Ben-Gurion University Canada chief executive officer Mark Mendelson passed away in Montreal without warning on Nov. 14 at the age of 73.
Over the years, Mendelson’s imprint has been felt throughout BGU Canada. Helping create new purpose and hard results, connecting communities with Ben-Gurion University and Israel, his life, experience and leadership were transformative: the organizations he touched, the chapters he helped grow and the voices he helped raise, were the product of a life dedicated to the singular purpose of protecting and nurturing, manifested in boundless energy and enormous reach, helping BGU Canada grow.
“He took what was a small but respected organization to a national powerhouse,” said Montreal and Ottawa executive director Simon Bensimon.
A leader who gave people around him the space to excel while daring them to wow him, Mendelson’s energy, enthusiasm and resilience were infectious, and served his gift for reaching out and making valuable connections between donors, volunteers and stakeholders. “A character who had character,” said B.C. and Alberta Region president Adam Korbin. “He was a blessing in my life, a mentor, confidant and friend.”
As much of Canada’s nonprofit sector slowed and then scrambled for relevance and community engagement during the pandemic, Mendelson helped steward BGU Canada through and maintain the interest, enthusiasm and commitment towards the cause.
His legacy for BGU is omnipresent in the organization and on the ground in Israel. For the national organization, this is embodied in the new archives building in Sde Boker, for which Mendelson marshaled his best efforts and drive to realize and, ultimately, stood before as great affirmation of one of the crowning achievements of his BGU Canada career.
Mendelson understood the importance of each national chapter. “From the outset, he was committed to putting Vancouver on the map and was determined that we should hold a gala,” recalled David Berson, executive director, B.C. and Alberta region. “His love for BGU and Israel were first and foremost – alongside fishing and food!”
The Montreal-born-and-raised son of Dr. Hyman and Audrey Lynne Mendelson, Mark spent a lifetime dedicated to Israel and Jewry – as a kibbutznik, as an IDF paratrooper, as a social worker, an entrepreneur and then as a leading advocate. He held fast in his belief in Israel, securing her future through grit, diplomacy, and the Jewish people’s greatest currency: knowledge.
“Much of my success as president, and much of what BGU is today, is because of Mark’s complete dedication to the task of building Ben-Gurion University,” said BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz.
At Mendelson’s funeral in Montreal, Chamovitz recalled this “large man wearing a loud plaid sport jacket, bearing a gift of fresh salmon whose smell permeated the air, and having one of the most endearing smiles anywhere.” It was their first meeting. “I had been president for only three weeks and, somehow or another, no one had prepared me for Mark Mendelson.”
Mendelson had a keen understanding of the ongoing relationship between the Diaspora and Israel, and he followed through on his promise to Chamovitz that, despite Canada’s modest Jewish population, BGU Canada was poised to make a major jump in its philanthropy: “We punch way over our weight.”
“The university, the Negev, Israel and dare I say the world,” said Chamovitz, “is a better place because of him.”
Martin Thibodeau, RBC’s B.C. region president, will be honoured at the Ben-Gurion University Gala Dinner June 14. (photo from RBC)
On June 9, Ben-Gurion University president Daniel Chamovitz and members of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU) will visit Vancouver to recognize the launch of its new School of Sustainability and Climate Change (SSCC) and the local supporters who have helped make its opening possible. In particular, Royal Bank of Canada and Martin Thibodeau, RBC’s B.C. region president, will be honoured at the event.
SSCC opened last October at BGU’s Be’er Sheva campus, where its growth has been rapid. Seven months old, the school currently offers two undergraduate degrees and four graduate-level environmental science-related degrees. Its two graduate fellowships, which have supported work in renewable energy and smart city design, were funded by RBC.
“The RBC Research Fund at BGU’s School of Sustainability and Climate Change [is] being established in Martin’s honour, [and] will enable undergraduate and graduate students to be trained as, and pursue meaningful careers as, climate change innovators, entrepreneurs and policy experts,” said David Berson, who serves as CABGU’s executive director for the B.C. and Alberta Region. The funding that is raised at the gala will help further SSCC’s research programs.
SSCC’s mandate isn’t just to address environmental concerns at home in Israel, said Chamovitz. It will have a global reach, as well. BGU is currently working to cement research partnerships with universities and countries that have similar interests in addressing climate challenges. Chamovitz said RBC’s investment in its new school will provide a pathway to meeting that global need.
“RBC was one of the early supporters of SSCC, and this support was essential for leveraging subsequent support,” he said. “The Royal Bank of Canada believes in us,” and that support has served as an encouraging model for other companies to invest in BGU’s programs as well, he said.
Lorne Segal, president of Kingswood Properties and director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, who is an honorary co-chair of the June event with his wife, Mélita Segal, said corporate sponsorship is crucial to startup programs like SSCC. He said corporate support is also vital to finding answers to environmental challenges like global warming.
“Sponsorship from leading businesses and industry leaders does provide imaginative solutions to complex issues impacting our people and the planet,” he said. “Without significant and generous sponsorship support, this crucial work, simply put, would not be possible.”
Segal said supporting initiatives that bring about positive change is part of Thibodeau’s nature.
“Martin Thibodeau truly is a lifelong builder of community,” said Segal. “He is deeply praised by Ben-Gurion University for his commitment to the cause of finding solutions to climate change. It is truly remarkable how much he and RBC Royal Bank have done to enhance the capacity of the Ben-Gurion University community programs and agencies, and advance the conversation on Canada’s transition to a net-zero economy.”
Thibodeau’s support of Canadian Jewish communities and of Israel goes back decades. Originally from Quebec, he served as RBC’s regional president in Montreal until he moved to Vancouver. He oversees some of the largest – and smallest – branches and more than 4,000 employees.
In 2015, while working in Montreal, Thibodeau volunteered as a co-chair for Quebec’s largest multi-day walk for women’s cancers, held by Pharmaprix, to raise money for research at the Jewish General Hospital. “I have been involved with the Jewish community for almost my entire RBC career,” he told the Independent.
He is a strong supporter of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and their community initiatives, and he has been to Israel several times. It was in 2014, said Thibodeau, that he and his wife, Caroline, visited Be’er Sheva and learned of BGU’s environmental research. “[I was] so inspired by the research [and] the innovation,” he said, noting that it wasn’t hard to get behind the creation of a school that was working to find solutions to climate concerns.
“It’s right there in front of me every day,” he said. “I am a proud father of three children and I believe we have a responsibility to make sure that our climate can continue to thrive, and well beyond my lifetime. It is my personal belief that we need to do that today more than ever.”
Thibodeau said it’s been an interesting journey since that first visit to BGU in 2014. “It’s become such a tough priority for the world,” he said of climate change. In Canada, among other things, he supported RBC’s Blue Water Project, which helped provide clean water access to Canadian communities.
Still, Thibodeau is a reticent honouree. He admits that he is uncomfortable with the idea that he will be the guest of honour at a gala, even if it is for a cause he loves. “I’m very humbled,” he said. “I don’t like to have that kind of spotlight on me.” But, he said, raising money for research that might one day create a safer and better environment, that is something he will gladly get behind.
The gala will also acknowledge Lorne and Mélita Segal, who are well-known for their philanthropy and other work. Both have been recognized by Capilano University with honorary doctor of letters, and Lorne Segal has a doctor of laws (hon.) from the Justice Institute of British Columbia. He was inducted into the Order of British Columbia for his work as founding chair of Free the Children’s WE Day Vancouver and as chair of the Coast Mental Health Courage to Come Back Awards. The Segals regularly open their home to fundraising galas.
“When Lorne and I built our home, we didn’t really do it for ourselves but, rather, to share it with the community,” said Mélita Segal. “Whether it was Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, Arts Umbrella, Chor Leoni, JNF [Jewish National Fund] or WE Charity … it has been a great joy for us and very fulfilling to give back and share in this way.”
Berson described the Segals as “tireless builders of community, leading by example while creating opportunities for people in the business world to make a difference in the lives of others. Ben-Gurion University, Canada, is genuinely fortunate to have their leadership for this event and for our organization.”
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Ben-Gurion University’s Prof. Amir Sagi, left, and Dr. Amit Savaia have found a way to use shrimp to fight a deadly parasitic disease in Nigeria. (photo from BGU)
This year, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev plans to launch a new school that will specialize in climate change research, mitigation and environmental sustainability. It will also offer a graduate program with a cross-section of specialties.
BGU’s three campuses house an enrolment of 20,000 students and a faculty of 4,000. Its areas of expertise range far and wide, and, among other things, the university has become known as a go-to place for figuring out how to address one of the 21st century’s biggest threats: climate change.
For BGU president Daniel Chamovitz, the university’s growing reputation isn’t that much of a surprise. “Because what have we been doing in the last 60 years?” he asked rhetorically. “We have been learning how to survive – not to survive, how to thrive in the desert.”
Chamovitz’s own expertise is in genetics and plant biology. Originally from Aliquippa, Pa., he is most recently known for his studies in plant development and for his book What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, which has been published in 18 languages.
The realization that the university already has a strong foothold in environmental and sustainability research, Chamovitz said, is what led to its new mandate to become the world’s authority on climate change and sustainability.
A long history
For Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the Negev was always Israel’s greatest untapped resource. It was the place, he predicted, that the Jewish homeland would sow their greatest accomplishments. A desert that spans more than 60% of the country’s land mass, the Negev would hold the answers to Israel’s most pressing problems of the day: how to grow enough food to feed a nation, generate sufficient energy to power cities and harness enough water to turn brown deserts green.
But building a sustainable nation, he warned, one that could benefit from a desert that receives less than 200 millimetres of rainfall per year wouldn’t be simple. “It is incumbent upon Israel’s scientists to reveal the secrets of nature that are unique to our land,” he said. The Negev, he insisted, was the perfect environment for an institute of study that could solve the world’s most basic – and challenging – problems of existence.
Ben-Gurion’s visionary thinking was the catalyst for many of Israel’s earliest environmental accomplishments, including desalination and energy generation using seawater, steps that would be critical to Israel’s much-needed water technology. Both projects were developed in the 1960s, at a research facility in the town of Be’er Sheva, a Bedouin settlement at the northern tip of the Negev. The institute that gave rise to these early innovations would eventually become BGU.
BGU’s new school
Two years ago, when he was hired as president of BGU, Chamovitz told the Jewish Independent he had conducted a “bottom-up” assessment of all of the departments and their areas of specialization. He wanted to know what their strengths and weaknesses were.
“[We] identified over 150 researchers dealing with various issues of sustainability and climate change,” Chamovitz said. “And, in every discipline. Not only in our institutes of water, energy and desert agriculture – that’s the low-lying fruit – but also in engineering and in civil engineering, where we develop energy-efficient building material and methods.
“It was clear to everyone that the field of sustainability and climate change was what sets Ben-Gurion University apart from every other university in Israel.”
That brand-name recognition helped secure a new partnership with Royal Bank of Canada, which is sponsoring the new school’s first graduate fellowship program. The investment by RBC will fund two fellowship positions for students specializing in climate change or sustainability-related research and, in doing so, help launch the program.
This isn’t the first time that RBC has partnered with the university. In 2018, RBC and BGU entered into a cybersecurity partnership, in which the bank invested $2 million toward research programs in BGU’s department of software and information systems engineering.
In this case, the partnership aligns with RBC’s own long-term sustainability goals and its Tech for Nature program, which it launched in 2019.
“The research being conducted also aligns with RBC’s interests as we recognize that innovative technologies offer immense potential to help solve environmental challenges,” Martin Thibodeau, B.C. regional president, RBC Royal Bank, told the Independent. “The most pressing environmental concerns of our time are negatively impacting the planet at a rate that often outpaces the solutions designed to address them. RBC is leveraging its capabilities in technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain, as well as its convening power, to build solutions and the type of multi-partner coalitions needed to address and solve our shared environmental challenges.
“Our commitments align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and, through our partnerships, we aim to develop multi-sector, multi-partner solutions to achieve progress on these challenging issues. We’re both proud and excited to partner with BGU through CABGU to address these important issues,” Thibodeau said.
“We are in awe of the grassroots contributions that RBC makes to our Jewish community and the positive role that RBC plays and has played in strengthening so many local community organizations in British Columbia and across Canada,” said David Berson, executive director of the B.C. & Alberta chapter of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University, which worked as a liaison with RBC and BGU to secure the partnership.
“[We] are incredibly excited that corporations such as RBC see the importance of partnering with Ben-Gurion University, [and] that their investment [will] pay back to society tenfold,” Chamovitz said. He likened RBC’s partnership to an educator who invests in students’ goals, which, in time, benefit generations to come.
A new learning model
Climate change is a multidisciplinary problem, said Chamovitz, one that takes the expertise of not only hydrologists, biologists and engineers, but geneticists, geologists, legal experts and others. Education, therefore, must be tailored to meet the broad range of knowledge required to understand climate change. That doesn’t mean graduate students won’t specialize in their research and their studies, Chamovitz said, but they will be expected to have a multidisciplinary background that connects with the challenges of creating a sustainable world and addressing climate change.
“The one requirement would be their willingness to work interdisciplinarily and to take courses in other fields. Otherwise, they don’t need the school,” said Chamovitz. “They could just go into the school of engineering [for example] or school of ecology. And, you know, for some people, that’s the better track.”
Chamovitz said it’s companies like RBC that are making this new branch of education possible, adding that the university has seen an increase in inquiries from companies and communities across the world that are attempting to address climate change challenges. Last year, for example, a company located in Chennai, India, reached out to see if BGU could assist in building a local agricultural research institute. Chamovitz said the institute’s future researchers will be trained first at BGU before returning home to Chennai to begin their new jobs. The university has also struck up a three-way partnership with the city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and Arizona State University, in Tempe, Ariz., to address issues relating to global warming in Dubai.
“We have similar collaborations in western China, which are also in arid places. And we are really excited about developing relationships in Canada,” said Chamovitz, who recently visited Vancouver to meet the presidents of Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, which both offer studies in climate change and sustainability.
The two Israeli RBC fellowship students have already been selected. Shir Eisenstein will be doing a master’s in material engineering, looking for new materials that help harness sustainable, renewable energy. Nadina Levitt, who is also pursuing a master’s, will be enrolled in the department of geography and environmental studies and studying sustainability models for smart cities. Both students demonstrated a key requirement for upper-level studies when it comes to BGU’s approach to this new specialization: innovation.
“One of the problems in higher education is this need for prerequisites,” Chamovitz noted. “What we are looking for is not prerequisites, but ingenuity.”
The university is expected to complete the formalization process and approval for the new school of sustainability and climate change in February and be open for enrolment this October.
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.
Left to right, Senator Linda Frum, actor Mayim Bialik and BGU president Danny Chamovitz participated in the virtual Big Bang event, hosted by Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on Sept. 9. (photo by David Berson)
On Sept. 9, the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev hosted its first national virtual gathering. The Big Bang Event to “save the class of COVID-19” was an urgent move to support the university’s 20,000 students.
With many students having lost their jobs in the sudden economic slowdown, they are unable to fund their tuition or even their basic needs. Rather than forfeiting a generation of leaders to financial hardship, BGU launched a student assistance program in July, with the goal of raising $6 million for 6,000 individuals.
While it is Israel’s newest university, BGU is a leader in academic research and technological development. With three campuses, it is credited as a trailblazer in both the humanities and the sciences – nanotechnology, robotics, cybersecurity, Israel studies, Jewish thought, neuroscience, medicine, business and management – addressing some of the world’s biggest problems, such as drought and hunger. The university’s reach is local as well as international, serving the immediate community in the Negev, including both the immigrant and indigenous Bedouin populations.
BGU was founded in 1969, following the vision of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Ben-Gurion sought to establish a university which would act as a “source of moral inspiration and courage, rousing people to a sense of mission: noble, creative and fruitful.” He believed that the Negev Desert would be critical to the future of the new country – the desert covers 60% of the country, and Ben-Gurion saw it becoming an economic, academic, scientific and cultural hub.
The Big Bang Event featured guest speaker Mayim Bialik, well-known for her roles in the 1990s show Blossom and, more recently, in her award-winning role as Amy Farrah Fowler in Big Bang Theory. In addition to acting, Bialik earned a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2007; her dissertation examined the role of oxytocin and vasopressin in obsessive-compulsive disorder in adolescents with Prader-Willi syndrome. A mother of two, Bialik is also an accomplished writer and musician.
Quirky, vivacious and searingly intelligent in her remarks, watching her speak at the Big Bang Event brought to mind the Yiddish proverb, “The heart is small and it embraces the whole wide world.” Bialik spoke from the heart, telling the audience about her own family story and the genesis of her Jewish identity. She spoke about her heritage, how she raised her children and how she carries her Jewish identity into her professional life in a fireside chat-style with Canadian Senator Linda Frum.
Also speaking at the event was BGU president Danny Chamovitz, who addressed the audience from his home in Israel at what would have been 2:30 a.m. his time. Chamovitz was in isolation, having recently returned from Europe, and, following the event, he did indeed test positive for coronavirus, but has since made a full recovery.
Chamovitz described his office’s emergency response to the pandemic. Members of the university community were invited to submit proposals and, as a result, more than 70 initiatives are in progress, including the development of tests for COVID-19 that drastically reduce turnaround times.
“Across the country, more than 380 households purchased tickets and more than 800 people watched the program,” said David Berson, CABGU regional executive director, in a recent email interview. “We have raised over $1.3 million with 50% of that being raised locally. In our region, 83 households purchased tickets and more than 200 people watched the program.”
In addition to raising money, he said, “The event was a great success motivating many new people to support CABGU. It has set the bar, the gold standard, for how to properly execute a national virtual event. Regarding the campaign itself, the rate of unemployment in Israel is 50% for the under-34 age bracket. By the opening of the academic year on Oct. 18, more than 5,000 students had applied for support from this student assistance fund. Where we had been fearful that enrolment would drop because of the financial impact of the pandemic, it turns out that enrolment for undergrad studies increased by 32%. The funds raised have been vital in creating accessibility for so many students hit hard by this unprecedented situation.”
While the Big Bang audience was scattered from coast to coast, a warm ambience was created locally, with hand-delivered baskets of sweet and savoury delicacies: quiches and bourekas, as well as exquisitely decorated handmade chocolates, from Café FortyOne; and BGU wine tumblers and a bottle of red wine.
The local business sponsor was Instafund and Instafund’s Adam Korbin, who was the Metro Vancouver chair of the event, thanked Bialik at the end of the program.
“We were very fortunate to have dozens of local sponsors for the event,” said Berson. “Details of the sponsors can be found on our website, bengurion.ca.”
Regional board chair Si Brown “was thrilled with the generous response from and participation of our local community,” Berson added. “Since reestablishing CABGU in Metro Vancouver seven years ago, it has been gratifying for me to watch how our community has slowly and surely begun to embrace this young and dynamic Israeli university in the Negev.”
Mayim Bialik headlines a Sept. 9 event to raise funds for the SOS: Support Our Students Assistance Fund at Ben-Gurion University. (photo from CABGU)
Across five time zones, two scientists and a Canadian senator will virtually get together to talk science, Judaism, veganism, Israel and the empowerment of young women. Join the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 4:30 p.m. (Pacific) for their first national virtual event, inspired by the appeal to address the dire needs of BGU’s students as a result of the coronavirus. The event will feature actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik, PhD, star of the TV series The Big Bang Theory and the sitcom Blossom; BGU president Prof. Danny Chamovitz; and special guest moderator, Senator Linda Frum. They will offer three perspectives on some of the most pressing issues facing the Jewish community, Israel and the world.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has forced thousands of BGU students to question their ability to continue their studies this fall. The event will benefit the recently launched SOS: Support Our Students Assistance Fund at Ben-Gurion University – a fund designed to save the class of COVID -19.
“Our event brings together three highly intelligent and socially engaged speakers that will captivate the 500 people we expect from across Canada,” said Mark Mendelson, chief executive officer of CABGU, speaking from Montreal.
“Mayim’s story has relevance and appeal for the next generation, especially during these turbulent times when many are wrestling with how to realize their social responsibility,” said David Berson, CABGU’s executive director for Western Canada. Regional chairperson for the event, Adam Korbin, added: “Equally important is the fact that she knows how to make people laugh, something we all could use right now.”
In addition to the discussion, guests will be treated to a bottle of award-winning red wine from the Yatir Winery in Israel’s Negev region and sweet and savoury kosher treats prepared by Café 41. Tickets are $180 per household, which includes a partial tax receipt; sponsorships are also available.
To purchase tickets or for further information, go to bengurion.ca or contact Berson at [email protected] or 604-266-2680. Tickets are limited and this event will likely sell out.
Prof. Yuval Shahar, left, and David Berson with Dr. Rachael Ritchie of Vancouver Coastal Health. (photo by Shula Klinger)
The use of artificial intelligence is intended “to harness the power of computers with math and statistics theory to improve the diagnosis and care of patients,” according to Dr. Yuval Shahar, professor of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s software and information systems engineering department.
Between May 23 and 30, Canadian Associates of BGU, B.C. and Alberta Region, hosted a visit from Shahar, whose research explores how information technologies can be used to improve numerous aspects of healthcare.
Shahar has spent 30 years working in digital medicine, gained his bachelor and medical degrees from the Hebrew University, and a master’s in computer science from Yale University. He did his doctorate at Stanford University, where he also spent 10 years as a faculty member in the computer science and medicine department. He founded BGU’s Medical Informatics Research Centre in 2000 and, in 2017, was elected as a founding member of the International Academy of Health Sciences Informatics.
During his time in Vancouver, Shahar presented his work to full lecture halls across town, including at Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, various government offices, Vancouver General Hospital, Pacific Blue Cross and some start-ups.
The program with which Shahar works requires patients to wear an ECG (echocardiographic) belt around their chest to monitor their heart, as well as a blood pressure cuff. This allows a patient to receive care 24 hours a day. Using Bluetooth, the data collected from these devices are sent to the patient’s cellphone and then to the program’s server in Israel.
MobiGuide was developed with 13 partners in Europe, including Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Austria. Even with 63 other projects competing for funding – including teams at Oxford and Cambridge universities – the MobiGuide team received seven million euros. “Ben-Gurion already had the necessary technology working,” said Shahar.
The program is led by an Israeli team in the main technology centre at BGU, with the partners from across Europe. Shahar explained how the system works, using the analogy of today’s mapping software. “It’s like a medical version of GPS,” he said. Right now, the program’s focus is on diabetes and hypertension.
One advantage of MobiGuide is the way the server handles massive amounts of clinical research, explained Shahar. For instance, when international guidelines for treating hypertension change, you can update that information in one place and it will be reflected throughout the entire system. That information is then immediately available to all patients and their physicians on the MobiGuide system.
“There are millions of patients on the system now,” said Shahar. “Each cellphone has a customized version of the guidelines in the program so the phone alerts the ‘mothership’ and the server examines the data for anomalies. The mothership knows the full patient history and clinical guidelines.”
The server in Israel also reminds patients to make adjustments, such as to their diet. A phone can contact the mothership to ask for advice, and recommendations are customized for each individual. Personal preferences can be adjusted depending on the patient – for example, when they prefer to be alerted to take their medications. If they are on vacation, they can ask the system not to alert them as frequently.
The system can also be notified to anticipate spikes in blood glucose. For instance, if a patient is attending a wedding and expects to eat rich food, she can tell the system first that it need not be concerned about this. Likewise, if a patient lives alone and has nobody to rely on for support with their health, the system can issue different instructions than for someone with a companion.
Humans are, however, still essential to the smooth running of the system. Shahar relies on “medical-knowledge engineers, graduate students,” who digitize clinical knowledge so that it can be applied on the system. But, he said, “It’s a sign of the future. Chronic patients won’t need to be in clinics all of the time. You want to be there only if there’s no other way.” It is cheaper to offer care in the community, especially in remote areas, even while offering round-the-clock observation.
To date, feedback from patients and the professional community has been consistently good. Compliance with clinical guidelines by physicians has improved, preventing a great deal of human error and possibly fatal mistakes, said Shahar. Likewise, he said, “Compliance was very high, we saw real patient empowerment.”
Patients “said that their quality of life had improved, they felt more secure and safe,” said Shahar. This is important, he explained, because AI in healthcare is not just about technology – human psychology has a huge impact on both patient treatment and outcomes.
As an example of the program’s success, Shahar said, in Barcelona, pregnant women with gestational diabetes were studied. The blood pressure of the research patients was significantly lower than in the control group, who attended in-person clinics. Shahar explained that these data were accompanied by a sense that a “benevolent big brother was monitoring them, and someone was sending alerts and recommendations every few days.”
After a four-year evaluation hosted by a veterans hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., there is evidence that the software developed by Shahar’s team has helped physicians manage oncology data better than before. With only seven to 10 minutes to give to each patient, physicians simply do not have the time to review all the material they need to, while considering its application and significance to individual patients.
In his talk at the Eye Care Centre at VGH, Shahar recalled asking a patient if she minded getting numerous texts from MobiGuide every day. “She laughed, I get 50 texts from my friends, what’s another 20?” he said. But, in reality, she clarified, “How could I mind? This is about the health of my baby.” Shahar added, “They feel that someone knows them deeply.”
According to David Berson, regional executive director of CABGU, Shahar’s visit was a success. He said BGU will examine how Shahar’s research in medical informatics can dovetail with local efforts to revolutionize healthcare, exploring the potential for “patient empowerment, remote monitoring, decision-making support and beyond.”
BGU board member and innovation expert Jonathan Miodowski said there was a need to balance between “blue-sky research and practical solutions” to real-world problems. “Multidisciplinary approach is a hot topic for universities these days – it is critical to bring different perspectives to the research,” he said.
Miodowski described Israel as a world leader in innovation. Last year, Canada raised $4.7 billion in start-up capital, he said, noting that Israeli start-ups, by contrast, raised $10 billion. “For a country that is two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island, that’s pretty significant,” he said. “In a sense, the size of the territory is very convenient. Cross-pollination of ideas is inevitable.”
Miodowski also spoke well of the Vancouver visit. “We planted some seeds on both sides,” he said. “It was very positive. There was real interest in Yuval’s research, real appreciation for what Israel has done in terms of its innovation ecosystem.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
Dr. William and Ruth Ross (photo from Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University)
Dr. William Hy Ross tears up talking about the
motivation behind his philanthropic activities in Israel. Sitting behind a desk
in his room at the medical clinic he runs, over which hangs a watercolour
painting of the Mount of Olives, Ross said it is because of the grandparents he
never met, both of whom died in the Holocaust. “If we had a state back then,
that wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I would have grandparents.”
Ross met with the Jewish Independent
last week to talk about the projects the Ross Foundation has undertaken in
Israel, projects aimed at lifting up the underprivileged on the fringes of
society there. He was accompanied by Sagie Shein, senior program manager of the
Jewish American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Shein has acted as
philanthropic advisor to Ross, and was recently made the fund manager of the
Ross Family Foundation, in which role, he told the JI, he identifies
projects that will achieve the foundation’s goals in Israel, whether through
JDC or otherwise.
Ross and Shein met after Rabbi Shmuel Birnham,
formerly of Congregation Har El, introduced Ross to Prof. Jack Habib of the
Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem. Shein has now been working with the
Ross foundation for six years.
Ross is a surgeon and a clinical professor of
ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia. In 2012, he established
the Morris and Sarah Ross International Fellowship in Vitreo-Retinal Surgery,
which funds the training of ophthalmologists from Israel, including, so far, 12
Israeli Jews, three Israeli Muslims and three Israeli Christians.
Also in 2012, he and his wife, Ruth,
established the Ross Family Scholarship Program for Advanced Studies in the
Helping Professions, which funds education for nurses and social workers
serving in the underserved peripheral communities of Israel. Their
contributions have gone to select students at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) and
they have been recognized as founders of the university, in honour of their
contributions. The Ross Foundation appears on the walls of BGU’s Marcus Campus
in Be’er Sheva.
In 2016, the Ross Foundation
extended its activity to another initiative –
the Project for the Advancement of Employment for Ethiopian Immigrants, which
supports the education of engineers, web developers and others.
“Israel is a fantastic success story,” said
Ross. “You hear about the start-up companies, etc., but there is a whole fringe
society who doesn’t have any of those advantages.”
Ross spoke to the JI about the
particular importance of supporting Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in Israel.
“When they’re done serving in the army, they often end up in dead-end jobs,” he
said. “We are providing living expenses for them in a way that is a
game-changer, allowing them to get jobs as practical engineers and in other
Ross and Shein explained that, even when given
support to pay for education, many underprivileged Israelis cannot afford to
stop working and go to school full-time. The Ross Foundation’s initiatives give
recipients a stipend that allows them to stop working and complete a course of
education. The foundation is also supporting other communities facing
challenges in the workplace, like Arabs and Charedim.
“JDC empowers all Israelis as a social
innovation incubator, developing pioneering social services in conjunction with
the Israeli government, local municipalities, nonprofits and other partners to
lift the lives of Israel’s children at risk, elderly, unemployed, and people
with disabilities,” Michael Geller, JDC’s director of media relations, told the
Operating since 1914, JDC has provided “more
than $2 billion in social services and aid to date,” he said.
The JDC funds and organizes experimental
programs in the hope that the government will see their success and launch
“We’re looking to pilot programs that can be
adopted by the Israeli government,” Ross said.
“In 2020,” added Shein, “the foundation is
expected to further expand its activities to additional programs based on the
“Hy and Ruthie Ross really get Israel,” said
David Berson, executive director of Canadian Associates of BGU for British
Columbia and Alberta. “They speak the language of social impact and they lead
by example. I am so impressed and moved by their understanding of the human
equation for social change. Great training, proper guidance and supportive
accompaniment can lead to gainful employment.
“As a social worker who trained and worked in
Israel with some of her significant social challenges for two decades years, I
know that Hy and Ruthie really understand the most critical needs of Israel. It
is also an honour for me to be able to partner with JDC Israel, one of Israel’s
most noteworthy agencies of real social mobility and empowerment for Israel’s
most at-risk populations.”
Ross summed up the strong belief that drives
his philanthropy in Israel simply: “I believe every Jew has an obligation to
support Israel in some way.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and
lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for
the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been
published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He
can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Members of the Momo Minyan with Lhamo Dolma, Phurba Jompa and Lobsang Dolma. (photo from David Berson)
After a meeting between the Dalai Lama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007, and with the later support of then citizenship and immigration minister Jason Kenney, a resettlement plan for 1,000 displaced Tibetans in Canada was announced.
Seven years later, in April 2014, Or Shalom congregant Vicky Robinson gave a presentation on sponsoring Tibetan migrants. The presentation resulted in a number of congregants coming together to establish the Momo Minyan. The group was named by David Berson to represent a mixture of Jewish and Buddhist culture to help facilitate the move and integration into Canadian Society of two Tibetan refugees. (For a March 2014 story about the background of the group, click here.)
“I feel like I won the birthright lottery living here in Vancouver,” Berson said. “We started discussing the responsibility that this involves, because the Canadian government had given a go ahead for 1,000 people to come from Arunachal Pradesh, which is on the border with Tibet.”
Many of the refugees have been without status for more than 50 years, after India stopped granting Tibetans citizenship in 1959. As described by Berson, the Tibetans who are being sponsored lack many of the rights associated with citizenship and have been left with few choices.
“Tibetans that are on the border have limited rights, limited education [and] health care, but can work. We were moved by their story and their whole notion of the immigrant experience…. It is what the Jewish people have gone through.”
A trip was organized by the Minyan and its partners to visit the Tibetan communities in the fall of 2014. The trip involved assessing the conditions in remote villages in Arunachal Pradesh while trekking in the Himalayan mountains. On the journey, the participants traveled through areas considered sacred to Buddhists, where religious texts have been buried in Pemako, an area with 108 lakes.
Berson attended on behalf of the Momo Minyan, which joined with members of North Shore Search and Rescue. Many members of Or Shalom fundraised for the trip through donations to the Tibetan Cultural Society of British Columbia.
The main destination was Tuting, a city where 200 of the migrants live. When Berson arrived there, he was shocked at what he saw. “In Tuting, there is no internet, so any communication has to be done via snail mail. It can sometimes take a month or two … the way of life for Tibetans in this city is involved in some commerce and some farming, but they are still not looked at as full citizens.”
The trip also was an opportunity to promote Canada as the refugees’ new home. “We went to visit the resettlement office and presented them with a big Canadian flag, and we gave out a lot of Canadian pins along the way,” he recalled.
Since that trip, two Tibetan women who are being sponsored by the Momo Minyan have arrived in Vancouver. In September, Vancouver welcomed 36-year-old Lobsang Dolma and, in December, 28-year-old Lhamo Dolma arrived with her sister Phurba Jompa (who was sponsored by another group).
Once in Vancouver, members of the Momo Minyan assisted the new migrants in obtaining medical insurance, signing up for a social insurance number, assisting with English tests, helping to find work and housing for a one-year period.
Lobsang’s first job was at Or Shalom Synagogue, where she worked in the kitchen and as a custodian for pay. She has since worked as a dishwasher elsewhere four days a week and continues to take evening English classes.
While Lhamo continues to attend English classes alongside her sister four nights a week, her road has been less smooth and she has had less luck with employment.
According to Berson, members of the Momo Minyan are committed to introducing the migrants to people in their new communities. “It is hard for them; they left their families behind, want to be with their families. It is a sense of urgency many of us here do not need to experience because we do not need to worry about the basics of life.”
There are other challenges for members as well, Berson described. “It is clothing, it is language, it is how to get from one place to another, we take a lot of things for granted … and language is so important. And, at the same time, these women want to start working because they will need to support themselves and to make a living, a real tradeoff between learning the language and wanting to earn.”
Financial challenges are deepened, as the two women want to make money to support themselves, but also want to save money to send back home to help their families.
Cultural norms also affect the migrants’ experience in Canada. An example is in acquiring doctor’s services, which can lead to issues with communication, and access to health services. In India, services are far away and there is not an expectation that there will be an interaction between patient and doctor. “There are different expectations [here],” Berson explained. “Canadians interact more with their doctors than in India.”
The minyan and the Tibetan Cultural Society of B.C. are committed to bringing as many Tibetans from Arunachal Pradesh as are on the list to resettle in Canada and welcome support for the project. Residential accommodation and employment opportunities are areas where the minyan has asked for assistance. More opportunities to sponsor future migrants may occur, as well.
Gil Lavieis a freelance correspondent, with articles published in the Jerusalem Post, Shalom Toronto and Tazpit News Agency. He has a master’s of global affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
There are a few vestiges that remain of the Jewish community in Calcutta, including the Jewish Girls’ School and Nahoum’s. (photos by David Berson)
It was family history, alongside a taste for discovery, that took local Jewish community member and Or Shalomnik David Berson to Calcutta recently. A major Indian metropolitan centre near Bangladesh, it used to be home to one of India’s largest Jewish communities.
Berson’s mother, Seemah, is originally from Calcutta. Born there in 1931, she has lived in Vancouver since 1954. However, her connections to the city remain vivid. This past summer, the Recalling Jewish Calcutta (jewishcalcutta.in) virtual museum was launched, and it includes several contributions from Seemah.
“The Baghdadi Jewish community came to Calcutta during the British Raj,” explains the site. “When India gained its independence, they were unsure of what their future would be in an Indian India.” Many community members emigrated to other Commonwealth countries through the 1940s and ’50s, leaving “few traces behind.”
Among those traces are three synagogues, two schools, a cemetery and several businesses. “Ezra Mansions and the Ezra Hospital, Nahoum’s Confectionary, and two buildings in the zoo that are owned and endowed by Jews still bear Jewish names. There is the Belilios Street, Ezra Street and Synagogue Street. There are many other mansions, residences and office buildings that still stand but they no longer bear their Jewish names and few know they were once Jewish owned.” The site notes that there are “barely 30 Jews left in the community, most very elderly.”
While Calcutta attracted Berson with its density, architecture and wide Indian roads, the city’s Jewish jewel was the main draw. “It was very moving to see how deep the roots of the Jewish community were and how much of a role they played in Indian life, and I got a much better sense of the joy of life my mother experienced when growing up,” he said.
Nahoum’s bakery, a cultural phenomenon in its own right, combines Jewish and Indian cuisine. “It helped me make a connection with some of the community that lived there and are still in Calcutta,” explained Berson about visiting the bakery, where one can find cheese samosas and a unique type of boureka.
Berson said the food of the Jewish community in general is known for its creativity and its tastefulness. One of the many examples of an Indian dish that was popular in the Jewish community is aloo makala, a potato dish that is slowly cooked in oil. A connection of Berson’s mother, Flower Silliman, a native Calcutta resident, lived abroad for many years – including in Israel, where she established the first Indian restaurant in Jerusalem – before returning to Calcutta.
Central Calcutta and the Park Street-Esplanade region were the main areas where the Jewish community was centred. Built in the mid-19th century, the Great Eastern Hotel was recently renovated. It used to be a gathering spot for the Jewish community – including for Berson’s mother – to sip a beer. The New Market area was where the Judean Club used to meet. The Jewish Girls School today is secular and attended by all non-Jewish students, but one can still see where the mezuzah used to be fitted.
The splendor of the former community really came to life for Berson when he visited the city’s synagogues: Beth El, Magen David and Neveh Shalom, today culturally preserved by members of the city’s Muslim population. The back of Beth El included a mikvah and also a special oven to bake matzah, which had been in use until recently, supervised by the community’s few remaining Jews. Now, the buildings only see tourist groups, with the rare exception, such as last year, when the Israeli ambassador to India brought with him enough Jewish men to form a minyan for Simchat Torah celebrations at Magen David.
At the Jewish cemetery, grand in its magnitude, the high-water level makes traditional burial impossible. Bodies would first be wrapped in a shroud, then put in concrete slabs and entombed, giving the final burial an almost Egyptian feel, according to Berson.
While it would be ideal to visit the remaining Calcutta Jewish community in person, the Jewish Calcutta virtual museum – a project spearheaded by Silliman’s daughter, Jael – offers an important resource to anyone interested. There are several exhibits bringing the community back to life, including through a film gallery and sections on notable members of the community, women pioneers, Jewish businesses and more, at jewishcalcutta.in.
Gil Lavie is a freelance correspondent, with articles published in the Jerusalem Post, Shalom Toronto and Tazpit News Agency. He has a master’s of global affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Members of the Momo Minyan. (photo by David Berson)
Sometime in the next three months, two Tibetans will arrive in Vancouver from Arunachal Pradesh, a poor, remote region in the far northeast of India. When they get here, a group of Jews from Vancouver’s Or Shalom Synagogue will be waiting for them, ready to aid with their resettlement in this country. The group, which calls itself the Momo Minyan – momo after a Tibetan steamed dumpling – formed in June 2013 with the sole purpose of helping these Tibetans create a new life in British Columbia. In February, they completed and filed the sponsorship papers. Now, they wait. When the newcomers arrive, their work will begin in earnest.
The group will be supporting the two Tibetans financially, but their involvement will go beyond hard cash. “It means receiving them at the airport, finding a place for them to stay, ensuring they get registered for health benefits, helping them learn the language and find a job, and assisting them as they integrate socially,” said David Berson, a member of the minyan. The group will be responsible for accommodating the Tibetan refugees and ensuring they can access the services they require. It promises to be no small undertaking.
Back in 2010, at the urging of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to allow 1,000 Tibetans from this rugged, contested area to resettle in Canada. Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China as “South Tibet” and for the past 55 years the strip of land along this border has been home to thousands of Tibetans. To determine who was chosen to go to Canada, a lottery was held in the village’s public square, eventually granting a new life to one-sixth of the Tibetans from this area. The first wave of 55 arrived in Canada in December 2013. By the program’s conclusion, there will be approximately 200 refugees in British Columbia and others in Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto.
To make the transition to Canada possible, each one required sponsorship by a Canadian group or individual before they could obtain special travel documents and enter the country as landed immigrants.
Vicki Robinson, a facilitator for the Momo Minyan, said Or Shalom is the first synagogue in Canada to sponsor Tibetans under this program. The minyan has partnered with the Tibetan cultural society in this project. The United Church of Canada, a government sponsorship holder, has also helped to get the applications completed. “The United Church has a lot of experience in resettlement, working with the Canadian Immigration Committee and getting all the permits lined up,” Berson said. “They’re a conduit more than a partner for us.”
The Momo Minyan will be responsible for the Tibetans’ entire integration package, including finding and paying for an apartment, paying for health insurance and food. “Until we know who we’re absorbing, it’s difficult to know what kind of work will be appropriate,” Berson said of the process. The refugees, who have varying levels of education, come from poverty-stricken villages in this region, where they have limited access to medical care and often have to send their children away to school. “Their lives are threatened and they are a stateless people living in a disputed territory,” he noted.
The Tibetans have neither Chinese nor Indian citizenship. Some have more work experience than others, said Berson, who recently learned the Tibetans in this area tried to cultivate apple orchards for the past 10 years, but were more successful growing kiwi. Some worked in the agricultural sector in Israel, as foreign workers, he added. “The Canadian government is going to Arunachal Pradesh this month to interview them, so we’ll hear very soon about the Tibetans we will be receiving.”
The minyan has begun fundraising in the Or Shalom community and will extend its efforts to the wider community once more is known about the particular immigrants they are sponsoring. Eligibility for social assistance is not a possibility under the agreement with the Canadian government, which estimates sponsorship costs at $12,000 per person per year. With the cost of living in Vancouver, that won’t be enough, Berson said. “It’s guiding our efforts in terms of fundraising, but we think we’ll need more than that. The government is very nicely providing them with landed immigrant status, but not any other aid, per se, in the process. After five years, they will be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship like any other landed immigrant.”
Members of the Momo Minyan united in a mutual agreement to participate in this humanitarian effort, one that resonated with many in the synagogue, Berson said. “The opportunity for us to be able to extend our hospitality to another group that has suffered exile and have a diaspora is probably one element why I got involved. The Tibetans are amazing people but they’re very reserved and shy in their mannerisms,” he added. “There’s going to be big cultural differences.”
Robinson was eager to step forward and join the minyan after visiting Tibet in 1994. “The Tibetan people stole my heart,” she admitted. “They are amazing, beautiful, spiritual, good people who are struggling in a very difficult situation. Since my visit there, I’ve been involved working with the Tibetan community in exile. I spent time working with the Tibetan Women’s Association in India for a year, where I met Tibetans from Arunachal Pradesh.” Robinson’s family came to Canada fleeing persecution, which was another reason she wanted to get involved. “I thought this would be good work to do – a way of giving back to the country that welcomed us,” she said.
Those interested in contributing to the resettlement efforts can contact Berson by email at [email protected].
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.