When we decided to have a celebration marking 18 years since the beginning of the latest chapter of the Jewish Independent’s nearly-nine-decade history, it made perfect sense to focus on the future as much as the past.
The centrepoint of the JI Chai Celebration is the JI’s 18 Under 36 Awards. The day’s headlines might be cause for dejection, but anyone who works with, or spends any time with, members of this community’s younger generations knows that the future is bright.
This truly is reason to celebrate.
I am amazed to think I’ve owned the newspaper for longer than some of our awardees have been alive. I don’t feel that old. On the other hand, it does seem like another lifetime when Kyle Berger, Pat Johnson and I bought the Independent’s predecessor, the Jewish Western Bulletin, from publishers Sam and Mona Kaplan. Kyle was 24, Pat was 34 and I was 29 – we all would have qualified for the JI’s 18 Under 36 Awards, and I’d like to think we might have offered some tough competition.
I would say to younger audiences, as both a promise and a warning: beware of how way leads on to way. Sometimes wonderful things happen and the mission of your life presents itself without you even realizing what’s happening.
My roots are not here. My immediate family has lived in Ontario for a long time now. And, when I came here about 25 years ago from Ottawa, I intended to spend a year in British Columbia, get my master’s in economics at Simon Fraser University, then return east and do a PhD in economics at University of Toronto.
But, I got a job in Vancouver as I was finishing my MA, and worked as an economist until, one day, I took a phone call from the then-publisher of the Jewish Western Bulletin. I’d never heard of him … or it. My involvement with the Vancouver Jewish community was through music – with the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir, with whom I still sing today, and Beth Israel Choir. The paper was looking for someone to fill in writing editorials and I was looking for a change, so I agreed to take the job – for the summer.
As I mentioned, one thing leads to another, and the Kaplans, who had published and edited the JWB since 1960, wanted to retire. Pat and Kyle, my then-newfound friends and colleagues, suggested we put in a bid to buy the paper. I didn’t think the Kaplans would sell it to such a green team, as there were some other serious bidders with far more experience in business.
But the Kaplans saw something in the three of us that I certainly did not. They were Orthodox Jews, Zionists who brokered no criticism of Israel, and believed in advocacy journalism. We were secular, Zionists of a rather more open-minded variety, firm advocates of free speech and believed that journalism should be as objective as possible. Despite our obvious differences, I think the Kaplans recognized in us something of the inevitable future.
While Kyle and Pat have moved on to other endeavours, they thankfully remain involved in the paper and are there to help and offer advice, with Pat still doing much writing, as well as serving on the editorial board.
Looking back at the past 18 years, I can say that, while we’ve had challenges, we’ve overcome them and we’ve had many more successes. And this is one of the major reasons for the JI Chai Celebration. We want to celebrate the fact that, with the community’s help and the hard work and dedication of so many over the decades, the Jewish Independent, this community’s newspaper, is a vibrant and evolving enterprise.
Still … it is no secret that the newspaper industry is a tough one these days, to put it mildly. We must find a way to keep the Independent a sustainable and quality publication – not just for the coming months, but for the coming generations. The funds raised through the JI Chai Celebration will go, in part, toward a study of North American Jewish community newspapers and other examples of community journalism, which might direct us to best practices and models for the future of the JI.
The incredibly generous financial support of Joseph and Rosalie Segal and family, and the support of Mary-Louise Albert of the Rothstein Theatre and Chutzpah! Festival, laid the foundation for this celebration. The contributions of Gary Averbach, Shirley Barnett, David Bogoch, LKP Holdings (Tzipi Mann and family), JB Newall Memorials, Olive+Wild, Red Truck Beer, Vancouver Learning Centre, Web exPress, Yosef Wosk and so many others made it all possible. Led by talented event manager Bonnie Nish, all of this came together in three months.
Everyone performing here today is donating their time, as is the bartender and the volunteers you’ve seen on tickets, at the auction tables, ushering, all about. And about that auction table – thank you so much to all the donors to the auction and those who contributed the prizes for tonight, including the gift packages for the 18 awardees.
In addition to funding a study that can set the course of the paper’s future, revenue from this event will help stabilize the Independent and let us continue the important role we play as a mirror to and a voice of this community.
To ensure that independent Jewish journalism survives and thrives in this city and province, though, it ultimately depends on you. I ask you to support this newspaper by reading, sharing, subscribing, advertising or donating.
If you still wonder why and for whom we need to continue building this community and strengthening the media that shares its stories, look only to the 18 individuals being honoured tonight and to the future that they represent.
Fall fun with some of the JI’s 18 Under 36. (photo by Lianne Cohen)
Over the past month, each of the JI’s 18 Under 36 honourees has taken the time to do an email or phone interview with Pat Johnson, so we could get to know them a little better. Once you meet them, you’ll understand why these 18 young achievers and community-minded folk were chosen by the JI’s selection panel with the help of external adjudicator Kara Mintzberg, B.C. regional director of CJPAC (the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee).
The first group of honourees at the JI Chai Celebration on Dec. 6 at the Rothstein Theatre were (alphabetically): Rebecca Baron, Ezequiel Blumenkrans, Erin Brandt, Marcus Brandt, Ayelet Cohen Weil, Courtney Cohen, Aaron Friedland, Sam Heller and Talya Mallek. Mazal tov!
*** Rebecca Baron Age 17 Student
As a philanthropy project when she was a student at Vancouver Talmud Torah, Rebecca Baron helped raise funds for Room to Read, a nonprofit that promotes gender equality and literacy in developing countries.
“The ability to provide impoverished girls with quality education had inspired me to continue volunteering and raising awareness for global equality,” she says. “In 2015, I became a student ambassador for Room to Read’s Vancouver branch. As a member of the board, I have raised awareness, planned events and helped fundraise over $1 million. Furthermore, I have kickstarted Room to Read’s Run for Global Literacy, a school event that promotes girls’ education.”
This dedication to equality, combined with her love of biology, has led her to promote female advancement in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“It is an issue that I care about because many young girls have experienced cultural biases and stereotypes within these fields. I believe that someday we will eliminate the gender gap in STEM, but as of this moment there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Her own work in science has gained her national recognition. A science fair project on indoor air quality led to her discovery that a bacteria, Pseudomonas putida KT2440, can help improve indoor air quality. For this, she won the platinum award at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in 2015.
That same year, Baron participated in the SHAD program, which empowers exceptional high school students to recognize their own capabilities and envision their extraordinary potential as tomorrow’s leaders and change-makers. There, in addition to winning the best business plan award, she met Betsy McGregor, the founder of a global network of professional women in agriculture.
“As we spoke, I mentioned my interest in developing a nonprofit organization to encourage young girls in STEM. With her support and connections, I have been able to kickstart my nonprofit organization, Because of Her.”
In its preliminary stage of development, Because of Her has already received support from researchers, professors and students.
Earlier this year, Baron won the inaugural Temple Sholom Teen Tikkun Olam Award, which recognizes a young person who “has demonstrated a vision to heal the world and has done exceptional work in the community.”
Her perspective on gender equality is partially due to her Jewish identity and the first words of Torah.
“The creation story is a perfect example of the way in which Judaism values gender equality,” she says. “Throughout this story, the Torah emphasizes the emotional and physical differences between men and women. However, these defining characteristic are not seen as inferior or superior to one another, but instead are considered to have cause for equal celebration. I believe that these values parallel with the issue of empowering young girls in STEM. As a student who has received a Jewish education, I was taught at an early age how to encourage and celebrate differences. For this reason, Judaism has helped me persevere through the cultural biases and stereotypes that litter the path towards an academic career.”
Baron has shared her experiences and interests with large and diverse audiences, including on numerous panels, as a TEDx speaker and on CBC Radio. The long list of her other activities and achievements includes participation in Vancouver Science World’s Future Science Leaders Program and serving on the Kitsilano Community Centre Youth Council.
In addition, she has been a member of the Whistler Blackcomb Freeride Skiing Team, was a competitive jazz and acro dancer and a National Rhythmic Gymnast.
*** Ezequiel (Zeke) Blumenkrans Age 23 Medical Student
A Chassidic teaching says that Reb Simcha Bunim carried two slips of paper (another version says they were stones), one in each pocket. On one he wrote, “bishvili nivra ha’olam,” “for my sake, the world was created.” On the other, he wrote “v’anokhi afar v’efer, “I am but dust and ashes.”
This is a teaching that Zeke Blumenkrans has taken to heart.
“On one hand,” he says, “realize that you been given so much in life and that you need to make the most of it and don’t get scared. At the same time, don’t let the success get to your head. Remember to be humble and realize that, at the end of the day, we are all going to be in some form dust and ash, not too long from now. Just make the most of every day and try to add as much meaning into what you do in your life and try to help the people around you and make their lives a bit better, too.”
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Blumenkrans came to Vancouver at the age of 3. Growing up in a home infused with Jewish identity, and graduating from Vancouver Talmud Torah and King David High School, he absorbed ideas of tikkun olam and chesed. In 2011, he began volunteering at Canuck Place, North America’s first hospice for pediatric palliative care.
“Canuck Place allows me to interact with some of the most courageous and incredible children in the world, all while goofing around and helping them have fun and forget about their tough situations for awhile,” Blumenkrans told the Independent last year.
At Canuck Place, Blumenkrans met David, who had been diagnosed with spinal cancer. After David died, Blumenkrans started Generocksity, a philanthropic organization that has now grown to eight branches across Canada and in New York.
“One of my most memorable moments with David was when he was voicing his frustration about how he felt like he simply did not have enough time to do all the things he wanted to do in his life,” Blumenkrans says. “He had always thought, as most of us do, that you can always leave stuff for later and there will always be time in the future. Although he never knew it, David is the reason why I started Generocksity, so every success and achievement my team and I experience, I share with him for being my eternal inspiration.”
Generocksity organizes concert and party fundraisers for various causes and delivers educational workshops that help young adults who want to start their own philanthropic projects.
After completing his undergraduate degree in kinesiology (during which he won a long list of awards and scholarships), and before beginning med school at the University of British Columbia this year, Blumenkrans worked full-time at the Vancouver Native Health Clinic in the Downtown Eastside, which focuses predominantly on people who are current or former injection drug users and people who are HIV-positive. He is also doing research with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, focused on needle-sharing and the spread of HIV in the Downtown Eastside. He volunteered for Magen David Adom, the Israeli branch of the Red Cross organization, and received top marks in the practical and written exams following the organization’s 100-hour first aid training course.
In addition to all of this, he has been a soccer trainer and assistant coach in the Downtown Eastside, vice-president of UBC’s Israel on Campus Club, senior coordinator of children’s events at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and a counselor at Camp Solomon Schechter and at Camp Shalom.
“In Judaism, they say a mitzvah is not a good deed but rather a commandment. I feel that, given all the amazing things that have occurred in my life, it’s really the least that I can do – and it’s not a whole lot,” says Blumenkrans. “But it’s a start.”
*** Erin Brandt Age 30 Employment Lawyer
Community is at the heart of Erin Brandt’s life, and Erin Brandt is at the heart of her community.
“Community has always been very important to me,” she says. “Jewish life is founded in community. All of our religious and ritual practices are centred around community life.”
Brandt grew up in Kingston, Ont., where she was involved with United Synagogue Youth and attended Jewish summer camp. During her undergraduate studies at McGill, she was involved in Hillel and served on the board of the legendary Ghetto Shul, an innovative student-run Jewish community in downtown Montreal.
Soon after coming to Vancouver to study law at the University of British Columbia, she founded a Jewish law students’ group. Later, she was a founding board member of Axis, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s network of Jews in their 20s and 30s. Through her role with Axis and, now, as a member of the Young Adult Committee of Beth Israel Synagogue, she has been instrumental in many initiatives for members of the community in their 20s and 30s. She is also an active member of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee.
Brandt sees herself as a “connector,” and is motivated by fairness and innovation. In her career as an employment lawyer, she advises leaders in emerging industries, as well as more established businesses who want to “do right,” and she focuses on finding reasonable, collaborative solutions to workplace issues. As a speaker at the annual Vancouver Startup Week, Brandt is the voice of employment law for many local new business.
She mentors the next generation of professionals as a supervising lawyer at UBC’s Law Students’ Legal Advice Program and supports the professional development of her peers as a member of the executive of both the Employment Law Subsection and Young Lawyers Section of the Canadian Bar Association (B.C.). She presents regularly at the annual Continuing Legal Education Employment Law Conference in Vancouver, speaking on topics such as directors’ and officers’ liability and disability and workplace accommodation.
As a founder of many community-based initiatives, Brandt subscribes to the idea that, if you build it, they will come. “There are always people who want to participate in whatever it is you’re doing,” she says. “You see a need for something and then you create it.”
At this point in her life, being an integral part of her community is not even a matter of personal choice. “It’s a habit that I can’t even break,” she says, laughing.
*** Marcus Brandt Age 32 Chartered Professional Accountant
Marcus Brandt credits those who have come before as the inspiration for his community commitments today.
“Giving back to the community was something that was taught to me at a young age by my parents,” he says. “Having three grandparents who are Holocaust survivors has taught me the importance of community, and perseverance. Looking at the incredible examples that we have in our community, be they lay leaders and/or philanthropists, they have set a good example for this generation to try and follow in their footsteps.”
Brandt’s community involvements are plentiful. During studies at the University of Victoria, where he received a bachelor’s of commerce degree with distinction, he was active in Hillel. He moved to Vancouver and became a chartered professional accountant (CPA, CA), and is now a manager at DMCL Chartered Professional Accountants, in their private enterprise group.
Professionally, Brandt provides assurance, accounting, taxation and business advisory services to owner-managed businesses including incorporated professionals, individuals, estates and trusts.
Even as his career has advanced, his community activities have grown. In addition to serving on the board of Congregation Beth Israel, he leads services, serves on committees and helps run young adult programs.
He is a co-chair of the young professional division at Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and, having been in this role for a number of years, has personally canvassed a large proportion of the community’s young adult philanthropists. In 2014, he was the co-recipient of the Federation’s Young Leadership Award, which is presented in recognition of outstanding leadership in the Metro Vancouver Jewish community. He served on the steering committee of Axis, Federation’s young adult network, of which he was a founding member.
Brandt is on the board of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and serves as its treasurer, and was co-chair of Jewish National Fund’s JNF Futures (previously JNF Young Professionals Network). In his free time, he plays hockey and ultimate Frisbee, bikes, hikes, skis, cooks and entertains.
His future plans are to continue to develop professionally and build a practice within his firm, while continuing to support the Jewish community where he is able and where he is needed the most. “Jewish community and myself are inexorably linked,” he says. “The community is as much a part of my life as anything else, and I would not change that.
“It’s an absolute honour to be recognized in this way by our community,” he says. “Community does not create itself. We must all build it together and ensure that it continues to grow from strength to strength.”
*** Ayelet Cohen Weil Age 34 Campaign Manager, Major Gifts,
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver
Ayelet Cohen Weil left Vancouver in 2012. This summer, she returned with her husband, Zohar, and their year-old daughter Shai. It is the most recent relocation in a life that has triangulated between Mexico, British Columbia and Israel.
“I am what I call Mexican-born Israeli Jew,” says Cohen Weil. “Being Jewish is what ultimately defines me. It has defined who I am, where I come from, where I’m going, why I am who I am, and who I want my children to be.”
The identity and sense of belonging has been handed down through the diverse and conflicted history of her family.
“I come from a family of very devoted Zionists and devoted Jews,” she says. “From my maternal grandparents, who lost most of their family in the Holocaust, to a great-grandfather from Salonika, who was deeply involved in the early Zionist movement and was to become the first president of the Sephardic community in Mexico and the first president of the Comité Central Israelita de México (the main operating body of the Jewish community in Mexico, the equivalent of the Federation), to my paternal grandparents, who did everything to get to Israel from an Arab country in the ’50s.… I can only dream to get close to the legacy they have left for me to pass over to my children.”
Cohen Weil’s father is Israeli, the son of Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel in 1950. Her mother is the daughter of European Jews who migrated to Mexico in the early 1900s.
After high school, Cohen Weil volunteered on a kibbutz for a year and then joined the Israel Defence Forces at the age of 19 as a lone soldier.
“I did basic training, a course for operational sergeants of the ground forces, and served in the Liaison and Foreign Relations Division,” she says.
The Foreign Relations Division was established to build, reinforce and maintain diplomatic relations and to represent the IDF to other countries. Cohen Weil served in the division’s Latin American and African section.
After her service, in 2005, she moved to British Columbia to complete a bachelor’s degree in political science and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Victoria. While there, she was an active volunteer in Hillel’s Israel on Campus Club and Jewish Students Association.
After completing her undergraduate degree, Cohen Weil returned to Israel for a yearlong academic excellence programs at the Hebrew University. Then, she returned again to British Columbia, where she took up a position as Hillel director at the University of Victoria for three years before moving to Vancouver and serving another two years as Hillel’s managing director of programs for the province.
Then, she was back to Israel again, obtaining a master’s degree, with distinction, in public policy, specializing in conflict resolution and mediation, at Tel Aviv University.
She served as a research assistant on strategic peace and security studies at the Institute for National Security Studies and, later, as head of marketing and admissions of graduate programs at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC), in Herzliya, where she also ran the Latin American desk.
During this time, she also served as a board member and mediator for Minds of Peace, an organization designed to involve the people in the peace process through provoking a public debate over central issues.
This past July, she took up the position of campaign manager, major gifts, for the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
“Through my mixed background, life experiences and years of involvement in Jewish organizations, I have witnessed and, in many cases empowered, young Jews in Canada and abroad to fulfil their Jewish journey in Israel or in their home country,” she says. “Jewish professionals don’t have an easy task, especially in our world today. But, seeing young Jews discover (for the first time, at times) and build their Jewish identity with the support of our local Jewish organizations, witnessing their journey and ultimately meeting them in Israel after they had made aliyah, that is what inspires me. That is what motivates me to keep doing what we do.”
*** Courtney Cohen Age 29 Special Needs Support Worker
When Courtney Cohen’s grandmother, Rose Lewin, passed away in 2012, she struggled to find a meaningful way to honour the memory and legacy of her bobba (grandmother), a survivor of the Holocaust.
She created Rose’s Angels – honouring both Lewin and her paternal grandmother, Babs Cohen – to bring light into the lives of people in the often-dark month of February.
The fifth annual event, this coming February, will see 1,000 care packages distributed to people affected by poverty through 19 service providers, including Richmond Family Place, the Richmond Food Bank, Turning Point Recovery, the Jewish Food Bank and the Light of Shabbat Program. The packages contain non-perishable foods, toiletry items, new socks, pairs of gloves and toques. Operating under the umbrella of the Kehila Society of Richmond, the program has already delivered 2,500 packages.
“I was very close to both my grandmas and they both were highly involved in giving back to the Jewish community of Vancouver,” Cohen says. “They volunteered for Hadassah, always had open-door policies at their homes and were always ready to feed my friends and family. Through their tzedakah, they inspired me to create an event that helps those less fortunate receive care packages full of items and love.”
Earlier this year, Cohen told the Georgia Straight that, even with all of the hardships her grandmother Lewin had known, “she was the most positive person I knew.”
“She always welcomed everybody into her home and, no matter what, she offered them food,” she says. “I wanted to create a token of appreciation for her life and legacy by paying it forward to the less fortunate.”
Cohen chose February for the project in part because it was her bobba’s birthday month and also because many people can feel especially isolated around Valentine’s Day.
“I hope that they feel a little bit of love, to have a gift coming to them on Valentine’s Day, when you might not have a loved one around,” Cohen told the Straight. “It’s about letting them know that there is someone out there that cares about them.”
Earlier this year, Cohen was honoured with Canadian Hadassah-WIZO’s Heroes Among Us Award. (A decade ago, she received the Rick Hansen Leadership Award.)
In addition to running Rose’s Angels, Cohen is also on the board of the Kehila Society, Richmond Jewish Day School, Richmond Homeless Connect, Richmond Poverty Response Committee and Axis Vancouver. She recently organized a young adult event for Jewish Family Service Agency (now called Jewish Family Services), educating peers about the work JFSA does around mental health outreach. She was also co-organizer of the young adult tables for JFSA’s Innovators Luncheon earlier this year.
“My parents and grandparents instilled in me at a very young age that it was important to give back to others,” she says. “It was even more meaningful to give to others whom you know could never repay you. Growing up with such giving family surrounding me, I chose to get my education in the not-for-profit sector, and it ultimately determined my career path.”
Cohen is a special needs support worker with Vancouver School Board and, as one of her nominators said, “Courtney continues to exude a passion for helping people. Her family’s strong values and her bobba’s teachings taught Courtney at a very early age to ‘always see the best in people’ and to ‘treat people who are less fortunate as equals.’”
Her near-future plans are for a very successful 2018 Rose’s Angels event and planning more tikkun olam projects for young Jewish adults.
“Through my volunteering, I hope to get more young adults involved in giving back within the Jewish community,” she says.
*** Aaron Friedland Age 25 Founder/Executive Director, The Walking School Bus
When Anderson Cooper presented Aaron Friedland with the Next Einstein Award, the CNN host commended the Vancouverite for helping students in developing countries access education by reducing barriers in a sustainable way.
To reach school, kids in many countries have to walk several kilometres, which presents a primary barrier to their advancement. Friedland created the Walking School Bus organization, intending to purchase buses, to address that part of the problem for benefiting schools. But he soon realized that, in addition to getting to school, additional barriers were presented by hunger and poor literacy.
The Walking School Bus (TWSB) evolved into a three-legged initiative addressing access, nutrition and curriculum. TWSB’s economic model is to make school buses self-funding because, when not shuttling kids to class, they will generate revenue as taxis in the community. The organization confronts the hunger issue through a complex of water collection systems, chicken coops and community-supported agriculture, providing students with nutritious meals. Solar-powered classrooms address the availability of power. Finally, TWSB developed an app through which students in places like Vancouver record themselves reading aloud, creating audio books that peers around the world can use to enhance their English language proficiency by seeing the words and hearing English-speakers reading them.
The three communities in Uganda where the organization started are in primarily Jewish schools serving the Abayudaya Jews indigenous to Uganda. A new team is beginning operations in India, focused on research in conjunction with four Indian universities.
The Walking School Bus is reinforced by Friedland’s love of economics. Each component was developed using economic models developed by Friedland and fellow econ students at the University of British Columbia and elsewhere. The organization now has partnerships with several universities and is aiming for more. There is also a think tank where ideas for further programs are imagined and modeled.
An economics lecturer at Coquitlam College and a PhD candidate at UBC, Friedland’s personal experiences inspire his work. Born in South Africa and brought to Vancouver at the age of 1, Friedland’s anti-apartheid parents, he says, ensured that he understood that, “regardless of the social norms wherever you are, you know what right looks like.”
Friedland also had to overcome challenges in his own education.
“As someone who has grown up with dyslexia and has struggled academically with dyslexia, I know how much I realize the kind of social safety net I was given in Vancouver – the extra lessons, the extra tutoring, this incredible social safety net that I think we often take for granted. I realize how fortunate I was,” he says. When he visited Uganda, India and other places, he realized that, had he been born there, he probably wouldn’t have received an education at all.
“My parents likely wouldn’t have been able to justify that educational expenditure because, if you’re not a good student, we’ll send one of your siblings to school,” he says.
Friedland and his team, which boasts an advisory group of leading thinkers and doers, has plans for expansion. In the next year, TWSB aims to purchase more buses, put in place two more solar-powered classrooms, and set up more chicken coops, water catchment systems and community-supported gardens. By 2020, the goal is five more buses, five more solar-powered classrooms and 20 more water systems, as well as more community gardens and chicken coops. On the think tank side, Friedland hopes to have 40 academic or research institutions generating 120 research papers a year.
Personally, in 10 years, Friedland would like to be a tenure-track professor of economics.
*** Sam Heller Age 32 Managing Director, Hillel BC
Judaism and the history of the state of Israel are integral to Sam Heller’s identity. A longtime camper at Habonim Dror’s Camp Miriam, and later a staffer there, Heller went on to become the president of Hillel’s Israel Action Committee at the University of British Columbia. But, before he completed his degree in political science, he took a major detour.
Camp and campus helped shape his already strong Jewish and Zionist identity, but he was motivated to go deeper.
“Sitting and debating the nitty-gritty political issues of the day really helped me understand that being connected to the community is more than just having a superficial understanding,” he says. “You gotta get your hands dirty and challenge yourself with ideas that may make you uncomfortable.… I left for Israel right after I finished my last summer working at camp.”
He served in the Israel Defence Forces’ Nahal Infantry Brigade, Battalion 50, from 2010 to 2012, and received the Exemplary Soldier Award at the end of advanced training. When his service was complete, he worked for a time in the financial sector in Israel, but realized his calling was elsewhere. He returned to UBC to complete his degree, with the intention of rededicating himself to Jewish community service. His degree in hand, Heller didn’t leave campus. He became a staffer at Hillel, now in the role of managing director, overseeing programming across British Columbia.
These have not been easy years for Jewish and Zionist students. Heller coordinated the responses to three anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns – with a 100% success rate.
Heller’s Jewish and Zionist commitments did not emerge from nowhere. They were passed down from generation to generation.
“I grew up in a religious and Zionistic home,” he says. “My father, Ilan Heller, was born in Israel and grew up in Montreal when there were still signs up saying ‘No Jews, No Dogs Allowed.’ My mum, Gail Heller, was born and raised in Vancouver and was very connected to the community. She passed away when I was 13 and, since then, I always felt that I needed to be involved. I do a lot of what I do with her in mind, always.”
His maternal grandparents, Regina and David Feldman, survived the Holocaust and have been a strong influence on him.
His paternal grandfather, Benjamin Heller, was born in Romania and survived the war in Russia, though his parents, two sisters and a brother were killed by the Nazis; he made it to Israel in 1948, was an officer in the artillery corps of the IDF and was involved in the 1956 Suez campaign. Heller’s paternal grandmother, Haya Novik Heller, was born in Mandate Palestine and, along with her brothers, was involved in the founding of the state of Israel.
“My great-uncles, Yehuda Harari and Moshe Marienburg, were with the Jewish underground,” he says. “My savta [grandmother] was with another group in the underground, and my great-uncle Rafael Algor (where I get my middle name) was in the Haganah. Basically, they were all involved with the founding of the state and I grew up on their stories. I felt a need to go and explore my roots, which is how I ended up in Israel.”
Heller says he is motivated by a belief in Jewish peoplehood.
“I feel that if you care about your fellow human (and fellow Jew) then you inevitably will care about Israel and other Jewish communities around the world,” he says. “We need to reconnect to Jewish peoplehood. I want to make sure that my great-great-grandchildren will grow up learning and connecting to Jewish traditions and thought that have been around for thousands of years.”
A friend once said something that has stuck with Heller: “I don’t want to live a life that’s been lived a thousand times over.”
*** Talya Mallek Age 33 Museum Programs Coordinator and Heritage Harbour Master,
Vancouver Maritime Museum
Talya Mallek is devoted to education, a commitment she is realizing through her work as a museum professional.
“Building community relationships and engaging students in meaningful and inspiring learning experiences is my passion,” she says. “I believe that teaching critical thinking skills will build more proactive citizens and a brighter future.”
Born and raised in Vancouver (with a couple years living in Israel as a kid), Mallek taught Hebrew and Judaic studies at Or Shalom and at Temple Sholom religious school. After double majoring in international relations and English literature at the University of British Columbia, she obtained a master’s of education degree in museum education there.
Before joining the Vancouver Maritime Museum, she worked at Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre, North Vancouver Museum and Archives and Burnaby Art Gallery. She has had two academic papers published on the topic of youth art apprenticeships.
Mallek researched and wrote a significant paper about Holocaust survivor Rudolf Vrba, interviewing him and contributing primary research to the story of the man who escaped Auschwitz and warned the world about the extent of the Final Solution. Vrba, who immigrated to Canada and became an associate professor of pharmacology at UBC, is credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives, though he believed that more could have been saved were his warnings shared more widely within the Hungarian Jewish community.
Mallek participated in the Canadian Arctic Expedition, traversing the Northwest Passage during the summer of 2015, then published a blog exhibit called Across the Top of the World: Words and Photos from the Arctic. She also researched, wrote and presented Extreme Explorers, an adult education program about the history of Arctic exploration with particular focus on the Franklin Expedition. The program continues to be presented by museum staff in Metro Vancouver and in the Arctic.
In addition, she helped create partnerships in the Jewish and Japanese communities and did research for Invisible Threads: Lifesaving Sugihara Visas and the Journey to Vancouver, a Vancouver Maritime Museum exhibit about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese government official who, during the Second World War, helped thousands of European Jews flee Nazism via Lithuania and Japan.
An alumna of Vancouver Talmud Torah, Camp Miriam and volunteer positions at Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver summer camp, she is now carrying on the tradition to the next generation.
“I have carried this on in my own young family, with Shabbat dinners and celebrating Jewish holidays,” she says. “Professionally, being part of an ethnic minority has allowed me to engage with other diverse communities and to understand and appreciate each of their unique circumstances, and adjust appropriately to their learning needs, goals, and interests.”
Mallek, who is currently on maternity leave from the museum, aims “to progress professionally and concurrently to raise a happy, healthy Jewish family.”
Fall fun with some of the JI’s 18 Under 36 continued. (photo by Lianne Cohen)
Over the past month, each of the JI’s 18 Under 36 honourees has taken the time to do an email or phone interview with Pat Johnson, so we could get to know them a little better. Once you meet them, you’ll understand why these 18 young achievers and community-minded folk were chosen by the JI’s selection panel with the help of external adjudicator Kara Mintzberg, B.C. regional director of CJPAC (the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee).
The second group of honourees at the JI Chai Celebration on Dec. 6 at the Rothstein Theatre were (alphabetically): Ariel Martz-Oberlander, Logan Presch, Maya Rae Schwartz-Dardick, Michael Sachs, Allie Saks, David Schein, Rotem Tal, Carmel Tanaka and Rabbi Levi Varnai. Mazal tov!
*** Ariel Martz-Oberlander Age 24 Theatre Artist and Community Organizer
Ariel Martz-Oberlander describes herself as “a theatre artist, writer and teacher.” As a “Jewish settler on Coast Salish territories with diasporic and refugee ancestry,” her practice is rooted in a commitment to place-based accountability through decolonizing and solidarity work. She divides her time between theatre and community organizing, and specializes in creative protest tactics on land and water.
Those values have led her to co-found Kids for Climate Action while in high school, and to become vice-president of Fossil Free U of T, a leader of B.C. Sea Wolves, a Vancouver-based “kayaktivist” group, and an organizer of Paddle for the Peace (against the Site C hydroelectric project). She worked with aboriginal activists re-occupying and protecting their traditional land, Unist’ot’en Camp, in northern British Columbia, was a founding member of the Peace Camp at BC Hydro offices and has staged protests against the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline.
This year, she received the (Vancouver) Mayor’s Arts Award for Community Engaged Arts in the emerging artist category. Her award citation stated, in part: “Martz-Oberlander is a facilitator with the True Voice Theatre Project, producing new shows by residents of the Downtown Eastside and vulnerably housed youth, in collaboration with the Gathering Place and Covenant House. Her most recent work, created with support from the LEAP program, won a research and development prize from the Arts Club. Martz-Oberlander is also the associate producer for Vines Festival, presenting accessible, free eco-art in Vancouver parks.”
She received a community grant to screen environmental documentaries at Gordon Neighbourhood House, and theatre fellowships involving writing and directing original works. She has directed, written and acted in plays, and was a program director for Vines.
She has guest-taught senior students at King David High School on issues of social justice and volunteered as a facilitator for Or Shalom’s Dialogue Project, as well as leading children’s services at Or Shalom.
“My work seeks to invite people to take global issues personally. As the descendant of diasporic refugees, it is my desire to fight for the right of the people of this land to maintain their ancestral homelands and inheritance,” she says. “Community, belonging, my inheritance all give me a sense of my right to be in this world.”
Her future goals? “To get a puppy.”
*** Logan Presch Age 21 Business Student
Logan Presch is a University of British Columbia student and a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the traditionally Jewish fraternity.
Presch, who is from Salmon Arm, B.C., is also a member of the Jewish Students Association, although he is not Jewish.
“Throughout my life, members of the Jewish community have always accepted me, been my friend, and helped shaped who I’ve become,” he says. “I care deeply about my friends, brothers and mentors, and want to reach out and help in my fullest capacity.”
Putting that caring into action, Presch has been a leading opponent of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanction movement at UBC. He filed a petition that stated, in part, that the BDS referendum question “creates a toxic atmosphere for students supportive of the state of Israel, and is destructive of open and respectful debate on an important issue.” He went on to say that the campus referendum “drove a wedge between religious groups on campus who had previously enjoyed inter-faith outreach and collaboration.”
After university, Presch hopes to follow his passion to work in the music industry, as a manager, agent or touring manager, and possibly pursuing a career in singing as well.
*** Michael Sachs Age 36 Wholesaler of Diamonds/President of The Bayit
The Bayit describes itself as a warm and vibrant synagogue in Richmond committed to making everyone feel included and, as the name suggests, at home.
The suburban shul has recently seen a dramatic uptick in membership due to the leadership team of Michael Sachs, the synagogue’s president, and spiritual leader Rabbi Levi Varnai.
Born in Stamford, Conn., Sachs moved to Vancouver in 1993. Three years ago, with his wife Shira and two children, he moved to Richmond. While his day job is as a wholesaler of diamonds with ERL Diamonds, since last year he has been busy not only with the routine business that comes with the job of a congregational president, but with tasks that go above and beyond.
“I can be caught on my drives to or from work, calling members of our community to see how their job search is going,” he says. “Dealing with other professionals in the community, seeing how the apartment hunt is going for a family, checking in with someone who may be under the weather, touching base with the Bayit team on the status of current projects.”
One of his nominators calls Sachs a “problem solver, creative thinker, a sort of advisor at times, and often a sounding board to both individuals and organizations.”
In addition to raising a family and taking care of business, Sachs is also founder of Marc’s Mensches, an initiative directed at youth to encourage and reward good deeds, and is the political liaison for the Kehila Society of Richmond.
“Judaism is the core of my life, from keeping kosher to attending synagogue, and even for guidance in difficult decisions,” he says.
And his efforts have been noticed. He was co-recipient of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s 2017 Young Leadership Award.
“After moving to Richmond almost three years ago, and experiencing all that the Jewish community offers in Vancouver,” he says, “I felt a calling to jump in and serve to do whatever I can to help the Richmond Jewish community to continue to grow. My goal is simple: keep growing the Richmond Jewish community. Our community is growing every day at record rates, especially with the higher cost of living in Vancouver.”
Says Sachs of his fellow recipients of the JI’s 18 Under 36 Awards, “Every one of these 18 members of our community is an ambassador of the Jewish people. Every positive ambassador from our community creates a ripple effect across the world.”
*** Allie Saks Age 29 Occupational Therapist
As an occupational therapist working in hospital settings with people who have Parkinson’s disease, Allie Saks saw a problem.
“The medical system tends to treat patients once they are already quite progressed in the disease,” she says. “In reading the research, I knew that exercise can delay the progression.”
She heard about a program called Rock Steady, which was founded in Indianapolis by Scott Newman, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 39. Newman discovered that non-contact boxing training lessened his symptoms.
Rock Steady boxers train to improve overall fitness and strength, as well as speed, balance, agility, reaction time, hand-eye coordination, mental focus, and range of motion. The ultimate goal is to delay the progression of the disease and improve overall quality of life. The movement has now expanded to almost 500 affiliates worldwide, helping people with Parkinson’s “fight back.” One of those affiliates is Rock Steady Boxing Vancouver, which Saks founded in May 2016.
“I wanted to provide that to people living with Parkinson’s in our community,” says Saks, who also practises as an occupational therapist in Fraser Health Concussion Clinic. In this role, she provides intervention and follow-up services to individuals who have experienced a concussion or mild to traumatic brain injury, in order to manage symptoms and facilitate speedy recovery.
“In addition to the physical benefits, Rock Steady Boxing also provides a means for people to build social connections and community,” she says. “This is especially important for the Parkinson’s population, that can often become quite reclusive.”
Helping people with Parkinson’s live better lives accounts for Saks’ motto that, when life gives you lemons you make lemonade.
“I was always taught being diagnosed with Parkinson’s can be the ultimate ‘lemon.’ I hope I can make a meaningful contribution to my boxers, to delay the progression of the disease with Rock Steady Boxing, and make those ‘lemons’ a little sweeter,” she says.
Her Jewish heritage and commitment to tikkun olam also play a role in making Rock Steady accessible to all.
“Soon after starting our program, people with Parkinson’s started to call saying they could not afford the cost of the program,” she says. “I felt I could not turn people away because of this, and that everyone should have equal opportunity to participate, despite financial barriers. I decided to create a scholarship program, where people pay what they can, and the remainder is covered by funds raised during Rock Steady fundraisers. We have held three successful Rock Steady fundraisers to date, which have helped cover anywhere from 75% to 100% of the cost of our classes for a number of our boxers.”
Saks’ future plans are to expand Rock Steady to reach as many individuals living with Parkinson’s disease in Vancouver as possible.
*** David Schein Age 28 Director, Food Stash Foundation
When David Schein saw the documentary Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, it had a profound impact on him.
The film follows a Vancouver couple, the filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer, as they survive for six months only on discarded food in order to draw attention to massive food waste in North America.
Seeing people living with hunger while tons of food went to waste, motivated Schein to found Food Stash Foundation. The group has a straightforward, twofold mission: “to rescue food from producers and suppliers that would have been destined for the landfill, and to deliver edible food items to food-insecure households and individuals in Vancouver.”
Food Stash picks up edible food from bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores, things like imperfect produce, day-old bread and grain products, items that aren’t moving quickly off the shelves and food that has reached its best-before date but remains fine. The food is subsequently delivered to households and individuals who need it, and to charities that feed people. Suppliers include Whole Foods, the August Market, COBS Bread, Rosemary Rocksalt, IGA, Cupcakes, Tractor, Windset Farms, Virtuous Pie, Nesters, Terra Breads, Elysian Coffee, and many other shops, restaurants, cafés and bakeries.
Among the agencies Food Stash supports are the Island Refugee Society of British Columbia, Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, the Kettle Society, MPA Society, Steeves Manor, Watari, Masjid Al-Salaam and Education Centre, Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society, Directions Youth Services, AMS UBC Food Bank, Atira Women’s Resource Centre, and South Granville Seniors Centre, among others.
“I think change happens by starting small in one’s community and setting an example that other communities can follow,” Schein says. “I don’t want to wait for government policy to change or be the driver in creating more sustainable communities, but instead think that we can help and contribute to making our communities better in whatever ways are most important to us.”
Last year, Food Stash was responsible for rescuing and redistributing 167,110 pounds of edible food – and the amounts are rising daily. The foundation has only one paid employee, a part-timer who is a refugee from the Philippines. A volunteer team of 16 does the rescuing and delivery. Schein has recruited students to support Food Stash, including some from King David High School, where he previously taught French and Spanish.
A new pilot program is underway, in partnership with Jewish Family Services. The Grocery Box Program will deliver fresh food to those most in need. The pilot will initially provide 10 Richmond families with four boxes per month of healthy, fresh, quality food. These include produce, bread, dairy and juice, items not frequently available at the food bank because of a lack of ability to store perishable foods.
Of Schein, one of his nominators stated: “His humility is a measure of the loving kindness of his food justice mission and of his acknowledgement that he’s at the beginning of a journey to learn more about how to solve a complex and systemic problem and how to build community partnerships.”
*** Maya Rae Schwartz-Dardick Age 15 Student/Musician
Maya Rae Schwartz-Dardick recorded her debut album this year and has already been recognized by CBC Music as one of Canada’s Top 35 Jazz Musicians Under the age of 35.
Under the performing name Maya Rae, she was just 13 when she performed at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. While her voice has wowed audiences, it is also her philanthropic spirit that is gaining attention. She routinely performs at fundraisers for organizations and causes, raising $20,000 to date. Of this, $6,000 was raised to help resettle two refugee families in British Columbia. Other causes for which she has shared her talents include support of homeless youth, anti-bullying campaigns and a fundraiser for Nepal earthquake victims. The CD release party for her first album was a fundraiser for Covenant House, which helps youth 16 to 24 who have fled physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse or are street-involved.
“I like to use music to make the world a better place,” she says. “I like the way my music touches people.”
A member of Temple Sholom’s Youth Board, Schwartz-Dardick enjoys singing at synagogue and reading Torah during the High Holidays. She plays regularly at Louis Brier Home and Hospital to bring music to seniors in the community.
Now working on her second album, she plans to tour in 2018, and “continue to use my music to help raise awareness around important community issues.”
“The world of jazz has been blessed with child prodigies for as long as the genre has existed,” CBC Music writer Scott Morin wrote of Schwartz-Dardick. “Maya Rae is faithfully continuing the tradition of young, prodigious voices taking their incredible talents to the jazz art form, and at only 15 years old she has an incredibly bright future ahead.… Her debut album, Sapphire Birds, produced by Cory Weeds, one of the hardest-working cats in the business, was released earlier this year on the Cellar Live label, and shows a supremely gifted artist who is able to phrase like Sarah Vaughan but write a lyric like Joni Mitchell. Watch out for this talented singer and composer.”
“If my music can make a difference towards helping people and making the world a better place, I can’t think of anything else that I’d rather be doing,” Schwartz-Dardick told the Independent last year.
*** Rotem Tal Age 34 Restaurant and Food Truck Owner/Entrepreneur
Rotem Tal was born in Haifa, Israel, and has been in Vancouver since 2008. But the décor in the Main Street restaurant Chickpea, which he cofounded with fellow sabra Itamar Shani, shouts “Israel!”
The entrance sports a Dizengoff Street sign, winking at the Tel Aviv hotspot, and a mural features David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir crossing Abbey Road.
After traveling the world following his military service, Tal settled in Vancouver for its laid-back vibe, yoga classes and mountains. He studied at Simon Fraser University, where he was active in Hillel and, after graduation, took a job as Hillel’s outreach and special events director. That involved a lot of cooking and hospitality. He was also a founding resident of Vancouver’s Moishe House, a hub for young Jewish adults.
Tal is committed to environmental sustainability. At Hillel, he replaced all plastic utensils with reusable ones and instituted a composting program.
He also made a very personal commitment to the health of children in the developing world. He raised $3,500 in a fundraising effort for Save a Child’s Heart by cutting off his signature dreadlocks. Save a Child’s Heart is an Israeli charity that provides life-saving heart surgeries to kids in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
Tal left Hillel to follow his dream of becoming a professional full-time chef and restaurateur. With his friend Shani, Tal started the Chickpea food truck, an Israeli vegetarian option that gained quick fame and a strong following. Earlier this year, they opened the 2,400-square-foot storefront restaurant on Main Street and took the vegetarianism a step further, eliminating eggs and dairy to make the place vegan. Even the shakshuka replaces eggs with a spicy vegetarian sausage.
While running a restaurant has been a long-term goal, now that he has realized it, there’s another vision on the horizon.
“Myself and Itamar – aka Chickpea – are going to open a few more restaurants and raise money for our ultimate goal: opening up a farm/retreat-wellness centre/space for music festivals and arts,” he says. “We are working towards finding a piece of land around 200 acres and designating it to being a community space. We will grow our own food (within the limitations of the seasons), have our Chickpea community live there, and hold space for healing and rejuvenating others. Think permaculture, Burning Man, yoga centre = Chickpea.”
Tal’s connection with his Judaism emerged largely after he left Israel. “I was traveling for many years by myself, or would meet friends in different countries like Australia or the States,” he says. “I noticed that, although Judaism never played a major role in my upbringing (since I was raised in Israel and Jewishness is just all encompassing), wherever I landed, no matter where I came from, the Jewish community always welcomed me with open arms. I was always able to find a place to stay, work, and friends.
“Although I truly believe that connection and helping others is a human attribute,” he continues, “I think that it is strongly ingrained in Jewish culture … probably because we were persecuted for so many years and we had to stick together. I myself try to bring this vibe to everyone, not only the Jewish community. I believe that the Jewish community is a special one within the human community, and I strive to make connections with everyone.”
*** Carmel Tanaka Age 30 Community Relations Manager, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region
Carmel Tanaka credits her unique family history with helping form her worldview and ability to meet people on their own terms.
“Turns out, I’m pretty good at connecting people and building bridges,” she says. “Might have something to do with my eclectic professional background and varied personal interests and experiences, which helps me relate to anyone.”
She found this out, she says, while serving as the director of Hillel Victoria, where she enhanced the connections between the Jewish students organization and other individuals and groups on campus. That bridge-building was on full display during Hillel’s Holocaust Awareness Week at UVic last year.
Tanaka created an imaginative and moving commemoration. As is traditional, six candles were lit in memory of the six million Jewish lives lost in the Shoah. A seventh candle was lit to symbolize hope. To light the candles, she brought together the diversity of the campus community, including representatives of First Nations, African, German and Slavic communities. UVic’s Multifaith Services participated, as did the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island and advocates from the Sexualized Violence Task Force. UVic Holocaust educators and representatives of the administration lit candles, as did children of Holocaust survivors. Student leaders, including some who had returned from the university’s I-witness Field School, which takes students to Central Europe to explore how the Holocaust is memorialized, joined the ceremony.
In another symbolic act, recollecting Kristallnacht, participants took shards of a broken window and pieced them back together, creating a “resilience window” that has been used at subsequent community commemorations.
During the ceremony, Tanaka spoke about her family’s history. She is a granddaughter, on her mother’s side, of survivors of the Holocaust. On her father’s side, her Japanese-Canadian grandparents were interned during the Second World War, losing everything, including a prosperous fishing and cannery business, which was confiscated by the federal government. “It takes a community to overcome trauma and rebuild a peaceful future,” Tanaka said at the commemoration. “It also takes a community to prevent trauma from happening in the first place.”
During her time in Victoria, Tanaka also assisted the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island’s Yom Hazikron and Yom Ha’atzmaut events. To help raise funds for a Syrian refugee family sponsored by Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El, she performed as the Fiddler, as well as volunteering as the music director, in a staging of Fiddler on the Roof.
Tanaka recently took the position of community relations manager at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, another role that requires making connections. “In many ways, my new role is a natural progression from what I did at a local level, just now at the provincial level,” she says.
Recently, she says, she has been putting her health first, “becoming part of the Megaformer (Lagree Method) fitness family, shedding 30 pounds and counting, strengthening my core and breaking under 200 pounds on my 30th birthday! It’s going to make the upcoming ski season so much more amazing.”
Her family history also reflects her food choices. “I identify as ‘Jewpanese’ and it permeates everything that I do, especially in my cooking,” she says. “Soy sauce and chicken schmaltz are my two secret ingredients in just about every dish.”
*** Rabbi Levi Varnai Age 29 Rabbi, The Bayit
The Richmond synagogue known as the Bayit has its roots back a few decades in the Eitz Chaim congregation, an early institution in the emerging Jewish community of the southern suburb.
As young families have been priced out of the Vancouver real estate market, a large number of them have moved across the bridge to find more affordable housing. In response, a plethora of Richmond-based organizations have popped up to meet the demands of the growing Jewish population.
The Bayit, though, had fallen on difficult times for a few years. After a series of rabbis, the congregation went a spell without a spiritual leader until July 2016. That’s when a new congregation president and a new rabbi took the helm, ushering in a younger leadership team and sparking what has been, so far, a dramatic renaissance in the life of the shul.
Rabbi Levi Varnai was assistant rabbi at the Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel on West Broadway, providing spiritual care and connections especially for young families. Then, Michael Sachs, who had recently moved from Vancouver to Richmond, became president of the Bayit and, at the first board meeting, the congregation hired Varnai as rabbi. In little more than a year, the synagogue has grown exponentially.
“Richmond is becoming a pretty big place,” says Varnai. “There are many, many young families here and, of course, you’ve got Richmond Jewish Day School. We do a monthly Friday night dinner, which is very, very popular for young families. We get an average of 100 people for such an event. On the holidays, we’ve got 250, 300, sometimes even 350.”
Varnai laughs that, as a born Vancouverite, moving to Richmond meant breaking down a stigma. But it wasn’t the biggest move in his life.
When he was 12, his family made aliyah. He studied in yeshivah in Israel, then went to New York for rabbinical studies. He married an Israeli woman and served as chaplain to the elite, top-secret intelligence unit 8200.
“Of course, I had nothing to do with the unit itself,” Varnai clarifies. “I just ran the synagogue and supervised the kosher food in the kitchen.” Nevertheless, he adds, “It was quite an experience.”
Because of economics, Varnai says, the Richmond Jewish community is diverse and comparatively youthful. “You talk about the young South African family, the young Russian family, the young Israeli family or a family from Montreal,” he says. “You’re moving to B.C. because it’s a beautiful province and you have the option of either living in Vancouver or paying 30% or sometimes 40% less in Richmond. It’s like a no-brainer.”
Reaching young families is key to the future, he says. “If our parents are involved but we can’t get our kids involved, where is the future of Judaism?” Religious services are only part of the Bayit’s appeal, he adds.
“In English, we say synagogue, in Yiddish we say shul. The word in Hebrew is beit haknesset, meeting place,” he says. “A gathering place. When Jews gather, obviously one of the things they do is have services. But the main point is the gathering place. That’s where the emphasis is. A place where the Jewish community is together, to laugh, to have fun, to gather together, to have social events and whatever it may be that provides community and takes care of one another.