Carmel Tanaka has many diverse community projects on the go. (photo by Heather McCain)
Community engagement professional Carmel Tanaka gave a talk entitled A Day in the Life of a Queer, Neurodivergent, Jewpanese Millennial to a Zoom audience on Dec. 5. The lecture was part of Kolot Mayim Reform Temple’s 2021-22 speaker series Building Bridges: Celebrating Diversity in Jewish Life.
Tanaka, who founded and helms Vancouver’s JQT (pronounced J-Cutie), a nonprofit that advocates for the Jewish queer and trans community through dialogue and education, began her presentation by discussing her Jewish and Japanese heritage and the generational impact of both the Holocaust and the Japanese internment camps in Canada.
She introduced her family through numerous photographs going back two generations; her mother is a first-generation Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli from Haifa and her father is a third-generation Japanese Canadian.
Though she had an opportunity to meet three of her grandparents, they all passed away when she was relatively young. “I was definitely at an age when I was not nearly old enough to ask them the questions that I would desperately want to ask them now, particularly what they went through in the Holocaust, and Japanese Canadian internment,” Tanaka said. “The traumas of those two periods have greatly affected my family and informed the social justice work that I do.”
Fast-forwarding to December 2020, the screen shifted to the scene around the table during her father’s 75th birthday party. On what she described as a “completely normal to me” dining room table were doriyaki (Japanese steamed, sweet-filled pancakes), Jewish coffee cake, Japanese tea and Chanukah candles.
“Perhaps many of the tables in the local community have a similar melding of traditions as well,” she mused.
The offspring of two gifted cooks, Tanaka became a foodie in her own right. Many of her recipes – these include miso maple steelhead trout for Rosh Hashanah and matcha cheesecake for Shavuot – can be found on the internet, on such sites as My Jewish Learning.
With her recipes available online, many people of mixed Jewish and Japanese descent from around the world have reached out to Tanaka, making her realize that the global Jewpanese community is larger than she first thought it was.
Tanaka segued to the importance of names, and how her name differs depending on which group she may be addressing. For example, she uses Carmel in Jewish settings and Aya in Japanese setting because the name Carmel can be difficult to pronounce for Japanese speakers.
She then discussed JQT, which dedicates itself to creating connections and seeking space to celebrate the intersectional identities of Jews of all ages, diverse sexual orientations, as well as gender and sex identities, by “queering” Jewish space and “Jewifying” queer space.
One of the ways she queers Jewish space is through food. A pre-pandemic photo featured her selling community-donated rainbow challot glazed with apricot jam and rainbow sprinkled hamantashen at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
JQT is also a partner organization of a project called Prism, a North American initiative that brings together Jewish artists of colour and is a place where, Tanaka said, she can celebrate all of her identities.
Another JQT venture is the B.C. Jewish Queer and Trans Oral Project, a collection of oral histories conducted in partnership with the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia, and the first project of its kind in the province. Its objective is to make the archives more complete by providing the stories of older queer and trans members of the community. The first phase of the project was to conduct the interviews from May 2020 to July 2021. The second phase, now underway, is to use the material for a public online exhibit to give a voice to “a marginalized community within a marginalized community.”
Lastly, and fitting for the time of year, Tanaka spoke about JQT’s Hanukkah Hotties initiative, a daily set of Facebook livestreams throughout the holiday, in which a different guest lights their chanukiyah or shares another tradition. Guests chat about their life, art, activism and intersecting Jewish, queer, trans identities for the duration of the candles’ burning. This year’s lineup included, among others, Karen Newmoon, an Indigenous Jew-ish farmer; the Klezbians, “a band of unruly, chutzpah-licious musicians from the Isle of Klezbos”; and the Empress Mizrahi, a nonbinary/queer Persian Jewish Instagram content creator and activist in Los Angeles.
The pandemic has clearly not slowed Tanaka down by any means. She continues to be involved in another group she founded, Genocide Prevention BC, a cross-cultural collective of provincial representatives committed to the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity.
She also works on her initiative, the Cross Cultural Walking Tours, a grassroots endeavour celebrating the multicultural history of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. These tours build awareness of the contributions of early immigrant communities and take place in May, which, in Canada, is both Asian Heritage Month and Jewish Heritage Month.
Tanaka, who once served as Hillel director at the University of Victoria, was recently named one of seven LGBTQ+ Jews of Colour You Should Know by Be’chol Lashon, a group that gives voice to cultural diversity in the Jewish community. She was also one of four local leaders featured in the article “The Push for Progress,” which was in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of BCAA magazine.
Tanaka sees herself as well positioned to bring communities together. “As a mixed-race person, I have felt what it’s like to not be fully accepted by my own community. The art of bridging communities and bringing people together is my humble craft,” she said.
On Dec. 19, 6 p.m., Tanaka will take part in a discussion with Sara Yacobi-Harris from the Toronto-based group No Silence On Race, hosted by Victoria’s Temple Emanu-El, called Let’s Talk About Diversity, Equity and Belonging in the Victoria Jewish Community. For more information, visit congregationemanuelnews.wordpress.com/2021/11.
As for Kolot Mayim’s Building Bridges series, Rivka Campbell, co-founder of the organization Jews of Colour Canada, is the next speaker. On Jan. 9, Campbell will talk on the topic Harmony in a Divided Identity: A Minority within a Minority. To register, visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
JQT Vancouver executive director Carmel Tanaka at the Zack Gallery, where the Chosen Family exhibit is on display until Sept. 30. (photo from Carmel Tanaka)
In a Simon Fraser University survey of more than 4,000 elderly Canadians (55+), conducted from August to October 2020, to see how people were coping with the pandemic, about 10% of respondents identified themselves as part of the LGBTQ+ community. These respondents were more likely to follow COVID protocols and to have said they “feel they have been here before” – they were 10 times more likely to report experience with HIV/AIDS than heterosexual persons. Among the many other findings, LGBTQ+ respondents were less likely to ask relatives for help, but more likely to call upon close friends.
In the context of the pandemic, then, the focus of the new exhibit at the Zack Gallery has added significance. The show, called Chosen Family, is a multimedia partnership between the gallery and JQT Vancouver in honour of Vancouver Pride. It opened officially on Aug. 26, with the artists in attendance.
JQT (Jewish, Queer and Trans) is an arts, culture and education nonprofit organization. It is dedicated to creating connections and seeking space to celebrate the intersectional identities of Jews of diverse sexual orientations and genders. The organization’s executive director, Carmel Tanaka, said JQT’s members are accomplishing their goals “by queering Jewish space and ‘Jewifying’ queer space in Vancouver.”
“We started JQT in Vancouver four years ago, as a grassroots movement, everyone was a volunteer,” Tanaka told the Independent. “We incorporated as a nonprofit in 2020. This show feels like a milestone. It is probably the first exhibition here, at the Zack Gallery, that features exclusively queer Jewish artists.”
The theme of the show, Chosen Family, reflects that some LGBTQ+ individuals face rejection by their immediate family and must look elsewhere for understanding and acceptance. “I’m lucky,” said Tanaka. “I didn’t have to look for another family; my family was supportive. Unfortunately, that’s not true for everyone.”
Only a few artists are featured in the exhibit. “We invited more artists from the JQT community, plus their families, to submit art for the show, but not everyone was easy with the invitation,” Tanaka said. “Some didn’t feel ‘artistic’ enough. Others didn’t feel Jewish enough. Still others – the older people mostly – didn’t feel entirely safe to identify themselves as queer to the wider community. It is an ongoing vulnerability issue with many of us.”
Another reason might lie in the location of the gallery. “The Zack Gallery is inside the Jewish Community Centre, so the art must be family friendly. That might be a limiting factor for some artists,” Tanaka mused. “We might look at another venue next time.”
The show includes art in a variety of media: paintings, prints, textiles, cinematography, sculpture. A series of six pictures by Ari Fremder all have the same size and structure – a human face surrounded by flowers – but they centre on different faces, representing different friends or family members, and have varied arrangements of flowers. Nonetheless, they all have one thing in common – they are all beautiful and upbeat.
Two of Fremder’s paintings are self-portraits. One looks like a face in repose; the other an angel with black wings. The angel soars in the dark sky and, unlike the six-photo series, this image is moody and contemplative.
On another wall, there are several paintings by Holly Steele. In one, a multimedia print, hands clasp together in various combinations: hands of friends and hands of family, interspaced with positive, trust-affirming words. The image, done in a muted greenish-yellow palette, screams of the yearning for acceptance.
In the centre of the gallery resides a sculptural composition by Morgan Strug. A dinner table with chairs around it shows us what a family meal means to the artist. There is understanding and affection there, benign teasing and fierce joy in the others’ fulfilments. Is it wishful thinking? Is it the artist’s reality? Everyone can decide for themselves.
Strug is the director of the short movie Enby, which screened at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival earlier this month, and the film is part of the Zack exhibit. The gallery planned three screening dates, the first being for the exhibit opening Aug. 26, as well as Sept. 9 and Sept. 30. Those who want to see it should contact the gallery first.
“This is a very eclectic show,” Tanaka said. “It is the first art show for several of the participating artists. Some of them celebrate both their identities: as a queer and as a Jew. We would love this show to become an annual tradition.”
Chosen Family continues until Sept. 30. To learn more, visit jqtvancouver.ca.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Temple Sholom Sisterhood’s social action committee invited members of the community to broaden their understanding of who is Jewish and consider how expansive the community could be in the first of its Tikkun Atzmi Series: Healing Ourselves to Heal the World. The Feb. 4 Zoom event featured panelists Carmel Tanaka, a community engagement professional, and poet Angelica Poversky.
Tikkun atzmi, to repair oneself, is considered the first step on the path towards tikkun olam, repair of the world. Along the way, there are also tikkun bayit, strengthening the family, and tikkun kahal, healing the community.
Tikkun atzmi implies looking inwards and reflecting on what should be taking place within the Jewish community, particularly as it pertains to marginalized groups, such as people of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals and others who consider themselves distanced from the tribe. The past year, the organizers said, has highlighted “so many of the inequities that persist in our world.”
“Not only am I deeply invested in making our Judaism grounded in social justice any opportunity I get, I know and love many Jews who feel as though they didn’t have a home in the community and I am invested in changing that,” moderator Dalya Israel began.
Tanaka spoke about coming to terms with the descriptions that derive from being the child of a multi-racial marriage. Often, she would refer to herself as half-Jewish and half-Japanese. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized I am not half of anything – I am fully Jewish and fully Japanese-Canadian. I can be all of these things and celebrate all of these things,” she told the Zoom audience.
Tanaka recalled experiences of her time as director of the University of Victoria Hillel, where she encountered several students who felt alienated from the community because they were not halachically Jewish. Realizing that it can be traumatic for someone to be told they don’t belong in a group, she endeavoured to create a safe space at UVic for anyone who may be Jewish, Jew-ish or Jew-curious.
Poversky referenced the exclusion that some Jews within the LGBTQ+ community have endured. “It is horrible that people are not fully accepted,” they said. “What is our goal if not to uplift everyone? Why create barriers? Those feelings of persecution can be very painful, so why place them on others?”
The discussion touched on the causes for the limited presence of younger and/or marginalized people in synagogues and other areas of Jewish life. Tanaka recounted a story about her mother who, years ago, was told by a synagogue that she was welcome to come to services but was asked to leave her husband at home.
While attitudes may have improved since then, there is still much more room available for inclusion and diversity, said Tanaka. “I feel, in order for the term Jewish to be more expansive, it needs to expand far enough to be a safe space for anyone who wants to identify as Jewish,” she said.
Israel, citing Sarah Hurwitz’s 2019 book Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), put forward the notion that, instead of thinking of themselves as the “Chosen People,” Jews could be the “choosing people.”
“Every day, we wake and choose to be Jews, and the way we live our life,” Israel said.
“Community happens when we complete ourselves,” Poversky added. They spoke about moving away from “action-based” assumptions about Judaism or sexual identity and attaching more importance to the declaration of one’s identity. That is, one can say they are Jewish without the acts of celebrating Chanukah or reading Torah. Implicit in Poversky’s statement was the “restrictive construct” within institutions that defines or even “polices” the identity of another individual because that person belongs to a marginalized group.
Tanaka shared experiences of visiting synagogues and being asked about her name, her lineage and her proficiency in Hebrew. This line of questioning to Jews of colour and others, she believes, is what has caused people to distance themselves from the Jewish community.
“It is the dance of having to prove who you are through actions,” Tanaka explained. “It is what we call microaggressions. When you have this happen over and over again, it can be emotionally exhausting.”
Tanaka, a queer Jewpanese woman of colour, is founder of JQT Vancouver (pronounced “J-Cutie”), Vancouver’s Jewish queer trans nonprofit. She also leads a monthly Zoom call for Jewpanese and their families from all over the world.
Poversky is a queer non-binary Russian-Jewish poet who has more than seven years of facilitation experience. They’ve taught poetry workshops in schools, in libraries, with youth groups, in community centres, and at dozens of festivals across North America. Much of their activism has been devoted to queer and trans celebration.
The Sisterhood’s three Tikkun Atzmi panels are designed to fuel the action committee’s dedication to social justice. Future panels will invite participants to elucidate on ways of bringing awareness to systemic inequity and its impacts on the Jewish community. They will also delve into their Judaism and explore sacred teachings for guidance in caring for and making space for one another.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
To watch the entire Tikkun Atzmi panel discussion, click here (the passcode for the video is !*n?RC1s).
Transportation and sustainability consultant Tanya Paz, centre, participates in Tu b’Shevat Circle: Teachings from the Earth, an event spearheaded by Or Shalom Synagogue in partnership with Jewish Family Services, JQT Vancouver and UNIT/PITT Society for Art and Critical Awareness. Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner is seated on the stool to Paz’s right. (photo by Matt Hanns Schroeter)
More than two dozen individuals whose work involves food security and climate change issues met on Feb. 9 for Tu b’Shevat Circle: Teachings from the Earth, an event spearheaded by Or Shalom Synagogue in partnership with Jewish Family Services, JQT Vancouver and UNIT/PITT Society for Art and Critical Awareness.
Those who gathered work or devote time to such organizations as Grandview Woodland Food Connection, Sustainabiliteens, Coquitlam Farmers Market and Extinction Rebellion. They came together to explore various topics, including how their Jewishness intersects with their work in secular organizations, envisioning a sustainable world and the Jewish community’s role in social justice.
“I noticed that so many of these organizations are spearheaded by young Jews and felt it important to create an opportunity for them to see one another and recognize this aspect of kinship in their work … and whether this commonality enhances the work, draws them into kinship or stimulates any collaboration,” said Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner.
Or Shalom brought on Carmel Tanaka to organize a gathering. Through meetings with young adults and stakeholder groups, Tanaka met a number of people whose careers relate to food security and social justice, but most weren’t working for Jewish organizations nor were they connected to one another within a Jewish context. She and Dresner agreed it was worth bringing them together to see what conversations would blossom.
Tanja Demajo, chief executive officer of Jewish Family Services, said JFS provided funding for the event because they believed in the value of the project.
“There are a lot of Jewish and young Jewish people who are interested in food security and questions of accessibility, which is very interesting from a perspective of … whether this work is modulated by [Jewish] values and how this translates to day-to-day practice,” she said. “At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter if the different participants were working in a Jewish or non-Jewish community.”
Some attendees revealed that, for them, being Jewish is secondary to their focus on environmental issues.
“The room was full of people who identify in varying degrees with their Jewishness and, for some, it’s an important aspect of their identity and, for others, it isn’t integral,” Tanaka said.
Dresner spoke to the indelible connection between environmental action and Judaism. “In my understanding of Judaism, saving our world is at the heart of what it means to have a Jewish spiritual life,” she said. “Creative energy, or the vitality of spirit, is always flowing toward us. It’s what I’d call the ‘world that’s always coming,’ or the ongoing nature of creation. We can encourage and aid this vitality, helping to direct it where most needed, or we can impede the flow. When we are selfish and impede creative flow, the result is a deprivation of generative spirit, spirit denied to corners of creation, and we see results like species blinking into extinction.”
The rabbi wants to spend more time with young Jews working in social justice. “The Judaism I believe in mandates their work as the highest mitzvah of our moment,” she said. “It’s a misconception born of the compartmentalized Judaism in which many of us were raised not to understand that attention to the environment is a Jewish priority.”
Aaron Robinson, chair of Grow Local Society Tri-Cities, a food security group that runs the Coquitlam Farmers Market, said his work for the organization won’t ever have a Jewish mandate, but his Judaism is tied into what he does. “Personally, I can never underestimate the role that Jewish values play in the way I see the world, especially when it comes to tikkun olam,” he said, adding, “I guess it’s become engrained in me, but it was nice to bring it back to the surface to see, wow, there is this Jewish connection to all this work that we’re doing.”
Robinson appreciated the opportunity to connect with other Jews working in similar fields and hopes the conversations will continue.
Some people discussed not feeling supported by the Jewish community to undertake the work they do within a Jewish context. Tanaka said she believes the Vancouver Jewish community hasn’t focused attention on these issues until recently, citing the 2019 climate march and protests as a galvanizing factor, and said it’s time for the local community “to support young Jewish adults who are doing this kind of work … because these are Jewish issues at the end of the day.”
Some at the event suggested funding for environmental advocacy was needed. Dresner said there was also a desire for bridge building. “They seem to be asking for an arm of organized Jewish community to create some occasional containers for their gathering, just to share within the hybrid of their niche or to explore potential collaborations,” she said. “Or Shalom will be looking at finding funding to continue holding this group and its outgrowth in a loose, nurturing embrace.”
Demajo said the JFS food security program has already benefited from the event. “Being exposed to more city-wide programs and initiatives and being exposed to all different voices gives a different perspective to JFS,” she said, “because it opens up new ideas.”
Shelley Stein-Wotten is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has won awards for her creative non-fiction and screenwriting and enjoys writing about the arts and environmental issues. She is based on Vancouver Island.
Michael Schwartz of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia accepts the Award of Merit: Excellence in Community Engagement on behalf of all the partner organizations in the Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour. (photo from JMABC)
The 2019 B.C. Museums Association Awards for Outstanding Achievement were handed out on Oct. 2 at the BCMA conference gala at Courtyard by Marriott in Prince George. The awards recognize institutions and individuals who have exemplified excellence in exhibitions, community engagement and innovation within the province’s museums, galleries and cultural heritage community. This year, three Jewish community groups were honoured for their work.
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre received the Award of Merit: Excellence in Collections for its collections management system, which provides access to Western Canada’s largest collection of Holocaust-related artifacts, survivor testimonies, archival materials and publications (collections.vhec.org). The award recognizes recent excellence in collections best practices, which may include innovative approaches to collecting, collections management, preservation, repatriation, collections-based research, dissemination and accessibility.
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC), along with 16 partner organizations, including the Jewish Independent, received the Award of Merit: Excellence in Community Engagement for the Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour. The award recognizes a recent outstanding success in community engagement, as demonstrated by ongoing participation of new audiences, new partnerships with community organizations, and supporting needs of the community through innovative programming.
Co-led by Carmel Tanaka and Michael Schwartz (director of community engagement at the JMABC), the walking tour celebrates the history of Vancouver Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods Hogan’s Alley, Jewish Strathcona, Japantown (Powell Street) and Chinatown. The guided walking tour builds awareness of the contributions of early immigrant communities then and now. Originally conceived in celebration of Vancouver Asian Heritage Month and Canada’s Jewish Heritage Month, the first series of tours debuted in May 2019.
With the theme of education, the route began at the oldest elementary school in Vancouver, Lord Strathcona Elementary School, referred to as the “League of Nations” for its multicultural makeup. When the triangle rang at the end of the day, school continued for many children in the form of nearby programs where students learned language and cultural traditions. Tour participants learned how these diverse communities interacted with one another in their common struggles, and how they were impacted by the urban renewal of the area.
The Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour Working Group comprises Association of United Ukrainian Canadians; Benny Foods Italian Market; Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden; Musqueam Elder Larry Grant (honourary advisor to PCHC-MoM and VAHMS); Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association; Heritage Vancouver Society; Hogan’s Alley Society; Jewish Independent; JMABC; Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre; Pacific Canada Heritage Centre Museum of Migration; Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society’s explorASIAN; Vancouver Heritage Foundation; Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall; Vancouver School Board; Vancouver School Board Archives and Heritage Committee; Wongs’ Benevolent Association; and Youth Collaborative for Chinatown.
After leading the Bayit in Richmond for the last five years, Michael Sachs has stepped down as board president, to spend more time with his young family.
Michael’s efforts and dedication have given members of the Bayit much for which to be grateful. During his tenure, Michael had a vision for how he saw the community and, as a man of action, he followed through. With a philosophy of engaging with everyone, he worked together with all of the Jewish organizations in Richmond and beyond, without ever losing focus that he was building a Bayit community.
Michael’s stepping down from the position of president doesn’t mean he won’t continue to be involved in the Bayit. As past president, he will remain on the board of directors and continue to be a part of the Bayit’s future.
Current Bayit board member Keith Liedtke will take over as the Bayit’s interim president. He shares Michael’s vision and sees the need for a strategic plan that will allow the Bayit to continue growing and filling the community’s needs.
The Bayit thanks Michael for his contributions as president and for his decision to stay on as a member of the board.
Tour organizer Carmel Tanaka at one of the tours last stops. (photo by Kayla Isomura)
The first Jewish neighbourhood in Vancouver was in Strathcona, which also served as the first home for many, if not most, cultural communities that make up the diverse fabric of the city. The neighbourhood welcomed wave after wave of immigrants of different backgrounds and continues to do so today. The rich multicultural history of this area – too often overlooked amid the social challenges of the larger Downtown Eastside – was given its due in a series of walking tours this spring.
Carmel Tanaka organized the tours, bringing together almost two dozen community organizations. Tanaka is chair of the human rights committee of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association and an active member of the Jewish community, but the tour is an ad hoc, grassroots project with no umbrella organizing agency. Partnering agencies include Heritage Vancouver, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia and the Jewish Independent. The Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour took place each Sunday in May, with two tours each day. Tanaka said she hopes to make the tour an annual event.
Tanaka came up with the idea after participating in a walk of Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s historic black neighbourhood, as part of Jane’s Walks, a global festival of citizen-led walking tours inspired by the late visionary urbanist Jane Jacobs. A week after her exploration of the neighbourhood’s black history, Tanaka took the Jewish Museum’s walking tour of Strathcona.
“We were walking similar streets and even talking about places that are right across the road from each other and I started to think, well, there must have been interaction between our communities,” she told the Independent. “Why not bring the guides, the experts, the archivists and the know-alls into one room and see if we can do something together. What started as a small group of four to five guides, who do existing tours, blossomed into 20-plus participating organizations, including community organizations, heritage organizations, the Vancouver School Board and more. We’ve been told there have been attempts to do something like this before, but not to this degree. It’s very exciting that we’re all working together.”
The tour, which took in Hogan’s Alley, Jewish Strathcona, former Japantown and Chinatown, was intended to build awareness of the contributions of immigrant communities then and now. It took place in May as part of the celebration of Vancouver Asian Heritage Month and Canada’s Jewish Heritage Month.
The theme of the walking tour this year was education and the starting point of the two-and-a-half-hour adventure was Lord Strathcona Elementary School, the city’s oldest. Referred to as the “League of Nations” for its diversity, the school remains one of the most multicultural in the country.
One former Strathcona student, Elder Larry Grant of the Musqueam Nation and Chinese-Canadian communities, recalled the experience of growing up in the area and the impact the cultural mosaic had on him and others.
Opened in March 1891 as East School, it was renamed in 1909 in honour of Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, who drove the last spike in Canada’s first transcontinental railway. To get a sense of the extraordinary range of ethnicities, a survey in 1940 indicated that the students included 650 of Japanese descent, 300 Chinese, 150 Italian, about 150 Yugoslavian, Ukrainian and Polish students, about 100 of British descent, several from India and a scattering from other European countries. After the regular school day, many of the students would have proceeded to after-school programs in their heritage language at, for example, the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, a 1906 building on Alexander Street where the tour finished.
Jewish kids would have made their way down the block from Strathcona elementary to the B’nei Yehuda synagogue, since converted to condos but, at the time, the spiritual and figurative centre of Jewish life in the city. The synagogue opened in November 1911, with an after-school program in Jewish tradition. A full-time day school, Talmud Torah, opened there in 1921 and moved to its current location on Oak Street in 1948.
In 1942, when the Canadian government instituted a wartime policy against Japanese and Japanese-Canadians, about half of Strathcona school’s population disappeared, forcibly relocated to camps in the British Columbia interior and elsewhere east.
The tour featured different community guides at each destination along the route, bringing together a patchwork of knowledge about different communities to help participants form an impression about how different communities maintained their distinctiveness while interacting with the variety of cultures and languages around them.
Not far from the industrial waterfront, Strathcona grew, in part, from the maritime trade, especially the 1858 discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon. But, as guides noted, the area has probably been a gathering place for thousands of years, initially as a summer campsite for the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. The 1858 gold rush, and successive ones further north, brought merchants from China and Jewish provisioners from San Francisco. Indentured labourers from China, who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway, helped launch the beginnings of Chinatown in the area around Pender Street. Japanese, Portuguese and Italian immigrants followed, with many working in the Hastings Sawmill and other resource-related industries.
The tour passed the National Council of Jewish Women Neighbourhood House on Jackson Street, a locus of Jewish social activity that is seen as a precursor to the Jewish Community Centre. The Vancouver chapter of NCJW was founded in 1924 and helped new immigrants settle, learn English and find jobs. One of their landmark programs was the Well Baby Clinic, which immunized kids and helped new parents care for their families. National Council remains active today, providing services especially for families and youth, educational and advocacy programs around human trafficking and spreading awareness about Jewish genetic diseases.
Later, the tour passed Oppenheimer Park, named for the city’s first – and so far only – Jewish mayor, David Oppenheimer.
An important part of the tour was Hogan’s Alley. The creation of the Georgia Viaduct destroyed a large part of the historic black neighbourhood but Fountain Chapel, a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal church, still exists, though it is now a private residence.
From Hogan’s Alley, the old Canadian National Railway station looms large to the south, and it was the profession of Pullman porter, made up almost exclusively of African-American and black Canadians, that was a launchpad to the middle class for many black families. The development of the black neighbourhood in this location owed its origins to the proximity to the train station.
From there, the tour proceeded into Chinatown and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. A sawmill at the foot of Carrall Street, constructed in 1886, provided employment for many Chinese men and set in motion the establishment of Vancouver’s Chinatown on this block.
In 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed, rescinding a racist law and opening the door to more Asian newcomers and establishing equal rights, including the right to vote, for Chinese-Canadians. The tour also recalled how, in 1907, a group calling itself the Asiatic Exclusion League incited a mob of about 9,000 rioters who rampaged through Chinatown and Powell Street, smashing windows and destroying properties. This led to the federal government reducing immigration from East Asia.
The tour continued to the Mon Keang School in the Wongs’ Benevolent Association building, an example of a Chinatown clan society. These societies supported extended family members as they migrated, serving as housing agency, employment office, post office and bank for new arrivals. Chinese men could borrow money here to pay Canada’s discriminatory head tax and to send money home to their families in China.
Mon Keang School provided a classical Cantonese education to the first generation of local-born children and, in the 1930s, was just one of 10 such Chinese schools in the area. By the 1970s, Chinese families were living throughout the city and Chinese-Canadian kids were choosing sports and other extracurricular activities over Chinese school. Mon Keang School closed in 2011 but reopened in 2016 with a grassroots community program taking a different approach to Chinese language learning.
The history of Christian social action in the neighbourhood is demonstrated powerfully at the corner of Hastings and Gore, where the Salvation Army citadel, now boarded up, stands across from First United Church, a hub of social programs in the Downtown Eastside, and nearby Saint James Anglican, which also has a long activist history. While plenty of good work has emanated from these institutions, during the era of Indian residential schools in Canada, from 1883 to 1996, churches were complicit with the federal government in the genocide of indigenous Canadians through the deliberate and brutal attempts to exterminate indigenous cultures and languages.
The walking tour tries to highlight the main aspects of the area’s history, without romanticizing it.
“This is a grassroots initiative led by myself and a bunch of amazing, dedicated team members,” Tanaka said. “We’re really hoping that this will become an annual event and will be able to include even more communities next year. We’ll see what this turns into.”
Grade 8 monitors, Lord Strathcona Elementary School, 1948. The new Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tours start at the school and then take visitors through Hogan’s Alley, Jewish Strathcona, Japantown (Powell Street) and Chinatown. (photo from Bev Nann)
The Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour celebrates the history of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods Hogan’s Alley, Jewish Strathcona, Japantown (Powell Street) and Chinatown. The guided walking tour builds awareness of the contributions of early immigrant communities then and now, in celebration of Vancouver Asian Heritage Month and Canada’s Jewish Heritage Month, both of which fall during the month of May.
The walking tour theme is education, and each tour starts at the oldest elementary school in Vancouver, Lord Strathcona Elementary School, at 592 East Pender St. Referred to as the “League of Nations” for its multicultural make-up, this school brought and continues to bring many communities together.
Tours will feature community experts and wind their way through the streets of Vancouver’s Eastside pioneer neighbourhoods, concluding at the Vancouver Japanese Language School (475 Alexander St.), where participants can enjoy complimentary “after-school” snacks from the featured communities.
“Last summer, I had the privilege of going on a number of walking tours, where it dawned on me that we were walking the same streets and even talking about the same homes, just through different community lens,” said Carmel Tanaka, co-founder of the Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour. “A lightbulb moment was to bring all these experts into one room and create one inclusive walking tour highlighting all our voices together!”
The tours will take place on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, with the support of the Grant family, who offer greetings from the Musqueam Nation. The Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour project is a coordinated effort by the following participating organizations: Association of United Ukrainian Canadians; Benny Foods Italian Market; Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden; Musqueam elder Larry Grant; Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association; Heritage Vancouver Society; Hogan’s Alley Society; Jewish Independent; Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia; Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre; Pacific Canada Heritage Centre Museum of Migration; Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society’s explorASIAN; Vancouver Heritage Foundation; Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall; Vancouver School Board; Vancouver School Board Archives and Heritage Committee; Wongs’ Benevolent Association; and Youth Collaborative for Chinatown.
Tours will run Sunday, May 5, 12, 19 and 26, 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., rain or shine. Each tour will last just over two hours and cost $15/person (free for children and moms on Mother’s Day). For tickets, visit strathconawalkingtour.eventbrite.com.
Temple Sholom Sisterhood Choir under the direction of Joyce Cherry with pianist Kathy Bjorseth performed an afternoon concert of Jewish music at the Weinberg Residence on Jan. 13. Featured were three works by Joan Beckow, a resident of the Louis Brier Hospital and a Temple Sholom member. Beckow was an active composer and music director in Los Angeles and, for a time, was Carol Burnett’s music director. The 23-voice Sisterhood Choir has sung for the annual Sisterhood Service for a number of years, but the recent concert at the Weinberg was a first for them outside of Temple Sholom.
Some of the artists on opening night of the group show Community Longing and Belonging, Jan. 15 at the Zack Gallery. The exhibit marked Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month and ran until Jan. 27.
Eurovision 2018 winner Netta Barzilai, right, performed at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Jan. 26 to help celebrate the 18th anniversary of Birthright Israel. Here, she is pictured with Carmel Tanaka, emcee of the night with IQ 2000 Trivia. The dance party was presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver in partnership with Axis Vancouver, Hillel BC and the JCCGV.
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.