Dvori Balshine has served the Vancouver Jewish community, in one capacity or another, for 45 years. She is retiring in November from her latest post – director of development at Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation – and she talked to the Independent about her life and work.
“We came to Vancouver from Israel in 1969,” she said. As an educator who studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she found a job right away. She taught Hebrew and Jewish history until she fell into fundraising, almost by accident.
“I was hired by the JCC as a cultural director around 1980,” she recalled. “I wanted to start an art gallery and a Jewish authors festival, wanted to do events, but there was never enough money. So, I met with the community members and asked for their support. Our biggest fundraiser was held at the Oakridge movie theatre. They had a movie theatre at the time. It was the opening night of Chorus Line, and it was unbelievably successful.”
With the funds raised by this and similar events on behalf of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Balshine was at the root of the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery and one of the founders, together with Cherie Smith, of the JCCGV Jewish Book Festival. When Hebrew University asked her, as one of its alumni, to head their Western Canada division, she agreed. For 17 years, she served as the executive director in Western Canada.
“I raised lots of money for them, sent many students to study abroad, organized other specific projects. But then I thought: I should work for my own community.” In 2003, she came to the Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation.
In the 12 years she has worked at the foundation, she has led many campaigns, and established endowment funds and awards. As well, more than 600 art pieces were acquired as donations from local Jewish artists. These works hang on the walls of Louis Brier Home and Hospital and of the Weinberg Residence, making the rooms and corridors more like those of a home, less institutional. A bus and a piano, a dental clinic and a garden sculpture, multiple renovations around the home and the Gallery of Donors Wall – they all owe their existence to Balshine and her crew, to their continuous efforts to improve the quality of life of the residents. She was also active in community outreach programs, including, but not limited to, numerous musical events and lecture series, book launches and octogenarians’ celebrations.
“My dream was to leave the organization with $10 million, and we are at $8.5 million,” she wrote in her reflections of her most important activities at Louis Brier. “It is not that we didn’t raise it, we raised more, however, the demand from the home and Weinberg annually has been so great that we have only been able to invest and grow to this amount.”
She sounded modest, as if raising almost a million a year is a trifle, but for anyone else, it would be a major accomplishment, even the achievement of a lifetime.
“I believe in the mission of the organization I work for,” she said. “I do it with all my heart, my mind and my might. Of course, there are multiple challenges. One of them is that there are many Jewish organizations in B.C., and everybody needs a piece of the pie. The need is great, but there are not many industries here.”
She also encountered another challenge. “I found that it’s easier to raise money for the young, for schools and universities, than for the elderly. How do I deal with this? With a smile and an explanation. We organize events and introduce potential donors to the organization. We honor our donors.”
Her conviction that everyone should share his/her wealth comes from her family background. Both her father and grandmother were involved in their local communities on various levels, and Balshine has continued the tradition. “Some people in the community are doing extremely well. They have a responsibility to share. I learned that at home.”
Her approach to finding new benefactors is personal. “I meet with everyone I’m going to ask for donations. If I don’t know them, I look for someone who can introduce us. We have coffee together and talk. I try to share with everyone the importance of Louis Brier for our community. People give to people, not organizations. Of course, you need people skills to do this kind of work. You need to be kind, to smile, to have charm. You have to feel it, to be willing to give from yourself; otherwise, you can’t do a good job.”
With such a personal fundraising strategy, she knows many members of the Jewish community in Vancouver. “I’ll tell you an anecdote,” she said with a smile. “I love opera. Recently, I took my granddaughter, who is 12, to the opera Carmen at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I introduced her to my friends. When we came home, her parents asked her how she liked it. She said that, of course, the music was great and the show. She also said, ‘There were like 3,000 people in the audience, and my grandma knows half of them.’”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].