Soldiers of Tomorrow, about Itai Erdal’s experiences in the Israeli army, is at the Roundhouse Feb. 3-5. (photo from the Elbow Theatre)
“I know that this play will piss off a lot of people on both sides of the conflict, but I welcome the controversy. I am taking some strong stances and talking about some explosive subject matters (pun intended) so, if it wasn’t going to piss people off, then I probably didn’t do my job properly,” Itai Erdal told the Independent. “I think it’s good to challenge people and I welcome the discussion that this play will generate.”
Erdal was talking about Soldiers of Tomorrow, which he wrote with Colleen Murphy. The play is part of this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, and sees its world première Feb. 3-5 at Roundhouse Performance Centre.
Presented by the Elbow Theatre and PuSh, Soldiers of Tomorrow is directed by Anita Rochon and performed by Erdal with Syrian musician Emad Armoush.
“When I was a kid growing up in Israel, peace seemed inevitable – it was just a matter of time, there were countless songs about the day peace will arrive. The adults would always say, ‘By the time you grow up, we won’t need an army anymore.’ No one says that today,” writes Erdal on his website. “Most Israelis accept that their children will be soldiers. One day, when my nephew was 8, he came home from school with an empty box to fill with stuff to send to soldiers on the front line. Inside the box his teacher had written: ‘To the soldiers of today from the soldiers of tomorrow.’”
This experience inspired the play. While fictional, it is about real events that happened to Erdal during his time in the Israel Defence Forces in the early 1990s.
“I served in the army for three years and as a combatant soldier,” said Erdal. “I would have had to be in the reserves until the age of 45, which I didn’t want to do. I was in Jerusalem during all the suicide bombings in the ’90s and my reluctance to continue to be a soldier and my exhaustion of the political situation definitely contributed to my decision to immigrate to Vancouver.”
Erdal has made his mark here in many ways, including as an award-winning playwright, performer and lighting designer. He created the Elbow Theatre in 2012 “to confront urgent social and political issues.” Soldiers of Tomorrow is its sixth production. The PR blurb notes that, in it, Erdal “relates his actions in the army, exploring his personal culpability in the face of complex geopolitical forces in his former country – a place that he loves ‘with a broken heart.’”
“I pitched the idea for this play to Colleen Murphy in 2018 when we were working together in Stratford,” Erdal told the Independent. “We met a few times that year, but it really took off when the pandemic started. For almost two years, Colleen and I would meet on Zoom every Monday and Thursday for two hours. It was really great to have a project during the lockdown, it kept me sane.”
Although it is a one-man play, Armoush will also be on stage with Erdal, performing the music live. As to how he connected with Armoush, Erdal said, “I was looking for a Palestinian musician but there aren’t many of them in Vancouver and Emad was highly recommended by my Israeli musician friends.”
About the timing, Erdal explained, “During my lifetime, the situation for Palestinians has only gotten worse, it never gets better. Israel recently formed the most extreme right-wing government in its history, with several openly racist and homophobic ministers. Many Israelis and Palestinians are bracing themselves for the worst. Unfortunately, this play is more relevant than ever.”
He is not concerned about how Jews in general or Israelis specifically will be perceived by non-Jewish people who see the play.
“I am a very proud Jew and, even though I criticize the state of Israel, I do so because I love it, and I think that love is clear in the play,” said Erdal, who shared the following quote from the play: “I am aware that this is a topic that intimidates many Canadians. I’ve seen the glazed look in your eyes. I’ve had many people ask me to explain the conflict to them and, after one minute, they are searching for the exit. I’ve also seen many people twist themselves into pretzels in order not to take sides because they were concerned about appearing antisemitic. I hope by the time you leave here, you’ll be able to criticize Israel without worrying about appearing antisemitic.”
Soldiers of Tomorrow is at the Roundhouse Feb. 3-4, 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 5, 2 p.m., with a post-show talkback after the Feb. 4 performance. The show is 75 minutes long, with no intermission. Tickets ($34) can be purchased at pushfestival.ca.
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival runs Jan. 19-Feb. 5. It features 20 original works – theatre, dance, music, multimedia and circus – from 12 countries and includes six world premières, one North American debut, six Canadian and two Western Canadian openings and one Vancouver première. Single tickets start at $34 in-person, $25 online, plus there are pay-what-you-can and free events; passes, which offer a discount and other perks, are available for both in-person and digital shows. Visit pushfestival.ca or call 604-449-6000.
A criminal charge against the Canadian arm of an Israel-based organization that provides volunteers for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has been withdrawn because there was no reasonable chance for a conviction.
On Dec. 12, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC), which assumed carriage of the case, withdrew a charge that Sar-El Canada violated the Foreign Enlistment Act, which prohibits Canadians from enlisting in or accepting any “commission or engagement” in the armed forces of a foreign country. The charge was withdrawn because there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction,” Sar-El Canada’s lawyer, John Rosen, told the CJN. “The case is now completed.”
The charge was approved in September by a justice of the peace in a private prosecution initiated by David Mivasair, a Hamilton, Ont.-based rabbi with a long history of activism targeting Israel, and Rehab Nazzal, a Palestinian-born, Toronto-based artist who was shot in the leg in Bethlehem in 2015 while photographing an IDF crowd control weapon. They alleged that Toronto-based Sar-El Canada broke the law because it recruited or induced individuals to volunteer for Israel’s armed forces. They further alleged that, once in Israel, volunteers reside on military bases, wear military uniforms and complete tasks that would otherwise be assigned to soldiers; those allegedly included packing food rations and medical kits, cleaning tanks, painting helmets, radio repairs and gas mask refurbishment.
In a statement, they said the “recruitment” in Canada of volunteers “to assist the Israeli military ought to be a concern of all Canadians.” They began a private prosecution after they said police and the federal government failed to act on a complaint.
Sar-El Canada sends 100 to150 volunteers a year from this country to Israel, the group’s national president, Jeff Sarfin, told the CJN when the matter began.
In a statement to the CJN, Sarfin said Sar-El Canada is “very pleased” that the charge was withdrawn. He said the “attempt by anti-Israel activists to intimidate us and the Jewish community has failed. We are also grateful to the support we have received from the Jewish community as we deepen and strengthen the connection between our community and Israel.”
Rosen echoed the sentiment. The complaint “was merely another failed attack on Israel and those who support it, this time by attempting to hijack Canada’s legal system,” he said. He said the charge should never have been authorized and agreed with the prosecution that there was never a reasonable prospect of conviction.
“More importantly,” Rosen added, “the prosecution of this baseless complaint would also have been against the public interest, given Canada’s implicit approval of similar activities that directly support Ukraine’s defence against Russia.”
Ukraine has openly called for soldiers from around the world to join the fight against Russia. Ukraine’s consul general in Toronto was recently quoted as saying that “hundreds” of Canadians got in touch to offer assistance.
Sar-El Canada’s parent organization in Israel was established 40 years ago. It operates in more than 30 countries and has to date sent some 160,000 volunteers to Israel to provide “broad logistical support to the IDF,” its website says. Volunteering takes place on IDF bases throughout the country.
Programs offer volunteers “an opportunity to live and work beside Israeli soldiers and gain an insider view of Israel.” Working alongside soldiers and base employees, the “non-combat civilian support duties” encompass packing medical supplies, repairing machinery and equipment, and cleaning, painting and maintaining the base. The Sar-El program “is a morale booster and motivator for the soldiers,” the group’s website states.
In a hearing in September before the justice of the peace who approved the charge against Sar-El Canada, Mivasair testified that, to the best of his understanding, the Foreign Enlistment Act prohibits recruiting people for “non-combatant engagements” with foreign armies.
Asked for a comment and whether an appeal is being considered, Shane Martinez, a lawyer for Mivasair and Nazzal, told the CJN: “We disagree with the decision of the Federal Crown and are exploring all available options.”
Two years ago, a campaign launched by progressive groups and 170 prominent Canadians alleged that illegal recruiting for the IDF of non-Israeli citizens was taking place in this country. Justice Minister David Lametti was asked to investigate. He referred the matter to the RCMP.
The Diamond Foundation is leading the way in contributing to JWest, with an historic $25 million gift – and community donors have matched this gift with another $25 million.
The Diamond Foundation’s matching gift is the first philanthropic contribution to the project and it is the largest donation ever made by the Diamond Foundation. Completing the match means $50 million toward the JWest capital campaign target of $125-plus million.
Alex Cristall, chair of the JWest capital campaign, had this response: “I want to thank the Diamond Foundation for this transformational gift. A project of this magnitude will not be possible without the tremendous generosity demonstrated by the Diamond Foundation, as well as philanthropic support from the community at large. It is our hope that the Diamond Foundation’s incredible community leadership will serve as inspiration, and we are now calling on others to work with our team to champion this project in an equally impactful way.”
The Diamonds’ gift will have a significant impact on the plans for JWest, providing a social, cultural, recreational and educational asset for all. This is the most extensive project in the history of the Jewish community in Western Canada and it is estimated to cost more than $400 million. Bringing it to life will require philanthropy, government funding and astute financing.
Gordon and Leslie Diamond, who are honorary JWest campaign co-chairs and members of the Diamond Foundation’s board, shared: “We are pleased to be the first family to make a significant contribution to JWest’s capital campaign. Our family has called Vancouver home for almost a century, and we have always believed in contributing whatever we can to ensure there is a bright future for our children and their children.”
The announcement builds on the $25 million funding provided in 2021 by the B.C. government.
“Mazal tov! I’m so pleased that our government’s shared mandate commitment of $25 million and a $400,000 investment in redevelopment planning has been bolstered with philanthropic support from the Diamond Foundation and community,” said Melanie Mark, Hli Haykwhl Ẃii Xsgaak, minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport. “These generous contributions underscore the importance of a renewed Jewish Community Centre to 22,590 Jews and all people living in this community. It speaks to the power of working together to shine a light on our province’s diversity and inclusion.”
The new space, once complete, will deliver a state-of-the-art community centre, expanded space for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, double the current number of childcare spaces, expanded seniors’ programming, a new theatre, a relocated King David High School and two residential towers that will provide mixed-use rental housing (a portion of which will be below-market rates).
“JWest is the amalgamation of decades of work, and the fact that we saw our gift matched so quickly sends a clear signal that the community stands behind this project,” said Jill Diamond, executive director of the Diamond Foundation. “The Diamond Foundation has had a unifying focus to assist and advocate for initiatives in the Vancouver area that help improve the quality of people’s lives. The impact JWest will have on the Jewish community and the surrounding Oakridge community is undeniable.”
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The Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation has added two new members to its board of directors: Mervyn (Merv) Louis and Michelle Karby. They join an impressive group of volunteers, who for the past decades, have donated both their time and funds to care for the elderly of the Vancouver Jewish community.
Louis, a certified public accountant, emigrated with his family from South Africa to Canada in December 1978 and joined a small accounting firm in Vancouver. In the summer of 1979, the firm was acquired by Grant Thornton LLP. In 2016, Louis retired as a partner of Grant Thornton LLP, where he worked for 38 years, of which 33 were as a partner specializing in audit, accounting and business advisory services. Louis advised and worked with clients in many different industries, including manufacturing and distribution, real estate investments and construction, entertainment, and professional practitioners.
After his retirement from Grant Thornton LLP, Louis worked as the chief financial officer of Plotkin Health Inc. and MacroHealth Solutions Limited Partnership until retiring again, in August 2020. During these years, he successfully helped merge a U.S. partnership and a Canadian company to form the parent partnership of MacroHealth Solutions Ltd. Partnership, a medical cost management and solutions provider in North America.
Louis has been married for 46 years and has two sons. He and his wife love to travel and are particularly fond of cruises; they have toured North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Southern Africa. Louis is an avid sports fan and, while his playing days are over, he loves watching all sports, notably hockey, golf and rugby.
Karby is an experienced wills, estates, trusts and corporate lawyer heading up the wills and estates group at Owen Bird Law Corp. She helps clients plan, build and protect their legacies. Prior to developing her expertise in this area, Karby spent many years in and out of a courtroom honing her skills as a commercial litigator.
While born and raised in Vancouver, Karby’s adventurous spirit and love of travel translated into 18 years studying and working in places that included Montreal, Toronto, Israel, Cape Town, Melbourne and Sydney. Now settled in Vancouver with her husband and two teenage sons, Karby enjoys the beautiful natural environment, being close to her family and giving back to the community that she grew up in.
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Kimberley Berger has joined Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver as its new outreach worker in the regional communities. In particular, she will focus on White Rock, South Surrey and New Westminster.
Berger has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years, focusing on community development and family support. She has held many roles, ranging from frontline work to executive director of South Vancouver Family Place. She also dedicates time to supporting parents whose children are undergoing cancer treatment at B.C. Children’s Hospital with the West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation.
Berger believes that a strong sense of connection makes both individuals and communities more resilient. Building relationships is central to her role at Jewish Federation and in her own personal life with her family of four in East Vancouver.
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This year, the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library raised more than $30,000 for the library. These funds will help it purchase new books and supplies for programs. Thank you to all of the Friends of the Library, and to the volunteers who helped make the fundraising a huge success.
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The Israeli Ministry of Education has granted Boys Town Jerusalem an Award for Excellence. The school ranked in the top 10% of the 838 high schools examined over the 2021-22 academic year.
In releasing its findings, the Israel Ministry of Education cited Boys Town Jerusalem (BTJ) for reaching outstanding achievements in the academic and social realms, as well as for instilling crucial ethics and values. BTJ principal Yossi Cohen noted that the prize reflects the ministry’s findings of the extraordinary efforts by BTJ instructors to spur students to reach a high academic level, avoid dropout and advance to Israel Defence Forces enlistment and higher education.
This marks the third time in the past decade that Boys Town Jerusalem has been awarded the prize for excellence, and the first time in which the school has reached the top-echelon rank. The Ministry of Education Award for Excellence includes a monetary reward for teachers among the highest-scoring schools.
In saluting BTJ’s instructors, Cohen stressed the COVID-related hardships over the past two years, which have demanded exceptional efforts to keep students focused and excelling despite the increased illness, poverty and strife they face at home.
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A ceremony dedicating the new home of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Communications Branch School for Software and Cyber Security was held in August at the Advanced Technologies Park (ATP) located at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).
BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, IDF chief-of-staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, head of the communications branch Col. Eran Niv, Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich and other officials and guests were in attendance.
The school’s new location will enable collaboration with BGU and the high-tech companies in the ATP. The school is the first of the communications branch units to move south as part of the national move to strengthen the Negev following the government decision to move the IDF south. The branch’s new main base is under construction alongside the ATP.
The move will assist in the preservation, development and empowerment of the technological human-power in the IDF while creating opportunities and a space for new collaborations in the south.
The monument for the 73 Israel Defence Forces soldiers killed in the 1997 helicopter accident over She’ar Yashuv in northern Israel. (photo by Geoffrey Druker)
This year’s community Yom Hazikaron commemoration on May 3 will mark the 25th anniversary of Israel’s worst air disaster.
On the evening of Feb. 4, 1997, two Israel Air Force helicopters collided into each other. One crashed in Moshav She’ar Yashuv, the second near Kibbutz Dafna. All 73 people on board the helicopters were killed, including eight air crew members. No one on the ground was hurt.
“The presence of Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, following the 1982 operation, led to ongoing battles with the Hezbollah,” explained Geoffrey Druker, who leads the annual Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) ceremony, which this year takes place at the Rothstein Theatre. “Many IDF convoys going into southern Lebanon were ambushed and hit by IEDs, so the IDF started flying in its troops.”
Druker said the accident was devastating. “It was the largest helicopter crash in all helicopter aviation,” he said. “Until, in 2002, a Russian helicopter downed by Chechens killed 127.
“The accident increased the pressure to withdraw from southern Lebanon,” he added, “which happened in May 2002.”
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s Gesher Chai (Living Bridge) programs connect Metro Vancouver’s Jewish communities with Israel’s Galilee Panhandle communities. One of those connections is that King David High School’s sister school in Israel is Har Vagai, which is located on Kibbutz Dafna, where a part of one of the helicopters fell. In 2017, KDHS Grade 8 students traveled to Israel and spent time with their Har Vagai peers.
“The students visited the memorial and documented their meeting there, and the video was shown at our Yom Hazikaron ceremony here,” said Druker. “The memorial site is located in the ravine where a helicopter fell, not far from Kibbutz Dafna. On the site are 73 boulders, each the height of a person and all names are recorded on the site – a very moving memorial site.”
The 73 boulders surround a small pool. Among those remembered are three soldiers from our partnership region: Sgt. Tomer Goldberg, from Moshav Dishon; Staff Sgt. Tsafrir Shoval, from Kibbutz Baram; and Staff Sgt. Alejandro (Ale) Hofman, from Kibbutz Merom Golan, who was a graduate of Har Vagai. Hofman was 19 when he died.
In addition to that physical memorial, Druker said, “An annual conference is held in memory of the fallen, attended by the bereaved families. Students from the region participate in the conference. It’s attended by groups of soldiers and, over the years, the prime minister, the president, minister of defence and the chief of staff have attended and spoke at the conference.
“Every year, they focus on another topic, not necessarily on loss and grief – the bereaved families choose to have educational and other topics of interest. This year was about solidarity in times of COVID-19. Due to COVID, only 400 people attended this year, and the chief of staff spoke on behalf of the country’s leadership.”
Druker added, “An interesting point about that conference – the organizers do not adhere to official protocol because that might take away the decision-making from the bereaved families, regarding who can speak and what elements must be included. The wife of the then-chief of staff when the accident happened, Tali Lipkin-Shahak, has taken part in all the events. She personally is committed to be with the bereaved families.” (Amnon Lipkin-Shahak died from cancer in 2012.)
The local Yom Hazikaron ceremony will pay respects not only to the 73 who died in the helicopter accident 25 years ago, but all of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of hostile acts.
The commemoration at the Rothstein Theatre on May 3 starts at 7:30 p.m. and registration is required for those wanting to attend in-person, as seats will be limited: jewishvancouver.com/zikaron. The ceremony also will be broadcast live.
Left to right: Amit Shmuel, Eitan Feiger and Matan Roettger. (photo by Bentzi Sasson)
On Nov. 24, Chabad UBC invited two former Israel Defence Forces soldiers to the Nest on the University of British Columbia campus to speak about their personal stories and life lessons from serving in the army.
Amit Shmuel, a former soldier in the elite Palchan unit, and Matan Roettger, a former soldier in the Kfir Brigade, shared some of their experiences in service; stories of their courage and the sacrifice they made protecting and defending the state of Israel, and especially of their perseverance in the face of suffering and adversity. Both suffered career-ending injuries in the line of duty, and their strength and resilience to mentally and physically recover from their trauma were remarkable.
The two soldiers were at UBC as part of a larger tour of college campuses all across North America, along with Belev Echad, an organization dedicated to providing financial and moral support to IDF veterans wounded in action and to easing their transition back into civilian life.
The local event was sponsored by Hasbara Fellowships, which helps train young student leaders to become Israel ambassadors and activists on campus. As a Hasbara Fellow myself and having firsthand experience in Israel, I found the stories of Shmuel and Roettger to accurately represent the victory of hope over despair, the value of the sanctity of life, freedom and dignity that have been deeply encoded in the fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish community worldwide.
Just as the Maccabees 2,000 years ago rededicated the Second Temple from destruction to restoration, so too did these two modern-day Maccabees rededicate their lives from tragedy to triumph. They inspire us to not focus on what we cannot control, but rather on what we can: to elevate our attitude and response toward life’s misfortunes by sharing with others our light of faith and hope for a brighter future.
Eitan Feigeris a student at the University of British Columbia, class of 2024.
Sar-El volunteers from Canada, the United States, England, Germany and the Caribbean at a base not far from Sderot in 2018. (photo from Ed Rozenberg)
This past July, I found myself shlepping boxes full of medical supplies and loading them onto pallets. How did I get here? I was volunteering in Sar-El, or Sherut LeYisrael, which means “service for Israel.”
Sar-El enables people, both inside and outside Israel, to volunteer to provide assistance to the Israel Defence Forces while contributing to the country, experiencing Israel and integrating into Israeli society. At present, due to COVID-19 and its resulting limitations on visitors, it is rare to meet a non-resident volunteer but, hopefully, that won’t be the case for much longer.
Sar-El volunteering comes in two types: arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon or arriving on a Sunday in the morning and leaving after lunch on a Thursday (sleeping on the base).
This recent volunteering stint, my wife Ida and I went to a central pickup spot in north Tel Aviv and were taken by bus with the rest of our group to the medical division (Matzrap, which is Hebrew shorthand for Centre for Medical Supplies) of Tel Hashomer, a large army base about 25 minutes away from the city. The usual group has about 15 volunteers, evenly divided between the sexes. Before COVID, the groups would consist of about 25 people, also evenly divided between the sexes, and about 60% Jewish and 40% non-Jewish. My co-workers have ranged in age from 20 to 92.
On arriving at the base, we are taken to our dorm building, with men and women sleeping on separate floors. We are told that there is to be no alcohol, drugs or romantic liaisons. Discussions of religion and politics are strictly forbidden. The group is led by two or three madrichot (female leaders) who are part of an IDF unit trained to lead Sar-El groups. It is important to remember that Sar-El is a unit of the IDF and, while on the base, you are under IDF jurisdiction, which means that you can’t leave the base except with hard-to-get permission. We receive uniforms, which we’re required to wear from the morning till after dinner.
A usual day begins with breakfast at 7 a.m. and the flag-raising at 8:15, followed by the singing of Hatikvah. This is often a very emotional moment, as we volunteers from all over the world are assembled with the same purpose, namely, to do something important for Israel. I have been on 10 Sar-Els and have met people from Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, many European countries, South Africa, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Volunteering with Sar-El is an extremely broadening experience and you make close friends for life.
Announcements come after the flag-raising. The madrichot ask us if there are any concerns or questions, and take care of them. We are then assigned to our workstations.
The work depends on the type of base. This was my fifth time in Matzrap, which deals with the packing and loading of medical supplies. Other parts of Matzrap deal with checking whether batches of medical equipment, such as stethoscopes, pressure gauges and night vision equipment, are functioning properly, or checking the expiration dates of drugs. The supplies are used in Israel, as well as by emergency units sent abroad to assist in disaster areas.
I first found out about Sar-El in early 2006 from an article in the Jerusalem Report. When the Second Lebanon war broke out, Ida and I flew to Israel and were assigned to a base in the Negev, where we loaded tanks, assembled army equipment, packed uniforms and weapons and loaded food.
One of my favourite activities in Matzrap is to help prepare worktables for adolescents with intellectual challenges. It is fulfilling to see these young people working and getting a feeling of accomplishment. There is always a small thank you ceremony at the end of the work period that I find quite touching. One thing that has struck me since moving to Israel in 2016 is the degree to which people here are encouraged to reach their potential no matter what their background and abilities.
Work continues till lunch at noon. After lunch and a rest period (and, for those who choose to participate, minchah prayers), we return to work till about 4 p.m. Dinner is at 6 p.m. and, at 7 p.m., there is an activity of some sort, either educational or entertaining, or both, such as quizzes, led by the madrichot. The atmosphere is relaxed.
Sar-El itself was the brainchild of General Aharon Davidi (z”l), a former head of the IDF paratrooper and infantry corps. In the summer of 1982, in the midst of the First Lebanon War, Golan Heights communities faced the prospect of losing their entire agricultural crop. The majority of able-bodied farmers and other workers were called up for army reserve duty and entire farms, with crops already ripened, were left unattended.
Davidi was then the director of community and cultural activities of the Golan and Jordan Valley. He sent a number of friends as a recruitment team to the United States and, within a few weeks, some 650 volunteers arrived to help. Those first volunteers expressed the wish that the project be continued. As a result, in the spring of 1983, Sar-El, the National Project for Volunteers for Israel, was founded as a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization. Sar-El is represented in more than 30 countries.
On many occasions, Sar-El volunteers work with soldiers who are assigned to the same workstations. At the beginning, the soldiers are amazed that there are people who actually volunteer for this but, after awhile, they feel more comfortable with the volunteers, they chat with them, get advice from older souls and practise their English.
The lunch on Thursday before the group returns to Tel Aviv can be a quiet time. By then, we have gotten used to one another, laughed, sweated and yelled at one another and many of us have become quite close. The madrichot always set up a WhatsApp group for anyone who wants to join and through which we get our notifications.
I have no doubt that, on balance, I have gotten more from volunteering for Sar-El than from any other contribution that I might have made through volunteering. It has been an enormously enriching experience for both Ida and myself.
Jack Copelovici and his wife, Ida, made aliyah from Toronto in 2016. Sar-El (Sherut LeYisrael) is one of the organizations for which they volunteer. They first volunteered for it in 2006.
Galit Baram, consul general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada, says the allegations of recruiting are unfounded. (Consul office photograph)
Last October, a coalition of foreign policy and Palestinian solidarity organizations delivered a formal complaint to David Lametti, justice minister and attorney general of Canada, alleging that Canadians are being recruited for the Israel Defence Forces. Accompanied by an open letter signed by more than 170 supporters, the complaint seeks an investigation into the actions of Israeli diplomats and consular officials, among others.
Under Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act, it is illegal for foreign militaries to recruit Canadians in Canada. In 2017, at least 230 Canadians were serving in the IDF, according to the army’s statistics. The coalition, composed of Just Peace Advocates, Palestinian and Jewish Unity, and the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute, alleges that Israeli consular officials have invited Canadians to speak with IDF recruiting officers at the consulate and have sent IDF soldiers to speak at Canadian high schools. In a written statement to the Canadian Jewish Record, which was cited in an Oct. 28 article online, Galit Baram, consul general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada, said, “Any allegations against Israel in this matter are unfounded.”
The complaint drew some attention. Montreal-based newspaper Le Devoir reported on it in a front-page article on Oct. 19, under the headline “Israel criticized for recruiting on Canadian soil.” The article pointed to a recruiting invitation posted on the website of the Israeli consulate in Toronto in November 2019. “An IDF representative will conduct personal interviews at the consulate. Young people who wish to enlist in the IDF or anyone who has not fulfilled their obligations according to the Israeli Defence Service Law are invited to meet with him,” read the post, which included contact information to schedule appointments. Further investigations by Le Devoir yielded similar recruiting invitations from 2014 and 2018.
Baram said the invitations were directed only to Israelis. “In Israel, the law requires compulsory service,” she stated. “Every Israeli, male or female, must serve in the Israel Defence Forces. Israeli citizens living abroad are obligated to settle their status with the Israeli authorities.” According to the Foreign Enlistment Act, foreign representatives can recruit their own citizens in Canada, so long as the recruits are not also Canadian.
Baram acknowledged that recruiting officers may be sent to large Israeli communities to conduct interviews, citing Toronto as an example. According to the 2016 Census, however, roughly four out of five Israelis in Toronto are dual citizens, and approximately 3,125 Israelis in Toronto are not Canadian. When invited to clarify to which group the invitations were sent, the consulate declined.
The coalition’s concerns extend beyond Israeli or dual citizens, however. “Any suggestion that all Israel does is recruit their own citizens who have to do their military duty is complete nonsense,” said John Philpot, a Montreal-based criminal-defence lawyer and coalition spokesperson. The Devoir article reported on a visit by an IDF colonel to a Toronto denominational school “to talk about his experiences as a new recruit and as a senior commander.” On the same day the complaint was filed, The Canada Files published an article by Yves Engler, a Montreal-based writer and signatory to the letter, documenting what Engler considers to be extensive promotion of the IDF in Toronto Jewish day schools.
As one example, he pointed to a talk by Seth Frieberg, an IDF “lone soldier,” in January 2020 at TanenbaumCHAT, a Toronto Jewish high school and Frieberg’s alma mater. Lone soldiers are foreign recruits to the military without immediate family in Israel. Frieberg joined the Israeli army in 2013 and served 14 months as a paratrooper. In an interview last October, he credited his time at the Eretz Hatzvi Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he spent a year after high school, for partly driving his decision to enlist. His teachers spoke highly about Eretz Yisrael, the biblical land of Israel, and the importance of living there. He said he felt a greater connection to Israeli Jews, to the country, and was drawn to and admired the soldiers. He returned to Canada to complete an undergraduate degree at Western University and joined the IDF the following year.
The roots of his idea, however, began before his gap year. He was also motivated by a family history with the Holocaust and a course at TanenbaumCHAT. Two of his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, one of whom, his grandmother, was active in Holocaust education. “She’d always talk about that, so I think I had this idea in my mind about the horrors of the Holocaust,” he said. In his Grade 12 history course, a connection was made between the Holocaust and Israel: he took from it the idea that “had Israel been there during the time of the Holocaust, [it] probably wouldn’t have happened.” In this and other ways, Frieberg said, he relies on Israel. “In the worst sense … if anything bad happened to Jews or myself in Canada, I always have Israel to go to.” He reasoned he should do something for Israel in return: “And that could be charity, volunteer, or going to the army.”
As part of TanenbaumCHAT’s IDF Day, the annual event at which Frieberg spoke, students wear olive-green IDF T-shirts, matching clothing, and sell baked goods with green icing to raise money for the military. By Frieberg’s estimates, he spoke to 80 students about his experience in the IDF, including patrolling the Lebanese border and West Bank, searching for three kidnapped youth, and operations in Gaza. Did his talk inspire others? He said, “You’d have to ask them…. I was just there to tell them my story.”
Last year’s events were organized under the leadership of Israelis and former IDF soldiers Ariel and Lee Kestecher Solomon. Ariel, the school’s Israel engagement shaliach, or emissary, was a commander in the IDF and volunteers with the Jewish Agency for Israel. According to the agency’s website, Israeli emissaries are sent to Jewish communities abroad for two to three years “to strengthen and deepen the mutual connection between Israel and members of the community.”
In his Canada Files article, Engler characterizes these activities – IDF Day, talks by lone soldiers, fundraising for the military, and former soldiers with extended placements in Jewish day schools – as enticement to join the IDF. When invited to comment, Renee Cohen, TanenbaumCHAT’s principal, did not respond to multiple requests.
Why countries like Israel might recruit foreign citizens is a puzzle that caught the attention of Kolby Hanson, post-doctoral fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. In a 2019 paper for Security Studies, he and co-author Erik Lin-Greenberg categorized the 25 countries that recruit non-citizens into three distinct groups. In an interview in October 2020, Hanson explained that countries either recruit for specific expertise or for sheer numbers to fill ranks, or, like Israel, “within narrow ethnic or commonwealth networks that are more symbolic programs.” As with India, Israel “[uses] the rules around their recruitment to make some statement about who they are and what the nation’s identity is.” Israel recruits foreign Jews for its military to assert its identity as a Jewish state and to establish deeper ties to Jewish communities abroad.
“Someone might grow up and say, ‘My cousin served in the IDF and that makes me feel like I’m really connected to Israel,’ or whether you know someone who came back after serving in the IDF,” said Hanson. Countries that recruit for symbolic reasons tend to have other programs, like expedited citizenship (as Israel has for Jews), to reinforce these ties.
The IDF itself is likely aware of the legal sensitivities around recruitment of Canadians. Hanson described an unusual exchange in an interview with Canadian IDF soldiers: “When we used the word ‘recruitment,’ we had a couple of people get tetchy…. They pounced on it and said, ‘No, no, it’s not recruitment. The IDF allows people to serve, but they don’t try to get people to.’”
In Canada, crossing the line into active recruitment is a legal issue. Unfortunately, it is not clear where exactly the line is. The Foreign Enlistment Act does not define recruitment, nor, according to Tyler Wentzell, doctoral student in law at the University of Toronto, is there case law.
A serving military officer and lawyer by training, Wentzell has published several articles on foreign recruitment and the history of the act. In an October 2020 interview, he said cases have been tried for recruiting for criminal or terrorist organizations, but not for the military of a sovereign state, for which the term would likely be interpreted differently.
“If you’re actually sworn into [a foreign] military in Canada, that definitely crosses the line,” he said, as would undertaking the stages of an intake funnel, including physical fitness and aptitude testing and evaluation. But, at earlier points, like attracting prospects, the line blurs. Is putting a Mountie on promotional material for Canada recruiting for the RCMP, asked Wentzell, or using a national symbol to promote the country? To complicate matters further, recruiting is also “a cultural sense that changes over time,” as with evolving Canadian attitudes towards high school rifle ranges and cadet corps.
In an October 2020 interview, Petty Officer Gian Barzelotti, a recruiter for the Canadian Armed Forces, described where he draws the line when recruiting in Canadian high schools. To students in Grade 10 or older, he advertises the benefits of joining the military, including a paid co-op program in which students can earn high school credit. With younger students, he emphasized, the CAF does not recruit. “We do talk about the military and who we are and what we do for Canada,” he said, but not about programs and benefits nor intake. “You’re not saying, ‘Go down this path and you’ll end up being in the military.’”
Tzofim Garin Tzabar, however, does just that. A branch of the Israeli Scouts that is 70% funded by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, Garin Tzabar describes itself as the “Israeli lone soldier IDF program.” Its online promotional video advertises an “unbelievable three months of one unforgettable absorption process,” “at least 20 new friends,” “a family for life,” and that 30% of its participants are accepted to the IDF’s officer and commander stream. It also lists an office in Toronto.
Likewise, in June 2020, Nefesh b’Nefesh, an Israeli absorption organization, advertised a webinar entitled “Joining the IDF” on the website of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. According to the event listing, the webinar featured “everything you need and want to know about joining the IDF,” including the lone soldier program, the structure of the military, preparatory Hebrew programs, and post-secondary degrees relevant to the IDF. Last year, Nefesh b’Nefesh facilitated the absorption of 390 lone soldiers from North America to Israel. Although the UJA Federation did not endorse the webinar, it did promote it on its website.
In practice, it seems the Canadian government has never done more than slap an offending party on the wrist. During the Vietnam War, said Wentzell, the U.S. army accidentally placed a recruiting ad in a Canadian magazine. “There was a great deal of correspondence back and forth saying, ‘Hey, could you lay off this?… The response was pretty consistently, ‘Yep, sorry.’”
The government maintains an interest in keeping Canadians out of foreign militaries and conflicts. Wentzell illustrated this by way of a Canadian who served in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war: “What happens when Benjamin Dunkelman gets in trouble on the other side of the planet? Do we get him home? Do we owe him anything? These were still live issues.” For the 200-plus Canadians serving in the IDF today, they still are.
“If Canada said to the Israeli consulate, ‘Stop all recruiting,’ [and] went to the schools and said, ‘You cannot have meetings where Israelis invite you to join the army’ … that would be a good step forward,” said Philpot.
To Philpot and the coalition, these acts are part of a “whole series of evidence” that point to IDF recruiting, including an event held by Deborah Lyons, Canadian ambassador to Israel. In January 2020, she hosted 33 Canadian IDF lone soldiers at her residence in Jerusalem to thank them for their service. “We at the embassy are very proud of what you’re doing. It’s really quite incredible,” she said. Philpot said all of this points towards recruitment.
Shortly after the complaint was filed, Lametti responded to questions in an unrelated press conference. He reiterated that Canadian law applies to foreign diplomats but referred calls for an investigation to the police and the public prosecution service. “I will leave the decision to the institutions we have in Canada to monitor the situation,” he said. In mid-November, the RCMP confirmed it was reviewing and assessing the evidence submitted.
Kevin Keystoneis a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and researcher. His writing has been published in the Literary Review of Canada, the Jewish Independent and Good Old Boat.
MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, right, with Michal Berman, chief executive officer of the Lone Soldier Centre in Memory of Michael Levin, and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon at the inauguration ceremony in August of a new home for female lone soldiers in Jerusalem. (photo by Yossi Zamir)
Michal Cotler-Wunsh was an 18-year-old new immigrant from Canada when she enlisted for the Israel Defence Forces some 30 years ago. Unlike most of her fellow recruits, she had no home to go to on weekends.
“I was a ‘lone soldier,’ without close family in Israel. There was no real framework that supported us – but much has changed since then, as this matter has become more acute,” she said.
Now a Knesset member (as a representative of the Blue and White coalition faction led by Benny Gantz), Cotler-Wunsh has taken up the welfare of the more than 6,300 lone soldiers lacking family in the country: immigrants, volunteers, orphans and youths estranged from their families.
“In retrospect, serving in the army was the most amazing exposure to Israeli society in many ways,” said Cotler-Wunsh, whose father Irwin Cotler was Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general from 2003 to 2006. “I did a squad leaders course and served in a very ragged anti-tank base at Nitsanim. The company slept in tents and went on marches in the dunes.”
The army gave her rent support and, on weekends, she stayed in a room in a Jerusalem apartment. “I lived with an elderly man who usually went away on weekends, so I was alone in the apartment,” she said. “To this day, I have connections with people from the Machane Yehuda market, especially the owner of the marzipan shop and the Tzidkiyahu delicatessen. These two would prepare boxes of food for lone soldiers at the end of Friday business, and we would get to Jerusalem after everything was already closed, go through the market and take the boxes of food prepared for Shabbat. To this day, I don’t forget them and they don’t forget me.”
Beyond material needs, she recalled the psychological hardship of being far from home.
“I know how important it is for lone soldiers to have their parents accompany them,” said Cotler-Wunsh, who served in the days before digital communication. “One aspect that has changed is parents’ involvement in day-to-day matters. Nowadays, it’s possible to convey to the lone soldiers’ parents a reality that they do not understand – and there’s no chance that they will understand – but they’re very concerned about. This communication calms both them and the lone soldier throughout their military service.”
“Lone soldiers need somewhere to live, a hot meal on Friday night … things other soldiers take for granted,” Michal Berman, chief executive officer of the Lone Soldier Centre in memory of Michael Levin, a nonprofit organization that looks after their welfare.
The LSC, established in memory of an American immigrant soldier killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, currently operates nine apartment homes, offering low-rent housing to about 100 soldiers in Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon, as well as social clubs catering to about 1,000 soldiers in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva. Only financial restraints are preventing the opening of more facilities and programs.
Beyond the social-psychological aspects, soldiers’ needs are often prosaic. “They need basic things like clean underwear, a toaster, somebody to look after them when they are sick,” Berman explained. “We have hundreds of volunteers who cook and do their laundry for them – many of them former lone soldiers or others immigrants.”
The organization’s staff also provide advice on how to navigate Israel’s bureaucracy, and attend military ceremonies, taking the place of their parents who cannot be there. “They say this means the world to them,” Berman said.
“The difficulties continue beyond their army service,” noted Cotler-Wunsh, who returned to Canada after studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “After 13 years in Israel and with a small baby, for the first time in my life I missed my family. I was pregnant with my second child and also wanted to do a second degree, at McGill University, and took the opportunity to be close to my parents.”
She returned to Israel 10 years later with four children and pursued a legal career that led her to the Knesset, where she has taken up a host of social issues, including the welfare of lone soldiers before, during and after their service.
“Nowadays, when they do have a support system, the loneliness hasn’t disappeared – it’s just been postponed. It’s harder when you’re used to an all-embracing system then, suddenly, to find yourself really alone. In any case, getting out of the army is a shock. For a lone soldier, it’s even harder to go from a hierarchic system to being an independent citizen who has to make decisions that will affect their life. That’s part of the reason why so many young Israelis go traveling after their army service.”
Over the High Holidays, the LSC is launching a global crowdfunding campaign to help lone soldiers get through the toughest time of their lives. For more information, visit charidy.com/lsc.
Daniel Ben-Talwas a lone soldier serving as a paratrooper before becoming a journalist. Over three decades he has penned hundreds of articles in a host of journals and websites around the world. Formerly an editor at the Jerusalem Post and the English version of Haaretz, he is now an Israel-based freelance writer, editor and translator.
Sheba is a trained physiotherapy dog. One of the patients he’s helping at Sheba Medical Centre is Nathaniel Felber, who suffered a head injury in a terror attack in December 2018. (photo from IMP)
Nathaniel Felber is an Israel Defence Forces soldier who suffered a critical head injury in a terror attack in December 2018. He has been slowly recovering, against all odds. After being in a coma for several months, he was moved to Sheba Medical Centre, where he’s been receiving intensive rehabilitation. After a brief setback following brain surgery last May, Felber has made remarkable progress, and a lot of the credit goes to Sheba – not only the hospital but its namesake, a trained physiotherapy dog.
“The dog relates to Nathaniel in a nonjudgmental way, happily accepting the food that Nathaniel offers or any other attention,” said Judi Felber, who has been at her son’s side almost constantly since the attack that upended their lives.
Prof. Israel Dudkiewicz, who heads Sheba’s orthopedic rehabilitation program, has noted a marked improvement in compliance, strength and endurance in patients like Felber, when performing physical therapy exercises with the dog.
“The dog takes attention away from the pain and difficulty of the exercise, enabling the patient to try to do more and to do it better,” explained Dudkiewicz. “I’ve watched patients who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to stand for just two or three minutes, but, when they pet the dog, they can be standing for 30 minutes and more without even realizing it.”
Felber builds strength and balance in his legs by standing and petting Sheba. He also throws a ball for the dog to retrieve, a game that repeatedly flexes his elbow, but without the tedium of the standard physio exercises for the same purpose. When brushing Sheba, Felber must exert enough pressure to run the brush through the dog’s fur, but not too much that would cause him pain.
The Felbers made aliyah from Silver Spring, Md., about 14 years ago, settling in Ra’anana with their three children and a dog. “Nathaniel loved our dog, and I think that interacting with Sheba the dog is very healing for him,” said his mother.
Dudkiewicz is delighted with Felber’s positive response to Sheba, as well as the responses of patients working with therapy dogs in general.
“We have seen dramatic improvement in patients performing physical therapy with dogs from both a physical and emotional perspective,” he said. “We aim to incorporate this as another treatment tool, such as hydrotherapy and other nonconventional therapies, for patients who can benefit from it.”
At just seven months old, Sheba is still a puppy, but his performance thus far points to a successful future. Dogs used in physical therapy must undergo a yearlong, rigorous training period. The staff must likewise be trained how to integrate the dog into their rehab programs. In the course of training, the dogs are tested periodically to see that they’re up to scratch. Dudkiewicz explained that different dogs are trained for different types of patients and their abilities. The cost of each dog, including training, is more than $30,000, meaning that its implementation in the department must be limited; however, Dudkiewicz said the results certainly justify the financial outlay.
“Neurorehabilitation is slower than anything else I’ve ever experienced,” said Judi Felber. “Nathaniel is not walking, or talking, or eating even independently – yet. But I try to focus on the positive: he’s responding to people, to us, his family. He’ll turn his head and give us his hand. He can nod yes and no and show us the number of fingers that we ask. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m hopeful.”
– Courtesy International Marketing and Promotion (IMP)
Calgary resident and philanthropist Lenny Shapiro recently announced that he and his wife Faigel are expanding their scholarship program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. As part of a new five-year commitment, the couple is increasing the number and value of scholarships they will be awarding to students pursuing their university studies after completing their mandatory service in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
A strong believer in the concept of tzedakah, Lenny Shapiro has donated to many nonprofit organizations in both Canada and Israel. He has long supported students at HU, having provided scholarships to hundreds of students over the years and, in July, he decided to make a substantial donation to be used over the next five years for scholarships for students who have served in the IDF. To add to the impact, Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU) and Hebrew University will be matching a portion of his contribution.
At the heart of this action is Shapiro’s longstanding respect and appreciation for those who risk their lives in defence of Israel.
“I’m in love with the soldiers,” he said. “They put their lives on the line. Many have lost friends in battle. For those that then go on to study at Hebrew University who I can help, I feel they’re like my family. I see myself as being like a grandfather for them. Their needs are my needs, and I’m so pleased to do what I can to help them get their degree as they make their way through life.”
Shapiro has shared his passion for Hebrew University with the next generation in his family. One of his daughters, Robin Murphy, is a member of CFHU’s national board.
Born in Montreal, Lenny Shapiro grew up in modest conditions. After graduating from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) with a bachelor of commerce, he went on to head Allied Resources Management, part of the petroleum industry in Alberta.
Shapiro has always operated according to the principle that there’s no better exercise for your heart than reaching down and helping to lift someone up. His impact is reflected in the many letters he’s received over the years from HU students for whom his scholarships have allowed them to complete their studies.
“With the financial support I received from you, it’s easier for me to concentrate on my studies,” Julia Arziantzev wrote to Shapiro during the second year of her master’s degree in cultural studies at HU. “Without your scholarship, I doubt I would be able to keep up my average or even keep studying. Thank you for your generous assistance. It makes me optimistic to know there are people like you who are willing to help in such a tremendous way.”