Pam Wolfman and Ezra Shanken talk with the JI about how Jewish Federation and our community are facing the challenges of COVID-19. (photos from JFGV)
This year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut community celebration will feature international singers, actors, chefs and politicians. And the audience will also be from around the world.
On April 29, 11 a.m. PST, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) is hosting a one-hour virtual celebration for Israel’s 72nd birthday, which will be followed by other programming. With the theme of “What Israel Means to Me. What Israel Means to Us,” the hour-long event will include Matisyahu singing a medley of “One Day” with representatives from the
Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether communities and other Jewish leaders sharing messages of hope and celebration; actor Joshua Malina talking about Israel’s battle against COVID-19; singing brothers Ben, Henry and Jonah Platt; chefs debating the merits of falafel and cookbook author Adeena Sussman teaching how to make it; Isaac Herzog sharing a story about Israel’s War of Independence and paying tribute to former Israeli president David Ben-Gurion; footage of Israel’s official Independence Day Ceremony on Mt. Herzl and a message from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; and the singing of Hatikvah.
Normally, of course, our community would be marking the occasion locally, but COVID-19 changed all of that.
“The Yom Ha’atzmaut event is complex to organize, from the standpoint of searching for the artists who will perform, fundraising and marketing, and other logistics. We usually start planning the event almost as soon as the day after the prior year’s celebration, so there was a lot of work to un-do,” Pam Wolfman, chair of the local Yom Ha’atzmaut committee, told the Independent. “Everyone involved in our event planning has been extremely supportive, and we were able to cancel our event without any significant financial penalty.
“If there is a silver lining to be found, it is the opportunity to be able to join together with JFNA and Jewish communities from all over the world to celebrate ‘with’ Israel. It’s definitely something to look forward to!”
Thanking If’at Eilon-Heiber, Jewish Federation’s director of overseas and Israel affairs, and the whole Federation team, Wolfman said, “I also want to express my gratitude to our Yom Ha’atzmaut sponsors, donors, community partners and those who purchased tickets before the event was changed for all their support.”
For Wolfman, the annual event is important for several reasons.
“I’ve always felt so grateful to live in Vancouver, in large part because we have such a vibrant and diverse Jewish community,” she said. “Jewish Federation’s annual Yom Ha’atzmaut event allows everyone in our community to come together to celebrate and unite around Israel – the beautiful country, her people, the wonderful music and culture – and to simply have an evening of fun!
“When it became clear that we would have to cancel our original plans due to COVID-19, it was very disappointing for all of us on the Yom Ha’atzmaut committee and Jewish Federation staff. And we all felt strongly that it was vital to continue this cherished tradition for our community. Joining Jewish Federation of North America’s online event was a great solution.”
“Our community is experiencing tremendous upheaval and, at the same time, we have seen signs that we are more resilient and connected than ever,” Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, told the Independent about the current situation.
“Our community organizations have been hit very hard – the challenges they are experiencing are unprecedented. Nearly all of them were forced to close their physical doors, and they remain closed for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Many of them have lost their sources of revenue, be it rental or programming income, or from having to cancel scheduled fundraising events. And, many of the people they serve have increased needs during this crisis and are turning to the Jewish Family Services Community Care Hotline for assistance.
“It is heartening to see how swiftly and effectively many of our community organizations have pivoted,” he said. “The day schools have transitioned quickly to online learning, while the JCC, synagogues and other organizations have introduced a wide variety of online programs and services. Young adults have stepped up to volunteer to help seniors.
“Our advocacy agent, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, is working with all levels of government to secure support for nonprofit organizations, and has played a major role in achieving success on that front – not just for the nonprofits in our community, but for nonprofits across Canada.”
Jewish Federation is monitoring the community’s health and the impacts of COVID-19, said Shanken. “We are in constant contact with our partner agencies, and responded quickly to address urgent increased community needs by releasing more than $500,000 in targeted emergency funding to see them through the first 30 days of impact. We know that this is but a first step, and that more vital financial, operational and emotional support will be needed. We’ll continue to work closely with our community agencies and organizations to assess their needs, identify opportunities for collaboration, and determine where best to focus our short- and long-term support for the greatest impact.
“I see the strength of our community every day,” he added. “While there are many challenges to overcome, if we continue to stick together and care for each other, I believe we will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever. Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to define where our community will be.”
Shanken has joined various efforts on the ground, helping deliver seder meals with Lubavitch BC, for example.
“Anytime we are able to bring warmth and connection into people’s lives is extremely valuable, especially at times like these,” he said. “Delivering food and medicines, calling people to see how they are holding up – these points of connection can make an incredible difference in someone’s life.
“The COVID crisis, while extremely challenging in so many ways, has prompted many of us to pause to check in with loved ones, friends, colleagues or someone we might know in the community, to get back to basics and remember what is truly important. The tremendous outpouring of support that I have witnessed on so many levels has been inspiring, and a shining example of klal Israel.”
Jewish Federation has a COVID-19 resources page on its website, jewishvancouver.com, which will “help community members easily find information about the many programs and services that are available through community organizations and government agencies,” said Shanken. “We’ll continue to provide the community leadership, planning and crucial planning assistance that our community relies on, as we navigate this pandemic together. It’s what we’re here for.”
He stressed, “Even though we are all physically apart, it is easier and more important than ever to connect.”
As for our local annual Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, Shanken said it “has always been a special opportunity to bring our community together and show our support for Israel. We are reminded daily that Israel is also in a time of crisis. This year, with our participation in JFNA’s virtual celebration, it will be even easier for people to take part in the event. Every year, we think about other Jewish communities that are also celebrating Israel’s independence. This year, we can literally celebrate with them, in real time. It will be a great show of solidarity at a time when we especially value connection.”
In addition to the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, this year’s commemoration of Yom Hazikaron will also take place online. “As bereaved families live with their loss daily, we gather once a year to recognize their grief and pain, and to give them a communal hug,” said Geoffrey Druker, chair of Jewish Federation’s Yom Hazikaron committee, in a release.
From April 26 to 28, community members will be able to light virtual candles for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, and there will be a remembrance ceremony on Zoom on April 27, 7:30 p.m., which will include poems, readings, songs and a moment of silence. To be a part of the gathering, register at jewishvancouver.com/yhk2020.
To register for the April 29 Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, visit jfeds.org/yomhaatzmaut; you can also sign up for alerts leading up to the live global event at jewishtogether.org/yomhaatzmaut. For more information on the ways in which our Jewish Federation is helping the B.C. Jewish community, visit jewishvancouver.com/news/community-support-2020.