A proposed fall semester course at the University of Victoria has raised concerns that it will become what B’nai Brith Canada described as “a forum for antisemitism.” The concerns were sparked by inflammatory comments the course’s instructor, Dr. Shamma Boyarin, wrote on social media earlier in the year.
In a May 26 Twitter post, for example, Boyarin used an obscene verb before labeling Abraham Foxman, former president of the Anti-Defamation League, a “Zionist pig.” On June 3, he ridiculed an individual who had been the recipient of a torrent of antisemitic abuse online. This was followed the next day by a post in which Boyarin remarked, “[It’s] hard for North American Jews to admit the truth: What is happening in Israel is ethnic cleansing and slow genocide.”
An online description of the UVic course, entitled Introduction to Antisemitism, has been modified since it was first posted. At an earlier stage, the description began, “What is antisemitism? As soon as one attempts definitions, it becomes clear that even the most fundamental aspects of antisemitism are controversial.” The course’s current title is also different from the original, which was Towards an Understanding of Antisemitism. Gone, too, is a study of present-day antisemitism.
The changes occurred in early August after B’nai Brith, among others, raised objections to UVic about Boyarin teaching a class on modern antisemitism. The course’s subtitle on the UVic website now reads, “A Historical Survey of Key Texts and Moments from Augustine to Luther.” Its description: “What is antisemitism? The term itself was coined in the late 19th century, but when does the phenomenon begin? Is it the same or different from ‘anti-Judaism’? Should we spell it ‘anti-Semitism’ or ‘antisemitism’? Beginning with these basic questions, we will focus on the particular role Christianity has played in developing and sustaining antisemitism in Europe.”
“Moving this course away from modern antisemitism is an important first step,” said Michael Mostyn, chief executive officer of B’nai Brith Canada. “However, we are still concerned that, instead of educating students on the scourge of Jew-hatred, there is a risk, albeit a reduced one, that hostility toward Jews will instead be promoted.
“UVic must provide assurances to the Jewish community that academic freedom will not be used as cover to falsely accuse Jews, as a whole, of contributing to genocide, among other antisemitic canards,” he added.
When contacted by the Independent, UVic expressed the position that it “does not condone antisemitism” and “that it is highly committed to equity, diversity and inclusion and to social justice in its many forms.”
“We are aware that a faculty member has expressed personal views in public communications which are disturbing to people. Those views are personal. They have not been made on behalf of the university or in the context of their work,” said Karen Johnston, a spokesperson for the university.
“Canadians have a constitutional right to free speech, subject to limits under the law,” she said. “And so it cannot be the role of the university to judge or censor its employees’ exercise of free speech in their private lives. While all faculty enjoy the privilege of academic freedom, there are also limitations to this right. In this specific instance, there is no evidence at this time that the faculty member has or will exceed those limitations in teaching this course.”
The university also said it “will act on any allegation that there has been a violation of university policies against discrimination or harassment, which apply to all members of our community.”
Rob Philipp, executive director at Hillel BC, has been monitoring the situation and has spoken with Dr. Kevin Hall, the president of UVic. Philipp said, “If the course does run, we will check to see what the reading material is and what is being taught.” However, he added, while the organization is keeping on top of things, there is not much that can be done to stop the course from going ahead.
Jeff Kushner, president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island (JFVVI), said they, too, will be following the UVic course and will remain in contact with senior administration staff.
“The JFVVI does not have any serious concerns about the course material, such as we know it,” said Kushner. “Our concerns are more about the academic and emotional safety of the students enrolled in the course. In this particular case, a professor at UVic made some very objectionable comments on his private Twitter feed. We wish that he had not made such incorrect and inflammatory statements, both in his role as an academic and as a Jew.
“He has not made these comments in any official capacity, and the university has been very clear that these objectionable views are not the views of the university. Our concern is that an individual having these views, and expressing them as he has, may find it difficult to leave them at the classroom door and, through explicit statements or implicit actions, may create an unsafe learning environment for Jewish students holding views contrary to his own.”
In a letter to the university, B’nai Brith urged UVic to publish the syllabus of the revised course online, to cancel the course if it is used to attack the Jewish community in any way and to follow other universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, in adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism to “avoid future confusion.”
Boyarin has taught at the University of Victoria since 2008 in religious studies and medieval studies, and in the English department since 2009. According to his profile at UVic, his current research and teaching interests include medieval literature (particularly the literature of Spain and the Near East), comparative literature (particularly Hebrew and Arabic), literature and religion, Jewish studies, and the religious roots of antisemitism. He has additional expertise, his profile continues, in the connections between medieval and contemporary culture, especially as they manifest in heavy metal music and white supremacist ideologies.
The Independent tried to reach Boyarin for comment, but had not heard back from him at the time of publication.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
The Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly this year in Tel Aviv Oct. 22-24. (photo by Pat Johnson)
The Jewish Federations of North America held its annual General Assembly in Israel, as it does every five years, Oct. 22-24. This time, for the first time, the convention met in Tel Aviv. The event was marketed with the theme “We need to talk,” the provocative title suggesting that the meetup would frankly confront the many points of contention between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
By the time about 2,500 delegates, including a sizeable number of Israelis, arrived at the conference centre, the theme had shifted from the ominous pre-romantic-breakup phrase to the more upbeat “Let’s talk!” Delegates talked among themselves and listened to a plethora of speakers, including Israel’s president, prime minister, leader of the opposition and other elected officials, heads of civil society organizations, a recipient of this year’s Israel Prize and leading figures in the Federation movement.
While some observers – including the organization Am Echad, which placed a full-page ad in the Jerusalem Post – said the conference did not reflect the diversity of demographics or opinion in Israel, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken refuted the criticism.
“I think that we’re never going to have a shortage of people who want to criticize our gatherings,” he said. “I don’t believe that that is actually accurate. When I look around the room, I see kippot on people’s heads, I see people coming from the Modern Orthodox side of the community and I see people coming from the liberal side of the community. We have made an effort, in Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Federations of Canada and our Federation, to dialogue with as wide of a group as we can. I think there is a lot of diversity here.”
A two-and-a-half-day conference provides an intensely limited time to address, let alone resolve, the range of issues on the table. Topics included broad issues like the stalled peace process, treatment of Eritrean and Somali asylum-seekers in Israel and a Nation State Law that some say undermines the democratic nature of the country. There are also a host of issues that cause friction directly for North American Jews, including the reversal of the promised egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and Orthodox control of lifecycle events in Israel, which negates Reform and Conservative members, who make up the preponderance of North American Jews. If anything, the GA in Tel Aviv was the beginning of a conversation, or the widening of a conversation already in progress.
Some of the divisions were illustrated in public opinion poll results that were projected throughout the convention centre. The percentage of American Jews who believe that non-Orthodox rabbis should be permitted to officiate at Jewish ceremonies in Israel is 80%, compared with 49% of Israeli Jews. Fifty percent of Israeli Jews believe in God “with absolute certainty,” compared to 34% of American Jews. Among Israeli Jews, there is 85% support for the decision by the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, compared with 46% among American Jews. Support for the existence of a mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall stands at 73% among American Jews, compared with 42% of Israeli Jews. Among Jewish Israelis, 42% believe that Jewish settlements in the West Bank improve Israel’s security, compared with 17% of American Jews. Sixty-one percent of American Jews believe that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully, compared with 43% of Israeli Jews.
Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Federations of North America, illustrated some of the lines of divergence.
“As North Americans and Israelis, we ask very similar questions. But each through a different lens,” he said. “North Americans may ask, after nearly a century of unwavering support, do Israelis really think our opinions should not be considered when it comes to policies that affect us? Israelis ask, why should anyone other than Israelis have a say in the decisions of our democratically elected government? North Americans, we may wonder how Israel can claim to be the nation state of all Jewish people when it doesn’t recognize the value of Jewish practice of 85 to 90% of Jews living outside of Israel. Meanwhile, Israelis feel that, well, we live here, so what makes you think you have the right to define what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state? How is it possible, North Americans may ask, that the chair of the board of Brandeis [University] or a student from Florida are questioned or prevented from entering Israel because of their activism and views? Is this a democracy, or isn’t it? Israelis ask, what gives anyone the right to question our security decisions when we are the ones under constant threat?
“These are just a few of the questions of two proud communities who have learned to thrive in two very different environments; two members of one family who operate in their own political realities, where North Americans are seeking validation, empathy, partnership and understanding from Israel and Israelis who are living in a sovereign state have largely been insulated from a global conversation about Jewish peoplehood. I don’t have all the answers to all these questions, but I can tell you this – we will only find the answers if we start asking the questions to each other and if we really start working together.”
One after another, speakers acknowledged the challenging differences between the two communities, which together make up more than 85% of world Jewry, and then accentuated the commonalities.
“We are not strategic allies,” said Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel. “We are family…. We don’t have shared interests. We have shared faith, a shared history and a shared future – and a very bright one. It may not be easy to have the truly honest conversation, but this is, I believe, what needs to happen.”
Rivlin suggested a “reverse Taglit,” a Birthright-like program for young Israelis to travel to Diaspora communities, summer camps and schools.
Danna Azrieli, who, with Israeli high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Marius Nacht, co-chaired the assembly, has a personal history suited to facilitating a conversation between the two communities. Born and raised in Montreal in a Zionist family, she made aliyah 18 years ago and now heads her family’s business operations in the country, Israel’s largest commercial real estate enterprise. She was born in June 1967, at the time of the Six Day War.
“My mother tells the story of how, when she was giving birth, the radio was on and the doctor would be listening to the news from Israel between contractions,” Azrieli said.
“We have come to this ‘let’s talk’ conversation about our future together from very different starting points,” she noted. “For example, how do we as North Americans begin to understand what we perceive as backward thinking, when women are not allowed to pray at the wall? And yet, the prime minister reneged on the Sharansky Compromise because of the pressure exerted by religious extremists. As a North American, you are probably asking, how could he have done that? Some of you, and I know a few, might go even further and ask, why should I support a country that does not support the way I practise my religion?” On the flip side, she acknowledged the fears of religious Israelis, who see any diversion from tradition as a step toward assimilation and extinction.
“Since I come from the real estate world, I’m going to use an image of an arch,” she said. “An arch is two sides pressing together. North American Jewry and Israeli Jewry are like two sides of an arch. We need each other. We need to push against each other to stay strong. By leaning into each other, by providing each other with the right amount of resistance and the right amount of support, we will have the strength to withstand the pressure from all sides. But one side of an arch cannot stand without the other. The art is to find the right amount of resistance, the right amount of pressure and the right amount of dependence and independence to ensure that our two sides will always remain strong vis-a-vis one another.”
She acknowledged the differences over policies, but tried to differentiate this from core support for the state of Israel.
“We don’t give up when we disagree with our leaders,” she said. “Don’t walk away because your liberal sensibilities are insulted. Don’t assume that nothing can change. Things do change, just painfully, slowly, incrementally, and with all of our help. Help by continuing the dialogue. Help by infusing your children with a love of our heritage. Let’s celebrate the good. I am not suggesting that we ignore the things we disagree with. I am simply suggesting that we remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the opposition who recently became head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the growth and successes of modern Israel could not have been forecast.
“No one could have imagined that, 70 years later, [Israel’s] population would increase more than tenfold, its GDP would grow more than fiftyfold, its share within the Jewish world would grow from six percent to 45% and that Israel would become what a great country it is today.”
Herzog, a grandson of Israel’s first chief rabbi and the son of a president, added: “Israel is not the only Jewish marvel in the last 70 years. You, too, North American Jewry, are a marvel. The saga of North American Jewry is one of the most exhilarating and inspiring success stories of the modern era and your success is evident not only in your high level of education and income, and in the fact that the number of Nobel Prize winners that you’ve got are over 120, but because your success is palpable in the fact that you are organized, committed and energetic. You donate more than any other group in society, both locally and globally, and your success is manifest in 3,500 congregations, in 150 federations, in 350 JCCs and countless organizations and foundations that you’ve created together into a beautiful, unique civil society.”
He spoke of the historical bonds between the two communities.
“You nourished us ever since we were a helpless newborn,” Herzog said. “We were, we are and we shall always be reliant on one another. Our alliance is profound, is heroic and is eternal.”
He added: “I see the growing rift between our communities and am shaken to my core. In Israel, there are those who shamefully refuse to recognize the great non-Orthodox Judaism of North America and, in North America, there are those who disavow the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.
“Ironically, in this, the first era in our history when the external existential threats we have faced are greatly diminished, we ourselves are endangering our own existence. It is up to each and every one of us sitting here together in this hall to look into the eyes of our young generations and see where did we go wrong. The obligation we all share is to listen to their pains, to listen to their questions and to listen to their frustrations and ask ourselves, how can we do it better? We must dare to think anew, dare to act differently.”
Herzog called for a renewed dedication to the Hebrew language.
“Our first act should be to find a common language,” he said. “When I say common, I mean both literally and figuratively. We have a rare and sacred national treasure: the Hebrew language, the language of the Bible and the state of Israel. For all of us to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another and to debate, discuss and delight one another, we must return to our national heritage and treasure. We must enable every young Jewish person in the world to learn Hebrew.”
He called on the government of Israel to allocate funds for a program that teaches Hebrew all over the world.
“From here on, it will be every young Jew’s birthright, wherever he or she may live, not only to visit this historical homeland, but to learn the language of the Jewish people,” said Herzog. “Hebrew can be a common denominator of all Jews from all streams of Judaism – a beautiful language can serve as a tool for unity.”
Other ideas being mooted, he said, include a Jewish “peace corps” that brings Diaspora and Israeli Jews together for tikkun olam projects around the world, and inviting thousands of young Jews from around the world to Israel to participate in groundbreaking “startup nation” technology projects.
As head of the Jewish Agency, Herzog promised to “reach out to all of you to advance hundreds of faction-crossing, stream-crossing, continent-crossing dialogues under one common tent. Israelis will learn to appreciate and know the magnificent civilization of world Jewry, while world Jewry will learn to appreciate the achievements of Zionism and the beauty of Israeliness. Reform and Conservative Jews will learn to cherish Jewish orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews will learn to respect the Reform and Conservative. We shall learn from one another and learn to appreciate one another and endeavour to resolve our internal differences through a new Jewish dialogue. All that I ask of you is not to despair and not to give up. Indeed, let’s talk.”
During the months of Elul and Tishri, when we’re in the midst of the High Holiday season, things are busy. Kids are in (and out) of school and activities, parents are facing the fall rush of activities in their own work lives. Things are rushed. However, if you’re going to synagogue and have even a moment to reflect, you’re being asked to examine yourself. What have you done right this year? What’s gone wrong? What could you do better?
Some years, I’m thinking about my failings, or I get mesmerized by the long list of things that one could do wrong when we list the confession of sins. Other years, I’m so concerned by holiday meals or my kids’ behaviour that I sing along, but my focus is not really on the most important holiday tasks at hand.
Recently though, I got to thinking about this a different way. Instead of focusing exclusively on how we’ve gone wrong, or how we could do better, I wondered, of all the things in the world to fix, what are my top priorities? How could I focus on a few things that are most important?
When we wish people happy new year, we often wish them a happy and healthy year. It’s hard to work towards happiness – and, to be honest, I’m not sure I’d know when I got there. Working on health seems like a given to some people, and is completely ignored by others. What does it mean? Well, for some it means taking medicines, or being able to afford their medicines. For others, it might mean exercise or better food choices, or even being able to purchase healthy foods.
We also mention, in Jewish tradition, an effort to strengthen our commitment to Judaism. Maybe that means going to services more, doing more mitzvot (commandments) or doing more to help others. It might mean offering your kids tools so that they can learn about their faith. For some, it means helping others get to Jewish events – offering a ride, for instance, if the person is unable to drive or walk – or making them feel included and valued when they get there.
People also may have big holiday meals with family and friends. This can be wonderful, and trying. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes family gatherings force us to confront things that we’d rather not deal with. (Maybe it’s an uncle’s politics or a child’s misbehaviour, or the aging of a beloved parent.) Do you prioritize family? Do you commit to supporting and caring for your family, both those related by blood and those who you choose? Are you willing to travel long distances to see relatives? What about your family friends, those to whom you choose to feel related?
Awhile ago, I was chatting with someone about all my uncles and aunts. She expressed wonder at how many relatives I had. It took me a bit to realize what she meant. Where I grew up, in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., many families had moved to work in the U.S. capital. It meant that they weren’t near their families, so we created extended families. All those aunts and uncles were close friends with my parents. I played with kids at those folks’ houses, ate dinner at their holiday tables and learned from them about what it was to be part of a loving family. Our Jewish customs varied, our DNA was different, but our effort included everyone.
The person I spoke with seemed alarmed and uncomfortable with the fact that I called all these people who weren’t blood relatives aunt or uncle. Yet, it was a time and place when many people didn’t live near family.
Some families had been decimated by the Holocaust, so it seemed entirely logical to us. In our circle, there were people who didn’t have grandparents – they had died in Europe. Some had no cousins, either. This was true among people I knew as a kid, and continues to be true. In my husband’s family, for example, I know people who lost many relatives and whose family structures, even in 2018, continue to resonate with that trauma.
This extended family friend concept is also related to our priorities. For me, personally, it’s key, and I choose to continue this practice. Why reinforce alienation for those who lack supportive extended family? My kids have a “tante” who made quilts for their beds and sends them gorgeous handmade gifts. She’s not my blood relative, but we’re part of her family. And we serve as honourary aunt and uncle for a 2-year-old in Montreal, as well.
Recently, I received an email that pointed out the Winnipeg Jewish Federation’s priority action areas for fall 2018, and I loved it. This action document lists many of our community’s Jewish concerns and priorities – many of which, no doubt, are similar to the Vancouver Jewish community’s concerns and priorities.
The Winnipeg Federation document is a good start. While some may think that the points are ambitious, other aspects are simply part of how a community – an extended family – should act. We should care about others, full stop. We should try to include everyone in Jewish life regardless of what they can afford. While it may seem like an enormous goal to “mitigate poverty,” it’s easy to pick an apple tree in the neighbourhood and donate the fruit to the food bank. Nor is it a big deal to bring your kids to visit an older person to help reduce their isolation.
Instead of focusing on the enormity of the individual points, we can instead point to our priorities for the new year. For instance: it improves our health to attend gatherings, socialize and engage in learning in multi-age settings.
I don’t know about expecting happiness, but we can adjust our priorities to include health, well-being and Jewish supports for one another. This is possible – and, to borrow Theodor Herzl’s phrase: “If we will it, it is no dream,” so make your priorities and dream bigger. It’s well worth considering. Happy 5779, everybody!
Joanne Seiffwrites regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
On Nov. 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a swastika and “Heil Hitler” were found written on a hallway blackboard in the University of British Columbia Forest Sciences Centre. The antisemitic graffiti was first reported to Hillel BC, who then contacted security.
This was one of several racist incidents that have occurred on B.C. campuses and across Canada in recent months, including pro-Nazi posters found at UBC on Remembrance Day. On Halloween night and in the days following, posters reading, “It’s okay to be white,” appeared on several Canadian university campuses, apparently based on instructions from a post which Vice Canada traced to the anonymous online forum 4Chan, a hub for the alt-right.
During the same week, antisemitic posters found at the University of Victoria read, “Those who hate us will not replace us. Defend Canadian heritage. Fight back against anti-white hatred. A message from the alt-right.” The word “those” was placed in triple parenthesis, a way of identifying Jews. When the posters were taken down, moderators of Anti-racist Action UVic Facebook page and others reportedly received a backlash of hateful messages online.
The election of Donald Trump one year ago this month is widely perceived as a triumph for the tangle of white supremacists, antisemites, misogynists, racists and ethno-nationalists who have come to be called the “alt-right.” In Kill All Normies, a book about the genesis of the group, journalist Angela Nagle describes an online world where cynicism, irony and absurd in-joke humour have combined with racism and misogyny to produce a “taboo-breaking anti-PC style” that has come to characterize the alt-right. Since then, the movement has tapped into latent racism and xenophobia, bolstered by the rise of people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Not everyone is happy with the use of the term “alt-right.” Given their white supremacist beliefs, “alt-right” is somewhat innocuous. The Associated Press avoids the term because its editors think it downplays the movement’s racist goals.
Long before the 2016 election, the alt-right was gathering strength and allies. Trump granted the racists among his supporters visibility, lowering the social costs of bigotry and inspiring these supporters with a hope that their vision of “white identitarianism” could come to rule America once again. This has emboldened them and brought them out of the shadows.
In the days following the election of Trump, Canada saw a spate of vandalism, hate speech and pamphleteering directed against Jews and other minorities. As in the United States, this did not come to Canada overnight. In 2015, the CBC temporarily closed all online comments on stories featuring First Nations people because of the “staggering number of hateful and vitriolic comments” posted. In August 2016, the premier of Saskatchewan was forced to issue a plea for an end to hate speech following the second-degree murder of an aboriginal man on a farm. As a result, his own Facebook page was flooded with racist messages.
The posters at UVic were discovered by an anti-racist group on campus organized by Tyson Strandlund, who said the increasing activities of the alt-right in the public sphere are what led to his group’s creation in September. Strandlund said there has been heightened concern on campus since last summer, when an art installation meant to inspire conversations about resistance to racism was instead extensively defaced with racist slurs and had to be dismantled. He mentioned a meeting that was to take place in the Student Union Building on Nov. 15, for students and others to discuss anti-racist strategies.
David Blades, president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island, said they are “keeping close tabs” on the alt-right movement. “We have a good sense of who these people are,” he told the Independent. “What’s increasing is their public activity, not their numbers, which have remained pretty stable for years.
“Nevertheless,” he warned, “we have to be vigilant because they are also recruiting. There is no question that there is latent racism in Canadian society and it can be tapped into. My concern is that this was not isolated to the University of Victoria, this also happened at the University of Alberta and elsewhere. It was a coordinated national event. That’s my concern as Federation president. This is a shift in the overall organization of this group.”
Blades said he is “really happy with the response of UVic” and that there are plans in the works for “five days of activism against racism.”
“In some ways,” he said, “these incidents have been more effective at inspiring the opposite of what they intended: an increase in anti-racist activism.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Shabbat Dîner en Blanc attendees, left to right: Dana Troster, Brent Davis, Eliane Nevares and Emily Holzman. (photo by Ori Nevares)
On June 2, approximately 90 Jewish young adults from the Greater Vancouver area gathered for Shabbat Dîner en Blanc at VanDusen Botanical Garden. People came dressed in their finest whites, enjoyed the gardens and mingled with new people. Although a wonderful opportunity to schmooze and unwind, the event had a bigger purpose.
The dinner was an introduction to a new initiative coming to Vancouver at the end of this month. On June 25, Vancouver will host its first Community Hackathon. Modeled after Hackathon events in tech companies that use software and inter-professional efforts to solve problems in a short period of time, the Community Hackathon will tackle pertinent issues facing our community and try to solve them collaboratively.
The project will be facilitated by UpStart, an organization based in San Francisco that aims to inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life. More than 20 cities in North America applied to have a Community Hackathon and Vancouver, along with Portland and San Diego, were fortunate enough to be granted the opportunity.
The Hackathon will be a full-day event where young Jewish adults will use design thinking to generate project ideas. The top three projects, as determined by a panel of judges, will receive seed grants of $3,200 each, as well as training and mentorship from UpStart over the months to follow.
This is a rare opportunity for younger community members to meaningfully engage in positive and sustainable change. If you are in your 20s and 30s and are interested in participating in the Hackathon, which will take place at Museum of Vancouver June 25, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., go to jewishvancouver.com and click on “YVR’s Community Hackathon.” For more information, email Eliane Nevares at [email protected].
Public Speaking Contest founders Larry Barzelai and Rhona Gordon give out trophies for this year’s contest winners. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
On the evening of Feb. 1, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver was buzzing with activity. Students, parents, volunteers and others gathered for this year’s Public Speaking Contest.
Participants came from Richmond Jewish Day School, Vancouver Hebrew Academy, Vancouver Talmud Torah, Crofton House, General Gordon Elementary, Madrona School, Temple Sholom Hebrew School / Sir James Douglas Elementary and home school / Chabad of Richmond.
Among the many topics suggested were Jewish values, holidays and mitzvot, what institution should be established first if creating a new Jewish community from scratch, whether Jerusalem or Tel Aviv is more reflective of modern Jewish identity, which prayer might be added to the synagogue services and what would be included in a YouTube video highlighting the Vancouver Jewish community. Participants could also write about a family member they admired, their favourite biblical character or a mensch they know; they could also pick their own topic.
At the Grade 4 level, there were two groups, in which Sivan Hendel and Noah Robibo placed first; Danielle Kimel and Maytal Bunim second; and Maayan Greif and Hannah Friedlander third. In the two Grade 5 sections, Rivka Feigelstock and Sophia Krische placed first; Chasya Berger and Shira Oirechman second; and Max Dodek and Eden Pretli third. In Grade 6, Aaron Guralnick and Rachel Marliss were first; Ruby Harris and Devorah Leah Yeshayahu second; and Tali Keil and Oliver Kraft third.
In the Grade 7 category, there was just one group, with Maya Mizrachi placing first, Noah Berger second and Alex Ritch third. In the Hebrew category, Yair Cohen placed first and Roi Gadassi second; there was no third-place award.
Left to right are shinshiniot Yael Miller, Dana Salmon, Shahaf Shama and Danielle Favel. (photo by Michelle Dodek)
For the second year in a row, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver is providing our community with a burst of ahavat Yisrael, love for Israel. The shinshiniot – who are doing sh’nat sherut, community service, locally – are back. While there were three young women participating last year, this year’s enthusiastic group numbers four.
The shinshiniot program is part of Gesher Chai (Living Bridge), which Jewish federations across North America use to form person-to-person relationships between young Israelis and Diaspora youth. Based on the first run, Lissa Weinberger, manager of Jewish education and identity initiatives and the woman dealing primarily with this program, said, “We have changed a number of things this year based on our observations and experiences. It seems like putting the girls in pairs in their volunteer assignments is a really good idea.”
After a period of adjustment and integration into the community, the shinshiniot were paired off in mid-September. Danielle (Dani) Favel and Shahaf Shama work together during the weekdays in three community organizations: the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, King David High School and Richmond Jewish Day School. Vancouver Talmud Torah takes up most of the time of the other two shinshiniot, Dana Salmon and Yael Miller.
On weekends, Beth Tikvah Congregation will have Shama, Salmon will help at Congregation Beth Israel and Miller and Favel will team up at Temple Sholom. Last summer, the shinshiniot divided between the region’s summer camps and the JCC’s Camp Shalom. Where they will be placed this summer has not yet been determined.
The shinshiniot bring with them experiences from their diverse family backgrounds and the different parts of Israel in which they live.
Salmon is from Ma’ale Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem and has a family from Iran, Syria and Iraq. Shama’s family is also Mizrahi, with a little North African added; she grew up with her three siblings on Kibbutz HaZore’a near Haifa.
Miller and Favel are both of Ashkenazi descent, but with very different roots. Miller, who hails from Modi’in – the historical base of the Maccabees in the Chanukah story – was raised attending a Reform synagogue, a rarity in Israel. Favel’s parents both made aliyah because of their devotion to the Habonim Dror youth movement, one parent from Scotland and the other from Australia; she grew up on a small kibbutz called Kadarim with a view of the Kinneret.
The creativity and energy this group brings to their tasks are palpable. Although they are stationed in certain locations for the bulk of their volunteer work here, there will be community-wide events on which they will collaborate. Most notably, events around Lag b’Omer, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. They also have individual passions they hope to be able to share with young people here.
“I would like to start some musical bands,” said Salmon. “I play the guitar and sing and would love to share Israeli music with people in Vancouver.”
Favel has musical aspirations as well. “I’ve been singing in a choir since I was 9,” she said. “I’d love to start a choir here that would sing Israeli songs.”
Miller has hopes of starting a teen pen-pal program, replacing the pens with computers, of course, while Shama hopes to marry her love of cooking and dressing up with her North African roots. “I want to bring [my experience of] the tradition of Mimuna to Vancouver,” said Shama. “The food, the traditional dress, the incredible celebration is something I would like to share.”
Not only do the shinshiniot share with the students and young people with whom they are volunteering, but also with the host families who welcome them into their homes. Shama started sharing her enthusiasm and talent for cooking immediately, said her “host mother,” Jennifer Shecter-Balin.
“This is our second time hosting a shinshinit and we really like it,” said Jackson Balin, 10. “You get a nice fun person from Israel living with you for three months. I like the culture and they teach you, you teach them.”
Balin said Shama makes Israeli salad for the family every evening and has made other delicious Israeli dishes as well.
Other ways in which the shinshiniot are contributing to our community are by providing Israeli dancing and cooking classes, and conversational Hebrew for youths who usually only get to speak Hebrew at home with their parents. The fact that they are recent high school graduates is a bonus for their ability to connect with local teens.
“Shinshiniot coming here enhances our experience, builds relationships and understanding for our kids, and it has an impact in our community and theirs back in Israel when they return,” said Federation chief executive officer Ezra Shanken.
Federation is still looking to fill some of the host family spots: if interested, contact Weinberger at [email protected] or 604-257-5104. For more information on the program or to contribute to Federation’s annual campaign, visit jewishvancouver.com.
Michelle Dodekis a Vancouver-based freelance writer whose 10-year-old son Max helped interview the shinshiniot. Having hosted one last year, he very much looks forward to hosting one soon.
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the local Jewish community recently hosted Ethiopian-Israeli students Mazal Menashe and Ahuva Tsegaye. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
Every second year, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver hosts two Ethiopian students from the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya. This allows the students to come to Canada and intern in their chosen fields, giving them not only the educational experience but an advantage in finding work after graduation. The students also act as ambassadors for Israel while in the community and interacting with various local groups.
This year, Federation hosted Mazal Menashe and Ahuva Tsegaye. While in Vancouver for the month-long internship, the students stayed with host families Sam and Sandra Reich in Richmond and Ben and Nancy Goldberg in Vancouver; they spoke at synagogues, churches and schools.
In 1991, when Operation Solomon airlifted 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours, Menashe and Tsegaye were babies. Tsegaye’s mother, who was a midwife, gave birth to her alone on the way to Addis Ababa for the airlift, on the outskirts of Gondar. Menashe, granddaughter of Qes (Ethiopian for rabbi) Menasse Zimru, was born in Addis Ababa while her mother and father awaited the Israelis.
Menashe and Tsegaye both grew up in Israel, overcoming poverty and occasional racism to become successful young women.
Upon arriving in Israel, Tsegaye’s family lived first in Jerusalem, then Haifa, then Kfar Hahoresh in the north and, finally, Migdal Haemek, where they still live today. Her mother is a homemaker, and her father, who works for the city as a street cleaner, is now semi-retired.
Menashe’s family first moved to an absorption centre in Mabu’im in the south, near Beersheva. They lived there for a year before moving to Netivot, where they stayed until Menashe was 6, and then to Ashdod, where they live today. Her mother is a caregiver for the elderly and her father works in a factory.
Both Menashe and Tsegaye served in the Israel Defence Forces.
Menashe was drafted to the IDF in 2010, and completed training in the Logistics Corps as an outstanding soldier. After serving in the Paratroopers Brigade for two months, she was asked to go into officers’ training, which she did, becoming responsible for a company of 150 soldiers. When she was released from the army after five years, it was with the rank of lieutenant.
Tsegaye served for six and a half years, the only member of her family to become an officer. She served in an air traffic control unit in the air force as an instructional officer, and completed her service with the rank of captain.
“Serving in the IDF was the most empowering experience of my life,” said Tsegaye. Menashe agreed.
Menashe and Tsegaye didn’t meet in the IDF, but rather at the Interdisciplinary Centre, where they are both enrolled. In August, Jewish Federation brought them to Vancouver to work as interns in their respective fields: Menashe in law and Tsegaye in organizational psychology.
“We feel so blessed, so appreciative for what the Jewish Federation has done for us,” said Tsegaye. “And we are very grateful to have the platform to be advocates for Israel abroad.”
Both Menashe and Tsegaye have faced many challenges to get where they are now. Ethiopians in Israel face racism, poverty and challenges related to cultural and linguistic integration. The two students were both present at the mass protests that took place in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last year calling for an end to racism and police brutality against Ethiopian-Israelis.
Menashe and Tsegaye broadcast strength and optimism. “We cannot wait for other people to save us,” they agreed. “We are not waiting for a savior, we will work hard and make the change ourselves.”
The power to shape their own lives, and their optimism about their ability to make the lives they want, are recurring themes in Menashe and Tsegaye’s conversation. This is fitting for members of the generation that is changing the realities of Ethiopian-Israeli life in Israel. “Our generation is entering the professional classes,” noted Menashe. “We are making a new future for Ethiopian-Israelis.”
Tsegaye added that the younger generation of Ethiopian-Israelis gives her hope. She told of going to a kindergarten where a nephew is enrolled and seeing a black doll. “I had never seen a black doll before in my entire life,” she said. “The younger Ethiopian-Israelis are much more integrated. They see themselves as Israelis.”
For community members wanting to support Jewish Federation programs such as this one, the annual campaign runs to Nov. 30. For more information, visit jewishvancouver.com.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has launched this year’s annual campaign under the leadership of Alex Cristall, general chair. The campaign is the Greater Vancouver Jewish community’s central fundraising initiative and closed last year with a record $8.3 million result. The campaign is one of the primary fundraising opportunities through which Federation will grow the financial resources required to meet the goals outlined in its 2020 Strategic Priorities. These priorities will guide the organization’s work on behalf of the community through the year 2020 and beyond.
“We are very excited that Alex Cristall has taken on the role of chair of this year’s campaign,” said Ezra S. Shanken, Jewish Federation’s chief executive officer. “Alex has a passion for making our community stronger, and he is an extraordinary leader in terms of addressing the goals outlined in our 2020 Strategic Priorities.”
The priorities address five key areas of opportunity:
Affordability: helping community members struggling with the high cost of living in the Lower Mainland.
Accessibility: reaching the nearly half of community members who live in underserved areas.
Seniors: planning for the needs of our growing seniors population.
Engagement: connecting young adults and young families to ensure community continuity.
Security: continuing to address evolving community security needs proactively.
While the campaign benefits all areas of need in the Jewish community, the particular focus of this year’s campaign is security. Jewish Federation is leading the development of a comprehensive, long-term approach to keep the Lower Mainland’s Jewish community ahead of the curve. In recognition of the need for a community-wide strategy, Federation established the community security advisory committee. The committee’s mandate is to provide a leadership role in assessing the risks facing community institutions and to propose and evaluate specific strategies to mitigate these areas of concern.
Growing security needs requires increased financial resources to address them. Federation has worked with a group of donors to create a matching gifts program to jumpstart the funding and create awareness among donors.
“I am very pleased to announce that every new or increased gift will be matched, with the matching amount allocated to local community security initiatives that will benefit every Jewish organization in our community,” said Cristall. “Community security is an issue that affects every single one of us every time we set foot in a Jewish institution, take part in a Jewish program or attend a community event. Through the Federation annual campaign, it is an issue we can all play our part in addressing.”
The annual campaign runs to Nov. 30. For more information on the campaign or the 2020 priorities, visit jewishvancouver.com/2020.
Beit Vancouver is a centre for youth at risk in Kiryat Shmona. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
The Etzbah HaGalil, or Galilee Panhandle, is the northernmost part of Israel, a “finger” of land extending into Syria and Lebanon, with its southeastern border also touching on Jordan. Militarily and geopolitically vulnerable, Etzbah HaGalil is also far removed from any urban centres, rendering it somewhat cut off from Israel’s economic and cultural heartlands, as well as its government infrastructures. For all of these reasons, young people growing up in Kiryat Shmona, one of the Etzbah’s major towns, face particular challenges.
Add to the above the fact that many immigrants are drawn to the Etzbah by cheaper housing. As in any other country, newcomers to Israel have a particular need for social services and community institutions to help them integrate into society and flourish. Yet those are the very things that have been hard to find in the Etzbah. Enter Beit Vancouver, a centre for youth at risk in Kiryat Shmona.
Originally built by the British Jewish community campaign (United Jewish Israel Appeal) in the early 1980s and held by the Israeli Housing Ministry, the youth centre that would eventually become Beit Vancouver was built near a major public high school in Kiryat Shmona. Inadequate operating support left it deserted for many years and the centre was in need of rescue in 2004 when the Partnership2Gether Coast-to-Coast steering committee identified it as a high-priority project in the region. P2G is a partnership between Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and five other Jewish communities across Canada, and the steering committee includes representatives from the Canadian and Israeli communities in the partnership.
In 2005, three Vancouver-based families (the Diamond, Heller and Libin families) visited the region and donated funds for the renovation and renewal of operations at the centre. Beit Vancouver was scheduled to open July 11, 2006, but that day turned out to be the first day of the Second Lebanon War, which delayed the centre’s opening until September 2006.
The initial operating years of Beit Vancouver were strong, with rapid growth. An infusion of funds from the Israel Emergency Campaign beyond the initial commitments from the core funders helped.
Juvenile delinquency dropped dramatically in the region and, in 2008, the centre was singled out for national recognition for excellence in providing services to youth.
Unfortunately, 2009 saw both a reduction in funding and changes in staff that led to a decline in the centre’s effectiveness. A visit by Vancouver Federation staff in 2009 inspired a strong intervention with the city administration to force attention to the state of the program and building. Three core partners – Vancouver Jewish Federation, Kiryat Shmona and the Rashi Foundation – each committed to a revitalization of Beit Vancouver, with ongoing operating funding at a sufficient level.
The centre reopened in March 2010 and the level and quality of programming has grown steadily. When a financial crisis in Kiryat Shmona caused the closure of all other community centres in the city, Beit Vancouver stayed open, providing full-scale services to hundreds of youth on a daily basis.
“This centre is really essential for the youth of Kiryat Shmona,” said Ezra Shanken, Vancouver Jewish Federation chief executive officer. “The community is lacking many things we take for granted. There is no movie theatre in Kiryat Shmona. It is incredibly important that the youth there have somewhere to go.”
And, not only that, but the Beit Vancouver building has been used for emergency housing and relief for Israeli children in communities under attack. For example, when under fire from Gaza, children from Sderot were bused to Beit Vancouver.
Federation currently funds three programs at Beit Vancouver: [email protected], Merkaz Ma’ase and Youth Futures. Krembo’s Wings is under review to be funded for 2017.
[email protected] is an education program that helps high school students achieve high-level computer skills. The program has produced 5,000 graduates and is the only one of its kind in the region that integrates Muslim, Jewish and Christian youth in joint activities.
Merkaz Ma’ase is a leadership program for young adults designed to deliver equal opportunities and social mobility. It engages at-risk youth in a year of volunteer service after they graduate high school and before they begin their army service.
Youth Futures is a community-based intervention that aims to help children in junior high who are notably at risk for failure or withdrawal. Children are referred to Youth Futures by teachers, social workers and others who observe their need for help, shown by poor attendance, failing grades and behavioral problems. The child is paired with a trustee who acts as a bridge between the child, the family, the school and the public system.
Lastly, Krembo’s Wings provides weekly social activities for young people living with any type of motor, cognitive or sensory disability. The program helps these children become part of community life.
Shanken encourages Vancouver Jews to make Beit Vancouver part of their Israel trip. “Having a place that bears our name creates a bridge that can connect our communities,” he said.
Vancouverites can designate donations for Beit Vancouver through the Federation’s annual campaign, which was launched last week. For more information, visit jewishvancouver.com.
Matthew Gindinis a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.