Left to right, Negev Dinner 2017 honourees Michael Averbach, Gary Averbach and Shannon Gorski (née Averbach). (photo from Jewish National Fund, Pacific Region)
“The important thing that I want to say is that I’ve accepted this honour because I’m sharing it with my kids,” Gary Averbach told the Independent about this year’s Jewish National Fund of Canada, Pacific Region, Negev Dinner, which will pay tribute to Averbach, his son Michael Averbach and daughter Shannon Gorski.
“Ultimately, it came down to my father being recognized,” said Michael Averbach. “He was apprehensive. Initially, he didn’t want to do this. He’s a very humble man and doesn’t like to be in the spotlight; in fact, he’s quite the opposite. But, he also understands it’s for a greater good and it will help build JNF, help fundraise and go towards a need in Israel.”
Even though the dinner on June 4 is sold out, community members can still support the Averbachs’ chosen project: the Tzofei Tzamid, the Israeli Scouts.
The Israeli Scouts run programs for kids 9 to 21. Their 80,000-plus members include more than 2,500 children and youth with disabilities.
Gorski and her father visited Israel in late February. She described the Scouts as “a rite of passage for Israelis.” In the program, she said, children with severe Down syndrome, kids with visual or hearing impairments or who are on the autism spectrum, “all of these children are being able to work side-by-side with their Israel Scouts’ peers and fully participate in the programs the Israeli Scouts offer. And that is what my family, alongside the JNF Vancouver community of supporters, are funding – the ability of the Israeli Scouts program in Raanana, to ensure that they have the proper resources and equipment when they take the Israeli scouts into the wilderness, as well as their own facility, to make it accessible for all.”
She said the organization’s mission “really resonated with my own philosophy, and that is one of inclusion … providing opportunities so that kids can develop skills, and leadership opportunities and life-preparedness. I see Israel already as such a leader in a lot of innovative ideas … and, when I got to see what they were doing in the area of youth services, they also are [excelling in that]…. When my father and I were there – to be able to see firsthand how happy these children were and how they were included, and listening to the testimonies of the parents, who are so appreciative and happy themselves, because what makes a parent happy is to see their child happy.”
Gorski, Gary and Diane Averbach’s eldest child, and Michael, their youngest, live in Vancouver, while their middle son, Blake, splits his time between Israel and Quebec City. The three Negev honourees are being celebrated for their many local community contributions.
Born in Vancouver to Louis and Betty Averbach, Gary Averbach – who is chief operating officer of Belmont Properties – has been involved in various capacities with JNF, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver (JCCGV), the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Vancouver (JCF), Congregation Beth Israel and the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia, among others.
Shannon Gorski, managing director of the Betty Averbach Foundation, has worked with marginalized people and at-risk youth for most of her life. In the Jewish community, she has served on the boards of JCCGV, Hillel BC and Richmond Jewish Day School (RJDS); chaired galas and events, such as JCCGV’s Israel at 60, Beth Tikvah’s 40th anniversary and RJDS’s 18th gala; and sat on committees of JCF, King David High School and the Bayit.
Michael Averbach, who owns Averbach Mortgages and also works with Belmont Properties, has chaired the JCC Sports Dinner for many years (he co-chaired it this year with James Dayson), has co-chaired a Vancouver Talmud Torah Gentleman’s Dinner, is on the executive board of the Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel and is active with Federation.
“We had a reception last night,” Gary Averbach told the Independent the morning after a Negev Dinner-related cocktail party at his home, “and I heard it enough times, that people understand, it’s so great your kids are carrying on your tradition. That’s the message I want to go out: how lucky I am to have kids that have carried forward what I believe in.”
The first Jewish organization Averbach got involved with was JNF, he said, and it is the only Israeli organization with which he has been heavily involved. “The local community, and especially things involving Jewish youth, means the most to me,” he said.
“I think it’s great what the JNF is doing now,” he added. Funding groups such as the Israeli Scouts, he said, “is a great step and it really makes the JNF more relevant to a lot more people all over, but certainly in Vancouver.”
Gorski said she has spoken to Israelis now living here about how integral the Israeli Scouts were to them. “In fact,” she said, “one individual in the community, who’s very active with youth in the community, said to me, ‘The Israeli Scouts saved my life.’ I was so, so moved by that.”
After she and her father visited the Israeli Scouts, Gorski joined JCCGV’s Bagel Club in Israel as a chaperone on their Birthright-style mission – “for many of these Jewish persons with different abilities and challenges,” she said, it was their first trip to Israel.
While she’s never been formally connected to the Bagel Club, Gorski said she has a step-uncle who is a participant and she was on the hiring committee for the current leader of the program, Leamore Cohen.
Worried about being away from her two children for so long, she asked them if they were OK with her leaving. She said her older son said, “What are your talking about? I’m excited for you. You’re going to Israel, and you’re going to do something that’s so important.
“That’s another reason why I get connected,” she said. “My father has been such a mentor to me and has instilled in me the importance of modeling behaviours of tikkun olam and just giving generously of your time. He used to say, when I was first asked to be on different boards, which he had been on, i.e. the JCC and involved with Federation, I basically said to him, ‘My biggest concern, Dad, is that I don’t have the capacity, the deep pockets that perhaps they think I do because of yourself,’ and he said, ‘You know what, the community, when they look at people to sit on their board and to participate and to volunteer … they look for the three Ws: wealth, wisdom and work. It’s not all three, it can be one…. They don’t just want the wealthy people.’ And he used to say it’s easy for somebody to write a cheque.
“He’s so humble,” she continued. “Every time that they would ask him to speak, he would always put the credit to those who were the worker bees, the people who were behind the scenes, who were doing the work, they were the ones who deserved the accolades…. For me, that’s been a lot of why I have focused on the Jewish community, but not just the Jewish community…. The fear among the older generation, which I’m entering into, is that, will the next generation be able to carry on and give with the three Ws … is Vancouver in good hands, is the Jewish community in good hands, is Israel in good hands?”
For his part, Michael Averbach – who has four children – has focused his attention mostly on the Jewish community. He was inspired, in his early 20s, by his father’s work on the campaign for JCCGV’s redevelopment. Achieving the goal, Averbach said his father “was so elated, so excited. He screamed out, ‘Yabadabadoo!’ It was the first thing that came to his mind, he was so happy.” Witnessing this reaction, he said, “I caught the bug. I got involved.”
Calling the JNF tribute “a huge honour,” he added, “If we can encourage other young philanthropists and people in the community who are thinking about getting involved to get off the fence and push forward, find something that resonates with them, then this is all very much worthwhile.”
Gorski echoed these sentiments. She said many of her peers “thought the JNF was restricted to selling trees … and, if you go to the Negev Dinner, you see a large demographic of the older generation and not a lot of young people.” With her brother and her joining their father in being honoured, she said, they have managed to share with their peers more about what JNF does – in Israel and around the world – and many “are coming to the Negev Dinner for the first time.”
While in Israel, Gorski organized a get-together for the Bagel Club with madrichim (counselors) from the Israeli Scouts. “They made friendship bracelets, they made pita over an outdoor fire, they were all conversing. It was a really fun evening,” she said. And, as it turns out, some of the Israeli Scouts will be in Vancouver around the time of the Negev Dinner, and some of them will be joining the festivities.
She also shared that it is JCCGV head Eldad Goldfarb’s hope that, along with Cohen of the Bagel Club, which is for adults, and Shirly Goldstein, who is the centre’s youth director, they will be able “to create a program of the two different groups – youth, and adults with special needs – working together with the same sort of philosophy that the Israeli Scouts follow, doing similar types of activities.”
The June 4 Negev Dinner at Four Seasons Hotel will also see Richmond Jewish Day School head of school Abba Brodt presented with JNF’s Education Award. For more information or to donate, contact JNF Pacific Region at 604-257-5155 or [email protected].