Michael Sachs, the new executive director of Jewish National Fund of Canada, Pacific region, with his wife Shira, a Hebrew and Judaics teacher at Vancouver Talmud Torah, and their children Izzy, 8, and Desi, 5-and-a-half. (photo by Michael Sachs)
The Jewish National Fund, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1901, is inextricably tied up in the history of the land and the state of Israel. Associated in the minds of generations of Diaspora Jews with planting trees in Israel, the agency – and its Canadian arm – have expanded into almost every area of civil infrastructure in that country.
The Jewish National Fund of Canada raises awareness and funds for projects that still include planting trees, but many years ago expanded into constructing water reservoirs, preserving natural habitats and building parks and bicycle trails. More recently, the focus has included social service infrastructures for vulnerable populations, such as at-risk youth, victims of domestic abuse, children with special needs, veterans and those with economic disadvantages.
For many years, JNF was represented in British Columbia by a shaliach, an emissary, sent here to advocate and raise funds for projects in Israel. Ilan Pilo was the last shaliach appointed and, when the Israeli office of JNF decided to stop funding the position, Jewish National Fund of Canada hired him and he continued in the role as executive director. Pilo and his family returned to Israel permanently this year after eight years in the community here.
Immediately after Passover, on April 5, Michael Sachs becomes the first non-Israeli to helm the Pacific region office. “I’m making history without doing anything,” he joked.
Sachs has spent the past decade working in the wholesale diamond sector as vice-president of sales at ERL Diamonds. In his off hours, he has been involved in an array of community organizations, including serving as president of the Bayit, a Richmond synagogue, during a time of exponential growth in membership. He has also served on the boards of the Kehila Society of Richmond, Vancouver Hebrew Academy, Tikva Housing, and on the development committee of Jewish Family Services. His efforts have been recognized both with a Jewish Independent 18 Under 36 Award, as well as a Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver Young Leadership Award.
Although his community work has been extensive, Sachs may be familiar to most as a member of the family that ran Kaplan’s Deli for years. His mother and stepfather, Sally and Marshall Cramer, owned the restaurant and young Mike worked the counter.
“I always joked that one of the best sitcoms ever written would be something about being behind the counter of a Jewish deli because you hear everything that’s going on in the community, you meet everybody and it’s like watching a show,” he said.
In his early 20s, Sachs traveled to Israel on Birthright and he was transformed. “I came back and I longed for that connection,” he said, “because, when you’re there, it is electrifying through the soles of your feet; the energy, the buzz.”
Taking a leadership role in JNF may be a direct legacy of the impact of that visit.
Sachs refers to his new position as “an absolute dream.” He said, “Something like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” And added, “JNF is, in my eyes, the global Jewish community’s hand in building Israel.”
Sachs and Pilo have been in contact and the former executive director will be on hand from his new home in Israel to assist virtually in the transition. Meanwhile, Sachs has set his sights on expanding the geographic reach of the Pacific region office. He aims to increase the agency’s presence in the Okanagan, on Vancouver Island and in the outlying Metro Vancouver communities.
Speaking before he formally takes on the role, Sachs said he doesn’t want to prejudge what changes might come, but he guarantees two things: “Excitement and energy.”
The staff of two in the regional office – Liisa King and Moran Nir – “do the work of five people,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a group of dedicated community members as I have on the board of JNF,” he added, specifically citing Pacific region president Bernice Carmeli and vice-president Shannon Gorski.
Carmeli and Sachs would like to not only reach a broader geographic area, but a larger demographic. Just before the pandemic hit, Carmeli told the Independent, they were about to launch in earnest a new young adult division called JNF Future. As the reopening continues, both she and Sachs hope to develop that cohort and build a strong base of support among the next generation.
Carmeli sees Sachs, who turned 40 on March 27, as the ideal fit for expanding JNF’s message to wider audiences. She shares Sachs’ overt enthusiasm for the future.
“Onward and upward,” she said. “We have a new ED, a lot of exciting things are going to happen.”