Students in Uganda at work in a BrightBox, a solar-powered classroom. (photo from Simbi Foundation)
This year’s graduating class at Vancouver Talmud Torah made a significant impact to the lives of thousands of refugees in the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda. Their connection to the refugees on the African continent is a story that goes back to two young Jewish men who grew up in Vancouver and are determined to enhance education and create lifelong change in the lives of displaced people.
As co-founders of the Simbi Foundation, Ran Sommer and Aaron Friedland have established a template for BrightBoxes, which are sustainable solar-powered classrooms that are shipped to refugee settlements in Uganda and other countries. Each box costs $55,000 Cdn and includes a shipping container with solar panels, laptops, projectors and digital aids, as well as all the installation costs at its destination.
The foundation has installed five BrightBoxes in the Bidibidi settlement, where 240,000 refugees reside, and one in the Palorinya settlement, where there are 170,000 refugees. Each week, a BrightBox serves 6,000 learners.
“We’re able to reach that many learners because we connect the solar energy from the BrightBox to other classrooms in the area. They all become connected by the electricity and wi-fi generated by the BrightBox, which means the entire school population is connected simultaneously. The power of this 40-foot shipping container is its ability to connect the surrounding school blocks,” Sommer explained.
Back at VTT, the school established the Grade 7 Mitzvah of Valuing Philanthropy program in 2008. Each year, the graduating class chooses charities or causes that are meaningful to the group and fundraises to support those causes. This year, the school decided to fundraise exclusively for the Simbi Foundation.
“After learning about the power of a BrightBox to dramatically transform lives in the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda, we decided to go bold and big by dedicating all money raised to this one cause only,” said Jennifer Shecter, director of communications and admissions at VTT. “We wanted to make a giant impact this one time.”
The Grade 7 class dedicates several months of study and exploration to the MVP program and Shecter said the students become emotionally invested and feel genuine pride in their fundraising efforts. “In years past, students ran bake sales, garage sales, babysitting services, movie screenings at VTT and other initiatives to boost their MVP contributions,” she said. “This year, all those options were not available due to COVID so several of our students passionately worked the phones (or texted) family members and friends to donate.”
Several students contributed in excess of $1,000 each to the program, with the average donation ranging between $180 and $250 per student. A total of $38,000 was raised.
Shecter said the students’ connection to Friedland and Sommer, and their understanding of the scope of this project, enabled them to convince others to jump on board and donate to the cause.
The two co-founders spent time in the classroom with the Grade 7 students, explaining the purpose of the BrightBoxes and the extent of the research that motivates the Simbi Foundation’s decisions. The students were assigned to groups to study solar energy, the BrightBox curriculum and other topics relevant to education in the refugee settlements.
“We had two elements happening in parallel: the students were learning about our program and fundraising for it,” said Sommer. “So, they knew exactly what their fundraising efforts were contributing to. Because of that, they were able to surpass their fundraising goal. We were extremely impressed and honoured with VTT and the students’ efforts.”
Shecter added that VTT has had a relationship with Friedland for the past five years.
“VTT students meet with Aaron every year to learn about new initiatives and participate in his programs, like the Simbi reading and literacy program, and they find Aaron and Ran to be enthusiastic, approachable and relatable,” she said. “Our students thoroughly enjoyed each interaction with them and felt a sense of pride knowing members of their community are creating avenues for real change for individuals with many barriers to education and prosperity.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Aaron Friedland, creator and host of the podcast Impact in the 21st Century. (photo from Aaron Friedland)
If you’re looking for a new, uplifting podcast to cast away the oppressive weight of pandemic blues, consider Impact in the 21st Century, recently launched by Vancouverite Aaron Friedland. The Vancouver-based founder of the Simbi Foundation, which promotes literacy and education worldwide, felt it was time to give voice to the inspiring things that people are doing.
“There’s a lot of really bad news and horrible things going on and, as a species, we seem to be more interested in those stories,” Friedland told the Independent in a recent interview. “There are lots of podcasts available that celebrate big businesses and a very capitalist ideology. Our goal is to help showcase the amazing, impactful things that many brilliant people are doing and that often go unnoticed, and to mainstream what positive impact really means.”
To date, Friedland has interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and scientific educator; David Suzuki, an academic, broadcaster and environmentalist; Maryanne Wolf, a Jewish author and Harvard academic researching the brain; Ndileka Mandela, the granddaughter of Nelson Mandela; and Alex Honnold, a rock climber and subject of the movie Free Solo. “It’s so nice to be the one doing the interviewing, and the people I’m speaking with are such brilliant minds with brilliant insights to share,” Friedland said. “I feel deeply privileged to be getting that information firsthand.” The plan is to release a new podcast every two to three weeks.
The Royal Bank of Canada has sponsored Impact in the 21st Century, but Friedland said he’s always looking for more sponsors. “Our goal is to reach a point where we have enough podcast sponsors that, with each episode we release, we can build another Bright Box,” he said. The Bright Boxes, which cost $55,000 per box, are classrooms comprised of shipping containers, refurbished with solar technology and aimed at enhancing learning in overcrowded classrooms in places that have little or no access to electricity.
Friedland’s next podcast will be an interview with Canadian cultural anthropologist Wade Davis. His dream interviewees are Elon Musk and David Attenborough, but he’s biding his time until those happen. “It could be they’re not ready yet,” Friedland quipped. “We look for subjects who have a track record of creating longstanding positive impact, and whose vision and values really align with ours.”
Listeners can stream Impact in the 21st Century anywhere they access their podcasts, or online at simbifoundation.org.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Ran Sommer was working as a project manager for a health region and moonlighting as a volunteer for a very small Vancouver-based international education charity. A trip to India to see the charity’s work in action changed the direction of his career – and the course of the organization.
The Walking School Bus was the brainchild of another young innovator from the Vancouver area, Aaron Friedland, who has received numerous recognitions, including a Next Einstein award, which was presented by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and as one of the Jewish Independent’s 18 Under 36 honourees. TWSB, as it is shorthanded, emerged out of a trip to Uganda
Friedland took, where he learned that many students in that country do not attend school because it is too far for them to walk. The first step in his venture to resolve the problem was a book by the same name, which started a fundraising campaign that led to the purchase of the first vehicle, which shuttles Ugandan kids to school then does duty as a taxi in the off hours to cover expenses and generate revenue for school materials.
When Sommer returned from earning undergraduate and master’s degrees at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., Friedland was one of the first people with whom he reconnected. Both alumni of King David High School, they had been in the same social circles and Sommer had followed Friedland’s successes via social media. He came on board as a volunteer, serving as director of communications.
While Sommer was getting some good training at project management in his day job at the health authority, when he joined a self-funded trip to see TWSB’s operations in India, he was inspired to take a leap into the uncertain territory of a startup nonprofit.
“I was just so blown away to actually see what I was communicating about for the last year,” Sommer said, adding with a laugh: “To see not only that it was real [but] it was 10 times better than I thought it was and I should probably be communicating it better.”
The inspiration was mixed with sadness that he didn’t feel his full-time job was as meaningful. He and Friedland sat down, figured out how to scrape together enough to give Sommer a salary that would just cover his rent and expenses and Sommer became first-ever employee of TWSB, as director of operations. (Friedland was still unsalaried at the time.)
Despite rapid growth since Sommer’s hiring, it’s still a streamlined organization, with seven employees in Vancouver and eight overseas. But, with its tight budgets and small team, the organization has branched out in a range of directions.
The organization was never simply about getting kids from Point A to Point B. First, there is a research component. Graduate students develop symbiotic relationships with TWSB, joining self-funded excursions to the operations – now in India as well – and looking at data from the projects to enhance their delivery and outcome.
Once TWSB put in place the infrastructure to get students to school, they realized some were arriving hungry and thirsty, which impedes learning. The organization added water-catchment systems, chicken coops and community-supported agriculture to their operations. They developed supplementary curriculum, dovetailing with the objectives of the school systems where they work, including an offline database that serves as a sort of virtual library. In a country like Uganda, where a vast majority of the population does not have access to electricity, let alone wi-fi, the curriculum is aided by Raspberry Pi microcomputers – about $100 each – which can communicate with one another in a localized intranet, but not access the internet. Teachers can use the tablets to project material on screens – a benefit in places like some refugee camps TWSB works, where the teacher to student ratio can be one to about 260.
Throughout the charity’s projects are economic development initiatives that both help the communities they serve and create sustainable funding for their work. They created the BrightBox Macro classroom – a shipping container retrofitted into a solar-powered classroom. While students learn in a space that takes up about seven-eighths of the space, a solar charging room powers not only the shipping container classroom but the entire adjacent school. It also provides a charging hub, where people from the community can pay a few cents to charge their cellphones, tablets, flashlights or other electronics, similar to for-profit charging hubs common throughout the developing world. These fees will add up, according to projections, to eventually pay for the entire facility over time.
TWSB also has a small but aggressive fundraising arm that obtains grants from foundations and groups including National Geographic. The academic expeditions are funded by participants themselves, who are asked to raise an additional $1,000 to $2,000.
Based on studies that indicate students can double their reading comprehension exponentially in just months through the multisensory experience of reading the words while hearing them spoken, TWSB developed Simbi.
This “reading-while-listening application” uses different voices, accents and dialects to give the reader the most relevant voice available in their respective region. Again, outcomes are studied and the data shared to make the impacts greater. Simbi began as a part of TWSB curriculum program and then expanded independently as a startup aimed at an even broader market, with Friedland as chief executive officer, while he continues as executive director of TWSB. In addition to the thousands of students served by TWSB, Simbi is in use by another 10,000 who are not part of the project and the objective is to make Simbi available to unlimited numbers.
Through partnerships with Uganda’s minister of education and the United Nations refugee agency, TWSB has expanded its reach into refugee camps and remote public schools.
“There are currently 32,500 students who are interfacing with our technology,” Sommer said. In Uganda, there are 300,000 refugee students alone – not including others in low-income, remote or otherwise underserved communities. And, with expansion into India and a scalable model that they envision taking off globally,
Sommer predicts further exponential growth.
In addition to Sommer and Friedland both having attended Vancouver’s Jewish high school, there is another Jewish connection. The project began during Friedland’s studies in economics at McGill University, with the initial initiative launched within Uganda’s Abayudaya (Jewish) community.
While the Walking School Bus has grown, with 15 employees now around the world, its strength is still in the power of volunteerism, Sommer said.
“We’ve been able to maintain our values and the pillars of the organization because of an incredibly large army of volunteers that are so involved and motivated,” he said.
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.”