Grade 2 and 3 students of the B.C. Regional Hebrew School in Coquitlam with teacher Shifra Rabiski. (photo from Lubavitch BC)
In time for the upcoming school year, Lubavitch BC, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, is launching a new curriculum for B.C. Regional Hebrew Schools. There is a need to engage Jewish children with a connection and pride for Israel and its central role in the Jewish past, present and future, and B.C. Regional Hebrew Schools has developed a program that does exactly this. Israel Quest is an immersive curriculum that enables children to form attachments to the Holy Land on practical, emotional and spiritual levels.
Using educational tools such as virtual reality, topography, theatre, filmmaking, STEAM activities and more, students relive the journey of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, from the time Jews entered the land, led by prophets and kings, until the untimely destruction of the Holy Temples. They discover the secret to the Jewish people’s eternal survival as a nation with tools established to keep Judaism thriving in the Diaspora.
Of the new program, Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, director of the Hebrew schools, said, “Education is at the core of everything. What we teach children in their formative years creates an indelible impact and foundation for their entire adult lives. And not only are the students themselves transformed, but the positive impact of their learning extends to their families, friends, classmates, communities and beyond.”
B.C. Regional Hebrew Schools is an affiliate of the Chabad Children’s Network (CKids), which has chapters in 26 countries and engages 25,000 children each year. Currently operating in three locations throughout British Columbia, it is gearing up for another year of Hebrew and Judaic learning, starting Sept. 1. Online registration is available at lubavitchbc.com/hebrewschool. More information can be found by calling 778-878-2025.
Israeli President-elect Isaac “Bougie” Herzog outside the Knesset. (PR photo)
There was a palpable sense of community, both on a local and an international level, at Schara Tzedeck’s Mosaic 2021: Building a Stronger Jewish Future virtual event May 27.
Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt and synagogue president Jonathon Leipsic led the festivities through a pre-recorded video in which they drove around town, spoke about the current state of affairs and introduced such guests as the singer Shulem, Rabbi Naftali Schiff and Prof. Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University.
Israeli President-elect Isaac “Bougie” Herzog was the featured guest. He was voted the 11th president of Israel on June 2, less than a week after addressing the Schara Tzedeck audience. He is the son of former Israeli president Chaim Herzog and the grandson of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, the first chief rabbi of Ireland and Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959.
“I have a huge respect for the Jewish community in Vancouver and for your congregation. It is a thriving, successful and beautiful community. Community is at the heart of Jewish life,” said Herzog, who is also chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). During the pandemic, JAFI has come to the aid, through interest-free loans, of more than 75 Jewish communities around the world that were on the verge of collapsing.
Herzog highlighted the role of religious organizations and spiritual leaders as crucial to post-pandemic life. Also central to community life, he said, is the financial ability to sustain institutions, such as community centres, as well as to involve younger people in leadership positions.
The most important role of JIFA is to create a sense of “connecting” within the Jewish world, said Herzog. Since the creation of Israel, it has welcomed more than four million olim, immigrants. Even during COVID-19, 21,000 olim from 45 countries arrived in Israel.
“Connecting” also involves bringing around 100,000 young people to Israel every year on various programs, sending emissaries to Jewish communities abroad and partnering with Diaspora communities.
“The whole idea is to get to know each other, to respect each other, to understand the pluralistic nature of Jewish life abroad, to understand what it is to be a Jew abroad and the questions of identity that are faced by young people outside Israel,” said Herzog.
He stressed the importance of having young people visit Israel. It is also imperative, he said, to “bring the truth”; that is, to counter false information about Israel.
Herzog, who has ties to Canada, once visited the University of British Columbia to meet with its leadership. In such meetings, his objective is to make sure “the true picture of Israel is told. You can criticize Israeli policy just like you criticize Canadian policy – that has nothing to do with the inherent right to the Jewish people for their own self-determination.” In general, he noted, “Once people know the facts, they have a stronger affinity with one another.”
He concluded, “I believe there is something metaphysical in being Jewish. That is, we feel an affinity – a Jew from Vancouver and myself could land together anywhere and bond immediately, because we feel like brothers and sisters.”
Herzog has family in Toronto. His uncle, Yaacov Herzog, was the Israeli ambassador to Canada from 1960 to 1963 and, while here, participated in a well-known debate with British historian Arnold J. Toynbee.
Shulem Lemmer, better known as Shulem, was the first guest to appear during the Mosaic evening, and he led the audience from his home in New Jersey through a couple of Jewish standards. Shulem was the first Charedi Jew to sign a contract with a leading music label, Universal Music Group, under its Decca Gold imprint, in 2018.
London-based Schiff, the founder and chief executive officer of Jewish Futures, spoke about the GIFT (Give It Forward Today) initiative, which he started in 2004. It was designed to spark a culture of giving between individuals and communal organizations, and it provides volunteering opportunities for young people.
Aknin, whose research interests include prosocial behaviour, happiness, social relationships, altruism, money, social mobility and inequality, rounded out the event.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Algazi Synagogue was built in 1724 and has been renovated several times. (photo from Izmir Jewish Community Foundation)
The Izmir Jewish Community Foundation’s Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, for the preservation of Jewish heritage within the Turkish city, has started its activities. The project, financed by the European Commission, also has Our City Izmir Association as a partner.
Home to various cultures and religions, Izmir is one of the cities that has attracted Jewish immigration since ancient times. In the light of current data, the first concrete evidence of the Jewish community’s existence in the city dates to the fifth or sixth century CE. Sephardi Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and 1497 came to the Ottoman lands and settled in Izmir and its surroundings.
Since the middle of the 16th century, synagogues, hospitals, cemeteries and other institutions were established within the social, economic, cultural and administrative structure that started to form the present Izmir Jewish community. Most of the historical buildings that have survived to today are located in the Old Jewish Quarter, known as the historical centre and downtown of Izmir.
The Jewish population fluctuated after the 16th century due to earthquakes, epidemics, fires and global political, economic and sociological migrations. In the 1800s, Izmir was home to approximately 50,000 Jews, mostly Sephardi. A significant decrease in the population began in the early 1900s, when many people migrated to Europe and the Americas. Another massive outward move took place to Israel, after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. Today, the Jewish population of Izmir is about 1,100 people.
In parallel with the decrease in population, out of the city’s 34 synagogues, only 13 remained. With shrinking congregations, some of the synagogues were neglected and even disappeared over the years. In addition, seismic activity and environmental threats have put these structures in peril. As a result, all of the synagogues that have survived to the present day have to be preserved and restored.
Six of the nine synagogues in Kemeralti, the bazaar area at the heart of the city, tell the stories of centuries. Adjacent to one another and with their special architecture, they have unique value in the world. Currently, the area, consisting of the nine synagogues, one chief rabbinate building, five kortejos (courtyards) and the Juderia (Jewish district) creates a density of structures that is also of unique cultural and touristic value.
The 36-month heritage project includes:
A masterplan for the region of the Old Jewish Quarter, located in the historical centre of Izmir, including conservation and restoration plans for the Hevra and Foresteros synagogues, which date to the 17th century. These synagogues, witnessing much of the Izmir Jewish community history, are unique, as they form a compound of four synagogues facing the same courtyard.
This compound of synagogues will be promoted in Turkey and worldwide, to be recognized as a cultural heritage site, a tourist destination and an intercultural dialogue centre.
A platform strengthening communication with local, national and international networks will be established. A physical location where the platform will carry out its work is also planned.
Four books will be written and published on subjects such as Izmir Sephardi stories, Izmir Sephardi women, Jewish press in Izmir, and traditional synagogue textiles.
Conferences, workshops, training and study visits will be organized.
Works on corporate identity, website, brochures, short films, etc., will be brought to life in order to increase institutional capacity and promote this heritage.
While the project is funded by the EU, the content is entirely under the responsibility of the Izmir Jewish Community Foundation.
Left to right: Rabbi Dov Bakst, presidential advisor, Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog and Rabbi Shlomo Raanan at the March 4 launch of the Ayelet Hashachar initiative to create a promenade in Kiryat Shmona to commemorate Jewish COVID victims from around the world. (photo from IMP)
“What is the main defining characteristic of the COVID-19 era?” asks public activist Rabbi Shlomo Raanan. “The coronavirus brought about separation and disconnect. It separates between countries, divides communities and splits families. It’s about being lonely and alone. My goal is to foster connection. Every Jew has an intrinsic connection to Israel. Let’s help them develop that connection and make it grow.”
Raanan’s organization, Ayelet Hashachar, has recently launched an initiative to foster connection with Diaspora Jewry: a promenade in Kiryat Shmona to commemorate Jewish COVID victims from around the world. More than 100 olive trees will line the kilometre-long walkway. Each tree will represent a different Jewish community from across the globe, serving as a vehicle to commemorate members who passed away from the coronavirus. Visitors to the site can learn about the communities and members who succumbed to COVID by standing next to the tree and getting the story on a dedicated app via a QR code. Each community will have its own mini-site, featuring eulogies, historical anecdotes and any extra information the community wishes to include, for a bona fide living memorial.
“Throughout the years, Diaspora Jewry has always been there for Israel,” said Raanan, explaining what inspired him to reach out to Diaspora communities and provide this free service. “We felt that the time had come for us, here in Israel, to show them our solidarity and support during this very challenging time.”
The significance of the location of the commemorative promenade is not limited to the views of Mount Hermon that Kiryat Shmona affords. Israel’s northernmost city is no stranger to bereavement – its very name commemorates eight people, including hero Joseph Trumpeldor, who were killed, in 1920, while defending the area. More recently, the proximity of Kiryat Shmona to the Lebanese border has made it a frequent target for terror and rocket attacks.
Kiryat Shmona is a symbol of Jewish determination and tenacity. Off the beaten track, it needs to invest twice the effort to make itself relevant to the centre of the country. Despite the hardships associated with leading a border city, Mayor Avihay Shtern has been making strides to promote development and attract residents. The growing food-tech industry and the establishment of large academic institutions are examples of those efforts.
“I am proud and gratified to have this opportunity to reach out to Diaspora communities and commemorate their COVID victims,” said Shtern. “There are many memorials, but I’ve yet to see one honouring those who succumbed to the pandemic, even though we’re almost a year in, and it’s taken such a heavy toll globally.”
Shtern noted that the walkway, to be named “the Path of Life,” will serve as “a living history lesson” for local residents, as well as the many visitors and tourists who flock to the Upper Galilee. “I think it’s important for us to remember, and for the children of the future to know, what happened during this period. The coronavirus will soon disappear, but we must never forget those who were lost to the disease.”
A grand opening ceremony for the promenade was held on March 4, with the participation of the mayor, Raanan, senior public figures, as well as Jewish Agency chair Isaac (Bougie) Herzog.
Each tree, a story
Raanan sees special significance in planting trees as commemoration. “There is a beautiful verse in the book of Job: ‘For a tree has hope; if it is cut it will again renew itself and its bough will not cease.’ Trees signify revival, particularly olive trees,” he said. “They are a perfect metaphor for the Jewish people. Even when it looks lifeless, the olive tree still retains vitality deep inside. Olive trees are also very adaptive; they survive tough periods and can live for thousands of years. It’s certainly appropriate that the olive tree is the symbol of the state of Israel.”
Raanan welcomes community leaders and members who wish to have their community represented by a tree on the promenade. His staff of web developers will prepare the relevant text and visual material at no charge.
“The coronavirus separated people from their loved ones, often forcing victims to die alone,” he said. “This memorial accomplishes the opposite, bringing communities together and uniting people.”
Raanan has other plans to connect Diaspora Jewry with Israel, as well.
Parallel to the commemoration project in Kiryat Shmona, he is offering interested communities the opportunity to plant not just one tree but an entire olive orchard. “There are vast tracts of land across Israel that are neglected…. Communities can plant their own orchards in areas of national importance – the Galilee, the Negev, the Jordan Valley,” he said.
Of established projects, Raanan’s Chavrutah program was started more than two decades ago, with the aim of encouraging dialogue between secular and religious Israelis. The program now features close to 20,000 people studying in partnerships, in Israel and abroad.
Ayelet Hashachar’s goal in all its projects is to heal the divisiveness of Israeli society by working to eliminate mistrust between sectors, thereby breaking stereotypes and encouraging mutual respect.
For more information about how to have a community featured in the Path of Life commemoration project, email [email protected] or call 97-252-617-6222.
– Courtesy International Marketing and Promotion (IMP)
הצעת חוק החדשה של חברת הכנסת תהילה פרידמן ממפלגת כחול לבן, מעוררת עניין רב בעולם היהודי. לדברי אחד מהבכירים בקהילת היהודים בארצות הברית, דיוויד באטלר, הצעת חוק זו מעלה על הפרק את אחד האירועים המשמעותיים ביחסי ישראל והתפוצות מזה שנים רבות.
השאלה שהחוזרת על עצמה אין סוף פעמים, נדונה לעיתים קרובות במאמרי דעות בעיתונות, בנאומים ובכנסים יהודיים שונים, אך היא מעולם לא זכתה לתשובה חד משמעית. כעת מוצעת בכנסת חקיקה חדשה שתיתן למנהיגי יהדות התפוצות סוף סוף תפקיד רשמי בענייניה של ישראל, ואולי אף תבשר על עידן חדש ביחסי ישראל והתפוצות.
מתוך כלל היהודים בעולם שמספרם מוערך בכחמישה עשר מיליון, קרוב לשבעה מיליון גרים בישראל, לפי נתוני ממשלת ישראל. על פי הערכות שונות כשמונת המיליונים הנותרים חיים ברובם בשש המדינות הבאות: ארה”ב כשישה מיליון, צרפת כחצי מיליון, קנדה כארבע מאות אלף, בריטניה כשלוש מאות אלף, ארגנטינה כמאתיים אלף ורוסיה כמאתיים אלף.
את הצעת החוק, שזכתה לתמיכת משרד התפוצות, מקדמת כאמור ח”כ תהילה פרידמן. החוק המוצע יחייב את ממשלת ישראל להיוועץ במנהיגי יהדות העולם בעניינים שייחשבו בעיניה כמכריעים, ונוגעים גם לכשמונה מיליון היהודים שחיים מחוץ לישראל.
באטלר אומר הצעת החוק החדשה “עשויה להיות אחד האירועים המשמעותיים ביותר ביחסי ישראל והתפוצות מזה עשרות שנים”. באטלר אגב משמש יו”ר ועדת ישראל וחו”ל של ארגון הגג של הפדרציות היהודיות בצפון אמריקה (שמאגד מאה ארבעים ושש פדרציות יהודיות ועוד שלוש מאות קהילות עצמאיות).
פדרציות אלו שולחות במשותף לישראל מדי שנה מאות מיליוני דולרים בדמות מענקים למלכ”רים שונים, שפועלים למען ישראלים מכל מגזרי בחברה. ביניהם שני השותפים העיקריים של הפדרציות מחוץ לארה”ב: הסוכנות היהדות לישראל וארגון הג’וינט.
בסוף חודש אוקטובר קיימו הארגונים את הכנס השנתי שלהם (בפורמט מקוון) ובו עלתה לדיון השאלה המרכזית: באיזו מידה צריכה להיות ליהודי העולם אמירה בענייני הפנים של ישראל. שאלה זו שימשה כזרז להצעת החוק הממשלתית של השרה לענייני התפוצות עומר ינקליבץ’ (השרה החרדית הראשונה בישראל).
אריק פינגהרט, לשעבר חבר קונגרס יהודי מאוהיו (עומד כיום בראש רשת הפדרציות היהודיות) מאמין שהישראלים וממשלת ישראל צריכים לרצות לשמוע גם מהיהודים בעולם, וללמוד ולהבין את נקודות המבט של היהודים בעולם. “איננו רוצים לנסות לומר לממשלת ישראל מה לעשות, אבל אנחנו כן רוצים שהם ישמעו את מה שיש לנו לומר בעניינים המשפיעים על הקהילה שלנו”, הוא מוסיף.
לדברי השרה ינלקביץ’: “עלינו להבין לעומק את האינטרסים והצרכים של כשמונה מיליון האחים והאחיות של ישראל הגרים מחוץ לגבולותינו. זה נכון במיוחד כאשר מדינת ישראל מקבלת החלטות המשפיעות ישירות על קהילות יהודיות מחוץ לישראל. אם למדתי משהו בתפקידי כשרה בשמונת החודשים האחרונים, זה שליהדות העולם יש קול. הוא עשיר, הוא מגוון, הוא חזק, אי אפשר ואין רשות להתעלם ממנו”.
ישנן כמה סוגיות שבאופן קבוע נוגעות בנקודות רגישות במערכת היחסים המורכבת בין שתי הקהילות היהודיות הגדולות בעולם, ישראל וארה”ב. רוב היהודים האמריקנים מזדהים כרפורמים או כקונסרבטיבים, אך היחס לשני הזרמים הלא אורתודוקסיים הללו הוא יחס של בוז או עוינות של ממש, מצד רבים בישראל, בכלל זה הרבנות הראשית. גיורים שעורכים רבנים רפורמים או קונסרבטיבים אינם מוכרים בישראל, ויהודים אמריקנים שרוצים להתפלל בכותל המערבי במניינים שיוויוניים, בעירוב נשים וגברים או בהובלת נשים, נחסמים באופן קבוע ואינם מורשים לעשות זאת.
“במשך זמן רב מדי הייתה ישראל המקום היחיד עלי אדמות שבו לא כל היהודים מקבלים יחס שווה. זה משהו שישראל צריכה לתקן ויפה שעה אחת קודם, ולא רק בגלל יהודי התפוצות”, אומרת חברת הכנסת מרב מיכאלי ממפלגת העבודה. “יש לנו גם כאן בישראל יהודים רפורמים וקונסרבטיבים שעדיין אינם נהנים משיוויון לא במימון, לא בזכויות ולא בהכרה על-ידי המדינה”, היא מוסיפה.
רבים מחברי הכנסת התומכים בחקיקה החדשה התנסו במגורים בתפוצות או בעבודה עם יהודי התפוצות. מיכאלי עבדה בעבר כמדריכה במרכז קהילתי יהודי במערב פאלם ביץ’, פלורידה. פרידמן, עורכת דין דתייה מירושלים, ייצגה בעבר את הפדרציה היהודית הגדולה ביותר בניו ג’רזי (הידועה בשם גרֵייטר מֶטרוֹ-ווֶסט). הוריה של ינקלביץ’ עלו לישראל מברית המועצות לשעבר.
חברת כנסת נוספת שתומכת בחקיקה היא מיכל קוֹטלר-ווּנש ממפלגת כחול לבן, שגדלה במונטריאול ולאחר מכן שבה לישראל. אביה, ארווין קוטלר, שימש בעבר שר המשפטים בקנדה. לדבריה: “השאלה אינה אם אלא איך לערב את יהודי התפוצות. אנחנו חיים ברגע היסטורי, שבו יש לנו הזדמנות כבירה לעצב מחדש ולשנות את תבנית המחשבה ביחסי ישראל והתפוצות, למה שהיא שהייתה אמורה להיות”.
שמואל רוזנר, שמשמש עיתונאי ופרשן של הניו יורק טיימס, אומר כי הוא אינו חושב שהצעד הזה יעבור בכנסת במיוחד עכשיו, כשישראל ממוקדת בקורונה, ודעת ראש הממשלה בנימין נתניהו מוסחת בשל ההפגנות נגד עמידתו בראשות הממשלה. הוא מוסיף: “הקמת מנגנון אפקטיבי שמייצג נאמנה את האינטרסים של יהודי התפוצות יהיה בלתי אפשרי, והישראלים אינם רוצים בחוק שכזה. אני חושב שהתייעצות בין ישראל לבין יהדות העולם צריכה להיעשות באופן קבוע ורציני, אבל לא צריכה להיות רשמית בשום צורה. אני תומך לחלוטין בדיאלוג, אבל מתנגד לכל דיאלוג שתלוי במנגנונים רשמיים ובחוקים שתכליתם היא לכפות על ממשלת ישראל התייעצות עם גורמים מבחוץ”.
פרידמן מסכימה כי נמוכים הסיכויים שהצעת החוק שלה שפרטיה מעורפלים בשלב זה, לדרוש חובת התייעצות עם יהדות התפוצות בהחלטות שיש להן השפעות ישירות על יהדות העולם – תהפוך לחוק. זאת, במיוחד בנסיבות הנוכחיות. אך היא שואבת עידוד מכך שמשרד התפוצות הטיל את כובד משקלו על ההצעה. “זה פשוט הופך את כל העניין להרבה יותר רציני”, היא הוסיפה.
שירה רודרמן, מנכ”לית קרן משפחת רדומן, גוף פילנתרופי עם משרדים בישראל ובבוסטון, שמבקש לעזור לגשר על הפער שבין ישראל לתפוצות, אומרת שבדרך כלל המחוקקים הישראלים שמים לב לקהילות היהודיות מעבר לים, רק כאשר יש משבר בבית או בחו”ל. רודמן: “זה צריך להשתנות. במשך השנים, שמענו הרבה הערות נגד יהודים רפורמים וקונסרבטיבים, שהדעות שלהם אינן חשובות, למעט כאשר הדברים אמורים בתרומות ובשתדלנות למען ישראל. לפני למעלה משבעים שנה, הייתה לעם היהודי בכל מקום שבו היה – מטרה משותפת: להקים מולדת יהודית. היום, אין לנו מטרה משותפת או ייעוד משותף. איך אפשר לבנות עתיד ביחד אם אין לך מטרה משותפת”.
פרידמן שממשיכה בקידום החקיקה, אישרה שקיימת התנגדות להצעת החוק, אבל היא מאמינה שבכל זאת מדובר ברעיון חשוב. פרידמן: “אני מקבלת לחץ נגדי הן מהשמאל והן מהימין. ברור לכולנו שישנן סוגיות שרק אזרחי ישראל יכולים להחליט בהן, כמו ביטחון וכלכלה. אבל כשמדובר בסוגיות שיש להן השפעה ישירה על העם היהודי כולו, כמו שינוי חוק השבות או איך אמור להיראות הכותל, או שאלות לגבי גיור – גם יהדות העולם צריכה לקבל קול”.
Local Israeli Jews gathered at Vancouver Maritime Museum Aug. 29 to join groups around the world in supporting rallies in Israel for democracy. (photo by Zohar Hagbi)
In recent years and with greater intensity during COVID-19 and the current “emergency” coalition in Israel, many believe that the foundations of Israeli democracy are being challenged by a prime minister indicted on several criminal counts. On Aug. 29, several dozen Israeli expats, members of the Metro Vancouver Jewish community and others joined compatriots in 18 cities around the world to support the growing protests in Israel.
Hundreds of supporters, standing in unison with protesters in Israel, took a stand at their respective locations in Atlanta, Amsterdam, Basel, Berlin, Boston, Cambridge, Chicago, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Madrid, Miami, New York, Oslo, Paris, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, D.C. Another Canadian city, Calgary, has held a rally or two. On other weeks, protesters as far as Sydney, Australia, have expressed their support.
From the outset, Vancouver organizers drew inspiration and guidance from UnXeptable, a grassroots movement launched by a group of Israelis residing in the San Francisco Bay area. This tightly knit, completely self-funded team of volunteers put together position papers, crafted marketing materials and created social media channels that seeded the formation of similar groups dotting Western Europe and North America.
The prime minister’s official residence is located on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, making it and the neighbouring squares and streets the epicentre and namesake of the protests. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away from Jerusalem, the more serene and isolated location of the Vancouver Maritime Museum served as our venue. It was the third time we have come together to hold signs, wave the Israeli flag, chant and sing in solidarity with the countless protesters, of all stripes, on the ground in Israel. In contrast to local gatherings in previous weeks, this global rally saw a significant increase in participation. Whether this was due to the broad media coverage of police violence at Balfour the week before, the global nature of this particular event, or the remarkable planning, the result was a palpable level of energy and a sense of unity.
It was a windy day, which forced us to relocate from our usual spot on the north side of the museum to the warmer grass at the front of it. The venue was chosen over more central locations out of consideration for the safety of the people involved and other sensitivities. The goal of our gathering was, after all, to support the people in Israel, while reducing the chance of friction with anti-Israelis or with those who would mistakenly claim that our actions were akin to “airing dirty laundry.” Over the years, Israelis living abroad have faced significant pushback from many parts of the Diaspora community who have had difficulty understanding and accepting their criticism of Israel. As Diaspora Jews and others learn more about the serious challenges that Israeli society faces today, they may become a little more sensitive to the internal conflicts of many Israelis living abroad – people who have given some of the best years of their lives to defending the country they love and who are genuinely concerned by what is currently taking place.
Assembled in the various cities for more than an hour, the Vancouver group joined their peers around the world in a simultaneous Zoom-powered broadcast of the rally, dubbed “Halev BeBalfour” (“the Heart is in Balfour”). This coordinated event, quite possibly the first of its kind in Israeli history, took place at precisely 9 p.m. Israel time, was streamed on the new independent channel DemocratTV and, most importantly, screened on the side of a building at the neighbouring Paris Square for the protesters to see. During an allotted two minutes, each location was given the opportunity to express its support through speeches, chants or songs. As the cities took their turn, Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background, Berlin with its Brandenburg Gate, San Francisco with the Golden Gate and so on, Vancouver had its share of the focus.
Anyone who is interested can watch the video, available on DemocratTV’s Facebook page. It shows how Israelis worldwide have joined together to express their concern about the situation in Israel. In the video, you can hear people from Vancouver speaking about the need for the Israeli people to come together again and recover from the many years of divisiveness, the culture of corruption and the fear-mongering. The Vancouver group ended its two-minute segment calling for internal peace, and singing the late Arik Einstein’s “Ani Ve’ata Neshane et Ha’olam” (“You and I Will Change the World”) and “Kol Ha’olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od” (“The Whole World is a Very Narrow Bridge”).
It’s no secret to anyone following Israeli news that, in past years, the country has suffered from growing internal tensions and political instability, which resulted in three elections within the span of a year. Those who yearned for a seemingly never-ending political deadlock to be broken and new national leadership to emerge in the March elections, from the combined front of Yesh Atid and the Blue and White party, were left disappointed. These voters reluctantly had to watch Binyamin Netanyahu dismantle the opposition and form what is quite possibly the most dysfunctional and largest government in the nation’s history, with a pandemic serving as its backdrop.
The focus and efforts required to address the deepening Israeli tribalism gave way to the government’s concerted fight against the virus. Israel, which was considered a role model of how to handle the health crisis by some countries early on, largely due to its aggressive lockdown, is now experiencing widespread infection. What remains from the unprecedented civilian cooperation at the start of the pandemic is record unemployment, thousands of closed businesses and a growing distrust in the motives of the country’s leadership.
As Israeli society is quite likely on the brink of a new lockdown, more and more Israelis of all political persuasions are demonstrating their frustration with the mismanagement of the crisis, their concerns for the future and their anger against corruption at the highest echelon of government. After years of ongoing investigations and constant delays, with the outcome of investigative case No. 3000 (aka the “Submarine Scandal”) still pending, Netanyahu was indicted in October 2019 on three counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Demonstrations, rallies and marches spanning hundreds of locations in major cities, road junctions and highway bridges near the prime minister’s private residence in Caesarea and in Balfour itself have consistently grown in attendance, culminating in weekly events at the end of Shabbat since June. Fueled by the unity of more than 20 grassroots movements, notably Ein Matsav (Unacceptable), Protest of the Individuals, Crime Minister, and the Black Flags, the assembly at Balfour drew an estimated 45,000 marchers and protesters at the end of August, much higher than the numbers reported by major media outlets such as Walla News and Ynet. While the protesters appear to come from all political factions, age groups, religious backgrounds and Jewish ethnic divisions, Netanyahu and his supporters have referred to them as “anarchists,” “aliens” and even “traitors.”
It’s quite possible that by the time you read this, the outcomes of the protests, the fragile political balance and the situation of the health crisis in Israel may be quite different. What won’t change, with time or distance, is that Israelis around the globe will continue their struggle to protect democracy. Our hearts remain with the people of Israel.
Adi Kabazoand his family moved to Vancouver from Israel in late 2002, when daughter Hilla was less than a year old. A high-tech marketing professional by trade and hummus maker by hobby, he keeps a close tab on Israeli affairs. The connection with Israel and sense of the obligation to uphold and protect Zionist and Jewish values is shared by Hilla, a first-year arts student at the University of British Columbia. Hilla has a strong interest in social justice and is an active member of the Camp Miriam community, as a volunteer and in her role as a summer camp counselor.
Monthly hikes are one of the many activities offered by the English Speakers Residents Association. (photo from ESRA)
The reasons for making aliyah are many, however, some of the big questions holding back potential olim (immigrants), especially those who are 50+ and are already settled, may include the following: “My Hebrew is almost nonexistent; what am I going to do with myself when I get to Israel?”
One of the ways to help solve these concerns is to join the English Speaking Residents Association (ESRA). My wife, Ida, and I are good examples. We made aliyah in June of 2016 from Toronto when we were in our early 60s. We had two immediate priorities: to find an English-speaking community to live in and to get involved in Israel by finding meaningful volunteer opportunities. Fortunately, we found ESRA.
ESRA was founded some 40 years ago. It has about 2,700 members in 21 different chapters in north, south and central Israel, stretching from Eilat to Nahariya and beyond. The members come from North America, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The programming, all of which takes place in English, encompasses social activities, outings (when conditions permit), educational mentoring and tutoring programs, charitable and welfare activities and volunteering. In addition, and because of COVID-19, a majority of the social activities, talks, visual tours and cooking classes have been and will continue to be presented on Zoom.
ESRA is not just for those planning on making aliyah. Many people living abroad want to be able to see and hear about Israel generally and/or participate in English-language programs and ESRA’s calendar features talks on a range of topics, from finance, current events, history, the environment and entertainment, as well as clubs, such as bridge, photography and knitting. These programs are accessible around the world and, of course, people can join in ESRA programs when visiting Israel – the group’s monthly hikes have recently restarted.
Both MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, left, and her political aide, Becca Wertman, have Canadian roots. (photo from Becca Wertman)
A new, dynamic force has hit the Knesset, with a political aide just as passionate, and both are rooted in Canada.
Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who once held Canadian citizenship, became a Member of the Knesset for the Blue and White Party this past June. She is among those who have endorsed a proposed bill that, if passed, would change the requirement that Knesset members who hold citizenship in another country must give up that citizenship.
Recently sworn in, Cotler-Wunsh heads a staff of four – a political aide, a parliamentary aide, a spokesperson and an aide who works with her on her portfolio as chair of the Drug and Alcohol Use Committee. In a recent interview, she told the Independent that the issues that concern her are “unity, mamlachliut (often translated statesmanship) and responsibility…. You can’t politicize or personalize issues,” she stressed. Two other issues about which she is passionate are “the ability to combat antisemitism and a commitment to olim [immigrants] and prospective olim.”
Cotler-Wunsh also emphasized her commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. As a lawyer and international law expert, she added that the international community and Israel must always uphold international law and not allow terror groups to exist in a culture of impunity. She specifically highlighted the importance of this in the context of Hamas not returning the four Israelis currently being held captive in Gaza, in a six-year standing violation of international law.
Jerusalem-born, Cotler-Wunsh spent her first seven years in Israel. When her mother, Ariela (née Ze’evi), married Canadian Irwin Cotler, the family moved to Montreal, where her three siblings were born. Most JI readers will be familiar with Cotler-Wunsh’s father, a former minister of justice of Canada, an international human rights lawyer, emeritus professor of law at McGill University, and founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, among other things.
Cotler-Wunsh returned to Israel for a one-year program after high school and stayed to serve in the Israel Defence Forces as a lone soldier. She then received her law degree from the Hebrew University and did her internship.
In 2000, she and her husband returned to Canada with their son but returned to Israel 10 years later, by which time they had three more children. In 2010, she became associated with the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya and was a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
Cotler-Wunsh’s political aide is Vancouver-born and -raised Becca Wertman. The two met at a conference of nongovernmental organizations. “I read Becca, I heard her voice in what she writes,” said Cotler-Wunsh.
Wertman, who is the daughter of Charles and Carla Wertman of Vancouver, has a bachelor degree from the University of Southern California in international relations and a master’s from Columbia University in political science. She was managing editor and responsible for the Canada portfolio at the Jerusalem-based research institute NGO Monitor, authoring articles for a wide variety of publications.
“My messages are very nuanced; it was important to find somebody that can make my nuanced messages accessible to the public and be able to represent me,” explained Cotler-Wunsh. “Having read some of what Becca published, I saw that the values that drive me also drive Becca as well, particularly in the areas of human rights, international law, Zionism and democracy.”
Wertman manages Cotler-Wunsh’s schedule, handles all things that come in English, including media and social media, and reaches out to NGOs that fight antisemitism or are concerned with olim; she also assists Cotler-Wunsh in her foreign endeavours. Like her boss, she is passionate about issues concerning olim chadashim (new immigrants) and working with Diaspora communities.
Wertman made aliyah in 2016 and went to an ulpan to learn Hebrew; she is engaged to an oleh from Chicago. She sees her role as a perfect fit because of the values she shares with Cotler-Wunsh and their shared Canadian backgrounds. In addition, she admires Cotler-Wunsh’s father.
“As a Canadian who is interested in human rights, Prof. Irwin Cotler has been someone I looked up to for many years,” said Wertman.
In June, when Cotler-Wunsh received word that she would be a member of the Knesset, she reached out to Wertman and offered her the position.
“I’m 100% dedicated to MK Michal Cutler-Wunsh, to help her accomplish what she wants to accomplish,” said Wertman. “I fully believe in her goals. Her issues are those I care about. I feel so lucky to work for a member of the Knesset who is furthering issues that I so deeply believe in.” She added, “her background in human rights and international law, these are unique and important skills, experiences and values that can and will add to the Knesset.”
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
Sara Barahan, a former Israel Connect student, continues to meet with her mentor from the program, and has started helping others improve their English, too. (photo from Chabad Richmond)
Israel Connect pairs a mentor with an Israeli teen student who is wanting to improve their English reading, vocabulary and language skills. Mentors dedicate time every week to a video meeting with their student, using Israel Connect’s “Tour of Israel” curriculum. The goal is that, by the end of the school year, students have the skills and confidence they need to succeed in Israel’s national university entrance exam.
I have been blessed with the opportunity of being part of the Israel Connect program as a volunteer tutor/mentor. Having done this for a few years, I’m keenly aware of the benefits for both students and tutors.
A year-and-a-half ago, I was matched up with Sara Barahan, 23, who is older than the average student we work with and is in college. When we were first matched up, she was in her first year, studying to be an English and special needs teacher. It was pure joy from the moment we met. Her enthusiasm, motivation and single-minded pursuit for learning English was palpable, and her commitment and memory extraordinary.
We were tutor and student for a full school year and, once it finished, Sara asked if we could continue to meet via WhatsApp video, independently, and, of course, I agreed. I think I enjoy our meetings even more than Sara does! Even though I have a new Israel Connect student I tutor once a week, Sara and I continue to talk weekly, often for an hour or more. I’ve met many of her family members, virtually, and we’ve shared a lot about our lives in our many conversations.
For one of her college assignments, Sara was asked to write about the people and things that have influenced her on her journey to learn English. This is what she wrote:
“The Israel Connect Program was sponsored by Chabad. This program involves senior volunteer tutors from all over North America, who are fluent English-speakers, connect online, one-on-one via Zoom, for 30 minutes once a week with Israeli high school students who want to improve their English conversation and reading skills. The organizers know that good English skills will give Israeli students an advantage in accessing post-secondary education, and getting better jobs.
“English proficiency is crucial to Israeli students, since it makes up a third of their entrance exam marks for university. Students and tutors make great connections and it often goes beyond simply tutoring the curriculum, and turns into friendship. The program is something concrete and meaningful that helps Israeli students improve their lives. Building relationships is a highly satisfying and core part of this program, for both the students and the tutors.
“I joined the Israel Connect Program when I was in my first year in college,” said Barahan. “The lecturer offered this program (although it was meant to be for teenagers) and I saw it as an opportunity to improve my English, so I decided to participate in it. And this is how I got to know my tutor, Shelley from Vancouver, Canada, who until today is still in touch with me.
“This program is very important and meaningful to me because it is through this program that I got to meet the person who has influenced me, and a person that I enjoy talking to about different topics. This relationship has become very close and it’s not just a virtual meeting about a set curriculum; our conversations are about topics far beyond the studies. Thanks to the Israel Connect program I have gotten the chance to practise my English speaking, reading, writing and listening skills and expand my vocabulary.”
What greater accolade could Israel Connect get than this firsthand testimonial from a graduate of the program? I use the word graduate because Sara participated as an older student and has continued with her English studies.
Sara and I are fast friends, despite our 41-year age difference. We talk about school, her social life, our families, her aspirations, her frustrations, and everything in between. She confides in me and we have become very close. I would say that Sara seems like a daughter to me, except for the fact that I’m old enough to be her safta (grandmother). The age disparity isn’t an issue though; in fact, I like to think that she sees me as a kind of hip grandmother.
Sara often asks for my help proofreading her essays for school, and I love helping her learn. I see remarkable progress in her English language fluency and conversation skills. She says that I’m the only person she can speak English with, and really appreciates practising with me. What better way to learn a language than to converse at length about all sorts of topics? And Sara has gone on to tutor English to her neighbour’s 9-year-old daughter. Now, if that’s not a success story, I don’t know what is!
Other Israel Connect mentors have also expressed how gratifying it is to help these young Israeli students, and most mentors say that they’re certain they enjoy the experience at least as much as their students. They’ve described the mentoring experience as refreshing, fun, fulfilling and, at times, challenging – but always rewarding. Their students all sincerely appreciate the chance to practise their English conversation, vocabulary and reading skills with someone who is friendly and nonjudgmental. Some kids said they are embarrassed to try speaking English in class, or in front of their family, so the Israel Connect program gives them the confidence to speak. More importantly, it gives them the incentive to continue learning English, which they know will help them as they enter university and seek out good jobs.
Israel Connect always welcomes new volunteer mentors. For more information about the program and how to volunteer, go to tinyurl.com/yd6y4jrq.
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. She wrote this article for Chabad Richmond.
Morning prayers in Gondar’s Tikvah Synagogue. (photo from David Breakstone)
Since Dr. David Breakstone, deputy chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency, had to cancel his scheduled talks in Calgary and Winnipeg because of COVID-19, the Jewish Independent reached him by phone to learn more about his planned topic – Beta Israel and the Emerging Jewish Communities of the Amazon and Latin America.
Born and raised in the United States, Breakstone made aliyah in 1974 and has been involved with Jewish education for more than 50 years.
“The Jewish Agency (JA) really is the largest global Jewish organization that represents the full spectrum of the Jewish people,” said Breakstone. “JA itself is a partnership of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Federations of North America. It makes for a very dynamic, stimulating environment with incredible reach and ability, impacting our major issues and agenda items regarding world Jewry. To be in a position to impact all of that and influence things is, for me, a very exciting and demanding challenge.”
JA’s four major goals are connecting Jews around the world to one another, their Jewish heritage and to Israel; facilitating aliyah; serving those in need in Israeli society and fighting antisemitism; and assuring the safety and security of Jews everywhere.
The term Beta Israel refers to the Ethiopian Jewish community, thought to be descendants of the Hebrew tribe of Dan, explained Breakstone.
“Back in the 1950s, the JA was building schools and developed a teaching seminary in Ethiopia to work with the community,” he said. “Ethiopian Jewry has presumably been around for thousands of years, but has only been known about for the last 1,000 years…. The Beta Israel are unquestionably fully Jewish. Ovadia Yosef, chief rabbi of Israel back in 1973, confirmed the decision of a response of the Radbaz [David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra] from the 16th century. What’s happened, however, is that there are those of Jewish descent from Beta Israel who, over the years, converted to Christianity … and, so, there are major questions still being argued about whether they converted out of duress or whether they converted freely or for economic reasons.”
Regardless, said Breakstone, “There’s full agreement by the authorities in Israel on whether they are all … zera Israel (of Jewish seed), even if they are not, according to halachah [Jewish law], Jewish.”
The JA is involved with this community because of its Jewish roots. Today, said Breakstone, there are somewhere between 7,500 and 9,000 people from this community who have been waiting anywhere from 10 to 20 years or more to be allowed to make aliyah, all of whom have close relatives in Israel. The JA, he said, is committed to bringing to Israel all Ethiopians who are eligible to come.
Breakstone noted that there are other isolated Jewish communities throughout Africa, South America and India, which he referred to as “the emerging communities of Jews around the world.”
“The Ministry of the Diaspora, a couple of years ago, expressed a great deal of interest in these emerging communities,” he said. “And they put together a very high-level committee that really delved into the issue in depth and came up with the astounding figure of – believe it or not – some 350 million people around the world who have some sort affinity to the Jewish people.
“Affinity is a very vague term,” he cautioned. “In fact, a recent DNA report indicated that 24% of Latin Americans had a significant amount of Jewish DNA…. Most claim ancestry going back to the Marranos, Conversos and Crypto-Jews from Portugal and Spain who had moved to South America and kept various traditions going.
“In Brazil,” he said, “there was supposed to be – they just got notification that it was cancelled – there was going to be the first conference of Jewish communities of Brazil that are not recognized by the established Jewish community there … all of whom are connected through their belief that they are descended from Marranos, Conversos.”
Despite the cancelation of the conference, the Jewish Federation of Brazil is in contact with those communities and is exploring whether or not to recognize them and invite them into the larger community.
“At this point,” said Breakstone, “the JA is also exploring the history in conjunction with the established Jewish community, trying to figure out what to do with those who have not been part of the traditional Jewish establishment and yet, are living life as Jews. That’s quite an interesting phenomenon.”
Uganda is home to a Jewish community that claims no Jewish roots, Breakstone added. In that community, the founding chief was converted by Christian missionaries more than a century ago. And the chief, becoming well-versed in religious studies through the Bible, decided Judaism was the right path.
“Since 2002, they started going to formal conversion, through the worldwide Conservative movement,” said Breakstone. “They now have a local rabbi who studied at one of the Conservative movement theological seminaries … in California and they are fully embraced by the Conservative Jewish world. The JA, too, officially recognizes them as being Jewish. They’ve had a number of people come to Israel through various programs and a number of them are in the process of making aliyah.
“I think the diversity of the different Jewish communities, backgrounds, traditions and cultures that people bring to Jewish life are also something to be celebrated,” he said, “as it broadens the Jewish mosaic.”