Siblings Becky, left, and Margaux Wosk (photo from We Belong!)
The first-ever We Belong! Festival will take place Aug. 27 in Downtown Vancouver. Organized by siblings Margaux and Becky Wosk, We Belong! is a “one-of-a-kind creative arts market with a focus on giving disabled artists the opportunity to showcase and sell their art.”
Margaux Wosk is a self-taught artist, an activist and a disability rights advocate, fighting for disabled small business owners to get resources. Becky Wosk is an artist, designer, writer and musician; she and Emmalee Watts form the duo Hollow Twin.
Margaux Wosk started their business, Retrophiliac (shopretrophiliac.com), more than 10 years ago. Its focus is on visual art.
“Being an openly autistic person,” said Wosk, “I found that there was a void in the marketplace for the type of items I wanted to see and purchase.
“My business has really ramped up in the last five years,” they continued, “and I focus on autistic, neurodiversity and disability pride items, such as enamel pins, patches and stickers. I design retro-inspired pins, stickers and patches as well. I also have other items I offer and I have over 26 retailers between Canada and the United States.”
Wosk also uses their business “as a way to talk to the government about disabled small business owners” and they have gone to the provincial budget meeting two years in a row “to rally for funding and resources for other people like myself.”
They explained, “Currently, as it stands, we have no resources, and any of the funding that goes to ‘inclusive employment’ only goes to employers that hire disabled people, not disabled people who own their own business.”
Part of the mission of the We Belong! Festival is to raise awareness.
“I have been part of other markets and I do enjoy it, but none of them meet all of my needs,” said Wosk. “I find that sometimes there are financial barriers, sometimes the events are just too long and I find that it can take a toll on my mind and body. I wanted to create something with little barriers for other disabled artists and we were lucky enough to be the recipients of the Downtown Vancouver BIA’s [Public Space] Vibrancy Grant. This way, we won’t have to charge our vendors any costs and we can provide them tables, canopies and chairs. I want people to see what we’re all capable of.”
The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association helped secure the market’s space at 855 West Hastings St. (Lot 19), and it is being provided free of charge. The location, which is between Burrard and Howe streets, is close to Waterfront Station and other public transit points.
“Once the location and date were confirmed,” said Becky Wosk, “we were able to figure out how many vendors we can accommodate and, from there, we put out a call to artists/makers. We have a specific budget to work with, so we have been able to gather quotes for the supplies we will need to make this event successful.
“When working on an event,” she said, “it’s important to work backwards from the date that you have secured and determine what needs to be ordered/booked in advance of that date – for example, canopies need to be booked 30 days out etc. [There are] lots of small details to be mindful of!”
In addition to the vendors who will be selling their creations, the market will include four nonprofits: Artists Helping Artists, Curiko, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Art Hive, which is run by Leamore Cohen, and the BC People First Society, on whose board Margaux Wosk sits, as regional director, Lower Mainland West.
While the deadline to apply as an exhibitor has passed, the Wosks are still looking for volunteers to help with set up and tear down. Anyone interested should email [email protected].
Leamore Cohen (photo by Efrat Gal-Or Nucleus Photography)
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s inclusion services program is one of the recipients of the Lieutenant Governor’s Arts and Music Awards, in the category of visual arts. This one-time honour, marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, recognizes organizations like the JCC that have excelled in fostering wide community engagement through a robust spectrum of arts and culture programs. Most important: the award emphasizes the JCC’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity.
It all began with a passionate letter of nomination by Chaia Schneid, whose daughter, Sarah Halpern, discovered “a previously untapped creative passion” in the Art Hive and Theatre Lab classes she attended, among other programs run through the JCC’s inclusion services. Writing to the Hon. Janet Austin, lieutenant governor of British Columbia, Schneid stated: “The quality of the arts and culture programs is unlike anything we have found elsewhere. They are professionally delivered and of the highest calibre, and yet individualized to meet the special needs of the diverse participants.” In particular, Schneid praised the JCC’s annual Jewish Disability and Awareness Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Schneid also praised current program director and inclusion services coordinator Leamore Cohen, calling her a “rare individual.”
Shelley Rivkin, vice-president, local and global engagement, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver wrote a letter of support for the nomination. In it, she highlighted several inclusion services arts and social programs, and Cohen’s leadership.
“Leamore Cohen is the driving force behind these programs and her compassion, creativity and commitment to inclusion shine through in all aspects of the program,” wrote Rivkin. “She is always generating new ways and ideas for participants to engage with the arts and to create to the best of their abilities. These programs break new ground by offering meaningful educational and recreational opportunities for people with diverse needs. Having had the opportunity to attend some events, I have seen firsthand the joy that participants feel in being able to express themselves in a variety of mediums and the pride that their parents and family members experience when they see the creativity and talent of their loved ones.”
For a growing number of Vancouverites from all religious and ethnic backgrounds, and across all ages and abilities, the calibre and range of the JCC’s work is well-known. A schedule of performing and fine arts programs coincides with an array of sport, leisure and fitness options inside a facility that houses a theatre, library, gymnasium and pool. The JCC is also widely known for its annual Jewish Book and Chutzpah! festivals – both occupying a key place in the city’s cultural calendar – alongside community services including preschool and toddler daycare.
“While the arts programming is the centrepiece of what is being offered,” wrote Rivkin, “other inclusion programming for adults includes free memberships and access to all the fitness and wellness facilities at the Jewish community centre along with two virtual classes offered five days a week that are designed to be sensitive to the sensory stimulation needs of participants.”
Noting that activities continued throughout the pandemic, Rivkin concluded, “the program demonstrates its dedication to equity and inclusion daily by the range of programs embedded in the arts that have been opened up to this population and, of course, commitment, both on the part of Leamore Cohen, who dedicates so much time and thought to designing these programs, and to the participants themselves, who have remained active and involved despite their personal barriers and the COVID restrictions.”
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On June 18, Annette Whitehead was awarded a Queen’s Platinum Jubilee pin by MP Joyce Murray. Whitehead was nominated for the honour by Kitsilano Community Centre for her outstanding commitment and dedication to her community. She also received a certificate as a sign of gratitude for all the wonderful and hard work she does for her constituency.
June 2022 marked the 70th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. To commemorate this milestone, Murray was issued a number of Platinum Jubilee pins, which she decided would be best used to celebrate and thank those who volunteer in Vancouver Quadra. The ceremony took place at Trimble Park.
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On July 7, the National Audubon Society announced the winners of its 13th annual Audubon Photography Awards. This year, judges awarded eight prizes across five divisions from a pool of 2,416 entrants from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and seven Canadian provinces and territories.
Local Jewish community member Liron Gertsman won three awards:
Professional Award Winner for his photo of a white-tailed ptarmigan,
Professional Honourable Mention for his photo of a sharp-tailed grouse, and
Video Award Winner for his sharp-tailed grouse video.
In a July 7 Facebook post, Gertsman writes about his wins: “Getting a chance to shine some light on these often under-appreciated birds brings a big smile to my face!”
He also writes about the white-tailed ptarmigan:
“Perfectly adapted to harsh alpine conditions, they spend most of their time foraging on small plant matter in the tundra, insulated from the wind and cold by their warm layers of feathers. Ptarmigan are also famous for changing their feathers to match their snowy surroundings in the winter, and their rocky surroundings in the summer. This mastery of camouflage makes them very difficult to find, and I’ve spent countless hikes searching for them, to no avail. On this particular day, after hiking in the alpine for a couple of hours, I stumbled right into my target bird! This individual was part of a small group of ptarmigan that were so well camouflaged, I didn’t notice them until some movement caught my eye just a few yards from where I was standing. Wanting to capture these remarkable birds within the context of their spectacular mountain domain, I put on a wider lens and sat down. The birds continued to forage at close range, and I captured this image as this individual walked over a rock, posing in front of the stunning mountains of Jasper National Park.”
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At the Rockower Awards banquet, held in conjunction with the American Jewish Press Association’s annual conference, June 27, 2022, in Atlanta, Ga., the Jewish Independent received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism. These awards honoured achievements in Jewish media published in 2021 and there was a record-breaking 1,100-plus entries from AJPA members.
In the news story category, in the division of weekly and biweekly newspapers, the ˆI took second place for Kevin Keystone’s article “What constitutes recruiting?” The piece explored the allegation by a coalition of foreign policy and Palestinian solidarity organizations that Canadians are being recruited for the Israel Defence Forces.
For excellence in editorial writing, in which all member papers competed, the JI editorial board of Pat Johnson, Basya Laye and Cynthia Ramsay received an honourable mention, or third place. “Strong reasoning and writing, relevant to Jewish audience,” wrote the judges about the trio of articles submitted. The submission included “Ideas worth the fight,” about university campuses and the need to keep “engaging in the battle of ideas, however daunting and hopeless the fight might appear”; “Tragedy and cruelty,” about the response to the catastrophe at Mount Meron on Lag b’Omer in 2021; and “Antisemitism unleashed,” about how the violence in Israel in May 2021 year spilled out into the world with a spike in antisemitic incidents.
Myriam Steinberg’s Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of Infertility, with illustrations by Christache, has won two gold medals for best graphic novel. The first was the Independent Publishers (IPPY) Awards, and the second is the Foreword Indies Award. This is after having won the Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature last fall.
“This book was not only a labour of love, but also a call-out to the world to recognize and acknowledge the very real experience of so many people,” wrote Steinberg in an email. “Pregnancy loss and/or infertility touch almost everyone in some way or other. It affects those who are trying to conceive the most, but it also touches (often unbeknownst to them) their children, friends, family and colleagues.”
To celebrate the honours, Steinberg is offering a 20% discount on books bought directly from her (shipping extra). To order, email [email protected].
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The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) and the VSO School of Music (VSO SoM) are excited to recognize the appointment of Ben Mink, CM, as a Member of the Order of Canada. On June 29, 2022, Governor General of Canada Mary Simon announced that Ben Mink, who is a member of the board of directors for both the VSO and VSO SoM, has received the distinction “for his sustained contributions to Canadian music as a producer, multi-instrumentalist and writer.”
Mink has amassed a critically acclaimed body of work spanning decades, styles and genres as an international musical force. His influence is tangible and enduring in the widest range of musical styles and directions, and his imprint can be found in countless recordings, film scores and television programs. As a producer, songwriter, and instrumentalist, Mink has brought his signature style and approach to major musical artists and productions. He has an impressive list of recording collaborations that include k.d. lang, Rush, Daniel Lanois, Roy Orbison, Elton John, Alison Krauss, Heart, Feist, the Klezmatics, Wynona Judd, Method Man, James Hetfield (Metallica), and many more.
He has been nominated for nine Grammies, winning twice for his work with k.d. lang. The song “Constant Craving,” which he co-wrote and produced with lang, won her a Grammy for best female pop performance and has been used in several TV shows.
In 2007, he was co-nominated for his work on Feist’s Grammy-nominated “1234,” which gained global popularity in the roll out campaign for the iPod Nano. His recent collaborations with Heart were Billboard hits. Mink’s work helped set new and significant directions in Canadian popular music, and his writing and producing has been recognized with seven Juno nominations (three wins) and the SOCAN Wm. Harold Moon Award for international recognition.
Reesa Steele and family have the absolute pleasure to announce the upcoming marriage of Talia Magder and Weston Steele on Sunday, July 24, 2022, under the chuppah in front of family and friends in Vancouver.
Mazal tov to Nicole and Philip Magder of Montreal and Reesa Steele and David Steele of Vancouver.
Mazal tov to Talia and Weston. May this be the first of many simchas ♥
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Emmy nominee Molly Leikin is the author of Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting in the Digital Age, published by Permuted Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, in July 2022. It is Molly’s eighth book.
Maiya Letourneau has been head librarian of the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library since last November. (photo from Maiya Letourneau)
Maiya Letourneau, head librarian of the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library in the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, has always wanted to work with books. “I grew up in Winnipeg,” she said. “My mom worked in a bookstore, and I always liked books.”
Letourneau received a bachelor’s degree in education before completing the two-year library program at the University of British Columbia last summer. Since November 2021, she has been head librarian at the Waldman.
“When I learned about the job at the JCC library, I was excited,” she told the Independent. “I often went to the JCC in Winnipeg as a child, and to work at the JCC in Vancouver felt like a great opportunity to reconnect. And to work with books was all I wanted.”
Before she started this job, Letourneau worked as a student librarian at UBC and as a teacher-librarian at the Vancouver School Board. “A teacher-librarian is a great job,” she said. “You teach the children how to use a library, both its paper and its digital resources. I worked with the elementary school children. We had story times often, and I taught them how to ask questions about the stories we read.”
Letourneau considers reading one of the highest needs and pleasures of any human being. “Not every school has a library,” she said, “but I think all schools should have one. It helps with students’ literacy rates. Reading helps kids down the road in their lives.”
Books have certainly defined her life. She reads a wide variety of genres and on a broad array of topics. She talks about books with shining eyes, like a person with a sweet tooth enjoying a selection of treats in a cake shop. “I’m reading a lot of the books from the Waldman Library. It is an amazing collection. I might not have a deep knowledge of Jewish literature yet, but I have a deep appreciation of it. It’s been great fun for me to read our books, to learn our collection.”
Her latest read was Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends. “It was a bit humourous and very relatable,” she said. “The story was about COVID and the isolation we all experienced recently because of the pandemic. A wonderful novel.”
Passionate about her job, she not only wants to offer patrons the best books and movies but also to find great new material for the collection. “I often go to GoodReads to get a feel of what people are reading, but my main resource is the Jewish Book Council,” she said. “I regularly log into their website. Another resource is when people come in and ask about a book they want to read. Listening to our readers is paramount.”
Letourneau gives a lot of thought to improving everyone’s reading-related experience. “One of our programs involves authors visiting the library. Another is a monthly Jewish Book Club, led by the former head librarian, Helen Pinsky. We also have a grant for an iPad learning program – people could borrow an iPad from the library for several months, and our volunteers would teach them how to use those iPads to access the Waldman’s digital resources. We have over 600 digital books in our collection, and not all of them are duplicated in the paper format.”
Letourneau’s concern over library accessibility is profound. “During the pandemic, we were closed for several months,” she said. “Now, we are open, and more people are feeling comfortable coming to the library in-person again, but I want to do more, to bring books to the people, like bookmobiles. COVID taught us to look for ways to bring the books outside the library.”
One of the new ways to connect readers to books will be a cart the library ordered recently. “We are on the second floor of the JCC,” explained Letourneau. “Nobody is passing the library on the way to their meetings or the gym or the swimming pool. The library is not often a destination by itself, but our research suggests that people would be glad if the books came to them. We are going to have the library mobile book cart roaming around the JCC, in the atrium on the first floor or near the café. I’m sure it will increase our book circulation.”
She also initiated a major change at the Waldman: it is now free to access books, and not only for JCC members but for the general public as well.
“We have something they don’t,” she said, referring to most other libraries. “We offer Jewish authors and Jewish content the city public library might not have. It is especially important for newcomers to Canada. We have many Hebrew books and, when people just arrive from Israel, they want to read the language they know. Their children want the familiar language, as well, before they learn English. That’s why our Hebrew collection is so important.”
Letourneau is not alone in her dedicated work. She has the library’s volunteers to help her.
“The volunteers are the backbone of this library,” she stressed. “The credit goes to the previous librarians. They built such a great group of volunteers. Some of them, about 70%, are over 55, seniors who want to help for various reasons.
“Others are young students who want to learn how a library works. The Waldman is the best place for them. We are a small library and, here, they can learn every aspect and every task in a library, not just one activity, like shelving or front desk, which they might learn from a larger library.”
While many older and longtime users consider the library an access point to information, a quiet refuge and a serious place, she wants to add some new features to attract younger readers.
“I’d like to add a sense of playfulness for the kids,” she said. “Maybe some games, like Dungeons & Dragons. I’m thinking of ways to make the genre of fiction more visible on the shelves, too. There are some wonderful genres of books – fantasy and science fiction – by Jewish authors. Teenagers like those books.”
In general, Letourneau regards it as her duty to promote reading as much as possible and is willing to consider many possibilities of what a library can offer and be. “Whatever gets people reading,” she said with a smile.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
New docent program at the Zack gets underway. (photo from Zack Gallery)
Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery director Hope Forstenzer recently instituted a new docent program, to train guides for the art gallery.
“I came up with the idea of creating a group of volunteer docents for the gallery right after I got here, which means right before the pandemic,” Forstenzer told the Independent.
Unfortunately, the pandemic made it impossible to implement the idea at that time, and the initiative only became reality in the past few months.
“My job as the gallery director is only half-time,” Forstenzer said. “Even when I’m working, I’m frequently in meetings or visiting studios or doing other work that takes me away from engaging the people in the gallery. I created the docent program to make sure the gallery was staffed with friendly and available faces, with people who knew about the shows, could make sales, and could answer questions.”
Initially, about a dozen people responded to her invitation to become volunteer docents at the Zack. “Some dropped out for various reasons as we were getting underway,” she said. “Others have come along since.
Currently, we have six docents on our active roster.”
Before the docents could perform their assigned duties, they needed a certain amount of training on the gallery rules and procedures.
“The docents each attended two training sessions, both lasting about an hour,” said Forstenzer. “Sometimes, we’d do the whole training in one session, but it varied. The second training shift was usually about our sales system, which isn’t difficult, but isn’t something most of the docents have seen or used before. In the first training session, I explained what their responsibilities were, we discussed scheduling, and I’d either show them how to use our sales system or invite them back to learn it on a different day…. Then they did a shift with me in the gallery as backup. Then they were ready to go.”
The first docent started at the Zack last October. “Some of them have taken breaks due to the Omicron,” said Forstenzer, “but others have stayed throughout.”
She has lots of plans for her volunteer docents. “The primary purpose of having the docents in the gallery right now is to have a knowledgeable and friendly presence that welcomes visitors,” she said. “They can also make sales. As the restrictions due to COVID lift (hopefully), the docents will also help me run events in the gallery, both for kids and for adult groups. Eventually, I hope they’ll be able to run some of these events themselves. We might even schedule some docent-led viewings of shows.”
At the moment, most docents do one shift a week, each shift three or four hours long, but Forstenzer is flexible about that. “Some do two shifts a week. Some split their shifts and go for a swim or a workout in the middle and then come back. It is up to them, and I create a schedule based on their availability and the gallery’s needs.”
She added that all the docents take their volunteering seriously. “If someone can’t make their shift, they let me know,” she said. “If I can cover it, I will. If not, the gallery won’t have a docent that day.”
The docents vary widely in age and experience. Some are students. Others are retirees or people participating in various community centre programs. Gail Bloom shared with the Independent a bit about herself and why she became a docent at the gallery.
Bloom worked as a city planner in San Francisco. “I studied city planning in college and then worked as a practising planner,” she said. “I love cities and was interested in public utilities. My chief role for over a dozen years was sorting out public financing of major infrastructure projects in San Francisco. It was very satisfying to see the fruition of that work across the city.”
She retired about 20 years ago. “My home is still in the Bay Area. I live there with my husband, and my son’s family also live nearby, but, last fall, I came to Vancouver for an extended winter visit with my daughter – she lives here and teaches at Emily Carr.”
Bloom, who turns 70 this month, has been volunteering in many fields since her retirement. “I lead the Board of Children’s Book Project and presently serve on a regional public health agency at the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District,” she said. “I have also enjoyed working on state, local and federal election campaigns, mentoring youths, and helping with the major fundraising event for the Oakland Museum of California.”
She has always been interested in art. “I love cities, as I said, and the museums are a big part of that – especially art museums. In the last couple months, I visited the Vancouver Art Gallery and a small community gallery at the Deep Cove Cultural Centre. There is a show at the VAG now that I’d recommend – Emily Carr and Edith Heath. Heath was a local San Francisco ceramic artist; she started her iconic tile and pottery company out of her little apartment in San Francisco in the ’40s.”
Of course, when she visited the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver for the first time, the Zack Gallery attracted her. “As I’m interested in the arts personally and enjoy art museums, their new docent program seemed like a good fit,” she said. “And my family were thrilled that I found the gallery and something meaningful to do with my time. Now, I’m at the gallery every week. My docent days are Mondays.”
Besides volunteering, Bloom takes advantage of several other programs the JCC offers. “The aquatics program is pretty great,” she said. “I also attended several sessions of the book fair last month, and I just started watching VJFF [Vancouver Jewish Film Festival]. I’m fortunate to have time to participate in them all.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Alan Twigg, author of Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia, at the gravesite of Rudolf “Rudi” Vrba, who died in 2006. (photo from JCC Jewish Book Festival)
Fittingly for a man who has dedicated his life’s work to the written word, Alan Twigg has compiled a fascinating bibliography. Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia is one of two books to be launched in a JCC Jewish Book Festival epilogue event on April 5. The other is Sounds from Silence: Reflections of a Child Holocaust Survivor, Psychiatrist and Teacher by Dr. Robert Krell, to whom Twigg’s book is dedicated.
“More than anyone in Canada, Robert Krell has continuously carried the torches of healing, investigation and discourse about the Shoah since the 1970s to counteract ever-encroaching racism, denial and wilful ignorance,” writes Twigg, whose book is also dedicated to the late publisher and editor Ronald Hatch, who died last November. Hatch and his wife Veronica co-managed Ronsdale Press, which published Out of Hiding.
Among other things, Twigg is the founder of the BC BookWorld newspaper, TheOrmsby Review (now called The British Columbia Review), the ABCBookWorld reference site, the Literary Map of BC and the Indigenous Literary Map of BC, as well as many of the province’s literary prizes. He has published 20 books and made seven literary documentaries.
Twigg wrote Out of Hiding with the help of many, including, notably, Yosef Wosk, who wrote the book’s afterword, in which Wosk discusses various kinds of hiding – from one’s mission, from persecution, in dreams, in silence, from truth. Wosk notes that the perpetrators of the Holocaust also tried to hide: “The Nazis engaged in fraud, deception and secrecy on a massive scale,” he writes.
“The secrecy was complete and, to a large extent, effective,” he adds. “The very monstrosity of the crime made it unbelieveable. In fact, the Nazis speculated that the unimaginability of their Aktionen would work in their favour.” But this expectation “was frustrated by the Allied victory. [What remained of] Nazi archives were opened, contemporary Jewish documents were discovered, and facts were ferreted out by courts and scholars. Moreover, by 1942, the Free World had gradually learned the truth, albeit not always complete and precise.”
Wosk concludes, “There is much to remember and even more to know as the Holocaust comes out of hiding.”
And this is one of the reasons Twigg compiled this collection.
“I am not a Jew. I am not a German. I simply believe it is the responsibility of everyone on the planet to know more than just a little about the Holocaust,” begins Twigg in the foreword. “It is our collective responsibility to teach our children – with details – about why the Shoah is unique among the many genocides.”
He points out: “No other political regime has ever systematically murdered at least 1.5 million babies and children.”
As well: “Never before or after has a modern, industrial state mobilized all of its resources to systematically commit murder at least six million times in about eight years (from Kristallnacht in 1938 to 1945) and no other government has established a separate killing ground to murder approximately 50,000 women (at Ravensbruck, north of Berlin).
“No other regime has so thoroughly and consistently degraded its victims,” writes Twigg. “Estimates vary but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum claims Germans created 980 concentration camps, 30,000 slave labour camps, 1,150 Jewish ghettos, 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps and 500 brothels where women were sex slaves.” And yet, Holocaust education surveys have shown that most people would struggle to name one or two camps, other than perhaps Auschwitz.
Twigg believes that, “if the most-heinous, most-planned and most extensive genocide can be deep-sixed by mankind, all genocides thereafter can be shrugged off as natural – as inevitable as forest fires, plagues, droughts, locusts or tidal waves.” If that happens, he argues, then genocide becomes “someone else’s problem.” As for something the magnitude of the Holocaust, he writes, “Most certainly it can happen again.”
Out of Hiding is an intensely personal project for Twigg. He describes the book as “a roadmap back to places and experiences that must never be forgotten, offering a wide range of perspectives from the Holocaust-related books of British Columbian authors.” In total, he covers some 160 books in four sections. Some authors have written, edited or otherwise helped bring into being more than one memoir, novel, report or study; some of the people discussed are the subjects of the publications, rather than the writer.
Part One features relatively long expositions on Rudolf Vrba, Robert (Robbie) Waisman and Krell.
Twigg considers Vrba – who lived in Vancouver for the last few decades of his life – the “most important author of British Columbia.”
Writes Twigg in Out of Hiding, “Historian Ruth Linn estimates there were about 500-700 attempts to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau, and most failed. Some 75 of these attempts were made by Jews; only five Jews made it successfully to freedom. The most significant of these five was Rudolf ‘Rudi’ Vrba, the main author of the most authoritative report on the true nature of the concentration camps, co-authored with co-escapee Alfred Wetzler.”
The Vrba-Wetzler Report, dated April 25, 1944, “finally revealed to the Allies the true nature and extent of the Holocaust.”
Twigg provides a biography of Vrba and some of what he learned from him as a friend. He also shares that Vrba, who died in 2006, was buried in a “seldom-visited cemetery, known to few people, where there is only a simple headstone.”
The April 5 event will include a video of Wosk chanting a Jewish blessing for Vrba at the graveside – something that apparently has not been done before.
Both Waisman and Krell are discussed in as much depth as Vrba, from their brief childhoods before the Holocaust through to recent history, sharing some of their writings and accomplishments, giving readers a sense of who they are and why their contributions are so vital.
Part Two offers shorter personal summaries on dozens of authors and publications. This section includes Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, Claudia Cornwall, Peter Hay, David Lester, Robert Mermelstein, Heather Pringle, Peter Suedfeld, Mark Zuehlke and many others. It features survivors of the Holocaust, as well as researchers, educators, journalists, graphic artists and editors who have studied the Holocaust, members of the Second or Third Generation, and a few non-Jews.
Part Three features an eclectic mix of 26 writers/artists, including Olga Campbell, Esi Edugyan, Jean Gerber, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Nikolaus Martin, Isa Milman, Norman Ravvin, Colin Upton and others.
Part Four: One Doctor, Two Rabbis comprises three essays. The first is on Dr. Tom Perry, who served with the U.S. Army Medical Corps in the Second World War, and “took a series of rarely seen photos that his widow Claire Perry donated to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in 1994 along with a five-page letter he wrote to her from ‘somewhere in Germany,’ describing his feelings and impressions of Buchenwald.” The letter is included in this section – and it is a powerful testament, though words don’t capture the horror as much as do his photographs.
The second essay, “Lulek’s Story,” flows from a well-known photo taken by Tim Gidal on July 17, 1945, in a refugee compound near Haifa – front and centre is Israel Meir “Lulek” Lau, holding a Buchenwald banner. Rabbi Meir Lau, who became Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, was the youngest survivor of Buchenwald and his story is moving and inspirational.
Wosk’s afterword rounds out the collection with his thought-provoking reflections on hiding.
“Soon all witnesses will be gone,” concludes Twigg in his author’s statement. “The Holocaust must not be relegated to being merely the psychic preserve of Jews and Germans.”
A Feb. 28 webinar explored the topic of neurodiversity, a term that encompasses a wide range of conditions, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourette Syndrome.
The talk, organized by PJ Library, Jewish National Fund of Canada Pacific Region, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and JCC inclusion services, was part of this year’s recognition of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).
“So often there is a grand stigma that a child has to fit the mold of what society wants of them. Our differences are what make us so valuable and so integral to creating positive change. I am thankful for my differences,” said Margaux Wosk, an autistic artist and entrepreneur, who provided introductory remarks.
The panelists for the evening were Dr. Janet Mah, a registered psychologist; Suzanne Ferera, a family counselor and registered occupational therapist; and Michele Shilvock, a certified behaviour analyst. Lisa Romalis, a teacher who is also a parent of a neurodiverse child, was the moderator.
Mah began by discussing common misconceptions regarding ADHD, or attentive deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD, she noted, is the broad term applied to capture three manifestations of the disorder: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. She explained that ADD (attention deficit disorder) is an outdated term that would fall into the ADHD umbrella.
Children with ADHD might not be easy for educators to spot. “Often they are the quiet daydreamers that don’t disrupt the classroom, or the highly intelligent kids who are underachieving in relation to their own potential,” said Mah, an associate at the Cornerstone Child and Family Psychology Clinic, a clinical assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia and an expert in behavioural parent training and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Another misconception stems from the word “deficit” in ADHD. Frequently, a child’s attention will show signs of inconsistency, rather than a deficit, she explained. That is, a child with ADHD may be able to focus on subjects that are of interest to them. The difference lies within the executive functions in the brain, i.e., the ability to make transitions to a less-preferred task, time management, peer relationships, flexible thinking and emotional regulation.
There is, as well, a misconception centring around the use of medication, Mah pointed out. Many fear that those who take medication for ADHD will suffer a “zombie effect” or be susceptible to an increased risk of substance use. Proper treatment, she said, helps increase a positive trajectory for a person. Grades and behaviours may improve, bringing about more self-confidence and better friendships.
Mah emphasized the importance of external supports or adjusting the environment for those with ADHD. “ADHD is not a knowledge deficit,” she said. “It is more of a performance deficit. Most kids with ADHD know what the right thing to do is; they just have difficulty doing it in the moment.”
Ferera shared with the audience some of the parenting strategies she employs. A practitioner of the “calmer, easier, happier” method, founded by British learning and behaviour specialist Noël Janis-Norton, Ferera works as a school counselor and goes into family homes to help children who have behavioural difficulties.
One of the strategies Ferera uses with parents and teachers is descriptive praise. Rather than correcting behaviour or using vague or over-the-top praise to bring about improvement, descriptive praise recognizes the positive behaviours of a child, such as honesty, hard work and kindness.
“When we say ‘good job’ to a child, we are not giving them any useful information about what they did right so that they can do it again. Also, words like ‘awesome’ are not particularly believable to a child who knows they haven’t done anything awesome,” she said.
Descriptive praise is more specific. For example, if a child is being cooperative, a parent might say to them, “I asked you to put your toys away and, look, you’re putting your toys away.”
“The reason it is so important is that we all, as human beings, want to be appreciated, so, if we can use descriptive praise, it helps children understand that they can do the right thing and that they can do it again,” said Ferera, who believes this strategy can bring about a positive attachment in the parent-child relationship.
Shilvock, who has worked in the field of autism and neurodiversity for more than 23 years, supporting children and families through direct intervention design, supervision and parent coaching, described her approach as a behaviour analyst as follows: “Good therapy should be reflective about how learners learn. I am not about turning children into anything other than into the amazing individuals they already are.”
She, too, underscored the importance of environment and celebrating the diversity in neurodiverse children. Further, she stressed understanding a child’s social skills by gathering information and knowing where the “landmines” or potential triggers are. For example, if a child is attending a birthday party, a parent should find out what the plan for the party is ahead of time. This way, they can ascertain if there are any potential issues and decide if it is best for their child to go there without them or if they should accompany the child.
In concluding remarks, Michael Sachs, executive director of JNF Pacific Region, thanked the participants and recognized the wide range of topics covered in the webinar, as well as the need for more conversations on the topic in the future.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
(image from flickr / Province of British Columbia)
Last November, the American advocacy organization Respect Ability announced some good news. New research it had conducted in 2021 suggested that disability awareness and inclusion was improving in Jewish communities across North America and Israel. According to its most recent survey, more synagogues, Jewish community centres, schools and private institutions are designing programs that consider the needs of people with disabilities. And more individuals are able to find Jewish organizations that support individuals with invisible disabilities like autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders.
Respect Ability’s goal for the survey was to determine the health of disability rights in diverse Jewish communities, particularly in countries where there were laws against employment and housing discrimination. Its last survey had been in 2018, and researchers wanted to know whether accessibility and acceptance had improved in the past three years.
There were just over 2,000 respondents in total, primarily from Canada, the United States and Israel. The overall message was that inclusion and accommodation was expanding. Accessibility for wheelchairs and improved opportunities for individuals with sight or hearing challenges were on the rise, as were outreach efforts for individuals with disabilities in general.
What is more, the number of faith organizations hiring rabbis and staff who had disabilities and, therefore, understood firsthand the challenges of a physical or cognitive disability, had increased by more than 73%. More than half (57%) of the survey-takers also said that the organizations had made public commitments to support diversity.
But the survey also identified a key obstacle: many community leaders wanted to help expand opportunities for inclusion, but “didn’t know how.” Roughly one-fifth of all respondents said that expanding opportunities in their faith communities was limited by leaders’ lack of knowledge or experience in making settings more accessible. This meant, in some cases, that members with invisible disabilities like autism or ADHD didn’t have access to resources or were turned away from programs and activities.
Most of the responses to the survey came from Respect Ability’s home base: U.S. states like California and New York, where laws and advocacy initiatives are different from those in Canada. Only about 7% of the responses came from Canada, where disability rights are protected by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The survey also did not reveal how much, or if any, of the Canadian data came from the Vancouver area. So, are the survey’s findings reflective of diversity inclusion here?
The last three years have been challenging for many, but particularly for organizations that rely on in-person community participation. The 2020 shutdown of schools, synagogues and community centres due to COVID forced many organizations in the Vancouver area to suspend programs that offered disability-inclusive services. Still, the Jewish Independent found that a number of organizations were able to develop creative ways to maintain their inclusive classes and programs.
Trying to inspire inclusion
In 2018, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver launched its Inspiring Inclusion grant program to assist community organizations in designing or improving inclusive programs. The grant competition was created as part of its 2020 Strategic Priorities, and it offered up to $2,500 to organizations that developed a new program or idea that would expand disability inclusion.
Four one-year grants, which were awarded in 2020, went to Vancouver and Richmond applicants. Each offered a unique way for engagement, ranging from new educational strategies that catered to individual learning approaches to special equipment that helped expand creative participation in the classroom.
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Family Yoga Fundamentals program was designed to appeal to a variety of abilities and offered options for in-person family participation. It later gave rise to a virtual format that attendees could link up with from home. According to the JCC’s adult programs coordinator, Lisa Cohen Quay, Family Yoga Fundamentals integrates adaptable exercises that are non-stigmatizing and fit a variety of abilities. Quay said the program has also been shown to help with pandemic stress and loneliness.
Richmond Jewish Day School turned to music as a way to inspire inclusion. According to principal Sabrina Bhojani, the grant provided funding for specially adapted Orff percussion instruments, or xylophones that could be used by students with special needs. “Music education is an integral component of both our B.C. and Hebrew curriculum at RJDS,” Bhojani said. “Weaving music into [the] curriculum is a meaningful way to help our students develop their Jewish identity and better understand their culture.”
Congregation Beth Tikvah used the funding to help develop Kavod. According to Rabbi Susan Tendler, the program aims to ensure that the synagogue’s services and activities are open to everyone, “regardless of personal physical, financial, or accessibility limitations.” Kavod’s development is ongoing.
Congregation Beth Israel received a grant to create new Hebrew school programming. Beth Israel’s director of youth engagement, Rabbi David Bluman, said the funding helped make the Hebrew reading program more inclusive to children with learning challenges. “We always strive to be [as inclusive] as we can,” he said, adding that many of Beth Israel’s youth programs are adaptable to students’ abilities, such as the use of “shadow” companions who function as a “big brother or big sister” for a child during activities and lessons. The shadow program can be used for age levels. “We want our teens to be as independent as possible,” Bluman said.
B’nai mitzvah programs
Both Beth Israel and Temple Sholom tailor their b’nai mitzvah programs to meet the specific abilities of the child. Temple Sholom School’s principal, Jen Jaffe, said about 10% of the student body have varying needs.
“All b’nai mitzvah-aged children are given the opportunity to have a b’nai mitzvah, and the clergy works with each family to make sure expectations and goals are feasible and met. Each child is given the chance to shine regardless of any disabilities,” Jaffe said. The school also trains madrachim, or helper students, to support students with invisible disabilities.
Beth Israel is also known for its inclusive b’nai mitzvah program, which is led by ba’allat tefilla Debby Fenson. She said the program is designed to ensure that a child, irrespective of ability, can participate in the service: “I think that the expectation is that every child should be called up to [the bimah]. It’s not about how well they read the Torah, it’s about welcoming them into the community.”
Fenson said the community has celebrated more than one b’nai mitzvah in which a child’s medical challenges needed to be considered. In one case, the child, who was nonverbal, was aided by his mother in saying the Shema. “There was clear understanding on his part,” Fenson said. “His mother helped him in forming the words and saying along with him. He was welcomed into the community.”
Leadership by inclusion
Respect Ability’s survey of North American and Israeli Jewish communities highlighted two factors that are often important to creating inclusiveness: the top-down commitment to diversity and a leader’s personal experience. All of the above synagogues, schools and community services – as well as others – benefit from clear initiatives that attract families with accessibility needs and see inclusion as an expanding mission. In some cases, they also benefit from leadership that is open about their own health challenges as well.
Beth Israel Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said he is aware that his willingness to talk openly about his own challenges can help create a supportive environment for others. Infeld was born with a congenital heart defect.
“Unfortunately, I have firsthand experience with health issues that I am happy to share with people about, certainly because I want to be transparent about who I am as a human being…. I would hope, had I been born with a whole heart and not a hole in it, that I would still have a whole heart,” he said, noting that when we’re forced to reflect on our own abilities and limitations, it can inspire empathy for others faced with similar challenges.
One area that was not addressed in the survey was accessible housing, which helps expand disability inclusion. Tikva Housing Society’s very first housing project in 2008 contained accessible units. The organization’s third inclusive property, Dogwood Gardens, opens this year in the West End. This will be the subject of a future story in the Jewish Independent.
Jan Leeis an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Alison Cristall is the new assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. (photo from Alison Cristall)
Alison Cristall feels that she has come full circle, as she assumes her new job as assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. Among her earliest recollections are times at the Davis YM-YWHA in Montreal: going to preschool, taking swimming lessons and attending summer camps.
“I used to wait for my mom to finish her aerobics class while I hung out at the café eating French fries and doughnuts. Needless to say, I have extremely fond memories of my childhood, and our JCC was a very big part of it. My hope is that I can be a part of creating memories for others that are foundational to their lives,” she said.
Cristall officially started at the JCC on Feb. 7 and, in a recent interview, she affirmed her excitement about the new role and shared some of her thoughts.
“My priority is to listen to the staff, the community, members and stakeholders,” she said. “We are at an interesting time. In this time of change, I think understanding where our community is at, where our funders and stakeholders are, and understanding what their priorities are, is going to be foundational to how I proceed with the team.”
Cristall will be taking over many of the same responsibilities as Debbie Tabenkin, the recently retired director of programming and strategic initiatives, though in a reprised assistant executive director’s position. The last person to hold that job was current JCC executive director Eldad Goldfarb.
Cristall arrives at 950 West 41st Avenue with a wealth of experience around recreation centres and helping people be physically active. The Montreal native moved to British Columbia to obtain a degree in human kinetics and pursue her passion of health promotion and recreation.
While at the University of British Columbia, she developed Active U, a student-led health promotion program designed to increase physical activity and healthy eating for students living on campus. Upon graduation, she started work immediately on ACTNowBC, an initiative run by the provincial government to encourage a healthy and active lifestyle.
After the 2010 Winter Olympics, Cristall held a position with SportMedBC, where she oversaw the Sun Run in Training Program and its sister program, Aboriginal RunWalk, a provincially funded initiative to bring health and wellness programming to 100 Indigenous communities in the province.
For the past six years, she has been the recreation supervisor of the Trout Lake Community Centre, a job that did not get any less hectic due to the pandemic, because a building with an ice rink still needed to be maintained and some operations, such as summer day camps, continued.
“I had the time of my life at the centre,” Cristall said. “It solidified for me that running a community centre is my true passion.”
She added, “I am completely motivated by creating a safe, vibrant and relevant space for people to feel connected. When the opportunity came up to take this position at the JCC, I knew it was the right choice to leave the Park Board.”
Cristall recognizes that these are unprecedented times, and she hopes to take part in the development of new programs as the JCC begins to restart activities.
“The way centres have traditionally operated will change. We need to move forward and provide services that people need and are ready to participate in,” she said, emphasizing that an understanding of where people are emotionally, psychologically and spiritually in the return to some semblance of normalcy is crucial.
She points out that with this transition come opportunities for the JCC to grow. For example, a switch to providing some hybrid activities could open up what the JCC has to offer to a broader group of people around the city and beyond.
“It’s a good time to do an evaluation of programs and services and conduct needs assessments around the community, and to think towards the future,” she said.
Cristall spoke in glowing terms regarding her connection to the Vancouver Jewish community, from the time she first met her husband at a Hanukkah party to the present.
“This is such a lovely Jewish community and you can really find the areas where you fit in,” she said. “It is a community that is integrated yet still very close, and they take care of each other in a very amazing way, and the JCC is at the centre of it. There is something so grounding about having a JCC that can be the home for programs and services or some need within the community.”
The JCC board and staff are equally excited to have Cristall join them.
“Alison is an accomplished and experienced professional,” said Goldfarb. “She will help set the course and lead our team as we continue serving our community as well as gearing up towards the creation and building of our new JCC and community hub…. I look forward to working with her, our dedicated team and board as we shape the future of our community.”
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
In these uncertain times, JCC Camp Shalom set out to continue to be a constant source of fun and a safe environment for the whole community. For the second year, the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic demanded that the camp’s plans be reevaluated and adapted, as it partnered with King David High School to move the majority of its operations to the school’s building for last summer.
Camp Shalom is an inclusive Jewish day camp serving children, youth and teens from ages 3 to 18 years old, year-round, during school breaks and professional development days. Since the inception of the Inclusive Summer Camp Experience program in 2009, more and more children with diverse needs have attended Camp Shalom and participated in group activities, including overnight camping trips.
The number of children with diverse needs who attend Camp Shalom has grown from a handful to more than a dozen per summer – and the range of assistance provided for families has grown as well. Families are able to access more camp sessions and the camp can now support a wider range of ages and needs. Huge improvements have been made in accommodating campers in a true inclusion model and in providing opportunities for more Jewish programming beyond the summer, including Sunday Hebrew schools for those who did not have access to them prior to their experience with Camp Shalom.
Thanks to the contributions of the Diamond Foundation and the Snider Foundation, Camp Shalom is able to support more campers and staff with diverse needs by providing special training sessions, mentorship programs and one-on-one support for those campers who need it. Campers who were part of the first inclusive camp experiences are now teenagers and young adults who are still connected to Camp Shalom, and some are now camp staff. This past year’s biggest achievements included engaging about two dozen children, youth and teens with diverse needs and successfully integrating them into the general camp program alongside 120 to 150 other campers in the camp’s preschool, school-age and teen programs.
JCC Camp Shalom likes to think of all youth as being in transition. It pays special attention to campers transitioning from childhood into teenagehood and those teens who are about to become counselors. Work experience is a huge milestone as they enter high school. At camp, they go from being campers to participating in the teen programs, to joining the staff team.
Regardless of their developmental stage and/or maturity level, and taking into consideration their diverse needs, these teens need more support and adaptations than any other group with which the camp works. Careful planning and consideration of their needs has resulted in a successful program that provides them with social and organizational education that will benefit them in the future, as they look for employment, as well as in other areas of their lives.
JCC Camp Shalom is the largest summer Jewish day camp for youth in Vancouver, but its responsibility continues, as the engagement with youth extends beyond summer camp to throughout the year. As teens develop, Camp Shalom recognizes their need for adults with whom they can connect, that they can trust and who can be positive role models. Staff from the summer teen camp programs are educated and qualified to sustain positive and appropriate relationships with youth as they age. The inclusion model of camp programming allows campers with diverse needs to have an unforgettable Jewish experience at Camp Shalom.
For more information about the Inclusive Summer Camp Experience or Camp Shalom’s teen programs, contact Ben Horev, camp director, at 604-813-4236 or [email protected].
Debbie Setton Tabenkin sees travel, genealogy and fun with grandkids in her future. (photo by Jocelyne Hallé)
Debbie Setton Tabenkin, one of the most familiar faces to anyone who has frequented the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver in the past three decades, is retiring at the end of January.
Tabenkin began teaching English as a second language at the JCC in 1995. In conjunction with that role, she was instrumental in creating the drop-in child-minding program for kids of parents using the centre’s facilities or attending programs. In the succeeding quarter-century, she has served in a variety of roles and retires as director of programming and strategic initiatives, where she oversees about 10 program areas and 12 budgets.
Tabenkin’s interesting family history plays a role in her approach to her work. Her parents’ lineage is from the Syrian and Turkish Jewish communities and, in the early part of the 20th century, parts of her family migrated to Jamaica and Panama. Because there was a polio pandemic in Jamaica when her mother was pregnant, they traveled to Panama, where Tabenkin (née Setton) was born, returning to Jamaica as a babe in arms.
“I was used to what the community centre meant in Latin America,” she said of her philosophy around the work she does. “It was a social place where you came and you met people.” The “living room” of the community, she calls it. That is what she believes she has helped foster in Vancouver.
But there was a winding road before she ended up here.
The Setton home in Jamaica was the holiday destination for any Jews who happened to be on the island, whether American Peace Corps volunteers or Israelis helping the nation with agricultural infrastructure.
When she was 16, the family left Jamaica, where violence was becoming frequent, and moved back to Panama.
Her grandfather owned the kosher supermarket in Panama City, where family members – she has about 100 first cousins – still operate it. The store moved into new digs that include a kosher sushi restaurant just two weeks ago.
She was the black sheep of the family, she cheerfully admits.
“I came from a very traditional family where the girls got married,” she said. “One [sister] got married at 19 and one got married at 17 – and I knew I wanted a different lifestyle.”
She did a two-year associate’s degree at the American college in the Canal Zone and then taught Grade 2. She wanted to further her education and her parents said she could either go to New York City, where a sister had moved, or to Vancouver, where her brother, Victor Setton, had settled in 1975.
She completed her bachelor of education at the University of British Columbia, but the federal government at the time did not have a program that allowed her brother to sponsor her to remain in the country. So, she returned to Panama and taught English at the Jewish day school, Instituto Alberto Einstein.
She decided to pursue a master’s degree and, in 1980, was accepted at both Columbia and New York University. She got her MA at Columbia in the then-new field of educational technology and media.
“I lived in New York for five years and, you know, everything is for a reason,” said Tabenkin. “I’m so happy the Canadian government didn’t take me because that gave me five years in New York and those five years made me the person I am.”
She drank in the cultural offerings of the city and became very involved with the Sephardi association there.
“I became very proud of being Sephardic,” she said. “I really learned the history of the rich culture that Sephardic Jews have. I took multiple classes. I accessed everything and that’s when I learned Hebrew.”
She returned again to Panama but, then aged 30, set her sights on a new conquest.
“I really wanted to have a child and I really wanted to get married,” she said. “I decided, OK, I’m going to go to Israel. My mother was delighted when I left to Israel.”
She had taken up scuba diving in Panama and poked her head into a scuba store in Tel Aviv looking for information about opportunities to pursue the sport. She chatted with a young man named Yair Tabenkin.
A few days later, a friend invited Debbie to tag along to a Purim party and a scuba expedition in Eilat being organized by a young man. When the friend described the pal who was planning the trip, Debbie replied, “I think I met him.”
When the mutual friend told Yair who she was bringing along, he said, “Oh, is that the girl with the beautiful blue eyes?”
“He remembered my eyes – and that was it,” she said. “The rest is history. We met that Purim and we got married in August.
“On the year anniversary that I had moved to Israel, I was married and pregnant,” she said. “Let’s put it this way: I accomplished my goal.”
Before that happened, there had been some snooping. Yair Tabenkin had some family in Panama and queried about the Setton family. A similar investigation was happening in reverse.
“My mother went to the rabbi and said, look, my daughter is dating this guy named Yair Tabenkin,” she said. “And the rabbi said ‘Tabenkin? It’s like marrying a Kennedy.’”
Yair’s grandfather, Yitzhak Tabenkin, was a founder of the kibbutz movement and a leading figure in the creation of Mapai, the precursor to the modern Labour Party, along with David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, and was a member of the first Knesset.
After Debbie and Yair married, they were speaking with Debbie’s brother in Vancouver, who said he had an opportunity for the new husband. The couple moved here in 1990.
Her responsibilities at the JCC expanded quickly from that first ESL gig. She began organizing events – something she had been doing since her teenage years, when she created a Purim party in Panama.
On New Year’s Eve 2003, Tabenkin organized a multi-generational event at the JCC, where kids were entertained by camp counselors in the gym and pool while parents dined and discoed before everyone came together at midnight.
In 2004, she began Festival Ha’Rikud, a celebration of Israeli culture through music, dance, food, art, workshops, literature, family activities and marketplace. This year saw the festival’s 18th iteration.
In 2008, she spearheaded the Israel at 60 festival in Stanley Park, one of the largest and most visible public celebrations in Jewish community memory.
As director of programming and strategic initiatives, she has a finger in pretty much every pie at the centre, but a particular point of pride is the inclusion department.
“Debbie’s had a very distinct impact on many people’s lives in the community,” said JCC executive director Eldad Goldfarb. “She’s a very caring person, both to her staff and team and to the members of the community, always trying to find what she likes to call the ‘magic moment,’ basically trying to find something good out of the bad and trying to solve problems and make people happy.”
Tabenkin holds a great deal of institutional memory not only of the JCC but of the entire community, Goldfarb added.
“She’s definitely someone whose big shoes are going to be difficult to fill,” he said. “She’s someone who’s got not just the history, but the personal connection to a lot of people in the community.”
In retirement, Tabenkin may do some consulting, spend more time with her three adult children and two grandchildren and she hopes to get back to some exotic adventures. Just before COVID, she returned from Ethiopia. Before that, she visited Uzbekistan. She wants to delve deeper into genealogy and would love to spend a month in Turkey investigating that branch of her family.
She looks back with more than fondness.
“I truly love this place,” she said. “My whole family has benefited so much. I always say a membership to the JCC buys you 15 extra years of your life. You’re keeping healthy, you’re working out, you’re with people, you’re not isolated. It’s truly a place where everyone can be together, it doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic background is, it doesn’t matter your religion. It’s a place where we all get to be together. It’s our living room.”