temple Sholom’s Selichot program Sept. 1. (photos from Temple Sholom)
Two men who have built bridges between Canada’s indigenous and Jewish communities will speak about reconciliation, forgiveness and resilience at Temple Sholom’s Selichot program.
Robbie Waisman, a survivor of the Holocaust who was liberated as a child from Buchenwald concentration camp, and Chief Robert Joseph, a survivor of Canada’s Indian residential schools system, will address congregants on the subject of Forgiving But Not Forgetting: Reconciliation in Moving Forward Through Trauma. The event is at the synagogue on Sept. 1, 8 p.m.
Waisman is one of 426 children who survived Buchenwald. At the age of 14, he discovered that almost his entire family had been murdered. He came to Canada as part of the Canadian War Orphans Project, which brought 1,123 Jewish children here under the auspices of Canadian Jewish Congress.
Joseph is a hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, located around Queen Charlotte Strait in northern British Columbia. He spent 10 years at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay on the central coast of the province. He recalls being beaten for using his mother tongue and surviving other hardships and abuse. A leading voice in Canada’s dialogue around truth and reconciliation, the chief is currently the ambassador for Reconciliation Canada and a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council. He was formerly the executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and is an honourary witness to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Waisman and Joseph have become close friends over years of discussing, publicly and privately, their respective histories and the challenges of building a life after trauma. Waisman has become a leading Jewish advocate for indigenous Canadians’ rights.
“I think we have a duty and obligation to give them a stand in the world,” Waisman said. “For many, many years, many people ignored them, and their story about truth and reconciliation was just in the background, they weren’t important. I think that now that we give them an importance – and it is important that they speak up and speak about their history and so on – [it is possible] to make this a better world for them.”
Waisman believes that the experiences of Holocaust survivors and the example that many survivors have set of assimilating their life’s tragedies and committing themselves to tikkun olam is a potential model for First Nations as they confront their past and struggle to address its contemporary impacts.
“We were 426 youngsters who survived Buchenwald and the experts thought that we were finished,” Waisman said of his cohort of survivors, who have been immortalized in The Boys of Buchenwald, a film by Vancouverites David Paperny and Audrey Mehler, and in a book by Sir Martin Gilbert. “We wouldn’t amount to anything because we’d seen so much and we’d suffered so much and lost so much. And look what we have accomplished. We have little Lulek [Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau], who became the chief rabbi of Israel, Eli Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and I can go on and on. When I speak to First Nations, I say, ‘look what we’ve done,’ and then I quote [Barack] Obama and say, ‘Yes, you can.’”
One of Waisman’s first experiences with Canadian indigenous communities was when he was invited to the Yukon. His presentation was broadcast on CBC radio and people called in from all over the territory, asking that Waisman wait for them so that they could come meet him.
“They kept phoning in and saying, ‘Don’t let Robbie leave, we are coming in to see him,’” Waisman recalled. “It was just amazing. I would sit on a chair and they would come and touch me and then form themselves in a circle and, for the first time, they were speaking about their horrors and how to move on with life.”
This was a moment when Waisman realized the power of his personal story to help others who have experienced trauma gain strength.
The Selichot program was envisioned by Shirley Cohn and the Temple Sholom Working Group on Indigenous Reconciliation and Community, which Cohn chairs.
“It’s the right thing to do given the political atmosphere, the increased awareness about indigenous issues and just the fact that, as Jews, I think we need to be more tolerant of others, and these are really the first people in Canada, and they’ve suffered discrimination, as we have, and I think it’s important,” she said.
The message is especially relevant at this time of penitence and self-reflection, she added. “It’s a time for thoughtfulness and looking inward,” said Cohn, who is a social worker.
Rabbi Carrie Brown said the Temple Sholom community sees the topic as fitting.
“We want to look at this further as a congregation,” said Brown. “Selichot is a time of year when we really start to think about ourselves as individuals and ourselves as a community and the conversation between Robbie Waisman and Chief Joseph really fits nicely into that, about trauma and reconciliation and forgiveness and all of these major themes of the season.”
This is “not just a one-off program,” the rabbi stressed, but the beginning of a process of education and conversation.
Lu Winters, academic and student wellness counselor at King David High School. (photo from Lu Winters)
In the fourth of a series of articles on sexual harassment and violence in the Jewish community, the Jewish Independent speaks with Lu Winters of King David High School, Elana Stein Hain of the Shalom Hartman Institute and Rabbi Carey Brown of Temple Sholom.
The first step in reducing bullying and other abuse in schools is to work with the students, said Lu Winters, academic and student wellness counselor at King David High School.
“I build connections with students in class,” she told the Independent. “And, with various groups in the school, I sometimes take them on trips. After the connection has been built, then the helping relationship can happen. It can happen one-on-one, in groups, in gender groups and through workshops.
“At King David, I’ve created a wellness program. Each grade receives a workshop, or two or three, depending on what’s going on during the year, on specific topics that I think are age-appropriate. I wish I could do every workshop for every single grade, but then the academic part of school would fall to the wayside.
“We run workshops on topics like LGBTQ awareness; healthy relationships with your body; self-esteem; stress and anxiety; drugs and alcohol; choices and values; and sexual health.”
Since the start of the #MeToo movement, Winters has seen some momentum. People have a lot to say about the movement, she said. “We haven’t had a specific workshop about it this year, but it’s on my radar for next year. During our sexual health education classes, we do address sexual harassment and consent, including talking about the roles of everyone involved, people’s faith, and making appropriate decisions for themselves at the right time … what to do if, G-d forbid, anything happens: who to talk to, what kind of support you can get.”
In the greater Jewish educational sphere, the Shalom Hartman Institute has produced a series of videos about related topics and examines how scripture has educated Jews on the subject over the years. Elana Stein Hain, scholar resident and director of faculty, has been leading the project.
“What we do is essentially develop curriculum around challenges facing the Jewish people,” Stein Hain told the Independent. “And I wouldn’t even say it’s about developing curriculum as much as developing conceptual frameworks for thinking about issues that arise. We’re an educational think tank. We ask ourselves what issues are now facing the Jewish people and consider how to develop educational material that deepens how we think about these issues. Then, we speak with change agents in the Jewish community about some ways of thinking.”
Stein Hain and her team began by looking for Torah teachings that address the topic of harassment directly. They came up with a three-part video series, which launched with a presentation that addressed the question of how, as a 21st-century teacher, you can educate people with our most sacred text and have the value proposition of our most sacred text being very important and continuing to give us the wisdom we seek, said Stein Hain. “And, also, we address the absence or relative absence of women’s voices and women as an audience.”
The next video talk was by Dr. Paul Nahme, a member of the institute’s Created Equal Team. He speaks on how definitions of manhood are dependent on cultural context.
“There’s this ‘boys will be boys’ kind of assumption and he says that, actually, there are places in Jewish tradition where that assumption had been challenged,” explained Stein Hain. “Young men were being trained to not be bravado macho, arrogant and assertive – to instead be trained to think about what it means to have doubts, to need someone else’s help. That was in contrast to what masculinity was understood to be.”
The last talk in the series was done by another member of the team, Dr. Arielle Levites, who discusses the portrayal of women in some Jewish traditional texts.
“It’s a deep folk story about women who try to move beyond their station or to move beyond the assumptions of them being portrayed as monsters,” said Stein Hain. “And she relates that to the … women who come forward with claims of sexual harassment or sexual violence who become seen as the offending party, getting questioned and vilified in certain ways.”
“The idea is really to get to the root of education,” said Stein Hain. “We are glad that people are going to do trainings on sexual harassment, on mandated reporting and on how to respond in the moment. We’d like to get to the root thought process of a culture that has come to this. And we want to learn how we can educate better, so we can have an adaptive change in the way people think, talk and act. Then, society and the Jewish community in particular can be built upon a different foundation.”
The educational realm within synagogues has also felt reverberations of the #MeToo movement, according to Rabbi Carey Brown of Temple Sholom.
“I have seen an incredible amount of conversation among rabbis about this issue,” said Brown. “Some have been from within female rabbinic circles of women … some confronting it … things that people had kept within themselves for years or decades … and, now, gaining the courage to talk about it – everything from struggles to trying to understand the situation insofar as its professional implications for female rabbis … major discussions are being had on the topic at our annual conferences.
“Within the congregation, I haven’t had any individuals come to talk to me about personal experience,” she said. “But I have had a sense that women are feeling more free to bring up topics having to do with abuse, with safety, within the congregation, [at the] board level or [from a] staff perspective.”
A couple of months ago, the synagogue’s Men’s Club had a program on the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment in the workplace, including panel discussion on the topic in which Brown participated.
“I was really glad they took the initiative to have this program,” said Brown. “This didn’t come from the rabbis; it came from their leadership wanting to have an opportunity to talk about it. The conversation was really good and those who attended were very engaged and didn’t want to leave.”
Brown spoke about the Jewish perspective, discussing its tradition of values and ideas around sexual harassment, as well as her own personal experience with harassment.
“We talked a lot about consent,” said the rabbi. “A few different pieces of Talmud were discussed. We looked at this one that was about what happens if a man – one who counts money for a woman from his hand to her hand in order to look upon her – even if he has accumulated knowledge of Torah and good deeds like Moses, he will not be absolved from punishment.
“We talked about how, if someone even has a good reputation in the community, is known for their knowledge, good deeds and business … if they are abusive or using their power in a way that puts someone else in a position in which they are abused and powerless … our tradition says that, no, that is not OK.”
Abuse can be as simple as the way one person looks at another – if there is a misuse of power or position to objectify someone, Jewish tradition says that is not acceptable, stressed Brown.
“We talked about how we need to stand up when someone is being objectified, abused or put into a difficult situation,” she said. “That is part of our Jewish imperative – not to look away. It is part of what the Torah teaches us: that we can’t be indifferent and we must act.”
Over the years, Brown has had inappropriate comments directed at her. She said, “I’ve received comments like, ‘You don’t look like a rabbi’ or ‘If my rabbi looked like you, I’d have gone to shul a lot more when I was younger,’ or comments on my clothing and hair, and such.
“I mentioned at the event with the Men’s Club that my experience, both in Vancouver at Temple Sholom and in Boston, has been that the longer that I am the rabbi of a community, the stronger the relationships. And, I feel some of those things begin to fade away … within the regular, active population of the synagogue.
“It’s often when I’m in a new environment with people who don’t know me – at a shivah minyan, a wedding or something like that – my antennae go up. I’m very aware that it’s very likely I’ll get comments that are really inappropriate or that I have to psyche myself up a little bit to deal with.
“If I’m at a shivah minyan, I’m there to comfort the bereaved. I’m generally not going to confront in that situation,” she said. “I will take it with a grain of salt and maybe grumble about it to a friend. But, sometimes I’ll say, ‘That’s not appropriate.’ Sometimes, I’ll hear things like, ‘I’ve never kissed a rabbi before.’ And, I’ll say, ‘Well, we don’t need to kiss.’ I’ll push back a little bit to establish some boundaries.”
Yikealo Beyene, left, and Oded Oron. (photos courtesy of the speakers)
Yikealo Beyene was among the first wave of African asylum-seekers to arrive in Israel. He left his home in Eritrea in 2005, at the age of 21. The political situation in the country had deteriorated since 2001 and, after Beyene penned an article critical of the authoritarian regime, he was arrested twice. He walked under cover of darkness to the Ethiopian border and spent more than three years in a refugee camp, where he earned a stipend as a teacher and running a makeshift library.
“I did not complain,” Beyene told the Independent. “Life was extremely difficult [but] I felt safe.”
That changed when hostilities reignited between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The camp’s proximity to the Eritrean border made Beyene and others worried. Military service is mandatory in Eritrea, so every emigrant is a de facto deserter. With a group of fellow refugees, he traveled to Sudan, and to another refugee camp.
Beyene, who will speak in Vancouver this month at an event co-presented by the Independent and Temple Sholom, stresses that he is not a typical refugee. Unlike many, he had a small nest egg that allowed him to buy tickets to move between places and, as his story proceeds, crucial supports from family, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and generous strangers overseas. Most are not so fortunate.
Life in Sudan felt no safer. Eritrean security forces would sometimes cross into Sudan and abduct people.
“It was terrible,” he said. “It felt even more dangerous than my life in Ethiopia. I decided to leave. I ended up in Egypt.”
In Cairo, he lived in an apartment with about 30 other refugees. By this point, the Egyptian government (as well as that of Libya) had an agreement with the Eritrean government to repatriate citizens of that country. Concurrently, Libya had signed an agreement with Italy preventing people from migrating across the Mediterranean. Egypt’s comparative stability would soon be upended by the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Escape routes were closing.
In Cairo, word spread that smugglers were willing to help people cross the Sinai to Israel. Employing Bedouins, Beyene made it to the Israeli border in February 2008. He thinks he paid about $600 US to the smugglers. As migrants flowed toward Israel in later years, that number would skyrocket to as much as $50,000, Beyene said, and lead to a horrific trade founded on kidnapping, ransoms and organ harvesting.
Once inside Israel, Beyene and the two dozen or so other asylum-seekers he traveled with were transferred to successive military camps and, eventually, bused to Be’er Sheva, where they were left to their own devices in the cold midnight air. With three others and pooled cash, he made his way to Tel Aviv and, after connecting with Eritreans there, immediately found jobs in Jerusalem, doing construction and custodial work.
Beyene, again unlike most asylum-seekers, obtained an education, entering the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, where he received a bachelor’s and a master’s in psychology, thanks to part-time jobs, scholarships, help from NGOs and an American Jewish benefactor.
A woman who was his girlfriend in the first refugee camp had been accepted to the United States in 2009 and, in 2012, she came to Israel and they were married. He moved to Seattle on a family reunification visa.
Beyene will share more of his story at the event May 19, where he will be accompanied by Oded Oron, an Israeli and a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, whose dissertation deals with African asylum-seekers in Israel.
For Sudanese migrants, Oron said, repatriation was potentially deadly because many, especially Darfuris, were fleeing the deadly persecution of Janjaweed militias or had been part of rebel groups opposing the tyranny of Omar al-Bashir. For all refugees, the crisis was exacerbated by the smugglers’ greed.
“Entire communities would sell everything they had or work an extra shift just to make sure that they can release people,” said Oron. “Unfortunately, many people were tortured and killed in the Sinai. Some of them were killed because they couldn’t raise the funds and others were harvested for their organs.”
In all, about 64,000 asylum-seekers entered Israel, of which 37,000 remain. Most of those who left migrated to Europe or North America. A much smaller number accepted an offer of resettlement to Uganda or Rwanda, though, of these, many found themselves still lacking in rights or opportunity and returned to the migration route, some dying on the way.
As the numbers of asylum-seekers skyrocketed, detention facilities that were never meant for illegal border-crossers, became overcrowded. The prison authority gave inmates one-way bus tickets to Tel Aviv. At times, there were 3,000 Africans sleeping under the stars in Levinsky Park, outside Tel Aviv’s main bus station.
In 2014, the government opened the Holot Detention Centre, a prison in the Israeli desert. After several NGO appeals, the Israeli Supreme Court determined that detention of asylum-seekers must be limited to one year and there has been a rotation of people serving their one-year term of detention and then returning to the legal limbo of life as an African asylum-seeker in Israel.
NGOs asked the Supreme Court to interpret the status of the migrants. The government maintained that it would neither process their asylum requests nor give them work permits. However, under pressure, the government told the court that it would not enforce the ban on working. The government did, however, require employers to collect deductions for taxes, as well as for social services for which the migrants are not eligible, and to withhold 20% of their income, to be released only on their exit from the country.
In November 2017, the government declared its plan to offer asylum-seekers two choices: accept $3,500 US and a plane ticket to Rwanda or Uganda, or face indefinite detention.
In March 2018, following public pressure, Rwanda backed out of the deal. The government then suggested a resolution that would see about half the 37,000 offered a temporary residency short of citizenship, while 16,000 would be resettled in Western countries, through a deal brokered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Even so, right-wing members of the governing coalition balked. The “solution,” announced in the morning, was annulled in the afternoon.
Then, late last month after Uganda, too, backed out of the agreement with Israel following public pressure, the Israeli government told the court that it would not proceed with the deportation plan for now.
The Jewish Independent and Temple Sholom invite readers to join us at the event Let My People Stay: Seeking Asylum in the Jewish State. In the spirit of learning on Shavuot, it will take place on May 19 at Temple Sholom. Shavuot services will start at 7:30 p.m., followed by Havdalah and an ice cream oneg at 8:30 p.m., and the program at 9 p.m. Everyone is welcome to all or part of the evening. RSVP to templesholom.ca/erev-shavuot or 604-266-7190, so that there will be enough ice cream for everyone.
Number of African* migrants entering Israel by year.
2006 – 2,758
2007 – 5,132
2008 – 8,886
2009 – 5,261 (decline possibly attributable to war with Gaza)
2010 – 14,715
2011 – 17,272
2012 – 10,421 (barrier completed along Sinai border)
2013 – 49
2014 – 21
2015 – 220
2016 – 18
2017 – 0
* Approximately 70% Eritrean, 20% Sudanese and 10% from other African countries.
Yuk Yuk’s co-founder Mark Breslin is excited to be entertaining Jewish Vancouverites at Temple Sholom’s annual spring fundraiser May 6.
“I can’t get enough Jews in my life,” he told the Independent. “I’m married to a Catholic woman but I’m a Jew through and through. Any time I can talk about Jews and Jewishness, and my unique views on that, I jump at the opportunity because comedy is the jazz of our people. That’s how I express my Jewishness in the biggest way, not by keeping kosher or going to Israel each year, but through comedy.”
Breslin opened his first Yuk Yuk’s location in 1976. Today, he has 15 Yuk Yuk’s franchises across the country, has published four books, produced programs for television and radio, and appeared in theatrical productions. He’s a sought-after public speaker and, in December 2017, he was awarded the Order of Canada.
“Comedy is not usually something people respect, so it’s gratifying that some bureaucrats in Ottawa see what I’ve done with my life and think it has value,” he said. “But all the people I’d like to lord this over are dead now.”
Those people include a high school principal who informed Breslin he was a menace to society, as well as his aunts and uncles, who refused to attend his shows “because they thought I was wasting my life.”
Back when he started Yuk Yuk’s, Breslin said he received no support or encouragement from the people closest to him. “My mother was a child actress in the Yiddish stage in 1920, so you’d think she would be thrilled about what I was trying to build in comedy, but instead she was appalled by it right to the grave. My father was more ambivalent. He respected Yuk Yuk’s as a business and was proud of me, though he didn’t find the comedy funny. Even my friends thought I was nuts.”
When he began the first Yuk Yuk’s location, in Toronto, Breslin said his main goal was to avoid law school. “I thought I’d do comedy for a couple of years and find something else to do when it ran out of steam,” he admitted. “I never thought it would become my life!”
Initially, the Toronto Yuk Yuk’s was known as “that Jewish club,” because the names of the performing comedians were all Jewish. “When standup started, it was a very Jewish thing to do,” explained Breslin. “A lot of the comedians at that time were my friends from high school or university, and they gravitated to Yuk Yuk’s because they knew me.”
Today, standup is a mainstream phenomenon and Yuk Yuk’s is no longer known as a Jewish club. One thing that’s remained unchanged from the get-go, however, is Breslin’s insistence that his clubs be uncensored. “I’ve never censored an act in the 42 years I’ve been in business,” he said. “Being uncensored is important because the clubs are small enough that no one can control them. We have an obligation to be the official opposition and, these days, it’s more important than ever.” While he conceded that most comics exercise their right of free speech to talk about sex, not politics, he said, “Still, the opportunity is there.”
Yuk Yuk’s has two locations in British Columbia: Abbotsford and Vancouver. The Vancouver club opened in 1988 and is located on Cambie Street, near City Hall. It’s always been a success, said Breslin. “I measure success by some level of profitability, but also by how impactful our product is on the wider community and on comedy in general,” he said.
Among the comedians who got their start at Yuk Yuk’s are Russell Peters, Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Mike Bullard and Gerry Dee.
Breslin said that, on May 6, at the Temple Sholom event, he plans to talk about how each Jew has their own unique form of Jewishness and how we treat our culture as a Chinese buffet, picking what we want from it.
“I’m going to talk about the golden age of Judaism, 1950 to 1975, when it was cool and sexy to be a Jew,” he said. “I’ll try to figure out what happened between then and now, and why we’re a people in need of a good PR person. I’ll also reveal a lot of fun stuff about my life, my family and things I’ve done, relating that to comedy in general and what it means as a Jewish art form.”
For event details, visit templesholom.ca/inspired. The evening at Performance Works on Granville Island is titled Inspired to Act and includes comedy, music by Adrienne Robles and Liel Amdour, and the 2018 Tikkun Olam Youth Awards.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
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.
On Dec. 7, Temple Sholom Sisterhood hosted a discussion on the relationship, history and relevance of today’s kosher practices. The panel aimed to “explore, broaden and in some cases challenge the term kashrut” and “explore integrating values such as ethics, community and spirituality as it relates to food.”
The panelists were Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph, executive director of the Centre for Jewish Excellence; Michael Schwartz, director of community engagement at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia; and Noam Dolgin, a Jewish environmental educator and “sustainable realtor.”
As participants ate baked organic apples – sourced locally and made with gluten-free oats – Dolgin began at the beginning, discussing the Garden of Eden and asking the audience to name the first mitzvah (commandment) given to human beings alone. Although many people think it was “be fruitful and multiply,” that commandment was given to animals as well. The first human commandment, Dolgin said, was to “work and protect” the garden. After leaving the hunter-gatherer society of the garden, we became farmers able to produce surplus food and wealth, he explained, and so came the laws around our relationship to the land and to other people, which aimed to promote justice towards the earth and to each other.
Dolgin gave an overview of the development of Jewish law in relation to land, animals and people, touching on such core rabbinic laws as ba’al tashchit (do not waste) and ba’al tzarei chayyim (do not be cruel to animals). Dolgin said, although there are biblical laws protecting the land, there has been a shift in recent years from an emphasis on immediate human concerns – “don’t pollute upwind,” for example – to deeper ecological concerns, such as “don’t pollute at all.”
Schwartz spoke about how Jewish culinary traditions go beyond the legalities of kashrut. He focused on the home as the locus of cultural preservation, and noted the museum’s recent initiative to collect and share Jewish cultural stories around food. As part of this project, he said, one Jewish woman talked of her memories of food from Second World War-era Bangalore, India; another spoke of her Mizrahi Jewish family who had lived in China for years and were more comfortable in Vancouver’s Chinatown than in other parts of the city, including Jewish institutions.
Schwartz also discussed efforts to bring Jewish ethics to bear on food, describing the community’s creation of a food bank, and of other food-justice-related organizations.
“The alert among you will notice that I have made it this far into my talk without mentioning the word kosher,” he said. “That is not an accident. The reason for this is that I wanted to demonstrate that there are many ways that food can preserve our identity and inform our morals.”
Rounding out the discussion, bat Joseph explored the architecture of kosher law and the way it was built out of biblical law. She explained how kosher laws are traditionally considered to be transrational, or beyond human understanding. She said, despite our not understanding the details, the Torah suggests two primary purposes of kashrut: to make us distinct from the nations around us and to promote a holy lifestyle, to encourage mindfulness and “a sense of priestliness in the most mundane things.” She debunked the commonly held idea that kosher laws may have had a connection to health.
A wide-ranging question-and-answer period included humourous stories of trying to live kosher, different family traditions, and the struggle to balance inclusivity both among Jews and between Jews and non-Jews while observing kashrut.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Teens from Temple Sholom and Al-Jamia Masjid at a dialogue session. (photo from Temple Sholom)
“We enjoy great conversation and great food and sharing some bad jokes,” Tariq Tayyib said in a recent phone interview. He was talking about the Jewish-Muslim dialogues that have been quietly underway between Temple Sholom and Al-Jamia Masjid. (Masjid is the proper Arabic name for what is often called a mosque, according to Tayyib.)
The dialogues began when Tayyib, a community volunteer involved in outreach efforts for Al-Jamia Masjid, and Haroon Khan, formerly its president and now trustee, came as observers to a Friday night service at Temple Sholom after arranging it with Rabbi Dan Moskovitz.
Tayyib and Khan have been hard at work over the past several months on an initiative called
Islam Unraveled, which seeks to explain Islam to the average Canadian and dispel stereotypes and misunderstandings.
“I wake up in the morning and turn on CNN and, more often than not, I find some crackpot doing something crazy in the name of Islam,” said Tayyib. “Muslims and non-Muslims both feel this way. Muslims are like, ‘Oh no, not another one,’ and non-Muslims are like, ‘What is it with this faith?’”
Tayyib and Khan spoke to Moskovitz about holding a dialogue, and Moskovitz suggested one for high school-age teens involved in the synagogue’s program and teens in the Al-Jamia community. In the following weeks, the teens met, and a series of other meetings occurred as well. The imam of Al-Jamia spoke at Temple Sholom to a group of seniors, and the Muslim group was invited to a Shabbat service and lunch afterward at Temple Sholom, catered by local Israeli vegan restaurant Chickpea. Following that, a delegation from Temple Sholom visited Al Jamia Masjid, bringing to a close a month of discourse events between the two communities.
Al-Jamia Masjid was founded in 1963. Khan’s father was instrumental in its founding. He said the masjid has been at the forefront of interfaith and multicultural work for generations.
“The masjid had a longstanding relationship with Rabbi [Philip] Bregman, and now with Rabbi Moskovitz,” said Khan.
In another dialogue event, Imam Aasim Rashid from the Al-Ihsan Islamic Centre in Surrey came to talk to the seniors. The meeting went well, even though the seniors asked some hard questions, according to Moskovitz – questions dealing with antisemitism in the Arab world and questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example.
After expressing interest, Moskovitz was invited along with a group of other Temple Sholom members to the Al-Jamia, where they had a “wonderful visit.”
“Some of the members said that they had previously wanted to visit a mosque, but were unsure whether they would be welcome. It was meaningful to them to see how warmly they were met and embraced by the Al-Jamia community,” said the rabbi.
The visitors from Al-Jamia also enjoyed their Shabbat visit to Temple Sholom. “We saw many passages in the prayers which were reminiscent of the Quran,” they said. “We were very heartened by the welcome we received.”
The interaction between the teens, around 20 in total, has been particularly meaningful for both communities. The teens asked each other about their perceptions of the other community, and about similarities and differences in practice, comparing, for instance, kosher and halal.
“The questions tended to be more social and cultural than political or theological,” said Moskovitz. After the initial discussion, the teens went downstairs to hang out informally, and the adults report hearing sounds of lively and friendly conversation.
“We really saw the commonality that we share as being inspired by the Abrahamic principles and the teachings of the prophets,” said Khan. “All of the prophets of God carry a similar message. We have more in common than not. We should all make common cause to build bridges of understanding.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
From left to right: Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, Meha Qewas, the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Hesen Mostefa, Brenda Karp and two of the Mostefas’ children. (photo from Temple Sholom)
“I am not scared,” says Meha Qewas, sitting at her small dining table with her 1-year-old daughter on her lap. In front of us is a plate of knefa, a very rich, sweet cheese dish covered in syrup, together with huge tumblers of juice many times bigger than what I’m used to being offered. Meha clearly values hospitality. The only thing sweeter than the mid-morning “snack” is the ebullience and warmth that flows out of Meha and her husband Hesen Mostefa.
When she says she is fearless, Meha is talking about finding work in Vancouver. Despite the challenges, she is confident both in her new friends in the Vancouver Jewish community and in her own ability to master English and overcome whatever other obstacles she may meet. Her confidence is not groundless: Meha was the main force behind and organizer of getting her husband and three children first out of Syria, then out of Iraq, the country where they took refuge for five years. “I wanted my children out of there,” she says, recalling the sight of Syrian children and youth in Iraq taking up smoking and selling candy on the street to make income for their families in the packed, rat-infested refugee housing.
Hesen also has a remarkable story to tell. Trained as a surgeon in Syria, he volunteered in Iraq with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which eventually hired him as a doctor. During the years they spent in Iraq, Hesen put in long days with MSF while Meha struggled to take care of the children, run a household and plan their flight from Iraq. Eventually, Meha succeeded in securing passage to Canada with the help of sponsors from Vancouver’s Temple Sholom.
Temple Sholom’s efforts to sponsor Syrian refugees started with a High Holidays sermon from Rabbi Dan Moskovitz about the refugees’ plight. Members of the shul immediately formed a committee of volunteers to bring in at least one family, and others, if possible.
Meetings with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Anglican Diocese followed (the diocese is a federally approved sponsor for refugees with which other groups can team). The committee learned about private sponsorship and began working through Mosaic, a local agency that serves newcomers and refugees, and were connected to the Mostefas. The process to bring them to Canada was started.
In December 2015, however, Canada pulled some immigration services out of Iraq and began working through Jordan. A letter that Moskovitz gave to Senator Mobina Jaffer about the Mostefa family and their situation apparently found its way to the prime minister, and services in Iraq were reinstated as a result.
“In the end, over 200 people from shul got involved,” Moskovitz said. “I met personally with anyone who expressed concern about whether bringing in the refugees was a good idea. Most got on board with the initiative and I’m happy to say that, now that they [the Mostefas] are here, everyone in the community is thrilled.”
The synagogue’s efforts did not end there. They have since brought in another family, Bawer Issa, Shinhat Ahmed and their newborn son. The Issa family was welcomed at a Shabbat service in the synagogue on Aug. 25 (it can be seen on YouTube). Bawer spoke movingly at that event, recounting how some people had asked him if he was surprised, as a Muslim, that he had been rescued by Jews.
“We were not surprised,” he told the congregation. “Growing up in Iraq, we were brainwashed at school every day to hate Israelis and Jews as our number one enemy. My Kurdish father always told us not to care what they said, not to believe it. He told us that Israel had been the first to send aid when Saddam Hussein bombed us with chemical weapons.” Citing Israel’s continued support for Kurdish self-rule, Bawer said that he had already known that Jews were their friends.
At the upcoming biennial meeting in Boston of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the umbrella organization of the Reform movement, a resolution – that Moskovitz helped write – will call for the sponsorship of 36 more refugee families by Canadian congregations.
The wider Vancouver community is invited to welcome the Issa and Mostefa families on Sept. 10, at 11:30 a.m., at a reception at Temple Sholom that also marks the first day back of the synagogue’s Hebrew school. An RSVP is requested to 604-266-7190 or via templesholom.ca/get-know-new-canadians.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.