Silver trophy winner Levi Bitton, 11, and medal winner Mendel Bitton, 14, with their father, Rabbi Binyomin Bitton, director of Chabad of Downtown Vancouver, at the International Chidon Sefer Hamitzvos. (photo from Chabad of Downtown)
Seven months of diligent study came full circle April 7 for Mendel and Levi Bitton of Vancouver and more than 1,200 of their peers at the final round of the annual International Chidon Sefer Hamitzvos in Brooklyn, N.Y. Of close to 10,000 children from more than 150 schools worldwide who participated in this year’s competition, Mendel and Levi earned two of the highest scores on three rigorous exams, qualifying them for a trip to Brooklyn to participate in the final tournament. Also earlier this month, more than 1,400 girls participated in their own similar showdown.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, OBM, encouraged children to thoroughly study all of the Torah’s 613 commandments as enumerated and elucidated by Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot. His followers have taken to his words, hosting an annual chidon (contest) that challenges children to study large volumes of detailed texts delving into the intricacies of each mitzvah, and compete for trophies, medals and prizes.
Organized by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, together with Tzivos Hashem, its children’s division, the Chidon Sefer Hamitzvos sees thousands of children ages 9-13 staying late at their respective schools to study the mitzvot with their classmates and friends. As finalists, Mendel and Levi flew to New York, where they enjoyed four days of trips and competitive games that tested their knowledge, and concluded with a grand on-stage tournament and award ceremony.
In the final moments, the tension rose and the crowd went silent as the emcee opened the long-awaited envelopes and announced the trophy winners and champions of the final exam.
We are proud to report that Levi earned a silver trophy. We are also proud to report that Mendel was among 15 boys, from grades 4 to 8, who completed the entire Chidon curriculum. Mendel earned a medal celebrating his commitment and all those months of hard work.
Mazal tov to Levi, Mendel and all of the competitors!
A scene from Alison Snowden and David Fine’s Animal Behaviour: Victor acts out. (image from National Film Board of Canada)
Alison Snowden and David Fine’s National Film Board animated short Animal Behaviour won for best animated short at the Canadian Screen Awards March 31.
The film also was an Academy Award nominee this year. It is the fourth Oscar nomination for the Vancouver-based husband-and-wife animation duo, who took home the Oscar 24 years ago for the NFB-Snowden Fine Animation-Channel 4 co-production Bob’s Birthday. They were also nominated for their 1987 NFB short George and Rosemary, with Snowden nominated before that for her 1984 student film Second Class Mail.
Animal Behaviour takes viewers inside a group therapy session for animals who grapple with issues not unlike our own. (See jewishindependent.ca/animated-therapy-session.) Produced and executive produced by Michael Fukushima for the NFB’s Animation Studio in Montreal, Animal Behaviour is the 75th Academy Award nomination for the NFB – more than any other film organization based outside of Hollywood. The NFB has received 12 Oscars over its 79-year history, including a 1989 Honourary Academy Award for overall excellence in cinema.
Campers at Pennsylvania’s Camp Havaya. (photo from Camp Havaya)
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), Ben Zoma says, “Who is honourable? One who honours others.” The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Shmira Initiative “aims to make camps safe, healthy and respectful model communities. Shmira, in Hebrew and in the vernacular of Jewish summer camp, means guard duty, embodying the social and individual responsibility every community member has to ensure a safe environment.”
For some camps, the initiative provides practical training that has been needed for some time. But, at Camp Havaya in Pennsylvania, camp director Sheira Director-Nowack told the Independent that they have been operating on the initiative’s principles for many years.
“We have people who go by ‘he,’ by ‘she’ and by ‘they,’ as rabbis, teachers, students, educators, campers and staff,” said Director-Nowack of the camp, which is part of the Reconstructionist movement. “So, for us, the sexual harassment piece is something we’ve always discussed, have always had a policy for. I used to work at a camp that did not have that defined as clearly and they had some real challenges. We don’t have some of those challenges here, because it’s very up front and very clear – how you treat all people, not just insofar as gender, but in all areas of inclusion.”
At Camp Havaya, respect is constantly discussed.
“The name of our camp mascot is Howie Bee,” said Director-Nowack. “We talk about ‘how we be,’ using that as a fairly common statement to talk about how we should treat each other with respect, kindness … better than you’d want to treat yourself, you’d want to treat the other person … and, not just as a Jewish phenomena, but as a human phenomena.”
While Director-Nowack acknowledged that, every so often, they run into power conflicts in a relationship, they try to ensure it never gets near the point of harassment.
At Camp Havaya, she said, flirtation is discouraged. For example, there are strict rules as to what clothing is acceptable. Everyone must wear shirts at all times and clothing should be loose fitting. They also have no boys against girls competitions. Instead, all sports are open to everyone and, while everyone swims together, there are rules about appropriate swimwear.
Language and attitude is another area that is closely monitored at the camp. “We don’t use the word ‘broad’ or ‘chick,’ we don’t use a lot of derogatory terms,” said Director-Nowack. “We don’t make jokes at other people’s expense.
“We want everyone to treat each other how they would treat their own family or themselves…. There’s not a constant need for romance or underlying things that go into that modern love thought and, because of that, we don’t see certain behaviours that other places might see.”
The concepts of the #MeToo movement are discussed at camp, as are other relevant topics, like Black Lives Matter and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Our constituency is made up of people who are interested in these things … also, things like respect for people with special needs, inclusivity, race, culture and minorities,” said Director-Nowack. “We don’t talk about these things because they’re hot topics. We were talking about them before they were considered cool to talk about.
“We also give the credit to younger people, because it is them who are changing the verbiage, changing ideas. They are bringing them to us and we are bringing them to camp, because, if camp is a microcosm of society, then we want to be part of that.”
If and when the topic of sex comes up, Director-Nowack said she teaches her staff to turn the conversation back to the camper and ask why he or she is wondering about it.
Camp Havaya has a no-sex policy. If inappropriate behaviour is observed, Director-Nowack said, ‘We don’t punish people for behaviour, but I may or may not ask them if camp is the appropriate place for it. I don’t feel like there’s any place at camp where you could be sexual appropriately, and that’s what we talk about.
“We don’t hook up in the middle of the woods – that’s just not what we do. And, we really don’t have a lot of that. I don’t think I’d kick someone out of camp just because they kissed someone. But, I’d say something like, ‘I just walked passed you kissing … not what I want to see, not OK, not cool.’ If it got further than that, it would depend on the kid, the parent, the discussion and the situation. We’re dealing with human beings and we have an environment that’s not constant.”
Still, staff members do talk with campers about consent, in an effort to ensure all of them are comfortable in their own space at all times.
“Our goal is to create young leaders in the Jewish community who are thoughtful and intelligent, and who are, therefore, going to go out and lead a Jewish life and know themselves,” said Director-Nowack. “We love that some people find their love and their relationships at camp. But, I also love that people find their independence at camp … or that they want to lead a more productive Jewish life without a partner…. We want our kids and staff to leave camp as people who are going to make decisions guided by some basic values.”
Two unidentified women hold a White Elephant sign for Hadassah Bazaar collection, 1953. (photo from JWB fonds, JMABC L.10545)
If you know someone in this photo, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
Crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall remove tens of thousands of written prayers from the Western Wall. (photo by Gil Zohar)
On April 10, equipped with long sticks, crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall removed tens of thousands of written prayers, which worshippers had wedged into crevices at the holy site over the previous half year. The painstaking work is done twice annually, in advance of Passover in April and Rosh Hashanah in September, to ensure space for new prayers. The notes that are removed are buried in Mount of Olives Cemetery.
The origin of the practice of placing small folded sheets of paper between the cracks of the 2,000-year-old ashlars is unclear. According to tradition, God’s female presence (Shechinah), has never left the holy site.
A retaining wall of the Temple Mount, built by King Solomon circa 960 BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Kotel Maaravi (Western Wall) stands today beneath a religious plaza known in Arabic to Muslims as al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Jews believe the holy hill marks the navel of the world from where God began his creation 5779 years ago; the site also marks where Abraham brought his son Isaac to offer him up as a sacrifice. Muslims consider the Western Wall to be where Muhammad tethered his winged steed al-Burak when he ascended to the Seventh Heaven. And Christians believe Jesus was one of the millions of Jewish pilgrims in antiquity who came here during the festivals of Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost.
From 1948 until 1967, when East Jerusalem was under the control of Jordan, Israelis were prohibited from visiting the site.
נשיא המדינה, ראובן ריבלין, קיים לאחרונה ביקור רשמי בקנדה, שכלל פגישת עבודה עם ראש הממשלה, ג’סטין טרודו. טרודו אמר לריבלין בפגישה ביניהם: “אנו מציינים שבעים שנה לכינון היחסים הדיפלומטיים בין שתי המדינות. יש לנו הרבה על מה לדבר כמו חידוש הסכם הסחר שלנו, ולדבר על פלורליזם ועל סובלנות ומאבק נגד שנאה וחוסר סובלנות. אני יודע שאתה מחזיק בדעות חזקות בנושא הזה. תענוג גדול לשבת איתך בזמן שבו ישראל וקנדה חברות נהדרות”. ריבלין הישיב לטרודו: “תענוג להיות איתך ולהכיר חבר כל כך טוב. אנחנו חולקים ערכים ואידיאלים. יהודים באו לקנדה כבר לפני מאה וחמישים שנה. אני גאה מאד להיות כאן ולהחליף ידע ורעיונות איתך. אנחנו חווים ימים קשים במרחב, ואתם עושים המון עבורנו במטרה לשמור על המרחב העדין ועל הקיום שלנו. אתם עושים זאת בסוריה, בלבנון ובסיני”. הנשיא הודה לטרודו על תמיכתה של קנדה בישראל בזירה הבינלאומית ועל התמיכה נגד הפעילות האנטישמית של תנועת הבי.די.אס. ריבלין מקווה שקנדה תביע עמדה נגד מהלכים חד-צדדיים של הפלסטינים נגד ישראל. וכנגד היחס המפלה כלפי המדינה במוסדות הבינלאומיים.
השניים דנו בסוגיה האיראנית והנשיא ציין לטובה את החלטת הפרלמנט הקנדי על הקפאת היחסים עם איראן, ואת ההכרזה כי משמרות המהפכה האיראניים הם ארגון טרור. בנושא זה אמר ריבלין: “איראן מובילה את התבססות הציר השיעי בעיראק, סוריה, לבנון ותימן. ובפעולותיה היא מחריפה את המתח הסוני-שיעי, העלול להביא להסלמה אזורית ולאיים על העולם כולו”. הנשיא הדגיש כי: “אסור לעולם לאפשר התבססות איראנית. בלימת ההתבססות האיראנית תושג רק באמצעות לחץ בינלאומי מתואם ופעולות צבאיות נקודתיות בכל עת שנדרשת”.
לפני הפגישה עם טרודו, נפגש הנשיא עם המושלת הכללית של קנדה, ז’ולי פאייט. השניים קיימו פגישת עבודה מדינית. הנשיא העניק למושלת (שהייתה בעבר אסטרונאוטית והיו לה שתי משימות בחלל), דגם מוקטן של החללית “בראשית”. החללית הישראלית הראשונה עתידה הייתה לנחות על הירח וכידוע התרסקה וגרמה לעוגמת נפש גדולה בישראל. פאייט אמרה דברים מרגשים לזכרו של האסטרונאוט הישראלי, אילן רמון ז”ל, שעימו הייתה ביחסי ידידות. ריבלין מצידו הזכיר את מותה של אשתו, רונה רמון, ופאייט אמרה שהדבר מאוד העציב אותה.
טרודו וראש עיריית טורונטו, ג’ון טורי, השתתפו באירוע מיוחד: שבעים שנה לידידות בין קנדה וישראל. האירוע נערך בטורונטו בהשתתפות כאלפיים איש. הוא אורגן על ידי מגבית היהודית קנדה והבונדס, בשיתוף פעולה עם ארגון הגג של הפדרציות היהודיות בקנדה.
טרודו נשא באירוע נאום פרו-ישראלי יהודי יוצא דופן, גינה את האנטישמיות ואמר כי בניגוד אליה, הערכים היהודיים של נתינה וקהילה הם ערכים קנדיים. טרודו: “האנטישמיות בעולם מרימה ראש. התקפות אנטישמיות מתרחשות נגד ילדים שהלכו עם כיפות בקנדה, ההתקפה נגד בית הכנסת בפיטסבורג, ההתקפות בפריז, בירושלים ובכל העולם. אנטישמיות נמצאת במגמת בעלייה והיא מפיצה שנאה”. טרודו הוסיף עוד כי האנטישמיות החדשה כוללת גם את הדמוניזציה של ישראל. לדבריו אין מקום לתנועת האפרטהייד נגד ישראל בקנדה. ראש ממשלת קנדה הדגיש: “אני יכול להבטיח לכם שקנדה תמיד תגנה כל שנאה נגד כל קהילה, ותזכיר את המסר שוב ושוב כי אנטישמיות היא התקפה על קנדה. ישראל היא לא רק בת ברית, אלא שותפה אמינה שאפשר לסמוך עליה והיא יכולה לסמוך עלינו”.
טרודו אפוא מנסה להתקרב לישראל ואל היהודים בקנדה לקראת הבחירות הכלליות שיערכו כאן בחודש אוקטובר.
Clockwise, from top left: U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, Joe Lieberman, Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Cory Booker address attendees of last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference. (photos by Dave Gordon)
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, in addition to other ranking American politicians, spoke of their unwavering support for the Jewish state to 18,000 people at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, in Washington, D.C., March 24-26.
Speech themes revolved around recent rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, the Golan Heights being recognized as Israeli sovereign territory by the United States, and sanctions against Iran. Every official who mentioned BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, condemned it.
Much was said about the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Abdullahi Omar. Her statements – including “Israel has hypnotized the world” and that AIPAC has influenced U.S. policy through money – have been interpreted as antisemitic by some Jewish leaders.
Pence said, “History has already proven [Donald Trump] to be the greatest friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office of the White House.”
Among the pro-Israel bona fides of Trump, Pence said the United States shut down the Washington branch of the Palestinian Authority as a consequence for funding terror; ended tax dollar funding for United Nations-funded Palestinian schools; moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; and recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
“We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values,” he said.
In addition, Pence talked about the end of the “disastrous nuclear deal with Iran” that has been replaced with “a maximum-pressure campaign” of sanctions, thereby causing Iran’s economy to dip.
“There’ll be no more pallets of cash to the mullahs in Iran,” he said.
In a swipe across the political aisle, Pence said, “It’s astonishing to think that the party of Harry Truman, which did so much to help create the state of Israel, has been co-opted by people who promote rank antisemitic rhetoric and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel.”
Without mentioning her name, he referred to Omar as “a freshman Democrat in Congress” who “trafficked in repeated antisemitic tropes.”
Former U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s first comments were about what she believes is the UN’s hypocrisy.
“You know, what’s interesting is, at the UN, I can guarantee you this morning it is radio silent,” she said, in reference to the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. “They are not saying anything about Hamas, they’re not saying anything about the lives lost, they’re not saying anything. But, if it was any [other] countr[y], they’d be calling an emergency Security Council meeting.”
David Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel, claimed that Trump is “Israel’s greatest ally ever to reside in the White House” and, to those who think otherwise, “please, take a deep breath and think about it some more.”
How America is now sanctioning Iran was one example of an Israel-friendly policy. Friedman criticized the previous administration for paying the Islamic Republic $100 billion in the hopes that country would “self-correct.”
“What did Iran do with all its newly found treasure?” he asked. “Did it build up its civilian institutions? Did it improve the quality of life of its citizens?” Instead, he said, it “doubled down on terrorist activity in Yemen, in Iraq and in Lebanon. It increased its stock of ballistic missiles and it invested in military bases in Syria, on Israel’s northern border.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered an address via satellite, initially planning to take the podium in person, but returning to Israel to deal with the rocket attacks.
“The Golan Heights is indispensable for our defence,” he said of the recognition by the United States of the northern land seized by Israel in the Six Day War, in 1967. “It’s part of our history. When you put a shovel in the ground there, what you discover are the ruins of ancient synagogues. Jews lived there for thousands of years and the people of Israel have come back to the Golan.”
Netanyahu said he thought comments like Omar’s are antisemitic.
“Again, the Jews are cast as a force for evil,” he said. “Again, the Jews are charged with disloyalty. Again, the Jews are said to have too much influence, too much power, too much money. Take it from this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins.”
In the session Canada’s Relationship with Israel, the panel included Liberal member of Parliament Anthony Housefather, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole and former Conservative foreign minister John Baird.
Housefather said he believes Israelis do not think there’s a negotiating partner for peace, but they share some blame in the conflict: “The more they create settlements, the less likely there will be peace … they should think carefully before expanding settlements.”
A questioner asked him when the Canadian prime minister would do something “real” for Israel and Housefather noted that, in recent weeks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau forcefully condemned the BDS movement in a town hall meeting.
Another audience member asked why the Trudeau government continues to fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. While acknowledging that UNRWA has “curricula problems” that involve “anti-Jewish, anti-Israel comments, misogynistic comments and anti-gay comments,” he said that the $50 million in funding was just.
Housefather said he had spoken with the head of UNRWA and voiced his “concerns at the slow pace they are making changes in the curricula,” but added that their schools make children “a lot less likely to become terrorists against Israel.”
“Yes to helping them with UN aid programs; no to funding their schools,” said O’Toole. And Baird agreed.
On the topic of a peace plan, O’Toole said he “kept hearing from Palestinians their want for a ‘one-state solution,’” while their government “exerts violence, and does not take care of the needs of their people.”
“I think you’ll see from Israeli leaders that they’re prepared to experience real pain [in concessions],” Baird said, but “Palestinians have to stop the incitement” and the “hate-mongering.”
While several candidates for the Democratic party’s 2020 presidential nomination skipped the conference, leading Democratic figures were prominent at AIPAC, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who insisted no one will be permitted to make Israel a partisan wedge issue.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.
“Sydney Beach Cliff” (Australia) by Talin Wayrynen.
Art Vancouver’s dictum is “Connect. Inspire. Educate.” This year’s fair brings together almost 100 exhibitors from around the world to Vancouver Convention Centre East April 25-28, and features art classes, guided tours, speakers, panel discussions and a café art crawl. Both veteran and emerging artists participate, and the Jewish Independent spoke with a few artists in the Jewish community who are newcomers to the exhibition world: Matthew Weinstein, Talin Wayrynen and Tara Lupovici.
“I had a chance to volunteer at last year’s show,” Weinstein told the Independent. “Seeing the great professionalism demonstrated by the Wayrynen family inspired me to submit a formal application to this year’s exhibition.”
Art Vancouver was launched in 2015 by Lisa Wolfin Wayrynen. It has become somewhat of a family affair, with this year’s exhibitors including her daughters, Taisha Teal Wayrynen and Skyla Wayrynen; her son, Talin Wayrynen; and her sister, LeeAnn Wolfin.
“We just exhibited in Korea last November, and were invited to participate in another show in Seoul in June, and another show in Taiwan in December,” said Lisa Wolfin Wayrynen, referring to her and her children. “The family act is on the move!”
The 2019 Art Vancouver will be Talin Wayrynen’s second time exhibiting at the fair. An aerial photographer, among other things, he will be exhibiting photos from Australia and New Zealand, and possibly Indonesia. Last year, he said, he displayed photos of British Columbia and Mexico.
Weinstein said he will be bringing a select number of pieces to the show. Describing his art as “abstract and minimal in nature,” he said, “The purpose is to bring peace and tranquility to contemporary rooms…. My passion is to make large multi-coloured pieces that are not just pleasant to look at, but also provoke questioning and inspiration.”
About his creative process, Weinstein said, “The numbers and letters may appear as if they are there to provide meaning when in fact they are just as nonrepresentational as the rest of the shapes. One might ask, ‘Why did you add the number 7 at the bottom right corner of this piece?’ My answer would be, ‘There is no concrete reason behind that decision. It is as random as the rest of shapes, colours and signs you’re seeing. If you’re asking this question then I’ve accomplished my goal to generate interest and promote inspiration.’”
Lupovici, whose artist signature is LUPO, said, “My art is a psychedelic, abstract combination of organic and fluid lines with colour combinations that are inspired by the colours I feel.”
This year’s fair will be Lupovici’s first Art Vancouver, but she has a previous connection to the Wayrynen family. “I went to camp with Taisha and Skyla, Lisa’s daughters,” she said.
A graduate of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s fashion marketing program, Lupovici said fashion was her main focus, and she has worked in various places, including with her father (Irwin Lupovici), at Bong Wear. “Then, one day,” she said, “I was making dinner and cut a red cabbage in half and boom! My passion for painting was back in my life.”
She has dedicated the last year or so to painting. “Eventually,” she said, “I will mesh my art and fashion design together and have my LUPO label.”
Half-Jewish and half-Chinese – she also speaks Cantonese – Lupovici said, “I definitely would not be the person I am without all the Jewish culture and community that I have been surrounded by. Jewish summer camp was one of the most memorable, loveliest times of my childhood and I am, to this day, close with many of the people I went to camp with. I would not say it has influenced me in design and art, but I do feel being Jewish and meeting other people in the community is inspiring in itself.”
Weinstein also said his being Jewish has had little influence on his work. However, he said, “Having grown up in a suburb of Tel Aviv, I feel connected to my Jewish identity…. The last time I visited Israel was in 2011 and I am very excited to visit again in May…. My upcoming trip is something I look forward to, as it provides a rare chance to explore my roots and reinforces my personal connection to Judaism.”
More travel is also in Wayrynen’s plans, having recently been to Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand.
“I started using drones just for fun in 2016 and then, in 2017, started using them for film and photography,” he said.
While he couldn’t describe the exact elements of a “perfect” shot, he said, “I like to have stuff that’s unique and can’t really be replicated – like a wave crashing, shots of wild animals or something along those lines.”
As an example, last summer, in Horseshoe Bay, he filmed a group of killer whales, which was later featured by CBC.
Not just anyone is allowed to use drones, of course, and Wayrynen said permission currently depends “on where and for what reason you fly, but it’s soon to be just a licence no matter what.”
In British Columbia, he said, “[I]t’s unlikely to get a permit to fly anywhere remotely populated and even some parks have issues with it. The states are pretty similar and, as for Mexico, I was working on a TV show that did all the paperwork for it, all I provided was the licence and insurance. We were able to film basically anywhere there during the few weeks our permits lasted.”
Weinstein summed up well the importance of venues like Art Vancouver. “If you’re reading this,” he said, “please feel free to come by my booth at the upcoming show and let me know what you think of my art. I enjoy listening to all criticism (both good and bad) and, if you have other suggestions, I’ll be happy to discuss in person.”
For more information on and tickets to Art Vancouver, visit artvancouver.net.
Welcomers of the Alsedawe family at Vancouver International Airport Jan. 21. (Adele Lewin Photography)
More than three years ago, Hanan Alsedawe’s family story of survival began as a waiting game on both sides of the ocean. But, on Jan. 21, 2019, the wait became a welcome as Hanan and her children stepped foot on Canadian soil.
In early 2015, congregations Beth Israel and Beth Tikvah began the long process of sponsoring and reuniting a Syrian refugee family with family who already lived in Vancouver. We worked with the government-approved sponsorship agreement holder – the Anglican Diocese – to prepare and submit our private sponsorship application to the Canadian government. It was a journey requiring perseverance by our coordinating committee, and patience and understanding from the many donors of both synagogues who demonstrated belief in our efforts regardless of the length of time it was taking.
On the Jordanian-Saudi Arabian border, in the Azraq Refugee Camp, Hanan and her two children – Mahros and Safa – shared limited resources with more than 55,000 refugees. Their extended family had made their way to Canada under government sponsorship, but Hanan had stayed behind, in Duma, Syria, because her husband, Raslan Abdulmalik, had been taken away by Syrian government forces and she had no idea of what had happened to him. She waited, she hoped, she prayed, but, eventually, with no sign of Raslan being alive, yet with no confirmation that he was either in prison or dead, Hanan decided to escape from Duma. She made her way with her two young children to Amman, Jordan, and eventually was placed in the Azraq refugee camp. There, she waited for a miracle.
Sept. 2, 2015, was a watershed moment that captured the hearts of people around the world and galvanized Canada into accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country. Hanan’s mother and five siblings came to our shores under those auspices. But it would take years of work and hope to bring the last of Fayzeh Alsedawe’s daughters, with her children, to join the family here.
More than three years after initiating the sponsorship, Beth Israel and Beth Tikvah fulfilled Hanan’s dreams of joining her mother and siblings in Vancouver. On Jan. 21, representatives of both synagogues were on hand at Vancouver International Airport to welcome their sponsored family.
On any given day, at any given time, the international arrivals hall at YVR is a kaleidoscope of colours. On that Monday in January, the full spectrum was visible, augmented by the cacophony of diverse languages and a blending of bodies. Clearly, Canada is at its most multicultural in an airport setting.
Also palpable was the range of emotions. There was the full gamut of human feelings on display among those awaiting families, friends and strangers to enter the hall. Contrasts abounded: joy competed with sadness, anticipation with angst, relief with uncertainty. Each person arriving searched for familiar faces, welcoming arms and handwritten signs, indicating that someone was there for them.
In this swirl of humanity were representatives of Beth Israel and Beth Tikvah, their dream to sponsor a refugee family from Syria finally reaching fruition. Sharing this moment – indeed, at the centre of this moment – was the local family: the mother, Fayzeh, and her five adult children, Hanadi, Huda, Maha, Hatem and Mohammed, who had arrived in Canada three years ago and had waited anxiously to be reunited with the remainder of their family.
There was something so surreal, yet so tangible and in the moment at that airport reunion. Words are inadequate to describe the outpouring of relief and love when Hanan and her children emerged in the arrivals hall. An invisible bubble enclosed the family, as they looked at each other for the first time in more than four years. And then, quickly, the bubble grew, as our delegation surrounded the family with our own contributions of hugs, gifts and welcome. One gift in particular seemed to unite the new family with our Canadian sponsors – a Whitecaps soccer ball given to 13-year-old Mahros. Soccer, a universal language for children and adults alike!
Every family has a history, a story that captures the essence of their character and experiences. The Alsedawes’ story is one of courage and hope. Their life in Syria was destroyed by war but their determination to escape, under circumstances almost impossible for us to comprehend, means that, today, their story is one of hope and gratefulness. In Hanan’s own words to the committee, “I thank God and I thank you.”
Settlement requires patience. Never has the Hebrew word savlanut meant so much to our small committee. Patience was required in the very lengthy process from application to arrival. Patience is required as we work to settle the children in school, the mother in English-as-a-second-language classes and the family into a way of life totally foreign to them. Within weeks of their arrival, the family had visited a family physician, dental appointments were booked, the children were enrolled in public school, bank accounts were set up and, important in this day and age, cellphones and tablets were provided to them.
Our year of sponsorship has only just begun, but this journey has been undertaken with the generosity of many people. Our donors have compassion and commitment, and understand that, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Rosalind Karbyis co-chair, with Miranda Burgess, of Beth Israel Congregation’s Committee for the Syrian Refugee Sponsorship Initiative.
T’ruah students help plant trees in the Hebron Hills. (photo from T’ruah)
U.S.-based T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights works in Jewish social justice circles in Israel and North America.
“We work with human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians…. We’ve also worked on introducing rabbis and rabbinical students, and also congregations, to what’s happening in West Bank and more,” executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs told the Independent.
T’ruah, which supports a two-state solution, offers the Year-in-Israel program for rabbinical students.
“Students study in Jerusalem at various institutions,” said Jacobs, “but they don’t necessarily get to see human rights issues up close. We take them once a month to see a human rights issue on the ground, either in the West Bank with Palestinians, in Bedouin Israeli communities in the Negev, asylum seekers, etc.”
At these sessions, students meet with Israeli human rights and other leaders on the ground. The program is held during students’ free time, separate from their regular studies.
“The goal of the program is to help them develop a rabbinic moral voice,” said Jacobs. “As rabbis, they’re going to be called on to speak about Israel. The question is, how do they talk about Israel as a rabbi? Rabbis talk out of their values, and also are generally dealing with politically diverse communities…. So, the question is, how can a rabbi speak in a way that will push people to listen to perspectives they might not otherwise listen to, [based on] Jewish texts and Jewish values?”
Jacobs recognizes that the information they provide is not comprehensive. Their focus is to give students the opportunity to interact with human beings – to meet Palestinians, Bedouins and others and learn from them what their life experience is like.
“It’s also crucial to us that they are meeting with Israeli human rights leaders,” said Jacobs. “Very often, there’s a dichotomy that suggests that being pro-Israel means supporting the right-wing government of [Binyamin] Netanyahu and that being pro-Palestinian means being against Israel. We’re pro-human rights and we want them to meet Israelis working every single day to push for human rights in their own country because they love their country. We want them to see that there are actually people who are changing the situation.
“We hear a lot from the students that our program gives them hope. Sometimes, they are so hopeless about what is happening in Israel and then they meet people, both Jewish and Palestinian communities, who are trying to change their situation.”
One T’ruah graduate is Rabbi Philip Gibbs, spiritual leader of Congregation Har El in West Vancouver.
“During my year in Israel, during my second year of rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to then be a fellow with T’ruah for their rabbinical student program,” Gibbs told the Independent. “I really appreciated the opportunity, both because, at least the year I was doing it, there was clearly a huge focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, also because the way, in terms of educating about social justice issues in Israel, they were able to show some of the other issues happening – whether it was meeting with Bedouins, talking to some asylum seekers from Africa … really seeing what their home-grown needs are and seeing how it developed into a strong sense of the how they were fighting for many of those needs through the legal systems in Israel.”
Gibbs met with Palestinians who had been displaced from the Jerusalem area after the 1967 war. “We had the chance to hear their narrative,” he said, “highlighting how their status as refugees during that conflict had really come into question because of both the policies of Jordan, as they were occupying the area, as well as some of the motivations of different settler organizations in their attempt to create a much stronger Jewish presence behind the Green Line… I felt like that was more educating us in understanding the way that the nature of a lot of these neighbourhoods had been going back and forth.
“For the Israeli settlers, they felt they were reclaiming a neighbourhood that was Jewish. For the Palestinians that had been living there, their legal status was caught up in layers of legal confusion of having that area under control of many different authorities over the past 150 years.”
Gibbs has not yet had an opportunity to bring this part of his rabbinical education to his congregation directly, but it has definitely played a role in how he shares his perspective regarding, for example, the upcoming Israeli election.
“I’m making sure there’s a deeper sense of having the recognition that a lot of these questions that are coming up, some of these issues are on the minds of most Israelis … but that, no matter what, a lot of the work that human rights organizations are doing, a lot of that is going through the overt legal system of Israeli government.”
Regarding the many Israelis he has met who work for human rights organizations, Gibbs said he appreciated the way their main motivation was a deep sense of trying to make their country the best it can be, noting that every government needs to be transparent in their treatment of their citizens, allowing for a certain amount of criticism.
“That’s something coming from a place of love and it’s the most ideal way to get things done in a constructive way,” said Gibbs. “People can debate about how much people living outside of Israel are supposed to be making any sort of direct intervention, which happens on both sides of the political spectrum, but, I think, there’s absolutely nothing that we should hide in terms of understanding the full array of political work happening in Israel.”