The Dafna Fund is Israel’s only women’s foundation, funding programs and partnerships with women’s groups across sectors in Israel. According to Hamutal Gouri, the fund’s director, “Our mission is to promote women leadership and women agents of change. We promote the agency of women from all walks of Israeli life, whether it’s public or political life, academia or the economy. We want to reach women from different walks of Israeli society, and help them to become agents of social change.”
Gouri will be in Vancouver on March 11 to speak at a New Israel Fund Canada event at Temple Sholom titled Trailblazing Women. The combination isn’t incidental. The Dafna Fund was founded in 2003 by then NIF board member Prof. Dafna Izraeli (z”l), who gave the fund its initial $1 million endowment. However, while the organization remains constituted under NIF and the two organizations share the same values, they have separate fundraising sources and are independent in decision-making, explained Gouri in her interview with the Independent.
Dafna Fund’s resources include the endowment, gifts from board members and strategic partnerships with foundations outside of Israel. Gouri noted that one of the main goals of Dafna’s resource development strategy is to introduce and promote giving through a gender lens to Israeli philanthropists and the Israeli public.
While Israeli society is deeply divided by religion, ethnicity and class, there are international metrics on the status of women in Israel, which place it mostly on par with other European nations. Gouri said there are two challenges that, while not unique, are specific to Israel compared to its Western counterparts.
“First, the lack of separation between religion and state – Jewish law in Israel prescribes personal status, marriage and divorce,” and the legal strength of certain religious laws lends strength to traditional religious notions that “women should be limited to the private sphere and not to the public sphere.”
Second, Israel is a society in conflict. “This also affects women,” said Gouri, “because women are not seen as having an equal stake in issues of peace and security. Security in the narrow military sense of the world is seen as a man’s thing; men usually hold positions of power in these areas. Women also have a different definition of security, but, in conflicts, the narrow military definition of security is seen as most important and is, therefore, emphasized.”
Dafna is currently supporting a project that addresses the second challenge via United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. The resolution, which was adopted unanimously in 2000, emphasizes women’s participation and rights in peace negotiations and post-conflict settlements. In Israel, the spirit of the resolution was also anchored and expanded in legislation. Gouri said the goal of the project, titled 1325 Women Leading Peace and Security, is “to develop a comprehensive statement for a full implementation of the 1325 resolution. It’s about actually implementing the inclusion of women in all decision-making around peace and security.”
In collaborations with policymakers in Israel on women’s issues, Gouri is cautiously optimistic. “It’s a mixed bag,” she said. “There are politicians that are very open. First of all, we have more women Knesset members in this Knesset and more of them have feminist agendas. On issues of religion and state, and also on issues of employment, there are several vocal Knesset members that are very supportive: Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid, an Orthodox woman herself), Merav Michaeli (Labor), Michal Rozin (Meretz), Orly Levy-Abekasis (Likud Yisrael Beitenu), Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), Adi Koll (Yesh Atid). I think the most important change was that Aliza Lavie, the chair of the Committee for the Status of Women, has changed the name to the Committee for the Status of Women and Gender Equality. This reflects the success of women’s organizations by the introduction of the concept of gender equality, and mainstreaming it.”
Dafna Fund is, of course, active in the political arena. Said Gouri: “We have established and are supporting a project called Women in the Public Sphere based at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. They do research conferences around women in elected positions that work on a gender-equity agenda. We are also routinely supporting the work of women’s groups that are working on a regular basis with policymakers on gender equity.”
Gouri – who created the website Consult4good “to share information, thoughts and ideas about the things [she] is passionate about: social justice, human rights, equality and social transformation” – told the Independent that she is encouraged by some of the developments that have arisen from the social justice protest movement that swept Israel in the summer and fall of 2011. Apart from personally meeting with and supporting one of the protest leaders, Stav Shafir, in her successful run for the Knesset, Gouri noted a more general change in attitude that took place. “One of the important things is that women had role models, and it was women who were in leadership roles in the protests. Afterwards, people understood that if they lead change, they also need to be in the political arena – whether as elected officials, or working closely with elected officials.”
Remembering Shulamit Aloni, the Israeli MK, pioneering feminist and human rights advocate who recently died, Gouri said, “She was a great leader and a great politician. There were not many women politicians in her generation. She was also among the founding mothers of the human rights movement in Israel. She was among the first people to coin the concept that women’s rights are human rights. For women and men, she was a role model of a politician with a very broad agenda. Shulamit Aloni evolved, and saw the connection between different issues; her politics were not compartmentalized. She was a fascinating politician.”
In her talk at Temple Sholom on Tuesday, Gouri said she will be sharing stories of feminist leaders from specific and non-stereotypical cultural groups in Israel: Shula Keshet of the Mizrachi feminist group Achoti; Hanna Kehat of the Orthodox feminist group Kolech; and Fida Tabony Abu Dbai of the feminist Jewish-Arab community Mahapach-Taghir. To register for the event, which begins at 7:30 p.m., visit nifcan.org.
Maayan Kreitzman is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
At the age of 80, after 40 years of researching and collecting material on the Jewish farming colonies of Saskatchewan, scholar Anna Feldman donated the entire body of research to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. Among the materials are audiocassettes with songs, interviews and oral narratives, personal memoirs and other textual documents. It’s a rich contribution that sheds light on those small colonies and the hopes and dreams of their Jewish inhabitants, said Judith Klassen, music curator at the museum.
“It really makes sense for it to be here,” Klassen said. “The breadth of Anna’s work is really exciting. For example, she didn’t record only one particular genre of song as she looked at Yiddish song and culture. Rather, she recorded different types of music from a broad spectrum of people, including cantorial training, ornamentation, traditional song and storytelling.”
How Jews ended up in Saskatchewan
Jews arrived in Saskatchewan in the 1880s, many fleeing from persecution in Europe. They established farming colonies with names like New Jerusalem, Sonnenfeld and Edenbridge and, by 1930, those colonies were populated by thousands of Jewish farmers and their families. The Jewish colonies’ decline started in the 1930s with the Depression and drought. By the 1960s, most of the farm colonists had left the land for larger cities. Today, all that remains is open prairie where homes and settlements once were, small cemeteries marking the graves of the original settlers. In Edenbridge, the Beth Israel Synagogue, constructed in Carpenter Gothic style in 1906 and used until the 1960s, is now a municipal heritage site. But for any kind of context about the lives lived here, you have to go to the museum.
Fortunately, material like Feldman’s, which is being processed for the public archives, is accessible. To immerse yourself in the collection you have to travel to Gatineau, but for those who are looking for specific documents, those can be ordered, copied, scanned or mailed. “We’ve already had inquiries from people interested in this collection, even from outside of Canada, which shows it’s of interest beyond our borders,” Klassen said.
The origins of the research
Feldman’s interest in the Jewish pioneers was sparked when she married the son of a pioneer family from the Sonnenfeld homestead. Her late spouse was attached to Sonnenfeld all his life and Feldman’s first interview was in 1978, with his mother.
An accomplished scholar, Feldman returned to university as a mature student and obtained an ARCT in singing, a bachelor of music and a master’s degree in Canadian studies from Carleton University. In 1983, she received the Norman Pollock Award in Canadian Jewish Studies. Today, she lives in a seniors residence in Toronto.
Feldman began donating her collection of music to the Museum of History’s Centre for Folk Culture Studies in early 2000. The first 188 audio cassettes containing interviews with Jewish musicians, homesteaders, merchants and professionals who were part of the rural farming communities in Saskatchewan have been processed and are available in the catalogue. Part two of her collection is still being processed.
“In terms of Jewish cultural expression and settlement in Saskatchewan, this collection is foundational,” Klassen noted. Partly, that’s due to Feldman’s skill as an interviewer. “She’s very pointed in her questioning and very thoughtful in how she asks questions. She allows her subjects to talk about their background and interests, but guides them so she covers the key areas she is interested in. In the breadth of her fieldwork and interviews, you get a nuanced perspective on the experiences people had; for example, on antisemitism, but also on mutual respect. You see there’s a broad spectrum of opinions even within the particular settlement. That’s one of the really unique things about this collection.”
The importance of Feldman’s work
“I don’t want the people of Canada, especially the Jews, to be unaware that we had pioneers in Canada who came here when there was no one else in the land. Jews don’t know about this and neither does the general public, and I think people should know about it,” Feldman has reflected.
After her first interview, she traversed Canada twice looking for Jewish pioneers and their children. “I remember visiting one family in Winnipeg whose elderly mother was a descendent of a Jewish pioneer family,” she recalled. “She was blind and unwell, but when she heard about my interest she met me and we had a wonderful time. She was reminiscing and we sang songs together until 2 a.m.!”
What she learned from those interviews is that the early Jewish pioneers in Canada suffered a great deal. “They had the economic depression, problems with weather, land and soil, and all sorts of plagues, but they had the strength to survive,” Feldman said. “They weren’t farmers when they came, and Canada didn’t want Jews, but the Canadian government was afraid the Americans would take over the Prairie provinces, so because of that they allowed the Jews to come.”
She continued, “I think people should have pride in all [that] those Jewish pioneers accomplished. They survived in spite of all the difficulties they had and they made a tremendous contribution to Canada – them, their children and their children’s children.”
A list of the material catalogued thus far is available on the museum’s website at historymuseum.ca. Search the archives by author Anna Feldman to find a description of the material in each box.
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.”
Attendees at the 50th anniversary event in London. (photo from David Schwartz)
Behind the treelike doors of Temple Sholom’s aron kodesh are six beautiful Torahs, each with its own history. The Torah in the centre of the top row is known as our Czech Torah. It is one of 1,564 scrolls rescued from Prague at the end of the Second World War and brought to London, England, in 1964 by a group of dedicated volunteers: the Czech Memorial Scroll Trust (MST). We honor our Czech Torah each year by dedicating our afternoon Yom Kippur service to it.
The Torah, on loan to the congregation from the MST, is officially known as Czech Memorial Scroll #1036, and it was brought to Vancouver in 1971 by Temple Sholom trustee David Huberman, who traveled to London on our behalf to chaperone the Torah to its new home.
Earlier this month, my wife Debby and I escorted Scroll #1036 back to London for something of a “family reunion,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Torahs’ arrival in London. In the years since 1964, most of the scrolls brought to London have found new homes around the world and, this month, for the first time, 53 of them were reunited.
It was a great pleasure to see the Torahs arriving, and a little humorous to see how different congregations found creative ways to safely transport these precious artifacts. One scroll from an American congregation arrived in a golf bag, while another was given free shipping and chaperone service from FedEx. Many congregations who were unable to attend in person sent large posters of their Torahs to include in the commemorative service.
Ours was the only one to come from Canada, and it was shipped in a hard-shell, foam-filled Torah case loaned to us by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia. Air Canada was also very supportive of our journey, supplying us with two complimentary seats for the large case. We were seated right behind it so we could keep an eye on it the whole way. Coincidentally, Air Canada’s Vancouver crew handled other unique cargo the same day – the Stanley Cup.
The tragedy of these extraordinary scrolls is that they are often the only surviving relics of some 153 Czech Jewish communities whose members were deported and exterminated in the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. Our Torah is one of 18 from the small town of Sedlcany, located 60 kilometres south of Prague in Central Bohemia. It was written in 1890.
In the years after the war, a rumor spread that the Nazis had planned to create a “museum to an extinct race.” According to the MST, this has little foundation in fact. They do know that a pious group of Jews from Prague’s Jewish community worked to bring artifacts and Jewish possessions of all kinds from Bohemia and Moravia to what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. There, they preserved what little remained of Jewish communities, previously at the mercy of plunderers. The MST believes that this Jewish initiative was directly responsible for the subsequent conservation of the scrolls. All the curators at the museum were eventually taken to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two of the curators survived, and the Czech Jewish community after the war was too depleted to be able to care for them. The pious group’s legacy was the catalogue of the vast collection in the museum, eventually to become the Jewish Museum of Prague, and the saved 1,564 scrolls.
For 20 years following the war, the scrolls remained in a disused synagogue in a Prague suburb until the communist government, in need of hard currency, decided they should be sold. A British art dealer learned of this opportunity in 1963 and worked with the rabbi of Westminster Synagogue, a Hebrew scholar and a generous donor, to bring the 1,564 scrolls to London. Many were in pitiful condition – torn or damaged by fire and water – a grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.
The Memorial Scroll Trust has given these precious scrolls a second life by restoring them and loaning them to more than 1,400 communities around the world, thereby spreading their message to new generations in diverse communities and institutions such as Temple Sholom.
The Feb. 9 Czech Memorial Scrolls Commemorative Service at Westminster Synagogue was sublime. It began with a procession of the 53 scrolls that had been brought for the occasion, mostly from around the United Kingdom and the United States. To the strains of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, each Torah was lovingly brought to the bimah, held by a member of its current community and its original hometown announced.
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.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, centre left, with the delegation in front of the Knesset Menorah. (photo from CIJA-PR)Last April, when Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts announced she planned to turn one square mile in her city centre into a leading centre for medical technology, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, immediately started paying this leader attention.
“When we heard of her intention to create an Innovation Boulevard, we knew the mayor needed to tap into Israel’s spirit of ingenuity,” said Darren Mackoff, CIJA-PR director. Mackoff and his team helped organize Watts’ six-day trade mission to the Holy Land in December, a delegation that included individuals from the health-technology business sector and representatives from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University – all of them key stakeholders in Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard.
In January, just a month after her return home, Watts signed a deal with Israel Brain Technologies, the first international deal of its kind secured since she and Innovation Boulevard co-chair, SFU neuroscientist and professor Ryan D’Arcy, announced the boulevard last year. Israel Brain Technologies, created by Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, is a neuro-technology consortium. It unites Israel’s academics, neuroscientists and industry leaders under a single umbrella of brain research and innovation.
The IBT deal will give the City of Surrey access to some of Israel’s top thinkers and the development of innovative, life-saving medical advances, said Mackoff, but it will also give IBT the opportunity to engage in exchanges and partner on specific projects with their counterparts in Western Canada. “The outcomes of these joint ventures will undoubtedly serve the people of both Israel and B.C. well in the future,” he noted. In a press release, Watts said, “Israel and Surrey have common health-care challenges and share the goal of setting a new standard in medical care and innovation. By combining our remarkable pool of talents and expertise, I know that Surrey and Israel will together create groundbreaking and life-changing advancements in health care.”
Watts’ CIJA-led educational mission included 25 business meetings at Israeli universities, hospitals and centres of innovation, political briefings, tours of Israel’s most significant historic and contemporary sites, as well as a visit to Israel’s northern border with Syria, on the Golan Heights.
“In addition to gaining a strong understanding and appreciation for Israel and the challenges the Jewish state faces in the region, it was extremely important that Mayor Watts left Israel with tangible collaborative partnerships between the city, trip delegates and their counterparts in Israel,” Mackoff said.
The blizzard-like conditions in Jerusalem on the mayor’s day of arrival meant CIJA had to do some on-the-ground improvising and move the team to Tel Aviv at the last minute.
Mackoff traveled alongside the mayor and said she was tremendously moved and inspired by this visit. “The Jewish and pro-Israel community in Western Canada has a firm friend in Mayor Watts,” he reflected. “She saw firsthand what Israel is truly about – a country that has overcome tremendous obstacles to create a thriving democracy which is leading the world in scientific advancements.”
Due to personal circumstances, the mayor was unavailable for comment.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.