Jill Zarin is the keynote speaker at Choices on Nov. 7. (photo from Twitter)
Philanthropist and entrepreneur Jill Zarin – most recognized for having been on the reality TV show The Real Housewives of New York City – is the featured guest at this year’s Choices, which will be held virtually on Nov. 7.
Zarin is also the author – together with her mother, Gloria Kamen, and sister, Lisa Wexler – of Secrets of a Jewish Mother, a 2010 book full of recipes, advice and parenting tips. She will join Vancouver-area speakers to talk about how they were able to support community during the pandemic.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s Choices is the largest women’s event within the community. This is the 17th annual gathering and the Independent interviewed 2021 co-chairs Sherri Wise, Leanne Hazon and Courtney Cohen by email about what to expect.
“Jill Zarin is an amazing speaker!” they said. “Attendees will also hear from so many inspiring women in our own community who give of themselves to keep our community strong and connected.
“Although Jill Zarin is most well known for being a television personality, she is in fact an extremely philanthropic person,” they added. “After almost two years of COVID, the committee wanted to have a program filled with humour and uplifting stories and Jill was a perfect match.
“As co-chairs, we have always found we learn something from the women who speak, which inspires us to continue supporting our wonderful community.”
The pandemic has impacted everyone around the world in many ways, said the co-chairs, and so many people have stepped up to try to help their communities navigate this very challenging time. Zarin is but one of the many “who have pitched in their time and tzedakah and ideas to help our Jewish community stay strong,” said the Choices co-chairs.
Ideally, the organizers had wanted to be together in person for Choices 2021. Yet with the uncertainties and changing regulations around COVID, they have once again decided to hold the event virtually, while trying to provide the experience in a way that is still meaningful to people.
Given the ongoing reality of the pandemic, the women said they are “really happy and really lucky” that Choices can be offered online. One of the benefits of a virtual event, they pointed out, is making it more accessible to women province-wide.
Choices is a celebration of the impact of women’s philanthropy. Rather than fundraising, the goal is to get more women involved in the community through giving to the campaign and volunteering. The organizers stress that there are many ways of being involved in philanthropy and making a difference, such as connecting with Jewish Federation or one of its many partner agencies.
The 2021 Federation annual campaign is focusing on the theme of being strengthened by what we as a community have been through in the past year-and-a-half and inspired by where we can go together. This year, Choices is recognizing specifically how women in the community came through the pandemic and made the community stronger with their time and donations.
In a non-pandemic year, Choices would have 500 people in attendance. Past speakers have included musicologist Judy Feld Carr, the Canadian responsible for bringing thousands of Jews from Syria to freedom; Talia Leman, the founder of RandomKid, an organization that empowers youth to do good deeds; Talia Levanon, the director of the Israel Trauma Coalition; and Jeannie Smith, who shared the story of her mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
The Choices 2021 co-chairs lauded the efforts of Sue Hector and Shawna Merkur, the co-chairs of women’s philanthropy at Federation. They also noted the contributions of Ricki Thal (campaign manager), Kate Webster (campaign director) and the Jewish Federation staff for their invaluable support.
To attend Choices, a person must give to the Federation’s annual campaign or make a donation by purchasing a ticket of the suggested amount. There is a suggested minimum donation of $154 to support the campaign and a suggested minimum donation of $36 for first-time attendees.
It’s high time we changed the conversation. I know unequivocally that the whole world is sick of every conversation starting with: “The case numbers today.…” Or “Two people died today of COVID.” Or “I can’t believe how many idiots wear their masks around their chin!” Or “I’m so tired of COVID!”
Boo-Hoo. Enough ready!
Full disclosure: I am 100% guilty of some or maybe even all of these statements. And tons more that I’m too embarrassed to admit. It’s been so long. Oops, there’s another one. In my defence, I’m trying to change the conversation. For instance, I’ve caught myself saying, “I’m feeling hopeful today” several times this week. I’ve even been inspired to say “Thank you” instead of “Why me?”
We are all human barometers. Our mercury rises and falls in direct relation to the medical experts’ latest pronouncements. We hold our collective breath each time they opine. We hang on every word. And because their world rotates around COVID, ours does, too. But does it need to? The answer is a hard no.
It’s long past due to think thanks. In the past 18 months I can honestly say I’m thankful for participating in Zoom classes every day; walking more; connecting with cousins I barely knew; and meeting new people on the virtual committees I attend.
Thank you G-d for my community, my Torah learning and for endless opportunities to make life better. Thank you for allowing me to survive the pandemic. On second thought, just make that, thank you G-d.
I acknowledge my gratitude. Also, my vulnerability and dependence on G-d. An avowed believer, I’m not embarrassed to admit this. Even among avowed atheists and agnostics.
What I want to say is this: it’s time to celebrate. Not go-out-and-get-drunk celebrate. But, rather, celebrate the small victories. There are zillions of them. Or so I’m told. I’m guilty of seeing the defeats first, but I truly am working on it. Acknowledging this, here, now, I’m humbled to realize that there are infinite lessons I need to learn.
At a women’s Torah study class I attended a few months ago (via Zoom, of course), the instructor posed some simple, yet profound, ideas. Juxtaposing anxiety and positive thinking, and how they relate to emunah (faith in G-d) and bitachon (trust in G-d), she suggested we look at struggles with a different mindset: “What’s the opportunity here?” If you are a Torah-believing Jew, you know that there’s a purpose in whatever G-d throws at us, as individuals and as a collective.
On a personal level, we just have to figure out what that purpose is. Sounds simple, right? Not. Even. A. Little. As the instructor suggested, if we turn our habitual thinking around, we might just be able to parse the purpose. In other words, whatever happens to me, it was G-d’s idea, so what do I do with it? How can I maximize my potential? What’s being asked of me? While the world and its vagaries seem random, they’re far from it.
Life will actually become easier if I stop fearing unknown and challenging situations, and accept that there is always a purpose there. Of course, that’s easy to do when things are going well, but the minute I feel threatened or scared, my anxiety and fear goes from zero to 100 in seconds.
Faced with terrible tragedy, it seems impossible to believe that G-d takes care of us all the time. If He did, why would people be faced with horrific situations that rob them of loved ones, threaten their health and jeopardize their livelihoods, etc.? At times like this, our emunah and bitachon face their biggest hurdles.
How many times have I heard the phrase tracht gut vet zein gut (think good and it will be good)? On the face of it, brilliant. In reality, next to impossible. Notice I didn’t say downright impossible. It’s impossible-adjacent. I try it on occasion, but have difficulty with the carry-through. I assume it’s more of a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of thing that needs to be hauled out of the closet more than once a month. I must start wearing my rubber bracelet with the saying stamped on it.
There are always more questions than answers. What is this ____ (fill in the blank) meant to teach me? What does G-d want from me? How can I stretch myself spiritually, emotionally and intellectually? How can I turn this situation around to find something positive here?
In my 65 years, if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that life is a series of journeys, rather than a destination. Or, to use an analogy my father, z’l, favoured: life is like swimming in the ocean. You swim and struggle and get tired. Then, you reach a little island where you can rest and gather your strength. But the water starts rising and you have to start swimming again. So, you begin the process all over.
I guess the message here is to enjoy the short stints on the little islands of calm. Appreciate them, embrace them, then prepare for more challenges. I guess the trick is to look for more islands and steer ourselves in that direction. How hard can it be?
Hmm…. I’ll let you know once I dry off.
I have few, if any, answers. However, it’s probably more important to ponder the questions than pontificate about things. Humility trumps arrogance, after all. Like the saying goes, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. We can remedy that somewhat with some good old inquisitiveness, a dash of openness, an attitude of show-me and, well, you might just find one of those islands. Or, at the very least, float for awhile, while you enjoy the sun on your face.
Just remember to always wear sunscreen.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.
Planning ahead can help minimize touch points and help keep a small gathering safe. (photo by Michelle Dodek)
We all remember the days when we gathered family, friends and maybe some strangers together at our holiday table to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. For me, it feels like a distant memory but I know I loved preparing loads of food for all of us to enjoy together. And I’m looking forward to doing it again this year, albeit outside, under cover of a tent my brother luckily bought before his eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah (and has subsequently used for the bat mitzvah parties of his two younger daughters and other gatherings, particularly since COVID hit).
Dinner in my family has always a “family style” affair, where dishes are passed from one to the next and then left on the table for anyone to help themselves to seconds or thirds. Lunch on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which is the main event in my home (aka “the Big Lunch”), has been, for the more than 20 years I’ve hosted it, a giant buffet.
For some people, reverting back to the way things were may be an easy mental step. For others, in an environment with unvaccinated children, immunocompromised loved ones and a newfound awareness about germ transmission, things will not go back to the way they were pre-pandemic. Not yet, given the latest mask mandate, and maybe not ever.
What to serve and how to serve it has always been a challenge in my family. How do we make sure everyone is comfortable with the food choices and the way they are presented? We have a few parameters since we are kosher and have those with nut allergies, dairy sensitivities, oral allergy syndrome, a few vegetarians and others who are just plain particular. Inviting upwards of 40 people, usually closer to 75, always presents some logistical fun, especially with environmental concerns ruling out disposables. All of these challenges have created an environment where thinking creatively about food is a necessity. My formal training as a chef has helped with this process.
The two parts to making sure your guests are at ease this holiday season are choosing a delicious menu (as usual) and presenting the food in a way that features as few touch points as possible. Menus can go one of two ways: traditional or modern. For traditional foods, I will defer to your family’s minhag (tradition). Some families and cooks take great pleasure in their annual interaction with time-honoured recipes. I treasure my baba’s potato knish recipe and relish the prospect of circling my challah and topping it with another small, braided crown the way my mom showed me when I was a little girl.
As a vegetarian, however, I have never presented a full array of traditional Ashkenazi foods to celebrate any holiday. Pickled tongue? Not a chance. In fact, I felt like a bit of a bad Jewish mother when my daughter was 5 years old and leaned over to me at my mother’s yontif table as the soup was served and whispered, “Chicken in soup! Weird!” My soups are seasonal, bright vegetable soups like butternut squash or carrot ginger.
The farmers market produce that looks most appealing is what guides my menu. I feel strongly that bringing the bounty of our local harvest to my celebration of a spiritual new year is integral to our connection with where we are and how we live. That topic, however, is for another article.
Let me suggest, if you wish to bring your offerings into 2021 and still have your food choices reflect the symbolism of our tradition, try a couple of approaches.
First, look to Israeli cuisine. The mash-up of all Jewish traditions from Austria to Addis Ababa give many tasty options that will become new staples at your family gatherings.
Second, many Sephardi foods focus on beautiful vegetables and fruits that were not available to people living in Eastern Europe. However, living as we do today, we have access to almost every possible kind of produce. Invest in a few good cookbooks, like those of Adina Sussman, Jana Gur, Einat Admony or Yotam Ottolenghi for ideas on how to up your game with some vegetable forward, delicious, holiday-worthy food.
As far as ways to serve your food, here are some options to consider in order to be considerate of your guests in this special year of our emergence from pandemic holiday isolation.
Option 1: “Modified Family Style aka Downton Abbey,” using family members as the serving staff. For this option, the cook enlists the help of a few willing family members, (in my case, my teenaged children, my sisters and my brother). Each helper is given the responsibility to serve a dish, going from guest to guest, giving a description of the delicacy and spooning out an appropriate amount. While efficient, this does lend itself to the possibility of green bean almandine on Bubbie’s shoulder or salad in Grandpa’s lap.
Option 2: “Plated Dinner aka Eat What’s On Your Plate aka Sweat Away, Host.” This is the restaurant-style plate that hasn’t been so common at home since the Starbucks revolution in dining, where everyone has to have everything their way. In this model, everyone gets the same thing, in approximately the same amounts. Similar to a restaurant but without choosing your order. This results in more food waste, because, although it hasn’t been dropped on Grandpa’s lap, some of dinner will no doubt be pushed to the perimeter of the plate and left for the compost. It also requires, as suggested in the third version of the name, for someone to toil in the kitchen to make every plate and be on call if someone wants seconds of quinoa pilaf and doesn’t have the good fortune of sitting next to a toddler who has pushed all of that mixed grain thing to the edge of her plate. One can enlist the help of volunteers to assist with the plating to speed things up and, most certainly, some people will be needed to take the finished plates to the table, but the onus of refills will almost certainly fall to the person in charge of the kitchen.
Option 3: “Staffed Buffet” is probably the easiest, depending on the set up of your house. In this iteration of food service, a couple of people serve the buffet of food to the guests as they walk by with their plates. This eliminates having everyone touch the serving utensils. It requires fewer helpers than Option 1 and is more customized than Option 2. The catch is that your house needs to be set up to accommodate a group of hungry Jews traipsing along – and staying patient long enough with their family members who are acting as servers – to get all of their food. One major recommendation is, to avoid a stampede or major butting in line, do not serve any version of smoked salmon. For some reason, the sight of thinly sliced orange fish causes many Jewish people to act like Americans at Walmart on Black Friday.
Good luck with your holiday entertaining. Keeping things small this year to ease back into the intimacy of entertaining is also probably a great idea. Remember to say a hearty Shehechiyanu with your assembled guests for, if the pandemic has taught us one lesson, it is never to take being with our loved ones for granted. Shana tova.
Michelle Dodek is a longtime contributor to the Jewish Independent and a balabusta. She shares her love of cooking and entertaining through culinary classes, both in person and on Zoom.
Unemployed tour guide Hannah Rosenberg is now serving up hot dogs for about $12.50 Cdn an hour. (photo by Gil Zohar)
For Anglo tour guides who have been unemployed since March 2020, the Israeli government’s recent decision to impose a seven-day quarantine requirement for visitors from the United States because of the coronavirus – that resulted in the cancellation at the beginning of August of 42 10-day Birthright trips – was another blow to a hard-hit industry.
Compounding the gloom caused by the week-long isolation order are two other decisions. The U.S. Centres for Disease Control recently warned against travel to Israel due to the rise in cases of the coronavirus as the Jewish state experiences another wave of COVID-19 infections and death. And, at the end of June, Bituach Leumi (Israel’s social service agency) ended payments to unemployed guides under the age of 60.
Hannah Rosenberg, 30, who completed a two-year certification course at the Hebrew University, leading to a series of Ministry of Tourism licensing exams in February 2020, is currently grilling hot dogs at Zalman’s in downtown Jerusalem for NIS 32 (about $12.50 Cdn) an hour. She remembers how the good times suddenly ended.
“March 18 (2020) was my last tour,” she recalled. She was two days into a seven-day tour with an American family visiting Jerusalem and the Galilee when a phone call from the U.S. State Department cautioned the family to leave immediately, lest they get stuck without a flight out. “It was a lie,” said Rosenberg, a native of Jupiter, Fla., the first of many she has heard from government officials.
“I applied to Bituach Leumi,” she said, “and was denied because I had not been working for the previous six months, during which I was studying for the tour guide exam.”
An ever-resourceful veteran of an Israel Defence Forces combat intelligence unit, Rosenberg kept applying and, after nearly a year, was given NIS 1,200 ($475 Cdn) monthly beginning in February. That payment ended in June.
“My parents are helping,” she said. “It’s the first time since I was a kid. It’s a hard thing to ask.”
Notwithstanding the hardship, Rosenberg has no plans to leave Israel. “I’m here for good,” she said, sharing that she still plans to pursue her dream to become an archeologist.
Mark Sugarman, 68, who made aliyah from Boston in 1971 and became a licensed guide in 1992, has had a relatively easier time. He’s simply become retired – but not by choice. His last tour was in March 2020, he said.
“We finished the tour, the typical 10-day Christian pilgrimage tour of the holy places. It was grueling. It was like being in the army and doing miluim (reserve duty). I was exhausted…. I went into a voluntary two-week quarantine. I didn’t know if I was infected and I didn’t want to infect anyone close to me…. By the time I came out of quarantine, we were in the first lockdown. I was stuck at home with my wife and dog in Talpiot. I was knackered,” he said, using a word he learned from his British clients.
“I applied for everything. A month later, I turned 67, so I officially reached the age of retirement and I got Bituach Leumi. I couldn’t get unemployment … because I took old-age pension, I wasn’t eligible. Whatever I get, I’m grateful.”
He added, “When I was working, I saved money. The last four years before COVID was a fat period. Now, it’s lean. I’ve been in the business for close to 30 years. I remember the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2004, and that was a harder period than now. Everyone had to scramble at the time. I know how hard it is for my colleagues who have young families.”
Sugarman would like to go back to the United States for the unveiling of his mother’s headstone in November, but it’s problematic at this time.
“It’s been hard,” he said. “My mother’s funeral was on Zoom. Since the pandemic started, I [have] lost three family members and two friends. We were cut off from each other physically. People dying were isolated from their loved ones. Together with the loss of income, that’s been the hardest part.”
Daniel Gutman, 41, has worked as a tour guide since 2009. The Dallas, Tex., native remains philosophical about the situation. “I’ve had a little bit of work here and there, with some people visiting, family and seminaries and yeshivas, which needed two to four guides per capsule. That helped a little but, basically, I haven’t worked in the last 18 months.
Since Bituach Leumi stopped its payments at the end of June, Gutman said it has been challenging. “The government bailed us out for 18 months after they put me out of work. It was enough to survive. Now I’m back to March 2020, to square one, figuring out what I’m going to do. I’m dipping into my savings.”
On the positive said, he said, “Although I’ve taken a hit financially, I’ve had an 18-month sabbatical to be with my family.” But, he added, “I’m looking forward to getting back to showing people the country I love.”
Even during times of war and terrorism, tourists used to arrive, Gutman said. But not now. “Is there [national] value in tourism?” he asked. “If so, the government needs to support tour guides. Money has gone to bail out tour operators and hotels.”
Gutman loves his career and said he has no plans to retrain. “I am optimistic this will end.”
Chicago-born Ami Braun, 43, another veteran guide, also has scrambled to survive since benefits ended in June. He recently sent an email promoting online sales of the Four Species (etrog, palm, myrtle and willow) for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. And he has conducted some virtual tours for the Beit Avi Chai community centre. “I have been a licensed guide for 14 years. This is my passion. I am doing whatever I can to stay afloat,” he said.
Braun has returned to guiding part-time at the Kotel Tunnels. “The pay is like a student job,” he noted. “It’s not something to live off of.”
In addition to being a writer, I’ve been a licensed guide for more than a decade. For the longest time after March 2020, I dreamed, every night, about guiding. It was a great adventure showing tourists my country, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt, and I touched the hearts of a lot of people who fell in love with Israel. But those days are gone. I’ve been able to devote my time to editing a book about Hebron’s Jewish community, and to researching a study about Nazi collaborator Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who spent the years 1941 to 1945 living in Berlin and aiding the Third Reich. I’ve had clients send me to Portugal and to Germany, but now travel has all but ended. Every summer since 2005 my wife and I have visited family in Canada. This year was the first time we haven’t gone. We’ve cut back on all expenses, including hosting Shabbat guests.
Still, I consider myself fortunate. I have my good health, interesting research, food in the fridge, and a wonderful wife and friends. Everything else doesn’t matter.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.
Zoom presentations became a regular affair at Beth Israel during the pandemic. Inset: JFS director of programs and community partnerships Cindy McMillan provides an overview of the new Jewish Food Bank. (screenshot from BI & JFS)
As Vancouver-area synagogues cautiously edge their way toward reinstituting in-person religious services, many rabbis are doing a rethink about the impact that the past 17 months of closure has had on their congregations.
Finding a way to maintain a community connection for thousands of Jewish families became an imperative for all of the synagogues early on in the pandemic. Not surprisingly, for many, the answer became cutting-edge technology. But careful brainstorming and halachic deliberations remained at the heart of how each congregation addressed these urgent needs.
“We immediately realized that services per se were not going to work over electronic medium,” Congregation Schara Tzedeck’s Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt told the Independent.
He said Orthodox rabbis across the world were already discussing halachah (Jewish law) in light of the pandemic when the province of British Columbia announced the shutdown in March of last year. “We realized that we weren’t going to offer any services,” he said. “We can’t have a minyan online.”
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t offer support. Schara Tzedeck’s answer to that need was only one of many innovative approaches that would come up. For example, to help congregants who had lost family members, the Orthodox shul devised a new ritual, as the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish requires a minyan (10 men or 10 men and women, depending on the level of orthodoxy, gathered together in one physical location).
“What we did is immediately [start a Zoom] study session in lieu of Kaddish. [The Mourner’s] Kaddish is based on this idea of doing a mitzvah act, which is meritorious for the sake of your loved one, so we substituted the study of Torah for the saying of Kaddish,” he explained.
For many other communities, such as the Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Israel, the deliberations over how to apply halachah in unique moments such as these were just as intense. For these instances, said BI’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, rabbis saw another imperative.
“This is what is called she’at had’chak, or a time of pressure,” Infeld said. “It’s a special time, it’s a unique time, and so we adapted to the time period.”
The concept allows a reliance on less authoritative opinions in urgent situations. So, for example, with respect to reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, Infeld said, “We felt that, especially in this time period, people would need that emotional connection, or would need that emotional comfort of saying Mourner’s Kaddish when they were in mourning, and so we have not considered this [internet gathering to be] a minyan, except for Mourner’s Kaddish,” Infeld said. He noted that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which reviews halachic decisions for the Conservative movement, has adopted the same position.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay, who leads the Orthodox Sephardi synagogue Congregation Beth Hamidrash, said that although his congregation would not hold Mourner’s Kaddish online, venues like Zoom played a vital role in allowing the congregation to meet during shivah, the first seven days of mourning. Like a traditional shivah, which takes place in the mourner’s home, often with a small number of visitors, an online shivah gave community members a chance to attend and extend support as well.
“That was actually an especially meaningful [opportunity],” Gabay said. “The mourners, one after another, told me that, first of all, you don’t often get the opportunity to have so many people in the room, all together, listening.”
For members of the Bayit Orthodox congregation in Richmond, an online shivah meant family on the other side of the country could attend as well. “What was most interesting, of course, was the people from all across the world,” remarked Rabbi Levi Varnai. “You can have people who are family, friends, cousins, from many places in the world, potentially.”
Vancouver’s Reform Congregation Temple Sholom also came to value the potential of blending online media with traditional venues. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz said the congregation had been streaming its services and classes as much as a decade before the pandemic arrived. But lifecycle events, he said, demanded a more personal approach, one that would still allow families to actually participate in reading from the Torah scroll, while not violating the restrictions on large public attendance.
“The big change is that we brought Torah to everybody’s home,” he said. Literally. Moskovitz or his associate, Rabbi Carey Brown, would deliver the scroll in a large, specially fitted container, along with a prayer book, instructions and other necessary accoutrements.
“We had a document camera so, when we streamed, you could look down on the Torah as it was being read on screen. Those were very special moments on a front porch when I would deliver Torah, socially distanced with a mask on, early on in the pandemic,” he said. “I had a mask and I had rubber gloves and they had a mask, and you put something down and you walked away. We got a little more comfortable with service transmission later on.”
Switching to online media also has broadened the opportunities for classes and social connections. Infeld said Beth Israel moved quickly to develop a roster of classes as soon as it knew that there would be a shutdown.
“We realized right away that we can’t shut down. We may need to close the physical building, but the congregation isn’t the building. The congregation is the soul [of Beth Israel]. We exist with or without the building,” he said. “And we realized that for us to make it through this time period in a strong way, and to emerge even stronger from it, we would have to increase our programming.”
He said the synagogue’s weekly Zoom and Learn program has been among its most popular, hosting experts from around the world and garnering up to 100 or more viewers each event. The synagogue also hosts a mussar (Jewish ethics) class that is regularly attended. “We never had a daily study session,” Infeld said. “Now we [do].”
For Chabad centres in the Vancouver area, virtual programming has been a cornerstone of success for years and they have expanded their reach, even during the pandemic. “We have had more classes and more lectures than ever before, with greater attendance,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, who runs Chabad Richmond.
Zoom and other online mediums mean that the centres don’t have to fly in presenters if they want to offer an event. Like other synagogues, Chabad Richmond can now connect their audiences directly with experts from anywhere in the world.
“We can’t go back”
All of the synagogues that were contacted for this story acknowledged that online media services had played an important role in keeping their communities connected. And most felt that they will continue to use virtual meeting spaces and online streaming after the pandemic has ended.
“As our biggest barrier to Friday night participation was the fact that many families were trying to also fit in a Shabbat dinner with small children, the convenience of the Friday livestream is worth including in the future,” said Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who runs the North Shore Conservative synagogue Congregation Har El.
“We’re scoping bids to instal a Zoom room in our classroom space so that we can essentially run a blended environment,” Rosenblatt said. “We anticipate, when restrictions are lifted, some people will still want to participate by Zoom and some people will want to be in person.”
However, some congregations remain undecided as to whether Zoom will remain a constant in their services and programming.
Rabbi Susan Tendler said that the virtual meeting place didn’t necessarily mesh with all aspects of Congregation Beth Tikvah’s Conservative service, such as its tradition of forming small groups (chavurot) during services. “We are talking about what that will look like in the future,” she said, “yet realize that we must keep this door open.”
So is Burquest Jewish Community Association in Coquitlam, which is looking at hybrid services to support those who can’t attend in person. “But these activities will probably not be a major focus for us going forward,” said board member Dov Lank.
For Or Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation, developing ways to bolster classes, meditation retreats and other programs online was encouraging. Rabbi Hannah Dresner acknowledged that, if there were another shutdown, the congregation would be able to “make use of the many innovations we’ve conceived and lean into our mastery of virtual delivery.”
For a number of congregations, virtual services like Zoom appear to offer an answer to an age-old question: how to build a broader Jewish community in a world that remains uncertain at times and often aloof.
The Bayit’s leader, Rabbi Varnai, suggests it’s a matter of perspective. He said finding that answer starts with understanding what a bayit (home) – in this case, a Jewish house of worship – is meant to be.
The Bayit, he said, is “a place for gathering community members and for coming together. The question, how can we still be there for each other, causes us to realize that we can’t go back to as before.” After all, he said, “community service is about caring for each other.”
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Cautious optimism. That seems to be the consensus among Jewish school administrators as students and teachers prepare to return to classes in September.
One of the key lessons of the past year-and-a-half has been that things can change swiftly and the pandemic response requires resilience and adaptiveness.
“We’ve all learned that whatever is final is only final until it changes,” joked Russ Klein, King David High School’s head of school. Despite the circumstances, he said, the last academic year was a good one. He credits students, parents and teachers for working together, being flexible and making the best of the situation.
“It sounds strange to say, but, in terms of the context, we had a really good year,” he said. “People were incredibly positive, even with a few COVID cases here and there.”
The biggest challenges were wearing masks, cancelling extracurricular activities, including inter-school sports, and the cancellation of all school trips. Grade-specific cohorts were instituted, with staggered schedules to avoid interactions between groups.
As it stands now – unless changes are announced before classes starts Sept. 13 – cohorts will no longer be required. Klein hopes that some competitive sports will also be possible.
While hoping for a school year that is as normal as can be, Klein is also confident that the experience of last year has made the entire school community more sanguine about changes to routines.
Like Klein, Emily Greenberg, head of school at Vancouver Talmud Torah, gives kudos to students, parents and teachers.
“I would say the last year was all about being flexible and understanding that we couldn’t anticipate for sure how things were going to go,” she said. “It was really a team effort. We were really appreciative of our parents and staff and everybody as regulations shifted…. This was the ultimate team effort because it would not have gone as well as it had had we not all rolled up our sleeves and done the work we had to do to get through to where we are today.”
A big remaining question is how kids under 12, who have not yet been cleared for vaccinations, will be required to behave at school.
Some people use the term “new normal,” but Greenberg prefers “near-normal.”
“I am hopeful that our near-normal will be one that we can all live with and still appreciate the liberties that we are starting to gain back,” she said.
With about 500 students set to converge on the school this year, Greenberg is confident that students, parents and staff will step up again to do whatever it takes to learn safely.
“I think the most important piece is just understanding the team mentality,” she said. “The school can’t do it alone. No business can do it alone. Everybody has to play their role.”
Shalhevet Girls High School had a different experience than most. Because of its small student body – this year 11 students will be starting classes – there was no need to form cohorts. However, Ian Mills, incoming principal at Shalhevet, noted that the confluence of Jewish holidays coinciding with the start of the school year raises concerns about kids spreading the virus to siblings, parents and grandparents.
“We are going to encourage mask use, I think, no matter what happens,” said Mills. They will also continue to have the sanitization stations to which everyone has become accustomed and disinfecting protocols will also proceed.
“We’re just really excited,” he said of the new school year. “But, also, things can change. I’m not letting my guard off.”
Vancouver Hebrew Academy also benefited last year from its relatively smaller size, being able to accommodate more of its student body within the capacity limits that were set by the government. Outgoing head of school Rabbi Don Pacht told the Independent in a June interview, “I think schools have been doing a phenomenal job overall, but it’s easier when you only have two cohorts instead of eight cohorts.”
By the time of that interview, basically all of the VHA students had returned to the classroom. Unfortunately, the JI was unable to reach VHA’s new head of school, Rabbi Barak Cohen, for an update before we went to press.
Like all administrators, Sabrina Bhojani, the new principal at Richmond Jewish Day School, will be closely watching the edicts coming from the province’s ministry of education and public health officials.
“Until we have that information, we are hoping things are going to be normal,” she said. “Right now, it’s a waiting game and things are changing minute by minute.”
“I think people are hopeful,” she said. “There is always a little bit of anxiety as well. I think it’s mixed emotions [but] I think people are optimistic for a back-to-normal start.”
Michael Douglas stars as Sandy Kominsky in The Kominsky Method on Netflix. (photo by Anne Marie Fox / Netflix)
I admit to watching movies and television series on Netflix, kanopy.com, Amazon Prime, TIFF, VJFF and any other website that offers movies and TV shows. I watch Netflix and Amazon Prime on my television set and everything else on my desktop PC. I do not feel guilty nor am I ashamed!
I may never go to a movie theatre again. I like setting my own schedule, I like not having to find parking. I like not standing in line. And I love subtitles. I wear two hearing aids, so, even though I can hear, I sometimes have trouble understanding what the actors are saying, especially if they have accents (I love foreign films). I watch everything with subtitles. What a relief.
Total freedom is at hand. I can stop the show and go to the bathroom, I can prepare a meal and then sit down to eat it while watching my show, I can watch three or four episodes in a row. I am in control! I can start a series and, if I do not like it, I stop watching – too violent, too slow, whatever! I can watch the first season of a series and decide that one season is enough, or I can continue to watch. My record is nine seasons of Doc Martin. Instant gratification you say; you bet!
After one-and-a-half years of COVID-19 restrictions, I can honestly admit that I am addicted to streaming. It has been a wonderful way to be entertained, educated and inspired. I will watch movies, especially foreign films, documentaries and TV series. I now watch much less news on the television. COVID-19 and the pandemic have dominated all newscasts, Israeli politics is getting weird and, frankly, I am tired of seeing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in need of a haircut.
Raise your hand if you also exhibit some of these symptoms! Ah, wonderful, how comforting to know that I am not alone. By the way, I still managed to create and publish four editions of Senior Line magazine for Jewish Seniors Alliance, do my four physical workouts a week, study twice a week with Hebrew teachers and walk the dog four times a day. I am not a reprobate.
Here are some of my favourite television shows (in alphabetic order):
Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos: A documentary about the man who changed almost everything. Love him or hate him. Always fascinating.
Blackspace: The most evil bunch of high school students you never want to meet. (one season)
Diagnosis: A documentary that highlights difficult case studies in medicine.
Halston: Elegant and wicked, love the fashion and New York City. (one season)
Jeffrey Epstein, Filthy Rich: A revealing documentary of exploitation and excess.
Lupin: Smart, witty and stylish heist/drama. (two seasons)
New Amsterdam: A medical soap opera of the finest quality. (two seasons)
Nomadland: A woman wanders in her van, grieving her loss, in search of meaningful connections. A soulful and beautiful film.
Shtisel: A warm and delightful view of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle in Jerusalem. (three seasons)
Snowpiercer: Shocking, violent and riveting end-of-the-world scenario. (two seasons)
The Crown: Queen Elizabeth et al. Just marvelous. (four seasons)
The Kominsky Method: Geriatric best friends, their loves and lives. (three seasons)
Dolores Luber, a retired psychotherapist and psychology teacher, is editor-in-chief of Jewish Seniors Alliance’s Senior Line magazine. She works out four times a week, studies Modern Hebrew twice a week, and is constantly reading books and watching movies. Her motto is “Never underestimate an old lady who can deadlift you.”
Rabbi Don and Meira Pacht with their children, left to right, Ora, Shimie, Shoshana and Aharon. (photo from Pacht family)
“We’re very excited for this new adventure,” said Vancouver Hebrew Academy’s Rabbi Don Pacht of his family’s impending move to New York City. “But Vancouver is a huge part of our lives and always will be a huge part of our lives.”
Pacht has been head of school at VHA since 2004. On July 20, 7 p.m., the school will host the Virtual Garden Party, honouring Pacht and his wife Meira for their service to the community and in support of the school’s Fortify Our Future campaign.
“Hebrew Academy is going to need the support of the community,” Pacht said. “And, as it goes through a leadership transition especially … we need to ensure they are fiscally stable.”
VHA has found a new head of school – Rabbi Barak Cohen, who will come here from St. Ives, Australia. “He used to live in Victoria,” said Pacht, “so he understands the West Coast of Canada as a community.”
Cohen comes with much experience in Jewish day schools, added Pacht, who has known Cohen for many years. The two rabbis have been in touch “in terms of passing the torch of the school,” but there won’t be a physical overlap. “For the next school year,” said Pacht, “I’m going to remain connected as a consultant and available, essentially, for Rabbi Cohen, for the board, for anyone who needs whatever is still in my head and not on paper.”
Pacht and his family will be in Vancouver until late July. They came here from Rochester, N.Y., via Torah Umesorah, the National Society of Jewish Day Schools. When the organization suggested the position in Vancouver, Pacht was interested because his friend Rabbi Dovid Davidowitz had recently come to the city, along with Rabbi Noam Abramchik, to set up the Pacific Torah Institute (which left Vancouver in 2019, after 16 years of operations).
Two aspects in particular of the city’s Jewish community struck him.
“Number one, there was a real growth-oriented spirit,” he said. As well, he added, “I think it is unique and special in the integration across the gamut of the community. You can live your entire life in New York City and never meet a Conservative Jew.” But, in Vancouver, “no one would think twice about attending Hebrew Academy’s events even though they themselves are not Orthodox or families of Hebrew Academy and I wouldn’t think twice about attending an event put on by another organization or school even though they’re not my ‘flavour’ of Judaism.”
That everyone works together “for the cumulative benefit of the broader community was very, very impressive to us,” said Pacht.
When Pacht began his first year at VHA, there were more than 100 students. Currently, he said, enrolment is just under 100. He pointed to demographic changes.
“In the 17 years that I’ve been here,” he said, “I would say we have been more successful over time in attracting a broader spectrum of families. But, we continue to lose Orthodox families in the community. There are rabbis who are leaving, or just families who have aged out of the school system. That’s really what happened to PTI…. All the pioneer families that helped establish the organization, all their boys went through and graduated and we weren’t replacing them with new Orthodox families.”
The exodus worries him, he said, “as someone who is concerned about the global Orthodox community and global growth of Torah and Judaism.” But, with respect to VHA, he said he believes the school “will be just fine” because it offers “a product that is not available in any of the other schools…. And, because it’s something that can’t be done anywhere else in Vancouver, Vancouver understands that we need it.”
For example, he said, if you’re a Schara Tzedeck family, you know that, in order to have rabbinic leadership at the synagogue, you need Orthodox education in the community. Similarly, if you want Judaics teachers, even in non-Orthodox schools, you need to educate those leaders.
When he first came to VHA, the school already had two portables and another was added. “At the height of our enrolment, we probably had 130 students in a facility that was really built for 60, and we accommodated them with three portables, and bursting at the seams,” he said.
“It was always the vision to find a more suitable home,” he continued. “We started with trying to buy the property from the Vancouver School Board.” While not successful in that effort, VHA did manage, a handful of years ago, to secure a 10-year lease from the school board. With that security, it launched a capital campaign to replace the portables and improve the property.
“The dream of being able to offer full-day daycare for 3- and 4-year-olds was finally realized a year-and-a-half ago, when we opened this new facility,” said Pacht.
Then COVID-19 hit. “It has been, without a doubt, the most difficult experience that any of our staff, myself included, can remember,” he said. Part of that was because it entailed a whole type of education that no one had been trained for – remote learning – but also because everybody has been traumatized in some way by the pandemic and schools have had to deal with much of the fallout.
VHA’s relatively small size was an advantage in this instance, said Pacht. “I think schools have been doing a phenomenal job overall, but it’s easier when you only have two cohorts instead of eight cohorts.” When students initially were permitted to attend school in-person again, for example, VHA could accommodate more of its student body within the capacity limits set by the government. Generally speaking, said Pacht, all of the students have since returned to the classroom.
Of accomplishments during his tenure, Pacht pointed to the new building and other physical improvements to the school, “along with the broader community profile. I think it’s a fair statement to say that the number of people who are aware of Hebrew Academy, whether or not it’s the school they send their kids or grandkids to, and the appreciation for Hebrew Academy, it has a very significant standing within the community…. It allowed us to expand and it allowed us to have a successful capital campaign. And it allows us to maintain a school of excellence…. I can say without a doubt that the level of education at this school is really top-notch.”
While Pacht and his family are leaving the city, he said, “This is where our children grew up. This is home – when my kids talk about home, they’re thinking Vancouver. We are leaving because an opportunity came up that we could just not say no to, and that is, I received an offer from a school in New York City that happens to be the elementary school that I graduated from … and it puts us in a neighbourhood where we are in walking distance to my parents, my children and my grandchildren.”
The Virtual Garden Party is free to attend, with donations welcome. To register, email [email protected] or call 604-266-1245.
Over a year ago, I wrote an article for the CBC with suggestions for parents on how to stay sane while coping with kids during the pandemic. I did some research, thought about it, and set out some points to follow. Now, all these ideas sound, well, familiar, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them. I mentioned things like making a routine, keeping up with learning and life skills, getting some alone time, exercise and going outside. I included efforts to have intentional fun, and practising gratitude. As I write this, much of Canada is experiencing the third wave. Manitoba, where I live, is now our country’s hot spot. It’s been a long haul for all of us.
I’ve been struggling with what is “new” when, frankly, much has stayed the same. Even as some of us have gotten vaccinated, we still need to stay home. Like everyone, I’ve gone through periods of feeling anxious, as those in charge waver on how best to keep people safe. Then, the most recent war in Israel and the Palestinian Territories erupted … and things seem even scarier.
It’s hard to admit that we have little control as individuals. We choose who to vote for, or to wear a mask, or to social distance. We cannot individually control global pandemics, violence, extremism or antisemitism. That lack of control can be very scary.
I often retreat into absorbing “flow activities” to keep myself well during such difficult times. Often, I’m cooking, sewing, knitting or spinning yarn. I’m reading or taking long walks with the dog and kids. We’re watching geese and goslings on the riverbanks and spotting woodpeckers and warblers. Taking time to see and make new things can be really good for our mental health, and it’s often positive and productive.
I also continue to study my page of Talmud, usually late at night. I recently read Tractate Yoma 35, which discusses, in part, what the high priest would wear in the Temple, as he does his most holy actions of the year, on Yom Kippur. Everything is spelled out in detail. This is done by the rabbis both to explain what used to happen in the Temple and what perhaps might happen again, if the Temple were rebuilt. Even the cost of the priest’s clothing, which must be paid for and owned by the public, is noted.
The high priest acts for the whole community and, at the same time, these rituals have to be performed by him alone, as an individual. It’s an example of where the entire community must support a leader but has no control over that leader’s actions.
In the midst of this careful recounting of how he is to fulfil his duties, it says in Yoma 35b: “Rav Huna bar Yehuda, and some say Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda, taught: after the public service concluded, a priest whose mother made him a priestly tunic may wear it and perform an individual service … provided he transfers it to the possession of the public.”
The rabbis’ discussion indicates that the tunic the high priest’s mother made him must be donated to the Temple after he wears it. If he is attached to it, this might be hard. Also, it might be worth more than what the high priest’s garb should cost. It’s something a dear one made him, and it could be both emotionally and monetarily valuable. Yet, his mom makes it freely, knowing it might only be worn at this one time, and then donated for wider Temple usage.
Bear in mind what this meant. A high priest’s mother wants only the best for her child and, yet, must submit to the whole community who depends on him. So, she procures the right fibre-linen. She might have to process it, or it might come ready for spinning. She spins enough for a garment on her spindle. (There were no spinning wheels or industrial textile factories back then!) She weaves the fabric, and sews it into the tunic according to the given specifications. Then, she gives all that work away simply for the chance to clothe her son for a short time in her own handiwork for his extremely important event, serving on Yom Kippur on behalf of the Jewish people. This lesson is an ancient one – and, yet, many of us have to learn it over and over.
There’s so much we cannot control. Many huge world events are beyond us. We learn to submit to the experience that we cannot bend to our will. In the meanwhile, though, we can do everything in our power for good, as we see it. We can offer our money, creations and time. We can behave properly and follow instructions … and wait.
Many of my activities feel the same way as that mother’s tunic, although I have no high priests at my house. I spend many hours on meals, making clothing, helping kids learn, exercise, etc. Then, I finish my tasks and give it away. This “disappearing” work makes a difference in the universe, but I’m no closer to controlling the entire pandemic, the unrest in Israel, or beyond.
This is one of the hardest lessons I’ve had as a parent and an adult. We must accept where we are because, in some cases, nothing we’re capable of will control the situation or effect change. However, in the meantime, we can be like that high priest’s mother. We can offer up our love, our handiwork, our peaceful efforts and knowledge. We can expect never to see it again, like that gorgeous linen tunic.
Learning to make things and give them away may be the most important gift. The activity itself is the part that calms me down in the face of so much uncertainty. Last night, I used some knit remnants and my sewing machine and made a lightweight sweater for a 9-year-old. This is an ancient Jewish process, but it’s also another brand new sweater. Tomorrow, he may wear it … in the mud puddles and the rain – and that’s OK, too.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
It was the first night of Passover and I was feeling miserable. By now, I recognize the ache. It’s the one I get when I am thousands of miles away from my family.
Away from the days of being young and just naturally assuming there would be a seder night with family. Away from old familiar melodies and reminders. I remembered when my mum would say a prayer in a funny British accent, or how we would all be tapping our hands vigorously on the table while singing. I’d be sitting with siblings and cousins, playing games with the matzah, sneaking a sip or three of heavily sweetened kosher red wine and counting down the time until we could eat.
Forty years ago, after leaving Israel, I moved to London, where there were always relatives to fill that gap. However, back in the younger days, my Jewish identity took something of a back seat. As a teen in Israel, I always wondered why I wasn’t allowed to join my friends at the beach on Shabbat. As a child, we were raised as Orthodox Jews but, when we immigrated to Israel, some of the traditions, sadly fell by the wayside.
Vancouver eventually became my permanent home and, initially, I’d always worry where I would be spending the Jewish holidays. Frequently, friends and kind strangers invited us to their homes. It only seemed to deepen the family longing pangs.
When I became a parent, my husband and I began to host our own celebrations and seders and we always included strangers and synagogue friends. Fortunately, when my oldest son was 3, we became friends with another family. They knew some family-less people and it wasn’t long before we all celebrated the Jewish holidays together, a tradition which has continued – until recently.
When the pandemic began and social distancing became necessary, holiday gatherings were cancelled. Zooming on our phones became the norm. It was different. Something of a novelty.
A few days before Pesach this year, I glanced at the secular calendar, which indicated Sunday as the eve of Pesach, so I arranged for our kids and partners to come Sunday night. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon Saturday that I realized I had goofed and Pesach commenced that night. By 4 p.m., the sadness had crept in. My sister had phoned from Israel and filled me in on the lovely seder she had attended.
My brother had sent photos. All the well-wishers had phoned and sent greetings.
For the first time in many years, my husband and I would be all alone and unprepared. There was little motivation to do anything. We ordered an Indian (vegan) meal to be delivered. I forced myself to light the festival candles and mutter some prayers. Then, the phone rang for the first time in hours.
It was a good friend. She sounded excited. Although she had hosted many a seder elsewhere, she was holding her first with her daughter in Vancouver, rather than attending an organization’s or other event via Zoom.
“You must come over and see my table! It’s so beautiful! Even just for a few minutes,” she said.
I begged off because we would be seeing our infant grandson the following afternoon and just couldn’t take the chance. Besides, our delivery would be arriving any minute. “Cancel it! We have lots of food here!”
I would have dearly loved to have dropped everything and gone to her house. I recalled how, some 20 years earlier, she and her daughter had attended our seder. We settled on a FaceTime call and sang the Shehecheyanu blessing together.
A knock at the door; our food had arrived. We said goodbye. But my friend’s enthusiasm was infectious. Her phone call, when I so needed to be remembered, reminded me that we weren’t, in fact, alone in the world.
We pulled out Haggadot and some of the seder plate preparations for the following day. Miraculously, there was enough kosher wine to get us to the third glass of wine and the spilling of the wine for the 10 plagues. My husband and I took turns reading while the candles flickered.
Unlike most of our past seders, it was quiet and peaceful.
This year, I really asked myself: “Why is this night different?”
The answer could be lengthy but I do know that, on this particular night, there was a little soul intervention.
Jenny Wrightis a writer, music therapist, children’s musician and recording artist.