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.
We have now finished our second consecutive cycle of High Holidays under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, unlike last, plenty of grandparents were able to hug their grandkids, thanks to vaccines. In-person gatherings were possible in different forms, including synagogue services.
The overarching crisis represented by the pandemic coincidentally occurs at a time when Jewish communal leaders are expressing growing concerns about declining levels of affiliation, especially among younger Jews. Polls (criticized by some for their methods) suggest a steep drop-off in support for Israel among American Jews. And there are worries, expressed by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, among others, of increasing estrangement between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Yet, there is almost not a single person involved in Jewish life who will not acknowledge some silver linings in this terrible time. It is human nature to almost instantly take for granted what we have. The sudden omnipresence of platforms like Zoom would have been a sci-fi dream 25 years ago. Educators, rabbis and Jewish organizations made an almost instantaneous shift to virtual events at the start of the pandemic. This, it turned out, served not only existing “audiences” (students, congregants, members) but entirely new faces. People who, due to geography, had no access to Hebrew classes
are studying virtually. British Columbians are scanning options and joining lectures, recitals, panel discussions and standup comedy routines, and more, streaming from New York, London, Cape Town and Tel Aviv. Services and programs generally offered to the Vancouver community are welcoming new attendees, unlimited by geography.
Early on, behavioural scientists predicted a phenomenon of being “Zoomed out.” But a Canadian opinion poll suggested just the opposite. We love Zoom. It allows us to attend a one-hour lecture without the 40-minute commute, the parking and the umbrella-shaking. Of course, it is not the same. We miss the kibitzing and other niceties of an in-person event, but it is pretty darn fantastic under the circumstances.
Jews produce a vast amount of what is now dryly called “content” … the written word, visual and performing arts, music, science, intellectual pursuits. And it is available in almost every language on the planet – to anyone with a device and access to the internet. The potential this holds to bring together Jews (or, of course, any people) in ways that were not previously imaginable opens entire new worlds of connection.
As we return incrementally to a life more like the before times, we should not cast off the necessities that became welcome additions. Rather than revert to in-person-only gatherings, many groups and events are already adopting hybrid approaches. Those who enjoy the in-person form can participate, but so can those far away or who are strapped for time.
If we now have moments to reflect on the lessons of the past year-and-a-half, we should consider the power of the technologies that have become so common. How can the unifying power of these tools be mobilized to address the problems of division we face as a community? Can a concerted effort to bring together Israelis and Diaspora Jews in remote dialogue help build bridges? Could a centralized schedule of Jewish educational and cultural offerings from around the world expose Jews everywhere to a wider range of opportunities to engage in ways that are meaningful to them? Could a renaissance of Jewish ideas and discussion spring forth thanks to the technology we have become used to during this troubled time?
Can Zoom save the Jews? Well, there are many challenges facing our communities in Israel, Canada and around the world. A simple fix is never going to resolve all the concerns about falling engagement, estrangement between parts of Am Yisrael or the host of issues that our communal leaders have been focused on for decades. But neither should we underestimate the powerful force for good that a simple tool like Zoom has to bring together people who might never otherwise meet.
As a tradition, Judaism has thrived by adapting, while holding fast to customs and ritual. Zoom is now a part of this mix. While it is not perfect – it is not suitable for all denominations to stream on Shabbat or holidays, for example – it holds the potential to continue to connect us even when we are no longer constrained by health restrictions from getting together in person.
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.
Dr. Odeya Cohen (photo by Dani Machlis/BGU) and Dr. Rami Puzis (photo courtesy)
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researchers discovered patterns of significantly decreased joy, increased sadness, fear and disgust among healthcare professionals (HCP) in the largest social media study to track emotional changes and discourse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the study, a multidisciplinary BGU team analyzed more than 53,000 HCP tweets from followers of several hundred Twitter accounts of healthcare organizations and common HCP points of interest. The most significant topics HCPs discussed during the pandemic were COVID-19 information, public health and social values, medical studies, as well as daily life and food. Approximately 44% of their discourse was about professional topics during the entire 2020 year.
The research indicates data-driven approaches for analyzing social media networks are helpful as a method for exploring professional health insights during both routine clinical situations and emergencies. The study will be published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. A preprint is already available online. It was funded by the BGU Coronavirus Taskforce and by an Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology coronavirus research grant.
“Our findings, which track increasing sadness and decreasing joy, should be a warning to health organizations of the importance of better mental health support to help HCPs cope with the emotional consequences of the pandemic,” say Dr. Rami Puzis of BGU’s software and information systems engineering department (SISE) and Dr. Odeya Cohen of the department of nursing. “Most interestingly, HCP tweets expressed greater levels of fear just prior to pandemic waves in 2020. This indicates that many HCPs, beyond those working in epidemiology, observed, and were adequately qualified to anticipate pandemic development.”
Puzis goes on to say, “This suggests that decision-makers could benefit from investing additional resources into listening to the broader HCP community to track and anticipate bottom-up pathways for developing health crises.”
– Courtesy Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
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.”
Canadian elections do not generally pivot on issues of foreign affairs. Yet, the split screen image Sunday of Justin Trudeau calling a federal election juxtaposed with images of the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan was a stark one. Canada left Afghanistan in 2014, having joined an international coalition after 9/11 to attempt to bring the terrorists who found free rein in that country to heel.
The remaining American forces were slated to leave this month, with U.S. military officials candidly acknowledging that their departure would almost certainly result in a Taliban revival. They were wrong only about the timing. Estimates were that it might take the fundamentalist Islamist sect weeks to take back the country. It took mere days.
The implications for Afghan citizens are bleak. Desperate Afghans were hopelessly clinging to U.S. military aircraft taxiing on the runway at Kabul airport. Afghan women will, based on prior experience under the Taliban, become some of the most oppressed in the world. There are also expectations of violent retaliation against anyone and everyone who, in the past two decades, “collaborated” with Western forces. The possible scenarios for Afghan people are horrible to envision.
And the implications go beyond the borders of that country. Optimists, such as they may be on this subject, say that the 20-year Western engagement in Afghanistan has not been for naught. The United States captured Osama Bin Laden and has not experienced another 9/11-type terror attack in that period, though whether Americans are actually safer, with other forms of domestic extremism and violence on the rise, is another question. Regardless, in a region with so much instability and contending factions, the Afghan situation further disrupts an already deeply troubled part of the world.
We may not immediately see the consequences of what is happening halfway around the world, but already domestic politics are being affected by the developments. Canadian military planes are rescuing interpreters and others who assisted our forces when they were in Afghanistan. There are calls for Canada and other Western places of refuge to accept more refugees from what seems destined to become a theocratic dystopia. But we cannot, apparently, save the entirety of the Afghan people and their country from the grips of their oppressors. Western powers held the Taliban at bay for 20 years but understandable domestic pressures to put a halt to “endless wars” inevitably brought us to this point.
This week’s election call comes amid a conflagration much closer to home as well. British Columbia is seeing wildfires and weather events unlike anything we have witnessed before. The hypothetical impacts of the climate emergency have gotten very, very real for Canadians with any sense of cause and effect. Appropriately, opinion polls suggest that Canadians view climate and the environment as a top – if not the top – issue as they ponder for whom to cast their ballots.
One problem with democracy is that those who seek public approval are disinclined to tell voters things they do not want to hear. Canadians (and other earthlings) need to understand that this crisis demands that our leaders impose potentially painful policies that will impact our emissions-producing lifestyles. We say we need to address the climate emergency, but will we be so enthusiastic when it impacts our own pocketbooks and comfortable routines?
One might imagine that scenes of the province on fire might make voters look seriously, finally, at a political party with the climate as its No. 1 priority. But the Green Party of Canada has been in turmoil since the Israel-Hamas conflict last spring. Annamie Paul, the Jewish, Black leader of the party, has been fighting an internal battle against insurgents in her own ranks. We hope that her voice will be heard and that all parties will take this existential issue with utmost seriousness.
The continuing pandemic will play a role in this campaign as well – both as Canadians assess the achievements of our government during the crisis and, more immediately, in the way candidates and campaigns pursue votes while adhering to safety protocols. The parties should be judged on what kind of COVID recovery plan they propose, and how they intend to follow through on supporting the most vulnerable Canadians through this health, economic and social crisis.
Whatever issues are important to you, this is the time to make your voice heard. Consider reaching out to your local candidates. Discuss your concerns with them. Volunteer for or contribute to their campaign if you like what you hear – consider connecting through the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs distils information about various party platforms and policies. Our country and our world face urgent issues. An informed, active electorate is the key to ensuring that our elected officials reflect the concerns that matter most to us.
As we face the fourth wave and the COVID Delta variant, many Canadians are less concerned. If one is vaccinated, risks are much lower. Outside, I see many close-knit groups of people strolling on the streets to restaurants and bars. This correlates with Manitoba’s recent choice to abandon capacity and indoor mask requirements. For those with kids under age 12, it’s a scary scene right before school starts. The Delta variant is looking for vectors, and unvaccinated kids may be one of them.
It’s hard to stop thinking about this as a parent. In anxious moments, I hear the Jaws movie’s theme music as we drive past the elementary school. It’s still summer, but Rosh Hashanah, a new year and a time of reckoning are around the corner.
Much of the pandemic rhetoric now involves a refrain of “getting back to normal.” However, for many of us, we’re not sure normal’s going to ever be the same. Many people have died. Normal isn’t the same after the death of a loved one. Normal also isn’t the same for those who were very ill or are suffering from long COVID. For many parents, including me, this prolonged time at home with my kids has resulted in more teaching and childcare and a lot less time to work. Things may change, but “normal” is something elusive. If our kids are too young to be vaccinated, I’m not sure we’re there yet.
Yet, Elul, the Hebrew month where we contemplate our actions in time for the New Year, is upon us. Even if you don’t ever get to a morning minyan, someone’s blowing a shofar every day now, around the world, except for Shabbat. It’s time to wake up our souls.
This metaphor about “normal” has a lot in common with teshuvah, when we seek forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong to others this year. We apologize and seek forgiveness, but any relationship where one party harms another may remain forever changed. It’s one thing to look at the Torah portion of Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and read that Moses set before the Israelites the choice, from G-d, between blessing and curse, and simplistically say, “It’s easy! Choose to be a blessing.” Many sermons sound like this, but, when things go off track, it’s not always simple. Obviously, trying to fix it is the right thing to do, even though the effort may not make a relationship all better.
I’ve been studying the talmudic tractate of Sukkah and, on page 31a, there’s a good example of this kind of unsatisfactory resolution. On this page, an old woman comes before Rav Nahman, the exilarch (leader of the Babylonian Jewish community) and the sages and screams, saying they are sitting in a stolen sukkah. Remarkably, no one disagrees with her! She’s upset because the sukkah was constructed with wood that was stolen from her. Even though she’s right, Rav Nahman is condescending. He pays no attention to her.
Rav Nahman says, “This woman is a screamer and she has rights only to the monetary value of the wood. However, the sukkah itself was already acquired by the exilarch.” His legal ruling is that, when a sukkah is built of stolen wood, the wood’s original owner only deserves compensation for its value.
In Rabbi Elliot Goldberg’s introduction to this Talmud page online on My Jewish Learning, he is uncomfortable with this decision. In other talmudic discussions, a stolen lulav is invalid, or G-d denounces theft, even for the sake of heaven. Even if this stolen sukkah fulfils the commandments on Sukkot, Rabbi Goldberg writes that mistreating an elderly woman who has just been robbed is wrong. Rav Nahman lacks respect for her, demeaning her by calling her “a screamer” and failing to speak to her directly.
What is going to fix this relationship or make things “normal” again? If someone pays this woman for the wood, it doesn’t make appropriate amends for her experience, even if that were all she were entitled to legally.
When studying this, I saw an odd metaphor for some of what’s going on around us. We may be transitioning to a new time in which we all have to cope with COVID as endemic. Our new “normal” may include breakthrough illnesses in those who are vaccinated. It may include feeling unsafe or condescended to or unfairly dealt with, as we navigate changing public health orders that don’t keep some of us safe. This may feel risky or, for some people, like an amazing freedom, as they legally disregard the risks.
However, the chances of being ill or having long COVID remain. Like the old woman who is robbed, we may be eligible for compensation after the fact, but the original trauma remains. If someone steals your wood, it isn’t OK. You may get COVID, even if you’re vaccinated. It might not be OK. Worse yet, you could experience the loss of a child or another vulnerable family member who couldn’t be vaccinated. There’s no compensation for that. Losing even one person is too many.
I may be a risk-averse scaredy-cat, but I’ve been thinking about that talmudic elderly woman in Sukkah 31a. If she hadn’t been robbed in the first place, she wouldn’t have had to confront important rabbis and been treated poorly. The new normal for her didn’t get her wood or her dignity back. So, too, if we can be careful, perhaps we can avoid getting sick during a pandemic – but people don’t choose to be robbed or to be exposed to a virus. If we’re careful, bad things can still happen.
What does this mean for Rosh Hashanah this year? When we seek forgiveness and resolution with others, perhaps it’s not enough to simply try and fix only what we’re legally obligated to fix. If we want a “new normal” in a relationship or in society, we will have to build trust, mend fences and patch up things so that our mistakes can be mended. Our new societal normal should result in an even stronger darned fabric than what existed before the pandemic hole was torn out. We can’t expect everything to come out OK if we behave as Rav Nahman did.
I don’t know how the fourth wave will go, or if vaccination will protect our kids. We could think about one another, behave kindly and with compassion in the meanwhile. Masking up, keeping our distance, washing our hands, and doing extra for one another are important. We owe it to one another, and to that older woman that Rav Nahman shamed. Maybe, when it comes to some Jewish laws or health care, the bare minimum required by the law is just not good enough.
Joanne Seiffhas 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.