An illustration from Yerus Goes to Jerusalem. (photo from Sid Tafler)
The Ethiopian aliyah to Israel inspired people around the world when it was first revealed in the 1980s. Today, there are 125,000 first-, second- and third-generation Israelis from Ethiopia.
The story of the courage and determination of the community to return to Eretz Yisrael after 2,000 years of isolation from the rest of the Jewish world is told in the beautiful children’s book Yerus Goes to Jerusalem. About a young girl’s experience making the difficult journey from her village in Ethiopia, the award-winning book, written in Hebrew and illustrated by Ethiopian artist Moran Yogev, is well known to thousands of Israeli students and their parents. A new crowdfunding campaign will translate it into English, to make it accessible to Jewish schoolchildren everywhere, so they can share in the triumph of the Ethiopian community in achieving their dream.
Everyone is invited to join this venture with a donation of any amount, large or small. Only $20 will reserve one of the first copies of Yerus Goes to Jerusalem published in English for your children, grandchildren or your synagogue or Hebrew school.
This campaign is led by Dror Yisrael, a service organization in Israel, and a committee of organizers, mostly in Israel and the United States, including Sid Tafler of Victoria, the only Canadian on the committee.
Olga Ornstein, the mother of Frank Ornstein. Frank gave his friend, George Szasz, his mother’s ring, which George is hoping to sell to fund a scholarship in the Ornstein family’s name. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
Last summer, community member George Szasz approached the Jewish Community Foundation, hoping to establish a scholarship endowment fund to honour a dear friend’s memory. The friend, Frank Ornstein, z”l, survived the Holocaust and eventually immigrated to Vancouver. With no children or living family members to speak of, Frank bequeathed a family ring saved from the Holocaust to George, which George is hoping to sell to fund a scholarship in the Ornstein family’s name.
Lipot and Olga Ornstein, both of blessed memory, were an affluent couple in the Hungarian city of Szeged and doted on their only son, Frank. Born in 1924, Frank grew from a skilled boy scout to a star athlete with a wide range of friends. They lived peacefully with their non-Jewish neighbours, and Frank began dating a non-Jewish girl.
Even as anti-Jewish sentiment grew around them, the city’s residents lived amiably together. It was a shock when laws mandated division by 1943. Jews, including the Ornsteins, were evicted from their homes, stripped of their property and segregated in ghettos. As a fit 19-year-old, Frank was sent away to a labour camp. Lipot and Olga were forced onto an overcrowded cattle car without food or water for a three-day journey to a concentration camp in Austria.
Life in the camp was grim. Lipot and Olga wrote Frank postcards, holding onto hope that, after the war, the family would be reunited and return to their life in Szeged. In March 1945, the camp buzzed with news that Russian soldiers were near and the captives desperately hoped for liberation. The day before the soldiers arrived, however, German guards marched the camp’s prisoners, including Lipot and Olga, to a local gym and blew them up.
Frank was liberated from the labour camp and, in late 1945, returned to Szeged, sick but alive. There, he found out that his parents, and most of the city’s Jewish residents, would never return. Frank’s girlfriend’s family had secretly stored some of his parents’ valuables, including his mother’s diamond ring, and returned them to him: memories of a life that had vanished.
Realizing life in Szeged would never be the same, Frank took his few possessions and family mementoes and immigrated to Israel. In Israel, he trained as an airplane mechanic and found both a love and an affinity for the trade. He worked for Israel’s El Al Airlines and immigrated to Vancouver in the late 1950s, as a chief mechanic for Canadian Pacific Airlines and, later, Air Canada.
After Frank’s death in 2006, George was bequeathed the Ornstein family’s mementoes. Frank’s life was marked by trials and resilience, and George is determined to honour the Ornstein family’s history and heritage. Of the Ornstein family keepsakes, Frank’s mother’s ring is of particular value, appraised at between $30,000 and $50,000, and George is determined to sell the ring to establish a yearly scholarship for deserving Israeli students studying Frank’s life passion: airplane mechanics.
If you are interested in assisting George to create the Ornstein family legacy, contact Marcie Flom, director of the Jewish Community Foundation, at [email protected].
This article was originally published by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver in e-Yachad and is reprinted with permission.
Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation’s new executive director, Stephen Shapiro. (photo by Lauren Kramer)
It’s been awhile since Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation had an executive director, but the fundraising branch of the organization is in good hands since Stephen Shapiro took the position in January.
A Calgarian who moved to Vancouver in 2000, Shapiro comes with impressive credentials. He served as president and chief executive officer of St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation for five years, fundraised at the University of British Columbia with former university president Martha Piper for six years and was deeply involved in cultural affairs and youth direction at the Calgary Jewish Community Centre prior to that.
“I feel I’m at a point in my career when I’ve accomplished a lot in the non-Jewish community and I want to give back to my own community,” Shapiro told the Independent. “I really believe in the mission, philosophy and work this particular institution does. I think our Jewish seniors are a very important part of our community and, with the history they represent, they should be treated with dignity and respect in their later years.”
Shapiro intends to grow the foundation from its current annual fundraising target of between $1 million and $1.2 million. He hopes to at least double that target in the coming years and sees lots of potential opportunities to fundraise in the non-Jewish community.
“Much of Louis Brier is publicly funded,” he said. “There are 215 beds this side of the organization that are contracted through Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, and 40% of our population is non-Jewish. But 99% of the donors to this organization are Jewish. So, part of my mandate is to bring my knowledge of fundraising in the non-Jewish community to apply here.”
Louis Brier is at a crossroads, he added, with much of the building at the end of its lifecycle. Still, a complete redevelopment plan is a number of years away, which means two distinct fundraising efforts are required. “We’re raising money for what we need in the next five to seven years, as well as planning longer term down the road for a potentially new campus,” he said. “Right now, our job is to look after today’s needs and today’s current residents, until such a time that we can build a new facility.”
Immediate needs include improved lounges, better furniture, new freezers in the kitchen and updated security and computer systems, he said.
“The practice of care has changed and evolved and we have to change with that,” Shapiro explained. “Certain things are no longer acceptable – for example, parking people in a hallway to look out the window all day because there’s not enough lounge space. That kind of thing is not considered OK anymore. With some physical improvements and relatively minor renovations, we can do things that improve our lounges and public spaces.”
Because Louis Brier is the largest contracted facility within the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, now is a crucial time to make these upgrades, he added. “Given the size and demographics of the Jewish community, there’s a whole generation of people who are going to need our services quite soon. If anything, given the aging of our population, I think the Jewish needs at Louis Brier will rise, not diminish.”
Shapiro hopes to motivate non-Jews who have family members at Louis Brier to give back to the institution by finding projects in research and best practices that might be of interest to them. “Whether it’s in partnership with UBC or other institutions, promoting excellence in research and clinical care is the way to go here,” he stated. “Everybody could potentially have an interest in that.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
During the summer of 2014, Vancouver-based Cornfield Media produced a short film titled Note in the Oak, starring Carmel Amit and Moshe Mastai. Now feature-length, the production is seeking funds to complete some of the Jewish heritage and culture aspects of the film.
The short Note in the Oak was the official selection at several festivals: at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival in 2014 and, in 2016, at Roma Cinema DOC in Rome, Italy; Move Me Productions short film festival in Antwerp, Belgium; London Monthly Film Festival in England; Best International Independent Film Festival in Karlsruhe, Germany; and Reflections of Spirit International Film Festival in Erlangen, Germany.
The film’s plot was inspired by true events that took place in New Jersey in 2012. The hero is Joyce, a home-care provider. Following the death of a longtime patient, she goes on a quest to find his estranged son, Corry, to bring him to his father’s grave. The story mixes suspense, laughter, hope, heart and conflict. It also includes a slice of a Jewish culture.
During the past two years, the short has been developed into a feature film (100 minutes) and Cornfield Media is now ready to produce it this year. However, the feature script is not yet fully complete and some vital elements are still missing. This is where the producers are seeking community participation.
Cornfield Media needs help to secure some licensed Jewish artistic material – these poems and pieces of music are essential to the plot and without it, the story will be good, but missing some of the key Jewish elements it requires. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. For more information and to contribute, visit jewcer.org/project/nito343334.
Left to right: Ariel Lewinski, Judy Boxer and John Bromley. (photo from Chimp)
When it comes to charitable giving, there’s a widespread feeling of donor fatigue, says Judy Boxer, community engagement manager with Chimp Technology in Vancouver. Chimp is an online giving platform that helps people give to and fundraise for charities that match their values and interest. Focused on charitable impact, the company is determined to counter donor fatigue by making philanthropy a positive, rewarding experience. And it’s set its sights on the Jewish community of Vancouver with a Tzedakah Project targeting Jewish giving.
A Vancouver donor who prefers to remain anonymous gave Chimp $270,000 to jumpstart the Tzedakah Project in mid-November. Boxer and her colleague Ariel Lewinski are tasked with creating the community, helping select a board to run it and then handing it over to the board.
“Ultimately, this initiative is something the Jewish community will take on and run on their own terms,” she said. To add incentive to membership, the Tzedakah Project is starting out by offering an $18 charitable gift to new members “so they can experience the gift of giving to a Jewish charity of their choice,” Boxer explained.
The core of Chimp is the Chimp account, which gives a donor the same benefits as having their own private foundation, but free of charge, said Lewinski, Chimp’s vice-president of partnerships and growth. “It’s like an online bank account for charitable giving. You put any amount of money into the Chimp account and you get your tax receipt at the moment you want it. You can allocate the charitable giving at a later date.”
Chimp membership encourages donors to rethink how they give charitably. Boxer and her team have found that people’s donations are more reactive when they receive calls requesting donations. They don’t necessarily plan their giving to make the biggest impact.
“We’ve found people connect really well to causes,” she reflected. “At Chimp, we’ll help them figure out what causes are important to them and then offer a matching charitable organization so they can allocate their charitable giving. With a Chimp account, you have an opportunity to engage in a conversation about what you care about, what you want to achieve and where you want to make an impact, as opposed to reacting towards people asking for money.”
Chimp Technology is the brainchild of John Bromley, a 38-year-old Vancouverite who started out in corporate finance and then co-founded a law consulting company focused on charity. His clients were high-net-worth donors who needed help structuring their giving and, in the process of working with them, Bromley felt he could help ordinary people structure their charitable giving, too.
“I saw that the only people getting their giving problems resolved were people who had so much money they could create their own private foundation,” he said. “I started Chimp Technology in 2012 to focus on a donor-centred giving experience for everyone else.”
Bromley observed that the main place people learned to give was in religiously oriented families or theologically tied communities. “As there’s been more secularization in North America, we’ve seen a reduction in the number of people that learn how to give,” he noted. “Chimp isn’t religiously motivated, but we understand the theological backgrounds and the very important role those theologies and communities play in the giving economy in Canada.”
While Chimp is theologically neutral, it aims to represent donors and effectively facilitate their philanthropy. “That’s important, because, when you take away all the noise that exists around how to give to charity, you create more time for people to think about how they’ll spend their charitable dollars,” Bromley said. “Chimp is about enabling or empowering donors large and small to give on their own terms to the things that matter to them.”
Boxer said the Tzedakah Project is also trying to empower the younger generation and has partnered with Vancouver Hebrew Academy, Vancouver Talmud Torah, King David High School and Torah High in Vancouver. “We want to start a philanthropic conversation with kids of a certain age about the kind of impact they want to have, to have them think about charity in a new way, and possibly start conversations between them and their families,” she said.
“We’re trying to enable and empower people from different communities by giving them the tools they need to create a giving program around a cause or community,” Bromley added. “We’re not the founders of the idea for the Tzedakah Project – that’s coming out of the Jewish community. But it’s a real pleasure to be doing this with the Jewish community. I’ve learned a heck of a lot about the wealth of engagement with tzedakah and how serious giving values are in the community, and it’s quite inspiring.”
Langara College Foundation’s Langara Studio 58 Legacy Fund campaign reached and exceeded its original $250,000 goal, raising more than $273,000 in support of theatre arts at Langara. Most than 538 individual donors contributed to the success of the campaign, among them 219 Studio 58 alumni and 55 present and former faculty, directors and designers.
“The response from our Studio 58 community was amazing,” said Moira Gookstetter, executive director, Langara College Foundation. “We are humbled by their generosity. With their support, we raised over $136,729, which, when matched by the college, will create an endowment of $273,458.
“We are especially thankful for our volunteer campaign chairs Jane Heyman and Joey Lespérance. They are the real heroes of this campaign. Their enthusiasm, dedication and tireless support have helped to create a foundation that will launch Studio 58 into the future.”
Established to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Langara’s Theatre Arts at Studio 58 program, the Legacy Fund’s mandate is to support the expansion and scope of the program’s productions, training and learning opportunities.
“The remarkable success of the Studio 58 Legacy Fund campaign will mean future generations of students will have access to working on productions beyond the normal scope of Studio 58, will be offered special workshops, and will have the possibility to mentor with professionals,” said Kathryn Shaw, Studio 58 artistic director. “The Legacy Fund will allow Theatre Arts at Studio 58 to remain a leading force in theatre training in Canada. All of this could not have been possible without our caring and generous donors and supporters.”
Langara College’s Studio 58 provides practical, hands-on training for students looking for careers in professional theatre. It offers two streams – acting and production.
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.
To read more about the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s 2020 Strategic Priorities, visit jewishvancouver.com/2020.
An estimated 50% of Metro Vancouver’s Jewish community lives outside of the city of Vancouver. For young families with at least one Jewish parent, the proportion of Jews living outside of Vancouver jumps above 60%. Like other area residents, they are moving to the suburbs in the elusive search for affordable housing – and that search has taken them far away from the organizational centre of the community, at Oak Street and 41st Avenue.
In setting its 2020 Strategic Priorities, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver addresses the challenge of an increasingly dispersed community, as well as that of an aging population. It also considers the fact that, while it is expensive to live in Metro Vancouver, it is even more expensive to be involved Jewishly.
Over the past two years, Federation has surveyed Jews both in Vancouver proper and outside of the city to find out what they consider to be the priorities of the community and where resources should be allocated. The Connect Me In online surveys reached more than 300 people in outlying areas, 200 of whom agreed to further conversations with Federation, according to Federation chief executive officer Ezra Shanken.
“We’ve had hundreds of conversations with groups and individuals,” Shanken told the Independent. “We wanted to know what areas are lacking. We also asked how should Federation feel and how does it feel? We heard that Federation and the Jewish community is not accessible enough.”
A look into the near future, the 2020 document highlights a number of key areas that have been identified for strategic investment. The report’s subtitle gives the clear message for the idea behind the plan: “Moving our Jewish Federation from Strength to Excellence,” and excellence requires more resources.
As the main fundraising organization of the Jewish community, Federation directs support not only to large, high-profile institutions like Jewish Family Service Agency and Vancouver Talmud Torah, but also to many smaller organizations for which it would be impossible to adequately fundraise independently. The dollars raised and then allocated by Federation are meant to ensure that its 40 constituent agencies are able to sustain a diverse, well-rounded Jewish community without the worry of constant fundraising.
With such a large number of organizations and a wide range of needs, every year the allocation process requires Federation to make difficult decisions. The 2020 plan is intended to identify current community needs, predict the amount of money needed to meet those needs and then raise the necessary funds. The identified priorities include both local and international obligations.
Locally, engaging the next generation, addressing new and evolving community needs, investing strategically in the community and closing the funding gap to meet ongoing needs are the priorities. Each area has a number of key issues embedded within it and all of the details are available on the Federation website. The breakdown of needs is laid out to include the current level of funding and what it covers, as well as the projected needs with their accompanying cost.
Federation’s international commitments include supporting a variety of projects in Israel and communities around the world. Shanken said he is often asked about the amount of money that leaves the local community.
“It used to be an 80:20 ratio of money going to Israel – UIA [United Israel Appeal] was set up to build Israel,” he explained. “Now, it’s more like 30:70 because the way we engage with Israel is very different. We have an Israel department here, we bring the Shinshin [Year-of-service] program to Vancouver for Israel engagement with our community and we fund the Gesher [Bridge] program that brings young Israelis here.”
He also noted that Federation facilitates the funding of some special projects in Israel, which are separate from Federation’s budget. The way these funds are directed is a result of the donor’s wish to feel a sense of ownership of their gift. However, cautioned Shanken, “The sense of ownership cannot replace the duty to help all agencies.”
Federation plans to continue strategically funding existing organizations, while putting in place some new programs. The Diamond Foundation recently gave seed money to bring in a part-time community developer to reach out to marginalized communities. Jewish education, services for seniors and other Jewish programming are among the ways Federation plans to “get out there,” according to Shanken. He offered as an example Federation’s PJ Library, which provides books with Jewish content to more than 1,000 Jewish children in the Lower Mainland.
To read more about Federation’s 2020 Strategic Priorities, go to jewishvancouver.com/2020 or join the conversion on social media, #ourcommunity2020.
This year’s annual campaign launches on Sept. 22, 7 p.m., at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with FEDtalks, featuring author, radio host and founder of Zuckerberg Media, Randi Zuckerberg; Reut think thank founder Gidi Grinstein; One Clip at a Time co-founder Alison Lebovitz; and journalist Terry Glavin. For tickets and more information, visit jewishvancouver.com/fedtalks2016.
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
The upcoming show at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery, which features 45 community artists who have donated their work, is a fundraiser for the gallery.
“The idea for the show belongs to Shirley Barnett,” said gallery director Linda Lando in an interview with the Independent. “We wanted to showcase the works of the people who do art for the joy of it, not professional artists. Shirley also made a donation towards the show.”
Lando explained the process leading to the exhibit, which opens Aug. 31.
“I purchased 45 11-by-14-inch wood panels and sent a group email to the gallery email list. The artists got the panels for free and, if their art sells, they will get a tax receipt. The price for every piece is the same, $125, and the proceeds of all sales will go to the gallery. The theme of this art show is ‘Renewal.’ It’s a very broad theme that allows for many interpretations.”
Lando doesn’t think that the universal size and shape of the panels limits artists’ creativity. “Just the opposite: it’s a challenge.”
The response to the email was overwhelming. Lando had to turn away people who wanted to participate. The demographics of the show’s contributors are broad.
“A lot of word of mouth helped spread the news about the show,” she said. “Among our participants are people who are involved with the gallery, some who exhibited with us before, while others haven’t. There are several poets from the Pandora Collective, members and non-members of the JCC and some mother-daughter duos. Most of them are not professional artists, but the works that have already started to arrive are amazing and very diverse. I hope we sell most of them.”
The Independent spoke with a few of the exhibit’s artists.
“I have always been interested in arts: painting, poetry, etc.,” said Carl Rothschild, a child psychiatrist with more than 40 years of experience, who is about to retire. “I published two books of my poetry and visual arts.”
Rothschild considers himself an amateur artist but he has already participated in several shows at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and sold a few paintings. When Lando asked him to participate in the fundraiser, he was thrilled. His piece is already at the gallery.
“I decided to participate in this show because I am always painting and because Linda asked me,” he said. “My small piece is called ‘The Backyard Garden in a Box.’ I am endlessly fascinated by the little landscapes around me. My small garden, with crocosmia flowers, attracts a hummingbird each summer. Sometimes, the bird comes with his mate and, on this occasion, as I stood motionless and watched, he came over and hovered for a few seconds about a foot from my head before passing me as safe.”
Another participant, Liz Koerner, retired a few years ago from working in a law office. “I am a professional artist in the sense that I get paid for some of my work, but I started down this path as a hobby,” she said. “Over the past 15 years, I have done dozens of commissions.”
Like the other contributors, Koerner learned about the show from Lando’s email. “I met Linda years ago, when I would take my mother into her gallery, and they always had lively discussions about the paintings and the artists. My mother has since passed on and, at her request, we gave Linda a number of art books from her collection.”
When Koerner decided to participate in Renewal, she chose the theme of spring. “Spring is a wonderful time of renewal and rebirth in nature,” she explained. “My painting is almost done. I needed to leave it while I complete a rush commission, then I will get back to it and finish it soon.”
Sandi Bojm’s piece is also a work in progress. She works part-time as a speech language pathologist and as a therapist, which allows her the time to explore her other interests, including art and writing. “I don’t consider myself an amateur artist; nor am I a professional,” she said. “Perhaps chronically ‘emerging.’”
Over the years, Bojm has taken art classes at Langara College and with private mentors. She met Lando through the Zack Gallery.
“I support the gallery and participated in last year’s community show/fundraiser,” she said. “Linda and I have shared ideas this past year for the next upcoming show, regarding community engagement and participation, and, at the same time, offering a fundraising opportunity for the gallery. It is exciting that it is now coming to fruition.”
Her own piece will be an amalgam of abstract and landscape. “I have just completed an intensive painting workshop on abstraction of the landscape and decided to expand on that,” said Bojm. “I have been intrigued in the past, in my walks through the woods, with the presence of logs and stumps that have nurtured new growth; nursing logs, I believe they are called. This is the image I am exploring in its relationship to renewal.”
A show as a gallery fundraiser is not a new concept. The Federation of Canadian Artists, for example, holds their fundraiser, Paintings by Numbers, annually, but their event is much more expensive for art lovers, and they feature well-known and established artists in their galas.
“Giving the local community artists the opportunity to shine, and making all the paintings affordable to everyone might be unique in Canada,” said Lando. “The idea was not only to engage the community artists but to bring in their families and friends to the gallery, to show them that it is their gallery, too.”
Renewal will run to Sept. 11. There is a free reception at the Zack, with the artists in attendance, on Sept. 8, starting at 7 p.m.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
From left to right: Murray Palay, Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University national chair; Israel Defence Forces Unit 669 reserve combat soldiers Leehou Porat and Gai Ben Dor; Prof. Yaacov Nahmias, director of the Alexander Grass Centre for Bioengineering at Hebrew U; 669 reserve combat soldiers Bar Reuven and Dotan Braun; CFHU Vancouver chapter president Randy Milner; and CFHU national vice-chair Phil Switzer. (photo from CFHU Vancouver)
Dina Wachtel, executive director of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University’s Western region, describes the recent fundraising event that attracted more than 300 people to Congregation Beth Israel on July 17 as “a wonderful success.”
The sold-out event raised scholarship funds for outstanding student-soldiers. These individuals are pursuing degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as performing their miluim, or reserve duty, in the Israel Defence Forces’ elite airborne rescue and evacuation unit known as “669.” The Vancouver event drew a diverse and engaged crowd from the community and included academics and members of local search and rescue groups.
Prof. Yaakov Nahmias, director of the Alexander Grass Centre for Bioengineering at the Hebrew University, kicked off the formal part of the evening’s program with an overview of Hebrew U’s history and accomplishments. Founded in 1918 – 30 years before the establishment of the state of Israel – by illustrious historical figures, such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Chaim Weizmann, Hebrew U ranks as one of the world’s leading universities and boasts seven Nobel Prize laureates. According to Nahmias, “when Hebrew U calls, you answer!”
The Grass Centre was established in 2010. Nahmias, who was at Harvard University before returning to Israel, has won several academic awards for his work in liver research and he is particularly proud of the centre’s successes in “educat[ing] a new generation of multidisciplinary innovators and entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of biotechnology and medical science.” He noted that the centre’s 44 affiliated faculty members undertake research that winds up in the world’s leading scientific journals; interest-catching pursuits such as building a liver outside of a body, predicting in vitro fertilization pregnancy rates, and determining “idiosyncratic drug toxicity” (hitherto unexpected adverse reactions to drugs).
Nahmias also outlined the “startup” element of the centre’s work – an aspect that appeals to students with academic ambitions, as well as giving them market experience and engendering an entrepreneurial spirit. The Israeli government has invested $20 million US in BioJerusalem, or “Silicon Wadi,” to support technological innovation. The outcome? Israel is a global leader in medical devices and pharmaceuticals, he said, and this attracts intellectually curious science students who are also seeking opportunities in business, medicine and engineering. The biodesign program feeds directly into Israel’s economic success and reputation as a technological powerhouse. Remarkable and revolutionary projects to date, he said, include the creation of a specialized infrared gun to facilitate intravenous insertions; digitally made dentures that are inexpensive and quick to produce; and a new 60-second life-saving procedure that improves stabbing victims’ chances of survival by preventing suffocation caused by collapsed lungs.
Nahmias concluded his presentation by highlighting bioengineering as “one of the most fascinating areas, especially for the future of Jerusalem as a city and Hebrew University as the leading university in Israel.” He announced that plans are underway to build a large, new institute on the Givat Ram campus to house the biodesign program.
The evening’s lecture was punctuated with a musical interlude from Vancouver-based Israeli composer and guitarist Itamar Erez. Recipient of the Landau Prize in 2014, as well as the ACUM Prize for special achievement in jazz, Erez’s musical talents blend jazz, flamenco and the sounds of the Middle East.
Following Erez’s performance, four extraordinary young Israelis took centre stage. They detailed their personal experiences serving in the IDF’s 669 and how the service has impacted their lives.
The unit, which accepts only 50 recruits each year out of 10,000 applicants, was established in 1974 following the Yom Kippur War. It is referred to as the “guardian angel of the Jewish people” because it rescues soldiers and civilians alike, both within and beyond Israel’s borders. The unit’s motto is, “Thou didst call in trouble and I rescued thee” and, in the last 40 years, the unit has rescued more than 10,000 injured and saved thousands of lives. Rescue operations are generally extremely difficult and dangerous.
Bar Reuven, Leehou Porat, Dotan Braun and Gai Ben Dor impressed upon the crowd the unique and challenging lifestyle of a Unit 669 reservist, who is “on-call 24/7” and serves an average of 30 to 45 days a year “in peacetime.” When summoned, a civilian university student is instantly transformed into an elite reservist on a mission that can be anywhere in the world. All personal commitments are immediately set aside.
According to Reuven, 27, who served as an officer in 669 and founded an alumni association designed to provide much-needed support to discharged soldiers from 669 transitioning to civilian life, you “can go from eating shakshuka [in Tel Aviv] to Gaza in 30 minutes.”
Thirty-year-old Braun, a fifth-year medical student at Hebrew U and a reserve combat soldier and paramedic in 669, recounted walking to class in July 2012, when he received a command to present himself on base within the next 30 minutes. He soon learned that he would be traveling to Burgas, Bulgaria, to treat and evacuate some 42 Israeli tourists who had been targeted in a bus bombing. (Tragically, five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver were murdered in that terror attack.)
Serving in the 669 instils Braun with a profound sense of pride in Israel, as “there is no other country that cares about the security of all its citizens and at all times,” he said. He – like others in 669 – is also called upon to come to the aid of non-citizens in life-threatening situations, including rescuing sailors in the Mediterranean or treating casualties of natural disasters in far-flung corners of the world.
Braun emphasized that life for 669 reservists, in particular, “is never routine.” Porat, 28, who is both a reserve combat soldier in Unit 669 and a student at Hebrew U, underscored this fact by recounting – with the aid of select video footage – a harrowing evening of back-to-back rescue missions that included evacuating an Israeli soldier from Gaza who had been gravely wounded in an axe attack; responding to a serious car accident that caused seven fatalities; assisting a pregnant Bedouin woman in the advanced stages of labor and whose house had just been washed away by floods; and rescuing a number of individuals trapped in or on cars swirling in raging floodwaters and high winds.
Despite the challenges of balancing the responsibilities of school, work, family, volunteerism and reserve duty, Reuven, Porat, Braun and Ben Dor were all steadfast in their commitment to their unit, and to serving their country and fellow citizens in times of crisis.
It was evident that these four speakers have indeed internalized the core values of the unit, described by Reuven as assisting those in need, social responsibility, and helping make Israel and her people stronger. He engages these values to guide him in managing his Cat 669 Alumni Association, a group that provides emotional, psychological and financial guidance, career mentoring and other material support to fellow unit members transitioning – sometimes with great difficulty – to civilian life. This group also draws upon its superior skill set to “pay it forward” in local communities by, for example, teaching emergency first aid.
Thirty-two-year-old Ben Dor is an accountant and lawyer at KPMG in Israel. As part of 669, he is another example of the positive contributions that 669 reservists make to Israeli society. An avid long-distance runner in his teens, Ben Dor responded to an online ad seeking “a runner with soul.” Beza, a blind Ethiopian immigrant wanted to take up running, and Ben Dor (and his father, also a runner) coached Beza over the next several years. Beza competed in a number of international marathons, and ultimately qualified to compete at the Beijing Paralympics, representingIsrael. Ben Dor, his father and Beza have since climbed to Everest Base Camp together and Ben Dor has established an Israeli not-for-profit organization called 180 Degrees, which hosts running groups for people with physical or cognitive disabilities.
Listening to these four young Israelis who are serving their country in truly meaningful ways and learning about the cutting-edge research taking place at the Hebrew University, it is not surprising that the evening’s fundraising event – to support the reserve soldiers in Unit 669 studying at Hebrew U by relieving them of financial worries – was a “wonderful success.”