Members of the Momo Minyan. (photo by David Berson)
Sometime in the next three months, two Tibetans will arrive in Vancouver from Arunachal Pradesh, a poor, remote region in the far northeast of India. When they get here, a group of Jews from Vancouver’s Or Shalom Synagogue will be waiting for them, ready to aid with their resettlement in this country. The group, which calls itself the Momo Minyan – momo after a Tibetan steamed dumpling – formed in June 2013 with the sole purpose of helping these Tibetans create a new life in British Columbia. In February, they completed and filed the sponsorship papers. Now, they wait. When the newcomers arrive, their work will begin in earnest.
The group will be supporting the two Tibetans financially, but their involvement will go beyond hard cash. “It means receiving them at the airport, finding a place for them to stay, ensuring they get registered for health benefits, helping them learn the language and find a job, and assisting them as they integrate socially,” said David Berson, a member of the minyan. The group will be responsible for accommodating the Tibetan refugees and ensuring they can access the services they require. It promises to be no small undertaking.
Back in 2010, at the urging of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to allow 1,000 Tibetans from this rugged, contested area to resettle in Canada. Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China as “South Tibet” and for the past 55 years the strip of land along this border has been home to thousands of Tibetans. To determine who was chosen to go to Canada, a lottery was held in the village’s public square, eventually granting a new life to one-sixth of the Tibetans from this area. The first wave of 55 arrived in Canada in December 2013. By the program’s conclusion, there will be approximately 200 refugees in British Columbia and others in Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto.
To make the transition to Canada possible, each one required sponsorship by a Canadian group or individual before they could obtain special travel documents and enter the country as landed immigrants.
Vicki Robinson, a facilitator for the Momo Minyan, said Or Shalom is the first synagogue in Canada to sponsor Tibetans under this program. The minyan has partnered with the Tibetan cultural society in this project. The United Church of Canada, a government sponsorship holder, has also helped to get the applications completed. “The United Church has a lot of experience in resettlement, working with the Canadian Immigration Committee and getting all the permits lined up,” Berson said. “They’re a conduit more than a partner for us.”
The Momo Minyan will be responsible for the Tibetans’ entire integration package, including finding and paying for an apartment, paying for health insurance and food. “Until we know who we’re absorbing, it’s difficult to know what kind of work will be appropriate,” Berson said of the process. The refugees, who have varying levels of education, come from poverty-stricken villages in this region, where they have limited access to medical care and often have to send their children away to school. “Their lives are threatened and they are a stateless people living in a disputed territory,” he noted.
The Tibetans have neither Chinese nor Indian citizenship. Some have more work experience than others, said Berson, who recently learned the Tibetans in this area tried to cultivate apple orchards for the past 10 years, but were more successful growing kiwi. Some worked in the agricultural sector in Israel, as foreign workers, he added. “The Canadian government is going to Arunachal Pradesh this month to interview them, so we’ll hear very soon about the Tibetans we will be receiving.”
The minyan has begun fundraising in the Or Shalom community and will extend its efforts to the wider community once more is known about the particular immigrants they are sponsoring. Eligibility for social assistance is not a possibility under the agreement with the Canadian government, which estimates sponsorship costs at $12,000 per person per year. With the cost of living in Vancouver, that won’t be enough, Berson said. “It’s guiding our efforts in terms of fundraising, but we think we’ll need more than that. The government is very nicely providing them with landed immigrant status, but not any other aid, per se, in the process. After five years, they will be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship like any other landed immigrant.”
Members of the Momo Minyan united in a mutual agreement to participate in this humanitarian effort, one that resonated with many in the synagogue, Berson said. “The opportunity for us to be able to extend our hospitality to another group that has suffered exile and have a diaspora is probably one element why I got involved. The Tibetans are amazing people but they’re very reserved and shy in their mannerisms,” he added. “There’s going to be big cultural differences.”
Robinson was eager to step forward and join the minyan after visiting Tibet in 1994. “The Tibetan people stole my heart,” she admitted. “They are amazing, beautiful, spiritual, good people who are struggling in a very difficult situation. Since my visit there, I’ve been involved working with the Tibetan community in exile. I spent time working with the Tibetan Women’s Association in India for a year, where I met Tibetans from Arunachal Pradesh.” Robinson’s family came to Canada fleeing persecution, which was another reason she wanted to get involved. “I thought this would be good work to do – a way of giving back to the country that welcomed us,” she said.
Those interested in contributing to the resettlement efforts can contact Berson by email at [email protected].
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
In the early 1980s, Alberta teacher James Keegstra was charged with wilful promotion of hatred for teaching high school students that the Holocaust was a myth and that Jewish people were responsible for much of the world’s evil.
For Robbie Waisman, a Vancouver businessman, news of Keegstra’s teachings revived an exchange from decades earlier that he had repressed. Waisman – at the time he was Romek Wajsman – was one of the youngest prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp, in eastern Germany. While trying to get to sleep in the crowded barracks one night, young Romek had an interaction that would resonate decades later in the lives of tens of thousands of young North Americans.
As Waisman recalled: “This one voice said, ‘Hey kid,’ addressing me, ‘if this is over and you survive, remember to tell the world what you have witnessed.’ I didn’t answer. Again, a second time. And then another voice says, ‘Leave the kid alone. Let’s all go to sleep. None of us are going to survive.’ I’m trying to fall asleep. Again: ‘Hey kid, I haven’t heard you promise.’ I wanted him to leave me alone so I said, ‘OK, I promise.’”
Yet, for 36 years, as Waisman rebuilt his life in the aftermath of the Shoah that destroyed nearly his entire family, everything he knew and most of European Jewish civilization, he remained publicly silent about what had happened to him and what he had seen. As it was for most survivors, the pain of the past was unbearable. The motivation to move ahead, to make good on the promise of survival, consumed Waisman and other survivors. Those who had spoken out in the first years after liberation were often hushed up, accused of being macabre, of living in the past, of not moving forward. Many adopted silence.
For Waisman, and some other survivors who had kept their stories private, it was the Holocaust denial that sprang up in the 1970s and ’80s that ended their silence.
Now, after speaking hundreds of times to audiences, most often of high school students, but also to churches and First Nations communities, Waisman is being honored for contributing to understanding and tolerance in Canada. He is to receive the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, which recognizes volunteers who help others and build a “smarter and more caring nation.” He was nominated for the honor by his longtime friend, Derek Glazer.
Waisman cannot estimate the number of times he has spoken or the accumulated number of individuals who have heard his story. But he has thousands of letters – most of them from young people – telling him how the experience of meeting him has changed their lives and caused them to commit themselves to humanitarianism and social justice. And, as much as he is pleased to receive the commendation from Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, it is these letters, and the hugs and words he receives from young people, that he says are the real compensation for what he does.
“These kinds of letters are my reward. Never mind the award that I’m going to be getting. This is the reward. This is what keeps us going. If I can inoculate young people against hatred and discrimination, I honor the memory and I give back for my survival,” he said.
“In most cases, when I go to speak, I get hugs from people, and I get tears, and they come and they are so grateful. I always hear this: ‘You’ve changed my life. Thank you.’”
“We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives,” said Waisman, referring to himself and other survivors who speak.
He added, “Some people think that we sadden the children,” referring to himself and other survivors who speak. “No. We encourage them. We empower them. And we make them appreciate life and what they have around them. I feel we are doing noble work. We are changing some of the kids’ lives.”
Yet, even as he is being recognized for speaking to thousands, Waisman recalled that the first time he publicly spoke of his experiences, he vowed it would be his last. Motivated by the Keegstra affair, Waisman contacted Robert Krell, a founder of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, to say he was ready to speak. A school visit was arranged and Waisman told the students of his experiences. The reaction was poor. Some students fell asleep – though Waisman thinks it was not because the narrative was boring, but the opposite: it was too graphic. The students tuned it out as a sort of emotional defence.
“I came home and I was completely out of it,” Waisman said. “I had to lock myself in a room because it was so painful.”
Krell talked him into trying it once again and, this time, Krell, a psychiatrist, was in the audience. On Krell’s advice, Waisman developed a different approach. “I tell my story, but I don’t go into details,” he said. “I tell them about my life at home [before the Holocaust], with my family, and I tell them about my life afterwards.” He usually shows a video clip that provides a graphic depiction of the Holocaust, but his own presentations put a face to the Shoah but do not dwell on the atrocities he personally witnessed and experienced.
“All in all, as you can see from the letters, I seem to connect, telling the importance of being a decent human being and the responsibility they have toward humanity to make this place a better world,” said Waisman.
It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
Waisman’s survival is an example of how many extraordinary incidents, fortunate coincidences and unlikely near-misses were required for a Jewish child to endure that era. In the dystopia of Nazism, children were deemed non-productive “useless eaters.” They also represented the future of the Jewish people, so the Nazis took special steps to ensure the deaths of as many children as possible. It is estimated that between 89 and 94 percent of Jewish children who were alive in Europe in 1939 had been murdered by 1945.
The Wajsman family were stalwarts of the community in Skarzysko, Poland. After the Sabbath candles were lit, neighbors would pour into the Wajsman home to listen to the wisdom of Romek’s father, Chil, a haberdasher and an admired leader in the synagogue and community. Romek was the youngest, aged eight when the Nazis invaded Poland, with four brothers and a sister.
Romek’s first break came when the ghetto in Skarzysko was about to be liquidated, in 1942. One of Romek’s older brothers had been forced into labor at a munitions factory. At four in the morning on the day the ghetto was to be liquidated, Romek’s brother appeared and took him to the factory, where he would survive as a useful – if extremely young – munitions worker.
When the Russians advanced on Poland in 1944-45, the Germans moved the munitions workers into the German heartland – and Romek was taken to Buchenwald. There, he met another boy, Abe Chapnick.
“We sort of supported one another,” Waisman said. “We had numbers that we were called by in Buchenwald, but we called each other by name and kept our humanity intact.”
Buchenwald was not primarily an extermination camp, yet Waisman was well aware that if they were not useful to the Germans, they would not survive. What helped the two boys live was the fact that Buchenwald was a camp originally intended for political prisoners, not necessarily Jews, and while the Nazis ran the overall affairs of Buchenwald, many internal matters were left to a committee of prisoners. “They protected us,” said Waisman.
He remembers a particularly fateful moment.
“We were marched out in line and an SS comes up and screamed at the top of his voice ‘All Jews step out!’” Romek and Abe looked at one another. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Waisman said. “Before we could make up our minds, Willie [Wilhelm Hammann, the German prisoner who was in charge of the barrack] stood in front of us and screamed at the top of his voice at the SS: ‘I have no Jews!’”
The same process unfolded in other barracks and when the Jewish inmates stepped out, they were shot. “That was two or three days before liberation,” Waisman said.
When liberation finally came – at 3:45 p.m. on April 11, 1945, the day Waisman counts as his “birthday” – their troubles were not yet over. They were moved to better quarters but remained at Buchenwald for two months, while authorities attempted to determine what to do with millions of displaced persons across Europe.
Romek had looked forward to going home, to being reunited with his family. “After liberation, we couldn’t grasp the enormity of the Holocaust,” he said. “I saw people around me die, but I didn’t see the whole picture. I wanted to go home because I thought everybody would be at home.”
Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption.
While Waisman and Chapnick had been the youngest in their barrack, at liberation they would discover there were hundreds more children, from 8 to 18, in the camp. Eventually, 426 of them, all boys, would be taken to France, to a makeshift orphanage where they were expected to resume their lives and studies as if their experiences had been merely some sort of routine disruption. They acted out in ways that made their new caretakers fear them as animalistic and potentially dangerous.
“We were angry and full of rage when we couldn’t go home after liberation,” Waisman said. “We came to France and there were all these people that wanted to help us out and came to deal with us. Professionals and volunteers to help us out, people that spoke our language [but] when we wanted to speak and share some of the pain, they weren’t interested. It was too soon. Psychiatry wasn’t as advanced as it is now. They’d say, ‘We are not interested. Just never mind. Forget about it. Move on. Go back to school. Continue your schooling.’
“I can’t repeat what we told them what to do,” Waisman said, laughing. “After all, we knew best.”
Waisman would discover decades later that a report commissioned by the French government declared that these “boys of Buchenwald” would never rehabilitate, they had seen too much, been too damaged and would not live beyond 40. The report recommended that the government find a Jewish organization to look after them.
In fact, in addition to the most notable boys of Buchenwald – Elie Wiesel, the renowned author and humanitarian, and Yisrael Meir Lau, who would become a chief rabbi of Israel – almost every one went on to succeed in life beyond all expectations. For Waisman, who is still active in the hotel industry, this was a direct result of a single determined man.
“Manfred Reingwitz, a professor at the Sorbonne – he wouldn’t give up on us. He used to always give us these wonderful discussions and spoke to us about the importance of moving on. It didn’t register. He took a lot of abuse, but I remember the one crucial time. There were four of us, including myself, and he sort of said, ‘I give up’ and then he turned around … ‘By the way, Romek, if your parents stood where I am standing right now, what do you think they would want for you?’ he said in an angry voice. And, of course, we don’t answer anything and he walks away. We looked at one another and it resonated. We didn’t say anything. But we sort of began a different attitude, a different way of looking at things.”
This was the moment when Waisman and most of the others, like so many survivors, began a process of throwing themselves into careers, family and community work.
He and his sister Leah were the only survivors from their family of eight. (Leah married in a DP camp, moved to Israel and Waisman sponsored them to come to Canada in the 1950s.)
Slowly, Romek’s life took on a form of normalcy. Under the auspices of Canadian Jewish Congress, he would arrive in Halifax and travel by train to Calgary, where he would begin Canadian life with the help of a local family, start his career and meet his wife, Gloria. The couple would move to Gloria’s native Saskatchewan for two decades before coming to Vancouver.
“For, I think, close to 36 years I went on with my life,” Waisman said. The other boys of Buchenwald progressed similarly, many settling in Australia, as well as in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. “I made a life … my Holocaust experience was there, but I put it aside…,” Waisman said. “And then Keegstra came along teaching his students that the Holocaust was a myth, that it didn’t happen.” And Waisman became one of the most active survivor speakers, putting a face to history for thousands of young people.
“One and a half million Jewish children were not as lucky as I was, and the other boys of Buchenwald [were], and so I sort of began to think about it and said, ‘I made it. I have a sacred duty and obligation to [share my experiences with younger generations] and when I’m doing this I honor the memory of the one and a half million.’
“Our survival meant something,” he said. “After all these years, I felt that I had to do it, that it’s a sacred duty.”
From left: Leah Deslauriers, Devorah Goldberg, Lisa de Silva, Donna Cantor, Julie Hirschmanner and Charles Leibovitch, with Debbie Sharp in front. (photo by Karon Shear)
All of us fervently wish that, as the years gather, we will be able to gracefully embrace and be embraced by them. On Jan. 22, an overflow crowd at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver Dayson Boardroom learned how to do just that.
Shanie Levin, Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver (JSA) coordinator of the event, called Aging in Place, welcomed everyone. Co-hosted with the JCC Seniors, the session – which was moderated by Donna Cantor, senior outreach counselor at Jewish Family Service Agency – featured a panel of experts on the subject.
The first to speak was Debbie Sharp, field supervisor for the United Way’s Better at Home program, which offers support by paid staff and unpaid volunteers for seniors 55 and older who want to remain at home while aging, with the ability and dignity to do so. The United Way offers programs that are funded by the B.C. government in up to 68 communities across the province, and can offer help in a range of non-medical services on a sliding fee scale. Some programs are even offered at no charge.
The specific services offered reflect the different needs of each community, explained Sharp. Among those offered are yard work, minor home repair, light housekeeping, grocery shopping, friendly visiting, snow shoveling, and transport to appointments. The program is intended to help seniors play an active role in their communities and continue living at home surrounded by family and friends.
The next panelist was Julie Hirschmanner, occupational therapist at Vancouver Coastal Health, who listed ways in which seniors can stay at home safely. VCH can provide the services of health-care providers such as nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and care managers to help with bathing. Hirschmanner recommended equipment that would make each step of aging easier – grab bars and raised toilet seats, for example – and general advice. In stressing that prevention is the best tool seniors themselves can use, she listed certain hazards we tend to overlook in prevention of falls: rushing to get things done, rising too quickly from a seated position, getting overtired, carrying too much in both hands so being unable to use rails, climbing onto furniture to reach for things, wearing slippers with no backs (hence, no support), dimly lit areas, incorrect or overuse of medication, and clutter in pathways or stairs. She also reminded attendees that people can call 911 if they have fallen and cannot get up, and highly recommended a medical-alert bracelet if one lives alone.
The JSA’s Charles Leibovitch spoke about the many important services offered by JSA peer support counseling graduates, who have passed an intensive 11-week training course. This program, initiated by JSA and set up by Leibovitch in 2011, offers peer counseling, in which trained individuals are matched up with clients requiring the service; friendly home visits, which involve a trained graduate visiting the home of a senior, usually one who is too frail to venture out on their own, and assisting them with shopping, light errands, banking or getting to medical appointments; Shalom Again friendly phone calls, where the loneliness and isolation of individuals is alleviated by someone keeping in touch with them on a daily, weekly, bimonthly or monthly basis. It is important to allow time for conversation, some socialization and perhaps even to encourage a slow reintroduction into community activities. These services are at no cost to the client receiving them.
There have been three graduating peer-counseling classes, with about 13-15 graduates in each. A new class is underway and there are 30 clients at present, with a waiting list. The clients are matched with the counselors, and followed up by Leibovitch and Lynne Moss, his assistant, after the initial introduction. The client also receives Leibovitch’s cellphone number to be used if anything urgent arises. Cantor remarked that she has met many happy clients of these match-ups.
Lisa de Silva, a private occupational therapist, spoke next. Her four staff offer the services required pre- and post-surgery, and can be booked as needed, and not on an ongoing basis, as this type of care can be quite costly – though it may be covered partially by Blue Cross or another insurance provider. De Silva and her staff also offer general at-home care services – and, between them, they speak four different languages, which may be helpful to non-native-English-speakers in times of stress.
The last presenter, Devorah Goldberg, is an interior designer. Specializing in design for seniors, she incorporates function and beauty, using ergonomics to ensure that each client has a home best suited to his or her needs. Her suggestions include cupboards built lower down, no gas stove, labeling items or color-coding them so they are easily identifiable, sensor lamps beside the bed, a large dial phone with numbers (and even the faces) of dear ones for speed dialing, grab bars in the bathtub and by the toilet, extra shelves to house toiletries within easy reach, and no soft sofas (as it is too difficult to stand up once seated).
JCC Seniors coordinator Leah Deslauriers, who contributed her wonderful sense of humor throughout the presentations, thanked the panelists and presented each of them with a token of appreciation on behalf of the organizers and attendees. Many questions were asked during the presentations, which showed the audience’s keen interest in the topics that were being discussed.
Binny Goldman is a member of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver board.
Dr. Charles Kaplan and Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. (photo from Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan)
The small group meeting to pray and learn in living-rooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s couldn’t have known for certain that their community would survive to grow into a 200-family congregation, but they did know that they’d helped start something special. That much was apparent from the start.
This year, Or Shalom, the outgrowth of that small group, celebrates 36 years, but will also say goodbye to its current spiritual leader, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. She and her husband, Charles Kaplan, arrived in Vancouver in 2005, encountering a vibrant and energetic Jewish Renewal congregation, with a permanent home on East 10th at Fraser Street – and an already storied history.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel who co-founded Or Shalom with his wife and partner, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, was in 1974 the first person to receive smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Today, Siegel is director of spiritual resources for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, where he also serves as associate dean of the ordination programs, chair of the rabbinic texts department and rabbinic director of ALEPH Canada. From his Gulf Island home, Siegel described the congregation’s early evolution, and what makes Renewal’s approach resonate today.
“We consciously chose Vancouver, Hanna and I, as a place to move to because we wanted to start a congregation and we wanted to see whether the things that made us newly excited about our Judaism were things that other people would respond to, other people who were also disenchanted or disconnected, so we were looking for a place to do that.”
About a year after arriving here, the Siegels’ vision took root. “We started the second year that we lived in Richmond, in 1978. We started what was then called the Hillel Minyan, and we would meet once a month on Friday night and the following Shabbos morning,” he said.
With help from friends, the Siegels were able to put a down payment on a home on West 22nd Avenue and started leading Shabbat morning services in their living-room. The name was changed to Havurat Sim Shalom. Over the next several years, services were held in participants’ living-rooms, rented homes and on the University of British Columbia campus. The Siegels worked in partnership, Daniel taking leadership of more traditional aspects, he recalled, and Hanna Tiferet on the creative expressions. In that way, there were various access points for participants.
“The intention was that we wanted to create something that gave ownership to people very quickly,” he explained. “So, Torah discussions, which could be done in English, and pesukei d’zimrah, which could basically be some melodies bridged by reading … were open to almost anybody as soon as they wanted to try it. And then there was leading shacharit and reading Torah, which required traditional skills, which meant that people had to decide to improve their Hebrew or whatever they needed to do. I think that was always intentional…. The motto of Havurat Sim Shalom was ‘traditional, egalitarian, creative,’ that’s what we called it.”
Harley Rothstein was a member of the young community. In an essay he wrote in 2000 about the history of Or Shalom, he shared some of those experiences. “I attended the minyan for the first time in January 1980. Entering the Siegels’ house on 22nd Avenue I was instantly struck by the enthusiastic participation. I enjoyed the meditative quality of the service in which some prayers were highlighted and certain lines repeated. I noticed a number of beautiful and unfamiliar melodies. I appreciated the depth of thought and extent of participation in the Torah discussion. I was surprised by the leadership shown by the women (I learned later that I had walked into a special women’s Shabbat). The physical layout was fascinating. Almost all participants were sitting on the floor, crowded into a limited space (Hanna’s enormous loom took up about one third of the living-room). I was delighted by the potluck lunch afterwards with the kind of vegetarian and whole foods that I had eaten for years. I was impressed by the energy and spirit of this small group and immediately became a regular participant.”
“The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters.”
Later he wrote, “The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters. We were drawn together as friends and held together by inspired leadership. What made it work was that we honored the centuries-old wisdom of the Jewish tradition while at the same time honoring our own creativity and insight, as well as our commitment to deeply held political values, such as gender equality, social justice and peace.”
By the time the Siegels left for Hanover, N.H., in 1987, Or Shalom was already on firm footing and, though it was still small and mostly consisting of friends, its early success encouraged mainstream congregations to reconsider some of what they wanted to offer. “I think Or Shalom served the function of being a kind of presence that encouraged a bit of ferment in the community, which I think was good because supposedly people cared about the fact that so many young people were not connecting … and they wanted them to connect,” Siegel said. “When we actually got them to connect, I think people had mixed feelings about that success.”
The tension between tradition and creativity was the defining feature. “The most important thing in my mind about what Hanna and I were trying to set up was a community that would be experimental and traditional at the same time,” he explained. “What Zalman called ‘backwards compatibility.’ The creativity that we do is compatible with what we inherited. That still is a very important thing to me. That’s why I do halachic thinking…. In my mind, what was really innovative about Or Shalom as we envisioned it was that combination of a creativity [that] was backwards compatibility, which was loyal to the tradition … both in the sense that we respected what we inherited and we also respected that we inherited a tradition of creativity…. I would say that was the challenge that we faced when we started it, and it would be the challenge that I would hope Or Shalom would look to finding ways to face and play with over the next 36 years.”
“Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Today, Renewal communities have sprung up all over North America – and beyond, Siegel said. “We have strong connections in Brazil, we have some people in Costa Rica now, we have a small hevre in Germany and in Amsterdam and in Stockholm, less so in England. And in Israel.” This growth can be attributed to the fact that “Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Duhan Kaplan, who has now been Or Shalom’s spiritual leader for nearly a decade, warmly described her first days with Or Shalom and her plans to continue participating in the congregation and wider Jewish community. “When Charles and I first came to Vancouver, we fell utterly, totally in love with Or Shalom – and East Vancouver. None of that has changed; if anything, it has intensified. Every week day, I appreciate Vancouver’s combination of natural beauty, access to urban services and perpetually green foliage. I especially love the winter mist and fresh air. With every Shabbat gathering at Or Shalom, I get cumulatively more relaxed. I worry less about logistics, and appreciate more deeply the way that singing, studying, shmoozing and celebrating life events together creates spiritual community. Leading the service has become a spiritual high for me; I take note of who is there, try to connect with them in thought and feeling, and help uplift the group with words and music.”
Growing up in New York, Duhan Kaplan said her “childhood experiences of Judaism were all positive: a large social circle, Orthodox synagogue, Conservative Jewish day school and Hebrew-speaking summer camp.” A self-described book addict, she graduated from university with plans to be an educator.
“My own education is ongoing; I’m in love with school,” she said. “I have a BA in philosophy from Brandeis, an MEd in adult education from Cambridge College Institute of Open Education, a two-year certificate in ayurvedic yoga from the New Life Centre, a PhD in philosophy and education from Claremont Graduate University, rabbinic ordination from ALEPH … a graduate certificate in spiritual direction from Vancouver School of Theology; and I’m currently taking graduate courses in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Honestly, I’m pretty tired: for 33 years, I’ve been working full time, going to school and raising children – without nannies or extended family, but with a great marital partnership and an organized household.”
After spending several years as a philosophy professor, Duhan Kaplan said she was looking for something new. “My leadership role in our local havurah and my powerful dreams and conversations with God led me to deeper Jewish study. I found [ALEPH]’s ordination program, a hybrid distance-learning/residential program, with an emphasis on kabbalah, just right for a philosopher juggling work, family and school. In 2005, I received smicha, moved to Vancouver and started to work at Or Shalom.”
She is inspired by and proud of her accomplishments during her tenure, including the year-long Exploring Judaism course, her experiences working closely with bar and bat mitzvah students and the more “personal moments in pastoral care, where I witness people’s reserves of strength and courage. I may be exhausted a lot of the time, but I never, ever feel my work lacks meaning.”
“Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Renewal’s orientation towards Judaism and life provides a vehicle to chart a satisfying course, she noted. “Renewal is spiritual and socially liberal. Following the early Chassidic teachers, we explore the inner spiritual journey of Jewish life. We take seriously life’s existential questions and we fully expect Judaism to help us answer them. To stimulate our souls, we study, sing, make art and have fun. Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Judaism’s evolutionary character resonates with those who haven’t fit into more mainstream Jewish life. “Or Shalom is really a community of seekers. Our members are deeply committed to Judaism, but they don’t participate out of a sense of obligation,” she explained. “Each person is genuinely and self-consciously on a path of spiritual and moral growth. Of course, we are all at different places on our path. But this self-awareness really makes working relationships easier; people reflect, reach out across conflict, and grow the community.”
Though the time has come to move on from synagogue leadership, Duhan Kaplan doesn’t plan to stop being a teacher. “Charles keeps reminding me to take some down time, but my normal way of living is to be working, going to school and volunteering. Next year, I’ll be working part time, teaching three graduate courses each at the ALEPH seminary and the Vancouver School of Theology. I’ll continue to take courses in Jungian psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and I have agreed to a big volunteer project for Ohalah: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. I hope to do some cat transportation for VOKRA, Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue. Yes, I’ll still be blogging! And I hope to put the finishing touches on the animal book.
“Of all the roles I play, educator still resonates most deeply,” she continued. “When I’m teaching, I can be scholar, deep listener and interpersonal facilitator all at once. I have to be well prepared and flexible at the same time. And I get to play with different learning modalities, as we explore really deep ideas in ways that work for the learners.
“Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies.”
A Pittsburgh native who grew up in “a relatively non-observant, culturally Jewish-identified home,” Charles Kaplan said that he “began to rediscover and explore my Jewish (religious) roots in my 30s and this accelerated exponentially after Laura and I met.” A multi-instrumentalist, he and his wife have continued the tradition of making music a large part of the service. “Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies,” he said.
And though he often gets asked by others about being the rabbi’s husband, he said “Or Shalomniks are far too comfortable with egalitarianism to even think the question! Usually, it’s asked with a clever smile, ‘You know the wife of the rabbi is the rebbetzin. What do they call the husband of the rabbi?’ My standard answer is ‘Around here they call me “the hubbetzen!”’ In all seriousness, supporting the rabbi’s work as a spouse is a challenging responsibility regardless of gender.” Among other contributions, “I’ve gotten myself involved in davening, musical events, ritual committee and even building maintenance! All with ‘ivdu et Hashem b’simcha!’”
Pat Gill and David Kauffman are co-chairs of the board of directors, and spoke to the JI about reaching the double-chai milestone. Or Shalom “occupies a unique place in Vancouver Jewish life,” said Kauffman, who first discovered the congregation in 1985. “Firmly committed to inclusiveness, we make efforts to invite and engage everyone who wants to explore, or return to Jewish life and Jewish community, regardless of their background…. As a participatory shul, most Shabbat services are different each week, portions of davening and reading Torah and Haftorah by a significant percentage of the congregation.”
Gill said she heard about Or Shalom “20 years ago when my husband and I were planning to move here from Seattle. A friend said we should check it out; we’d like it. She was so right. Our first event was High Holidays, 1994, and we were hooked!”
Both agree that Duhan Kaplan has “set the bar high” for the next rabbi. “Reb Laura has brought to Or Shalom a high level of insight, analysis of text, and ability to teach,” said Gill. “As well, her davening and leyning are exceptionally musical and beautiful…. I believe Reb Laura was the first female congregational rabbi in B.C. Her knowledge, intellect and desire to work with the greater Jewish community in Vancouver have earned respect for her and, I believe, for female rabbis in general, as women become more accepted in the role of pulpit rabbi.”
Kauffman seconded that praise. “Reb Laura has brought the aspects of Jewish life that Or Shalom dreamed of in a rabbi. Teaching that draws from rabbinic tradition and modern philosophy, davening that reflects musical influences both traditional and more recent, such as those taught by Reb Shlomo Carlebach and others. For the greater Vancouver Jewish community, Reb Laura is known for her courses all around the Lower Mainland, including Talmud Torah, Vancouver School of Theology, Melton Institute and the most recent Limmud Vancouver. We expect that Reb Laura will continue to teach in her many ways in and around Vancouver even after she leaves the role of Or Shalom’s full-time spiritual leader.”
For now, the search for an interim rabbi continues. “We’ve embarked on a rabbi search mission, one based on the thorough process that gave us such excellent results 10 years ago,” said Kauffman. “We’re looking for an interim rabbi for about a year, and posting a larger search for a full-time rabbi to start in the summer of 2015. Our process will eventually bring the committee’s three top choices to Vancouver for Shabbaton-like interviews, after which a community process will help us find the best match.”
Or Shalom’s 36th anniversary celebration features entertainment by Tzimmes and Grand Trine, on March 1, 7:30 p.m., at VanDusen Botanical Garden. Tickets at 604-872-1614 or [email protected].
Congregation Beth Israel’s former parking lot will be replaced by an underground parking garage with a 200-vehicule capacity. The roof will be an interconnected series of courtyards. (photo from Beth Israel)
This September, when construction is complete and Congregation Beth Israel reopens at Oak and 28th, Vancouver’s oldest Conservative synagogue will join a very special Vancouver membership. The structure will be on the city’s list of green buildings.
Vancouver is pushing to become the world’s greenest city by 2020 and, this year, it began phasing in bylaw changes that would require both residential and commercial construction projects to integrate more environmentally friendly features into their infrastructure. For BI, this means a building that uses less electricity, more natural resources like sunlight and outdoor carbon-reducing green spaces and, wherever possible, partners with neighborhood facilities to reduce energy usage.
BI executive director Shannon Etkin told the Independent that the congregation has known for a couple of decades that it would have to replace the 65-year-old building. “The air conditioning system was shot, the plumbing and electrical systems were very old and outdated and subject to continuous breakdowns, [and] the roof was well past its best-before date,” he said.
In addition to its age and the environmental concerns, the structure no longer fit the needs of the synagogue’s membership.
“We also wanted a space large enough [where] all of the congregation could be under one roof at High Holy Days instead of having to have a second service, or an alternative service for other people because we didn’t have space for them in our main building.”
“The spaces weren’t designed for the way we work with our congregation now,” said Etkin. “We also wanted a space large enough [where] all of the congregation could be under one roof at High Holy Days instead of having to have a second service, or an alternative service for other people because we didn’t have space for them in our main building. We didn’t have lounge spaces for people to gather informally. Some of the rooms were too small and some of the rooms were too big. The auditorium was not large enough for many families who wanted to have functions at the synagogue.”
The new building, said Etkin, will be attractive, as well as serve the needs of the 600-family congregation. “We are going to have a beautiful sanctuary…. It will feel intimate for various-sized numbers of people attending services,” he said, adding that the social hall will be able to accommodate larger wedding and other simchah receptions.
As well, people who want to sit and shmooze after services or while waiting for a class or a presentation will be able to do so. “We have informal spaces for people to lounge in and be able to talk to one another, [and] we will have new technology allowing us to project images in different rooms, a sound system, all those different things we didn’t have in the previous building,” explained Etkin.
BI Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said the changes will make a big difference to the atmosphere and functionality of the synagogue. “One of the other critical components of the building is lighting. The new sanctuary will have a skylight and lighting that will make the whole place bright. Dim, dark lighting like we had in our old building is depressing. Brighter lights are more uplifting and spiritually enhancing,” said the rabbi.
“The building will be extremely friendly for those with physical challenges,” he added. “Not just the bimah, which will be extremely accessible for someone with physical challenges, but washrooms as well.” And, he noted, “[The] heater will work in the winter, and the air conditioner will work in the summer, and not vice versa.”
Despite all of the environmental improvements, Infeld said the congregation has decided not to seek LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification through the Canadian Green Building Council, as doing so would cost upwards of another $100,000, and the congregation feels the money could be better spent on projects within the synagogue. However, the new building’s environmental features would allow it to apply for a gold rating as a LEED building. For example, Metro Vancouver’s design guide for LEED buildings points out that using daylight to enhance the brightness of the building’s interior is not only appealing, but energy efficient. Properly applied, it can reduce electricity usage and heating bills – as can the design of the overall structure.
In fact, said Mark Ostry, principal architect at Acton Ostry Architects, Inc. – the new building’s designer – many of the esthetic and functional changes will provide environmental benefits, including the congregation’s decision to keep the building’s original frame; a decision that was also a nod to its 82-year history (the congregation was incorporated in 1932 and completed the structure in 1949).
“Roughly 60 percent of the building area has been accommodated in the original building,” said Ostry. According to a 2012 study by Preservation Green Lab, an arm of the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation, construction retrofits that emphasize green techniques are often easier on the environment than new construction.
Ostry said they are also looking into BI joining a district energy system (DES) that would be run by the nearby B.C. Women’s and Children’s hospitals complex. Hooking up to a DES would mean that BI could reduce energy usage further. Shaughnessy Hospital introduced an earlier version that shared service with the Oak Street hospital complex back in the 1980s, and the proposed DES upgrade would allow BI to benefit from that network.
Ostry said other environmentally beneficial features include the landscaping that is going to serve as the roof to a shared underground parking lot.
“This [will allow] the synagogue to be wrapped with a network of interconnected courtyards,” said Ostry. “In addition to promoting biodiversity, the soft-planted landscaping contributes to storm water management…. Equally important, these courtyards establish a strong connection between the synagogue and the outside. Landscape areas have been designated to accommodate a gaga pit, chuppah, sukkah, outdoor services and various informal activities – all of which enhance the meaningfulness of the natural world in Judaism.”
BI’s reconstruction started in 2012 and, according to Etkin, it is expected to be complete in time for this year’s High Holy Day services. Almost all of the funding has been raised through donations, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has contributed for a preparatory security review. He said the support from both congregation members and the larger community is what has allowed the redevelopment to move forward. With only $2 million of the targeted $18 million cost still to raise, BI’s new home is almost complete. And, in this new home, the “building will finally face east, toward Jerusalem,” said Infeld. It has been a long-term goal and, now, he said, “It will finally be correct.”
Major studies like one from the Pew Centre last year suggest that fewer Jewish people are participating in Jewish-specific activities. This would seem like a difficulty for groups like American Jewish World Service, a humanitarian and emergency relief agency with a global mission but a distinctly Jewish vision.
On the contrary, according to Ruth Messinger, the agency’s president and chief executive officer, who will speak at the first annual Limmud Vancouver event Feb. 9.
Messinger said that the same studies indicate that Jews recognize it as a Jewish trait to pursue justice and to lead an ethical life. “What we want them to do is have a Jewish portal through which to do their work,” she said in a telephone interview from New York. Identifying “Jewish ways” of doing something, she said, can mean simply “that they can get some text basis for what they’re doing, they can do it as Jews in Jewish organizations.
“We like the fact that we can attract them to take their idealism and their energies and put them into a Jewish box and do the work with a Jewish organization. We think it strengthens their Judaism as well as their motivations towards the world,” she said.
While the projects AJWS takes on change realities of life for people in Africa, Central America and elsewhere, they can also influence opinions about Jews and Judaism.
“Much of the work that we do is in areas where there are very few Jews,” said Messinger. “Some of it takes place in areas where there are no Jews – and some of it takes place in areas where people have never heard about Jews, although I know that American Jews find that really hard to believe.”
Every place AJWS works, Messinger said, people become acquainted with Jews as people who respect their dignity, who are committed to social justice and to advancing human rights. “I can’t imagine a better way for the American Jewish community to be seen in this fairly troubled and divided 21st century,” she said.
Messinger recounted a story in which a farmer in Ghana told an AJWS volunteer – an American Jewish college student ending her stint in that country – that he had decided over the summer that he was a Jew. “And the college student, I’m happy to say, had the wisdom to say, ‘Oh, that’s absolutely wonderful, but can you tell me what you mean by that?’ The man said, ‘Yes, like you, I am somebody who wants to leave the world better than I found it.’”
AJWS does both grant-making to small, locally based groups around the world, as well as advocacy that aims to shape U.S. policy toward the developing world. But Messinger is emphatic that the visions of change come from the local community.
Messinger said government agencies and some large international foundations tend to sit in Washington, New York or Geneva and formulate answers to the lack of clean water in Central America or the lack of girls’ education in India.
“We are quite different,” she explained. “We help our grassroots organizations by letting them set the agenda of how they are going to do the work to change attitudes toward child marriage or to improve crop yields.… It is a Jewish value – again, it may exist in other faiths – but it is a Jewish value to believe that everyone is equally made in God’s image. If you actually believe that, then you should stop imagining that the solutions to the water problems in Kenya are going to come from world water experts. Some of them are going to come from the 450,000 Kenyans who depend on the water level in the lake being high enough for them to farm and herd and fish. So, for us, the notion of listening to the people on the ground actually comes from a value basis.”
How does an organization like AJWS operate in places where oppression of women, LGBT people or others is antithetical to the values of equality and human rights the organization champions?
“We do, of course, choose who we’re going to fund and we’re not going to fund,” she said. But finding groups that share AJWS’s vision is increasingly easy.
“There are women all over the world who are trying to figure out how to change their status, how to become more independent, how to be able to protect their daughter’s right to stay in school,” she said. “There are LGBT groups risking huge dangers in their communities to form an organization and to try to get some recognition. We find those groups – it’s not hard is what I’m trying to tell you – that are themselves challenging an entrenched cultural norm that doesn’t make sense to them and that doesn’t work in their experience. The people who want a different vision for their lives are already trying to make change in their own community.”
The benefits for local organizations partnering with AJWS are not only the funding and volunteer support they receive.
“Some of our organizations – on issues of violence against women and hate crimes against LGBT populations – some of our organizations find themselves often in significant danger,” she said. “We’re there when they get into trouble.… But I need to convey that these are people who would do this work anyway.”
Before heading AJWS, Messinger was a leading political figure in New York City, becoming the first woman nominated for mayor by the Democratic party. She is one of the more prominent presenters at the first-ever Limmud event in Vancouver. Limmud, the Hebrew word for learning, is a global phenomenon taking place in dozens of locations worldwide. The Vancouver event, which sold out in advance, features more than 40 separate presentations (three were featured in last week’s Jewish Independent), including such diverse topics as whether God has gender; reactions in the Talmud to the destruction of the Temple; and whether Dinah, Jacob’s only recorded daughter, should be considered the fifth matriarch. Participants will also have the opportunity to sing along in Yiddish, discuss and smell the 26 natural ingredients mentioned in the Torah, hear the tapestry of Jewish prayer with African melodies and the rhythms of Uganda’s Abayudaya Jews, and more. Full details at limmudvancouver.ca.
Left to right, Henry Ross-Grayman, Thomas Gradin and Mayor Gregor Robertson. (photo by Wendy Fouks)
There was a full house at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre for the community’s marking of Wallenberg Day on Jan 19. Sponsored for the first time by the newly formed Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, the annual event was the natural outgrowth of the placement of a plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park in 1986. It was revived at the 20th anniversary in 2006 as a cooperative effort between the then honorary Swedish consul, Anders Neumuller, and the Vancouver Second Generation Group.
Each year, the event pays tribute to courageous and heroic actions inspired by the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, and the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara. Both men, at grave risk to themselves, their families and their future, chose to follow their own personal moral code and save the lives of large numbers of Jews during the Second World War.
Mayor of Vancouver Gregor Robertson read a proclamation naming the day “Raoul Wallenberg Day in the City of Vancouver.” He said, “There are always heroes in our midst and elevating their place in society and celebrating and having discussion … is absolutely critical in a civil society.”
This year, the heroism of Englishman Sir Nicholas Winton was highlighted in the movie Nicky’s Family. This emotionally powerful film told the story of how Winton saved the lives of more than 600 Czech children just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The film documents how his actions have inspired young people to engage in direct acts of tikkun olam.
British Consul Rupert Potter honored Winton, saying, “I have never introduced a film to quite so full a house as this, which, I think, is testament to the content and the importance of the subject and what the film represents….”
There was an especially moving moment when members of the audience who owed their lives to the heroic actions of people such as Wallenberg, Sugihara and Winton were asked to stand. This action made the impact of these men clearly visible, showing that one person can make a profound difference in the world.
Naomi Taussig, the cantor of Temple Sholom Synagogue, spoke about the miracle of how her father and uncle were saved by Winton. She said, “Where would I be but for the actions of a single man who chose to do something when he could have done nothing at all? I feel a responsibility to live proudly as a Jew, honoring my grandparents, Emil and Irma. I try to live kindly, with compassion and intention. Nicholas himself says we must live ethically, and do whatever we can – no matter how small. We must take action rather than believe we are too insignificant to make a difference.”
I, too, owe my life to the actions of a diplomat. Against the orders of his government, Sugihara gave out visas to Jews, allowing them to escape certain death and travel to Japan. My mother was a recipient of such a visa. Had she not received it, I would not be here today. Last year, I traveled to Japan and had the honor of meeting with Sugihara’s granddaughter to express my deepest gratitude for the actions of her grandfather. It was a heartfelt meeting that I will remember for the rest of my days.
We need these stories to remind us of the inherent good that lives within people. We need to educate, to pay tribute, to remember and, finally, to inspire people today, as well as future generations, to act with courage and live their values in a way that contributes to the healing of the world.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society is passionate about wanting to leave a legacy encouraging others to engage in behaviors inspired by Wallenberg, Sugihara and people like Winton. We are looking for people who, at significant personal risk, have helped improve or save the lives of others by going against unjust norms or conventions. Over the coming year, the names of suggested individuals who meet the criteria (including being associated with British Columbia, even if their actions may have taken place outside of the province) will be reviewed. Next year, at the annual Wallenberg Day event, we hope to present an award for civil courage to acknowledge heroic acts in today’s world. For more information, contact the society at [email protected].
Deborah Ross-Grayman is an artist, writer and Sugihara survivor descendant committee member of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society.
Yiddish erotic poetry. It’s not a phrase that trips off the tongue, perhaps because Celia Dropkin may have been its only practitioner. There were Yiddish poets and writers in Eastern Europe and America who addressed risqué topics, but few, if any, in ways as explicit as Dropkin.
Faith Jones, a Vancouverite who teaches library science and who was previously a Yiddish bibliographer in the New York Public Library’s Jewish division, will discuss Dropkin and the craft of translating Yiddish erotic poetry at the first-ever Limmud Vancouver Feb. 9, one of 42 presentations on a hugely diverse array of topics over a full day. With two other scholars, Jones translates Dropkin’s work into English.
Dropkin (1887-1956) came to New York from Belarus in 1912, and immersed herself in the Bohemian life that was thriving there. It was at this time, as well, that she shifted from writing in Russian and began a career as a noted Yiddish poet and writer. This switch in vernacular appears to have been for practical reasons, not cultural or political ones, Jones explained.
“She wrote in Russian because she was educated in the gymnasium, in the Russian education system, and her literary influences were largely Russian,” said Jones. “To her – she came from a very poor family – being able to go to gymnasium was really quite an accomplishment and the Russian language was itself a status symbol. Her ability to use it artistically was something that she would have been very proud of.”
Once in New York, though, her audience would have been overwhelmingly Yiddish-speaking, and so it was probably a practical decision to switch. “I don’t think Yiddish to her was the beginning and end of being Jewish,” said Jones.
While nobody appears to have become rich writing poetry in Yiddish, Dropkin was comparatively a “commercial” success in terms of being widely read. She made some cash, particularly during the Depression, writing relatively mainstream short stories. Nevertheless, said Jones, “Her poetry was her real art, but you could not make a living on Yiddish poetry.”
Why, though, was this traditionally educated woman so apparently ahead of her time on sexual matters?
“She was educated in this different way – she was educated in a Russian way, not in a Jewish way,” Jones noted. “She also had a fair bit of freedom.” Dropkin’s father died when Celia was a child, and her mother was not particularly religious. The household appears to have been fairly open-minded and attuned to modernity. Her writing was different as well, Jones speculates, because she was a woman and also because she did not have the traditional Hebrew education that male poets of her time did.
“She was kind of freed because of being a woman,” said Jones. “She didn’t have a classical Hebrew education and so she was able to make up a different way of being a writer and wasn’t as constrained by expectations that, if you are a Jewish writer, your writing would be laced with references to the Bible and things like that.”
There were other poets writing about sexual matters, but in a much more veiled manner. A female Orthodox poet, for example, expressed her sensual ideas through depictions of hair, which would have resonance from an Orthodox female perspective. Dropkin was not so subtle.
“Dropkin had a poem, for example, in which it certainly seems to me that what she is describing is sadomasochistic sex. I don’t think she’s at all attempting to cover that up,” Jones said. “Other poets would just refer to the bed and some longing and maybe there is a stroke.”
Dropkin was published in the Yiddish journals of the day, despite the sometimes-scandalous nature of her work. “A scandal is always good for circulation,” Jones laughed. “So they were happy to have it. They were Bohemians, so they were going to publish that sort of thing.” There was a sense, among male critics and other poets, Jones said, that Dropkin’s work might bring disrepute to the Jews – even though, because it was written in Yiddish, only Jews could have read it. But criticism of Dropkin from other Jews, mostly male, was probably due to more straightforward reactions.
“It was shocking, a woman speaking about her physical body, her desires, her lust,” Jones said. “That was too much for them.”
Dropkin’s art, it seems, imitated her life. “She was really, really a Bohemian,” Jones said. “She really lived that life pretty fully, notwithstanding being married, which did not appear to have been any kind of difficulty. So, for example, I was able to meet with [Dropkin’s now deceased oldest son] many times and interview him, and I asked at one point, ‘Was your father at all upset by your mother’s sort of freewheeling life, having lovers, having a social life that was sort of separate from his?’ He said, ‘No it didn’t really bother him,’ and I had the impression that, you know, it went both ways.”
Jones warns attendees at next month’s Limmud conference that her session will not be appropriate for those who blanch at strong language and sexual imagery. But while the topic is erotic poetry and the craft of translating it, Jones said she has a broader ambition in presenting the topic.
“I would like people to think about re-envisioning our forbearers as people who were more like us. We need to really explore the people in our past and, as a historian, this is what I hope for most: that people will explore the past, understanding that these people were not like us, but in other ways were very much like us.”
About the same time that Dropkin was writing steamy poems in New York, the klezmer scene was heating up Montreal. Emily Lam, an independent researcher dedicated to the history of Jewish music in Montreal, will present on the subject at the Limmud conference – and some of her findings will surprise.
One of the first things to understand about klezmer music is that those who traditionally played it didn’t call it klezmer, Lam said. The word klezmer simply means musician. So when musicians were performing a tune, they called it by the kind of tune it was – a freylech, a doyna, a hora. For present-day practitioners of the traditional Jewish tunes, however, as for the rest of us, klezmer is a handy shorthand.
“It’s what they call it because everybody calls it that these days,” said Lam, who has interviewed as many Montreal musicians from the early part of the 20th century as she has been able to track down. Among these artists, mostly now in their 80s and 90s, the “true” klezmorim were those from Eastern Europe and the musicians who learned directly from those masters. What we call klezmer, according to Lam, is a music that represents “homeland and folk … synonymous with a particular place and time that was physically left behind, yet … instantly accessible through the music’s soundscapes, which connected the Jewish immigrant to their shtetl and the Yiddishkeit of their ancestral past.”
As klezmer has seen a dramatic revival in recent decades, Lam said her interviewees are pleased that the music is being performed and heard again, but they invariably say something is missing.
“Everybody is very happy that more people know about this kind of music, more people know about the history of it,” Lam said. “My interview subjects are happy that they still get to hear it if they choose to. They can go to concerts, they can go to festivals and events. They’re really happy about that. However, they feel that when they hear it, something about it isn’t the same. They always express that there is a lack of a certain feeling, a feeling within the music that they can’t hear, that they did hear with other musicians – their predecessors, their mentors. So when they hear things from the so-called revival, while they enjoy it, something about it is lacking and they always express … there’s just this feeling that’s missing.”
The progression of klezmer involved the original immigrants teaching it to their children, with a predictable downturn as the decades passed. “New immigrants want to carry on those traditions because that’s what they know,” Lam said. “There was a tradition that you learn this music and how to play it from your father and your uncles, relatives. The people that I interviewed were the children of the true klezmorim [the immigrants who brought the music from Eastern Europe]. They carried out the tradition but, obviously, as times change, people’s interests, especially children of new immigrants, what they wanted, how they see their lives, was different from Eastern Europe.”
Second-generation Canadians might have wanted the traditional tunes at their weddings, perhaps because their parents wanted it, but they also wanted more contemporary, popular music.
“As time progressed, there were less traditional tunes and more contemporary tunes,” said Lam. “It’s part of being an immigrant and having children in a new country. You try to instil these traditions. They’re going to choose their own path.”
But traditions can morph in unexpected ways. Weddings and bar mitzvahs may be a showcase for klezmer, but making a living in early- to mid-20th century Montreal as a musician meant being ready to take any gig that came along. Fortunately, klezmer can be a heavily improvisational musical form, similar to the vibrant jazz scene that was emerging in Montreal.
“If you were a klezmer, you were a versatile musician,” Lam said. “So [for] lots of Jewish musicians, especially going into the ’30s and onward, there’s lots of crossing over with jazz music in Montreal.”
Lam started her research during her undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa, mentored by Prof. Rebecca Margolis, who specializes in Yiddish culture in Canada, among other topics. Lam, who grew up in Peterborough, Ont., is the daughter of immigrants who fled Vietnam during the war there. She does not directly attribute her interest in this subject to her family’s experience, but she sees a parallel. “I certainly can understand this sort of looking for something that reminds you of your homeland,” Lam said.
Many people can name the most famous Jewish baseball players – precisely because there have been so few of them. Despite this, there are striking parallels between the practice of Judaism and the practice of baseball, according to Vancouver rabbi and University of British Columbia faculty member Hillel Goelman, who will present at the Limmud conference.
“I’m not going to just talk about Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg,” he said. “That’s not what the discussion is about. The discussion is that there are aspects of Jewish spiritual understandings, about deeper meanings of Judaism and some of the deeper meanings of baseball and that we can learn about one from the other.”
There is a teaching in Jewish spirituality that views everything as being at an intersection of time and space and a journey of the soul, said Goelman. “Our whole history is about a journey through space, whether it’s Abraham to Egypt, or the Jewish people coming out of Egypt, or making aliyah to the Land of Israel,” he said. “In Jewish spirituality, in kabbalah, we believe that there are different realms of reality and that each of those can correspond to another level of reality that you can get higher and higher and higher until you end up at the highest, which is getting back home, and home is in the wholeness and the holiness of the home space.”
Baseball is also about an individual’s odyssey, he said. “Baseball is really about the individual, where it’s the individual who scores the points, scores the runs. The ball doesn’t have to go into a hoop or a net or anything like that. It’s the individual who goes through a journey through space,” he said.
There’s also an intergenerational aspect, he added, in that Judaism is passed down from parents to children. The love of baseball is also conveyed transgenerationally. In addition, Judaism and baseball both have “two aspects of gaining knowledge,” Goelman said. One aspect focuses on the legalistic proscriptions – “what you’re commanded to do, commanded not to do, the appropriate behaviors” – the other is a very rich mythological lore.
“There is a mythology in Judaism, there is a mythology in baseball, that goes beyond the literal meaning of what’s happening,” he said. “Judaism gives us some very powerful metaphors and images and practices, which really resonate very deeply with us in terms of what is the Sabbath and why is that important and what are the High Holidays and why are they important, what is a bar mitzvah and why is that important, why is a wedding ceremony important. There is a lot of symbol and symbolism and mythology. And in baseball, as well, there’s a lot of symbol and symbolism and mythology. I think that’s why many of us find it so riveting.”
The recent news of New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez’s use of performance-enhancing drugs offers a vignette into another aspect of mythology.
“Here’s another giant among us who has fallen, who has succumbed to whatever kind of temptation it was, of ego, of achievement, of seeing himself above and beyond the rules,” Goelman said. “And this is sort of the karmic consequences of someone who exceeds the boundaries and doesn’t really understand the beauty and the mythology of the game.”
LimmudVan ’14 is the first annual Limmud event here. The phenomenon, which began in London, has spread to dozens of cities worldwide. The Vancouver conference, which sold out weeks in advance, will feature more than 40 separate presentations on a huge array of topics. See next week’s issue for more on Limmud. Full details at limmudvancouver.ca.
Imagine not being able to hear. The silence. The isolation. Now imagine the sounds of kids singing, playing, asking questions at story time – even though they are deaf or hard of hearing. These and other happy sounds filled the halls and classrooms of the Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre of British Columbia when the Jewish Independent recently toured the centre, which just celebrated its 50th year.
Founded in 1963 as the Vancouver Oral Centre for Deaf Children by a group of parents with educator Hilda Gregory, CHSC’s mission statement describes the facility as “a family-focused clinical and educational centre that teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing children to listen and talk, giving them the skills and confidence they need to achieve their fullest potential.”
According to the centre’s website, “Gregory was one of a handful of deaf educators who believed that even children with profound hearing losses, wearing hearing aids, had enough residual hearing that they could learn to listen and talk. The model of small classes and individual sessions … is the one we still use today.”
When the centre was started by Gregory, explained Janet Weil, executive director/principal of the CHSC, “There were no services for children under the age of 5. Hilda opened the first preschool for deaf children in Western Canada. What she did wasn’t radical. There were programs throughout the world teaching deaf children how to speak. What she did do was create a place where deaf children, with the very best amplification (hearing aids) available and focused educational strategies, could learn to listen and talk. Parents were key, and so parent education was a requirement. Parents were very involved. They knew [it was] something special, and they did everything they could to support the well-being and sustainability of the centre.
“Things have changed,” she said about developments over the last 50 years. “Children with profound hearing losses weren’t being identified as DHH [deaf or hard of hearing] until they were sometimes 3 or 4 years old; and, with a more moderate loss, until they were in school and it was obvious they were missing things.” Technological changes since the centre was started, however, “include newborn screening, which identifies a hearing loss at birth, [and has been] mandated in B.C. for all newborns as of 2009. There is a small window of learning when the child is very young. Neural plasticity means a child can access auditory information with prescriptive hearing aids and cochlear implants. The first three years are critical to get information to the brain that can be processed with relative ease. It makes all the difference for typical language and speech development – [it] impacts everything, especially reading.”
Weil’s uncle, born in the early part of the 20th century, was deaf. There was “no access to amplification, but my grandmother worked diligently with him to learn to talk,” said Weil. “He went to Stanford, graduated with a degree in English literature and became an editor of college textbooks. [He] never learned to sign, was a lip-reader and talker; very active in the San Francisco Jewish community. My mother was also a teacher of the deaf, so it’s really the family business.”
About how she landed in Vancouver, Weil said, “I was recruited to the centre in 2010. I had been a teacher of the deaf in the SF [San Francisco] Bay area for many years, a consultant to schools for the deaf in the U.S., and was the early childhood education director at the Brotherhood Way JCC in San Francisco for six years.”
The Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre of British Columbia offers programs that are not offered anywhere else in Western Canada, she said. “We see children from birth through Grade 12,” she said about what makes CHSC unique. She explained that its “various programs address individual needs,” and the goal “is to integrate the children into the mainstream of school and society with learning readiness skills and confidence.”
“What we know about the brain and sensory learning underscores our commitment to a team approach that includes occupational therapy; weekly sessions for identified children to address processing, balance, motor skills, learning differences. On-site audiology services make sure children have ongoing access to sound.”
The centre has a “cognitively based curriculum that fosters critical thinking and independence,” she added. As well, it recognizes that many of the deaf or hard-of-hearing children at the centre – more than 40 percent, she said – have additional learning needs. “What we know about the brain and sensory learning underscores our commitment to a team approach that includes occupational therapy; weekly sessions for identified children to address processing, balance, motor skills, learning differences. On-site audiology services make sure children have ongoing access to sound.”
Weil sent the Independent a document she had written about CHSC’s work with sensory integration. About the children who have additional learning needs, she wrote, “In addition to having a hearing loss, they also have vestibular dysfunction. The vestibular system, which sits insides the cochlea or inner ear, can be compromised when there is a hearing loss. The vestibular system influences nearly everything we do. That is why it is often referred to as ‘sensory motor integration.’
“For deaf and hard-of-hearing children, it impacts auditory language processing so that children have difficulty discriminating likenesses and differences in what they hear, as well as an inability to comprehend what is being said in a noisy environment, follow directions and express themselves with ease.
“Occupational therapists work with children to strengthen their vestibular systems, which improves their ability to play and learn,” she wrote.
In addition to occupational therapy, CHSC offers “speech and language therapy, parent education and support, before- and after-school care, music education and summer camp,” according to its website. First Words is CHSC’s program for children from birth to age 3; preschool and “language acceleration programs provide group and one-to-one sessions addressing each child’s specific learning needs. Small, individually focused, on-site classes begin at age 3 and continue, if recommended, through the primary grades.”
To help with children’s transition out of the centre, into public school or post-Grade 12, Weil explained that there are social groups for the kids, there are workshops for the high school to post-secondary jump, and the centre provides itinerant teaching services to children in independent schools. Some graduates participate in fundraising activities, she added.
One of CHSC’s itinerant students is Rina Pinsky, 15, who is in Grade 10 at King David High School. The youngest of four children, Pinksy told the Independent that she was diagnosed when she was 2 years old. “The type of hearing I have is called bilateral profound hearing loss, which means I am completely deaf in both ears,” she said. “On my left ear, I have a cochlear implant and I use an FM system at school, which helps me hear teachers better.”
She started going to the Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre when she was 3 years old, and left after Grade 1. “Since then,” she said, “I’ve had a hearing resource teacher from there. I still go back to the school to visit or volunteer for events.”
“I went to CHSC to learn how to talk, listen, and how to interact with other people. Now, with all of that support, I am doing well in school and I’m able to be independent. I read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah in 2011, I am part of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and I have been to two Jewish summer camps (Camp Solomon Schechter, 2007-2012, and Camp Miriam, 2012-present). All of this would never have happened if it weren’t for the staff at CHSC.”
About how the CHSC has impacted her life, Pinsky said, “I went to CHSC to learn how to talk, listen, and how to interact with other people. Now, with all of that support, I am doing well in school and I’m able to be independent. I read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah in 2011, I am part of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and I have been to two Jewish summer camps (Camp Solomon Schechter, 2007-2012, and Camp Miriam, 2012-present). All of this would never have happened if it weren’t for the staff at CHSC. I see Tricia [Eckels] twice a week at my school. We work on homework, editing papers, talking about my cochlear implant and FM system. Sometimes, we talk about current events.”
When asked to share something about her interests and/or extracurricular activities, Pinsky told the Independent, “I love to cook and bake, which makes me want to go to culinary school after high school. Once a week, I do hip-hop at the Jewish Community Centre [of Greater Vancouver]. Traveling is one of my favorite things to do.”
Pinsky is one of the hundreds of students that CHSC has taught since it opened. Among Weil’s “blue sky” plans for the centre is reaching out to more children, with more training programs for new teachers and satellite programs (classes outside of Metro Vancouver). This would be in conjunction, of course, with maintaining the services currently being offered. The third annual Family Concert, for example, will raise funds to support CHSC’s audiology program. “We do not receive government funding for this critical service,” explained Weil, “so we must fundraise to be able to provide this vital service that ensures our children are always able to hear.”
The family event has grown from one to two performances, both of which this year will feature children’s entertainer Jennifer Gasoi, a two-time Juno nominee whose Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well was nominated for a 2014 Grammy for best children’s album. (For interested readers, the Grammy ceremony takes place this Sunday, Jan. 26, 8 p.m., and will be televised.)
“What an idea,” said Weil about the fundraiser, “having a music concert to support children who are deaf and hard of hearing because they can listen and sing and make music. A great way to highlight what is possible…. A great way to reach out to families in the community for a fun day and to let them know something about what we do.” The event at the JCCGV’s Rothstein Theatre will also feature clowns, games, auction items and face painting.
Weil said the suggestion to invite Gasoi came from committee member Marla Groberman.
“Marla worked with Jennifer’s parents, Dr. Ivan and Laurie Gasoi, and it was agreed upon,” said Weil. Given the local connection and the fact that many of the production committee members are involved in the Jewish community, Weil said that the JCCGV “seemed like the perfect place to have the concert.”
The concerts will take place on April 12, at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Early-bird tickets (until Feb. 28) are $13.50/$16.50, or $50 for a family of four (two adults and two children under 17). For tickets and information, visit childrenshearing.ca.
Collect postal history and you learn not just how mail has traveled in years past, but also how people lived and functioned. Just ask Ed Kroft, a collector and historian of postal history from Israel who was recently awarded the 2013 Leslie Reggel Memorial Award by the Society of Israel Philatelists (SIP) for his outstanding contributions to Israel philately.
Kroft is a Vancouver tax lawyer and ardent collector of postal history who started collecting stamps at the tender age of 10. “My teacher at Associated Hebrew Day Schools in Toronto, Ed Deutsch, would bring his stamp collection to school to show us, and he focused on the stamps of Israel,” he recalled. “We formed a stamp club at school and later, I worked at a stamp store to put myself through university.”
Stamp collecting has changed significantly over the years, as many people have moved from soaking stamps off the paper they were used on, to collecting postal history and learning to understand the postmarks and information on the envelopes that contain those stamps.
“Postal history tells a story about how mail has traveled, which requires you to learn about the area, the population, how to read postmarks and envelopes,” he said. “The beauty of collecting postal history as opposed to collecting stamps is that you’re collecting different pieces of mail and trying to describe the history of the postal services.”
In a room filled with bookshelves containing the vast collection he’s amassed, Kroft has binders containing mail that originated in Israel but was destined for many different corners of the world, from New Zealand and Australia to South Africa, Argentina, the Caribbean islands, Brazil and Chile.
“As a Jew, I care about this because it’s interesting to see where Jews were at that time,” he said. “This collection gives me connections to Jewish culture and identity, Jewish history, geography, events, places, buildings and customs. This is part of our heritage, and we can’t let this history disappear.”
Kroft’s collection of mail from the Holy Land dates from the 1870s to the present day. From one binder, he pulled out an envelope inscribed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky to one of his relatives in 1918, and another written to Jabotinsky by his mother. There’s an envelope written by Captain Joseph Trumpeldor and another by Sir Moses Montefiore. While the letters are often no longer in those envelopes, the envelopes offer evidence about the passage of mail, Kroft explained.
The Society of Israel Philatelists is a nonprofit dedicated to studying and promoting Israel philately, with members all over the world. Kroft joined SIP in the mid-1970s and has been an active member ever since, currently serving as its president.
“My collection of Holy Land philately has helped me make many friends around the world who have common interests,” he said. “It’s taught me a lot about Judaism and brought to life things I learned when I was much younger.”
His collections include the history of Rishon LeZion from settlement through statehood, 1882-1948, a history of prisoners of war in 1948-1949, and the history of the Carmel Wine Co., among others. Each one tells a story through postal history, a story about which Kroft is passionate, eager to learn more about and committed to teaching others. “I’m honored to win the award,” he said. “The people who preceded me were extremely knowledgeable and great collectors.”
For now, he is intent on keeping the future of SIP bright by spreading information about its members and their work, and he is hoping to attract new collectors to its ranks.
Kroft will be speaking on The Relevance and Enjoyment of Philately, the Hobby of Stamp Collecting, to Jews in the 21st Century, on Jan. 30, 7:30 p.m., at Temple Sholom Synagogue.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.