Alex Cristall, chair of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. (photo from JFGV)
Long active in the Jewish community, Alex Cristall started his current volunteer position as chair of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver in June 2019. He spoke to the Jewish Independent about the role, and where he sees the organization as it enters a new decade.
JI: Could you go over your professional background and your work with Jewish organizations?
AC: I grew up in this community and was always surrounded by a culture of volunteerism. My professional background is in real estate investment, and my family’s values always drove our approach to business and to community involvement. From my grandparents to my parents to the way my wife Jodi and I are raising our children, giving back and getting involved with community has always been a priority, both in and out of the office. I started volunteering as a young adult and it’s grown from there.
JI: How did you become chair of Federation?
AC: Before taking on the role of board chair, I held a number of other leadership positions with Jewish Federation and with other organizations. At Federation, I served as chair of the 2016 and 2017 Federation annual campaigns, as chair of major donors, chair of men’s philanthropy and as a member of the board.
Anyone who knows me knows my love of sports, so my previous involvement with the JCC Maccabi Games and with Maccabi Canada came about very naturally. I also chaired the JCC Sports Dinner.
Serving as vice-president and then president of the JCC [Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver] was instrumental in giving me a unique perspective that has been indispensable as chair of Jewish Federation. I got to see firsthand how important the partnerships between the organizations are, and how much partners rely on the community planning and fundraising expertise that Jewish Federation brings. At the time, Jewish Federation organized local missions, where we visited various partners, including the Jewish Food Bank and Tikva Housing Society, and learned about the range of needs in our community – and the range of responses.
It was very eye-opening, and that was when I got involved in men’s philanthropy at Jewish Federation and decided to learn more about the community. That ultimately led to a role on Jewish Federation’s allocations committee, where we were fully immersed in the entire breadth and depth of need – and opportunity for impact – in our community.
In my mid-30s, I was fortunate to travel to Ethiopia with members of Jewish Federation’s National Young Leadership Cabinet to see the work we were doing there with two of our international partners, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. That was where I really began to understand the big picture of what we can accomplish for world Jewry in need.
More recently, I was able to visit our partnership region in Israel and learn about the particular challenges of living in the north, and the impact we’ve been able to make there as the result of a long-term strategic focus.
I’ve been in Israel many times, but, in terms of our partnership region and Beit Vancouver, this past spring was my first visit. It’s such a successful country overall, but I really saw the inequity that exists in the periphery. To see the contributions of our community and the future development plans of the region was inspiring, as was seeing what our Israel and overseas affairs committee, through annual campaign funds, and many local families are doing there with their investments…. It was very rewarding.
We need to continue to raise up that entire region…. Every mayor of our region came to greet us and that’s how you know how important our dollars are for youth. So many different things going on. When you see the respect that the different mayors have for the work we do and the people involved, it’s clear that our impact matters.
JI: What are your goals looking ahead?
AC: Our community is growing and changing all the time. As a Federation, we have been changing alongside it, which is positioning us to effect positive change in ways that can make an impact now and into the future.
We have a unique role in the community in terms of our planning function, and it’s a critically important piece that we bring to the table. We are focused on planning strategically to identify and prioritize needs locally, as well as in our partnership region in Israel. Our donors and fund-holders at the Jewish Community Foundation help us meet these needs. The partnerships we have developed over the decades are key to being able to get the work done in ways that are going to create lasting change.
We have made progress on every one of the areas of opportunity we identified in the strategic priorities, from affordability and accessibility, to seniors, engagement and, of course, community security. With big picture issues like these, the outlook is for the long term and so the work is ongoing.
At the end of the day, I would like people in our community to say that we made it easier for them to live Jewishly – whether that’s because we helped make a Jewish program more affordable, because we reached out to them where they live, because their aging parents were able to access a seniors’ program, or what have you.
JI: What challenges do you see before you?
AC: Our community is growing and its needs are constantly evolving, so there is always a lot of work to do, and that makes it exciting. I love a good challenge, and there are challenges everywhere we turn.
This community looks so different from when I was a child here. Even in the last decade it’s changed considerably. We’re more spread out and we’re more diverse.
More than half of our community is comprised of children, youth and young families, many of whom are really crunched by the high cost of living, and many of whom see their Jewish community engagement in ways that are very different from previous generations. At the same time, we have a growing population of Jewish seniors who need to stay connected and supported as they age. These are two of the big challenges facing our community right now. We also need to continue to meet our community’s needs through diverse revenue sources.
And last, of course, is the upcoming redevelopment of the JCC site into a true community hub. It’s still in the early stages, but Jewish Federation is poised to play an important role in this when the time comes. We’re proud to have entered into a memorandum of agreement with the JCC. [See jewishindependent.ca/historic-jcc-fed-agreement.]
JI: What excites you about the role?
AC: I feel very fortunate to work with an incredible group of volunteer leaders and professional staff, all of whom genuinely care about this community and about Israel.
From a personal perspective, some of the best lessons I’ve learned have come from volunteering with different community members and working with the Federation staff…. It’s very rewarding to meet with people in the community and see the reach and the impact of the good work we’re doing.
JI: What accomplishments are you most proud of thus far?
AC: One thing I am very proud of is how our donors have come to rely on Jewish Federation for our breadth of knowledge of community needs, our strategic approach and the strong relationships we’ve developed. Many of them trust us with all of their Jewish community philanthropy, and they come to us first when they have questions about where and how they want to make an impact.
I think we can be very proud of how we have taken a very strategic approach to growing the financial resources we generate, whether that’s through the annual campaign, through special project funding, or through legacy giving at the Jewish Community Foundation. As a result, our partners have more ways to access funding for the vital programs and services that align with high-priority community needs.
Community security is an area where we wish we didn’t have to focus our attention, but the reality is that we do. It was the first thing I really championed as chair of the annual campaign in 2016, and it was one of the first areas of strategic investment that we addressed from our 2020 Strategic Priorities [ourcommunity2020.jewishvancouver.com]. Since then, our community security advisory committee has taken an active role in addressing needs in this area and, on their advice, we hired a director of community security. Together, they are creating a culture of security consciousness.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.