COVID-19 continues to impact our community. Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver estimates that local needs may increase by 50% over the next year. Therefore, it has established the Community Recovery Task Force, chaired by Risa Levine.
The purpose of the task force is to examine the myriad operational and financial issues facing our community as a result of COVID-19, and to assist Jewish Federation in responding to these challenges and changes, both presently and in the long-term. Through consultation with Federation’s partner agencies, the task force will be assessing the consequences of the pandemic on vulnerable community members, as well as on the ability of community organizations to deliver their core programs and services. Task force members will be looking to new, innovative approaches to enhance community organizations’ capacity, and recommending solutions that will support a strong, resilient and financially stable recovery as well as future sustainability.
The task force members have all held leadership roles with a variety of community organizations, and collectively represent the diversity of our community in terms of geography and life stage. In addition to Levine, they are Andrew Altow, Jill Diamond, Michelle Gerber, Hodie Kahn, Candace Kwinter, Shawn Lewis, David Porte, Justin L. Segal and Isaac Thau.
The task force is an integral part of Federation’s response to COVID-19, as is its three-phase approach to recovery. In phase one, it released targeted emergency funds in the first few weeks of the pandemic to address immediate and urgent community needs. As a second phase, it is currently working closely with major donors to maintain their support through the next two annual campaigns and to consider making contributions above and beyond their campaign gifts to support community recovery. In the third phase, every community member will have an opportunity to make a difference in our community’s recovery through participating in the annual campaign, which officially launches in September.
To learn more about the task force, to read the latest annual report or to donate, visit jewishvancouver.com.
– excerpted from the weekly email message of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer Ezra Shanken
A rendering of the development that is planned to replace the current Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. (image from JCCGV)
A recently signed agreement is a significant next step in the largest infrastructure project in the history of British Columbia’s Jewish community. The deal is expected to create a new Jewish community centre, as well as at least 300 rental housing units and larger, renewed facilities for many communal institutions, replacing the existing, almost 60-year-old community centre.
A memorandum of understanding between the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver (JCC) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver was signed last month. The agreement will likely see the land owned by the JCC transferred to a new community-wide agency. According to a joint statement by the two organizations, the proposed new 200,000-square-foot “recreational, cultural and community centre [will include] new childcare spaces, more services for seniors, an expanded space for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, a new theatre and more.” At least 15 not-for-profit community organizations are anticipated to be housed there, as well as updated and enlarged facilities for arts and culture, aquatics, and fitness programs. Mixed-use rental housing units included in the plan are expected to be offered at or below market value and be open to everyone.
The project will advance based on a collaborative fundraising initiative. A campaign goal has not been announced.
“This agreement is an important initial step toward acting upon the community’s vision for a revitalized JCC that would become a legacy for the Jewish community and the city,” Salomon Casseres, president of the JCC board, said in the statement. “Our board is excited to partner with Jewish Federation. We believe that this collaboration puts the project on a strong foundation for success, from a community, financial and governance perspective.”
“An opportunity like this comes along perhaps once in a generation, so we are very proud to be working closely with the JCC on this historic project,” Alex Cristall, Jewish Federation’s board chair, said in the statement. “Jewish Federation takes a broad, long-term view of the sustainability, growth and evolution of the local Jewish community, and we believe that this project will create a strong core that will ultimately allow us to increase our reach and our impact.”
Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation, told the Independent that the collaboration is a “big win” for the community.
“Federation has always been a proponent for the concept of working together on projects that have an impact that’s beyond the reach of one agency and we are thrilled that the JCC agrees with us that this is one of those projects,” he said. “It absolutely should be common in all cities.… For me, it’s best practice.”
The new JCC will strengthen the entire community, he said, adding that the impacts will reach far beyond the Oakridge neighbourhood.
“We are not just creating a strong future for that 41st and Oak corridor, the Vancouver Jewish community, but I believe we’re creating a strong future for the community across the Lower Mainland as a whole,” Shanken said, expressing his gratitude to the JCC and its leadership.
“I think the JCC has shown immense foresight and courage in coming together with us, to have the openness to work through the challenges and opportunities that exist in partnership, and I believe that this partnership will glean really great results for the Jewish community as a whole,” he said.
Eldad Goldfarb, executive director of the JCC, said working together hand in hand is the best way forward and the partnership is a natural one. The collaboration between the JCC and Federation is the largest partnership, but is part of a broader engagement process, he added.
“The master planning process of this legacy community project has involved an extensive engagement effort by the JCC, reaching out and having conversations with more than 30 Jewish community organizations, many stakeholders, donors and community members,” said Goldfarb. “The JCC, as we know it today, is home to 15 different Jewish community organizations and the new redevelopment might increase these collaborations opportunities.”
Discussions about the partnership between the two organizations have always been very collaborative, open and in good faith, Goldfarb said.
“This project is about creating a JCC for the future of the community, with more and better childcare, seniors, wellness, arts, culture and education state-of-the-art spaces, but is not limited to only that,” he said. “Our vision is to create an innovative community site which will include a brand new J, as well as a welcoming and collaborative home for many other community organizations and, of course, the much-needed large rental affordable housing towers.”
Vancouver City Council unanimously approved the JCC site redevelopment plan in September 2018. Several major steps remain in the design and planning process, as well as the raising of the millions of dollars required to complete it.
Houston Rabbi Brian Strauss lost both his family home and his synagogue to Hurricane Harvey, but the story he brought to FEDtalks Sept. 9 was an uplifting one. (photo from JFGV)
A time-lapse video showed the unrelenting advance of Hurricane Harvey. The security camera at Houston’s Jewish community centre captured the natural disaster’s impact on the building’s interior from the moment the first drops of water came through the front door until the deluge reached the ceiling. Furniture became unmoored and began to swirl around the building’s lobby.
The Category 4 hurricane made landfall in August 2017, slamming Texas and Louisiana with catastrophic flooding and dozens of fatalities. Material damages were estimated at $125 billion US, mostly in Houston and southeast Texas.
The Jewish community of Texas had to rebuild. Synagogues, the JCC, the Jewish seniors home and one in every 13 Jewish family homes were ruined.
Rabbi Brian Strauss, who spoke in Vancouver Sept. 9, lost both his family home and his synagogue. The issue was not merely flooding. Any flooding damages property, but the area’s topography meant that Houston was submerged in toxic bayou water, rendering everything it touched toxic. Added to this, the humidity of Houston caused mold to grow immediately. Houston received 52 inches of rain in three days – equivalent to its average annual rainfall. (By contrast, he noted, Vancouver gets 46 inches of rain annually.)
But the story Strauss brought to the Vancouver Playhouse – he was one of four speakers at FEDtalks, the opening event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign – was an uplifting one.
Volunteers from around the world descended on Houston. The federal government provided resources to rebuild synagogues, homes and communal facilities. Especially notable: Israel donated $1 million to a Diaspora community struggling with crisis. Strauss juxtaposed the phenomenon of Jewish giving, which for decades flowed from the Diaspora to Israel, with the reality that Israel is now in a position to help a community in crisis abroad.
Also speaking at the campaign launch event was Risa Alyson Cooper, executive director of Shoresh. She shared her journey into Jewish spiritual and ethical issues around food. Shoresh is an Ontario-based organization that “inspires and empowers our community to take care of the earth by connecting people, land and Jewish tradition.”
“Eating is an ethical act,” Cooper said. By engaging community members “from seed to harvest,” the organization reduces the stigma of receiving “donated” foods.
“It’s not a handout,” she said. People are involved in creating their own food sustainability.
Also at FEDtalks, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog – who chose to sit out not one but two Israeli elections this year – spoke about his role as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Herzog is Israel’s former leader of the opposition and former head of the Labour party. In contextualizing his role as chairperson of the world’s largest Jewish organization, an agency that has been central in creating and building the Jewish state, he spoke of continuing a family legacy.
His grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, went on a rescue mission in 1946 to find hidden Jewish children in churches and monasteries throughout Europe, bringing thousands of them to Palestine. Herzog’s father, Chaim, who went on to become president of Israel, served with the U.K. army, landed in Normandy, fought in the Battle of the Rhine and was among the first to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Abba Eban, the legendary Israeli diplomat and statesman, was an uncle.
“I’m fulfilling the orders of my forbearers,” said Herzog, who was introduced by Karen James, immediate past board chair of the Jewish Federation and a member of the board of the Jewish Agency. The Independent also interviewed Herzog in advance of his visit. (Read the story at jewishindependent.ca/building-jewish-future.)
The most emotional presentation of the night came last. Dr. Gillian Presner recounted how she was invited to join the Federation movement’s National Young Leadership Cabinet. When she was told the commitment was five years, she replied: “That’s the rest of my life.”
Presner was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2016, while pregnant with her third daughter. Nine days after the baby was born, she suffered a stroke.
Despite the challenges of raising a very young family while enduring terminal brain cancer, she accepted the invitation to join the cabinet because, she said, “I refuse to die before I’m dead.”
She added: “I am full of hope, but I am also a realist.”
She understands that she needs to leave a legacy of vibrant memories to her daughters – the family took a trip to Israel together, certain it would be her only chance – but she also knows that her daughters will “have to learn about me by hearing about what Mommy did.”
By continuing to devote herself to philanthropic causes, she is “showing my daughters what I truly value.”
Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation, closed the evening, noting “our most precious commodity we have here is our time.”
Alex Cristall, chair of the board of Federation, welcomed the audience, acknowledging in particular 150 people in their 20s and 30s whose presence was made possible through a contribution by Jonathon and Karly Leipsic. Jonathon Leipsic is the annual campaign chair for the second consecutive year.
“It is a pleasure to have you,” Cristall said. “We need you.”
Jonathon Leipsic spoke of Theodor Herzl’s dream of Jewish self-determination and noted: “Our generation has never known a generation without emancipated Jewish freedom.”
He urged the audience to go to YouTube and find Chaim Herzog’s speech to the United Nations in 1975 against the motion that equated Zionism with racism.
“It will send shivers down your spine,” he said.
Members of Parliament Joyce Murray, Don Davies, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Randeep Sarai and Hedy Fry were in attendance, the latter of whom spoke from the podium and brought greetings from the prime minister. Also present were Selena Robinson, British Columbia’s minister of municipal affairs and housing; George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy; George Chow, minister of state for trade; and Anne Kang, member of the Legislative Assembly. Vancouver city councilors Melissa De Genova, Colleen Hardwick, Sarah Kirby-Yung and Pete Fry attended, as did the consuls general of France, Germany and the United States, and Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer.
O Canada and Hatikvah were sung by the King David High School Choir.
Leah Stern in Haiti, where she was helping orphaned and abandoned children. (photo from Leah Stern)
While London-based journalist and content producer Leah Stern was unable to be the guest speaker at this year’s Choices, the annual campaign event of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s women’s philanthropy, the Jewish Independent had the opportunity to chat with her over the phone prior to her scheduled talk. Hopefully, she will have the chance to come to Vancouver on another occasion, as she is a fascinating and accomplished person.
Born and raised in Miami, Stern made aliya after graduating university. In her career to date, she has been the face of the evening news on the Israel Broadcast Authority and a correspondent for CNN, she has liaised with the Vatican on behalf of the Israeli government and worked with nonprofits in South America. She is currently communications director in London, England, for OurCrowd, a high-tech, crowdfunding platform created by venture capitalist John Medved, for which she travels to Israel every couple of months. This is only a partial resumé.
JI: You made aliya in 2002. What led to that?
LS: Growing up in Miami Beach, everyone was very materialistic, focused on clothes, cars, houses, etc., and I wanted to run away from it all. My brother went to Israel to serve in an elite military group during the Second Intifada and my mother and I decided to follow him there. She went first, I came after.
JI: How did you get into journalism?
LS: That started with a program I saw in Miami on CNN with coverage of Scuds falling in Sderot and I saw a woman running in fear along the street. Suddenly, I thought, I need to be there in the thick of it all. When I finally went, I was only 21. At first, when I arrived, I could not find a job, so I folded laundry, made pizza and worked as a housekeeper.
JI: What happened next?
LS: I decided to volunteer for the Magen David Adom (MDA). That consisted of a week indoctrination course and then riding in the back of an ambulance to callouts. My first call was to a bus bombing in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003. I remember riding in the back of the ambulance, going at 100 miles an hour, running through red lights and then we came upon the shell of the bus. My first memory is seeing the bodies of college students my age, all sitting exactly as they were in that last moment before the explosion, one was reading a book, one was eating a sandwich. That picture still resonates with me today.
JI: Did that experience have an impact on your career?
LS: I did the MDA job for about three months. I was so affected by it I decided to … blog about it. I sent articles back to Miami. I wanted to give a different view than the jaded coverage by CNN and Fox. I thought I could make an impact on people by reporting the truth of what was happening through my eyes, and not through the eyes of the foreign press that did not understand the contextual background to the story.
JI: You also worked for the Jerusalem Post?
LS: Yes. I applied and got an internship as the funeral reporter. I did that for awhile but I wanted to go to the next level. So, I applied to IBA, the Israel Broadcast Authority, the only government-run, English-speaking channel in Israel, to be a news anchor. I bombed the audition. I said, “Baby Netanyahu” instead of “Bibi Netanyahu.” I thought I would never get the job. But the bureau chief called me that night and said, “You were absolutely terrible but there is something about you. Come in tomorrow for another screen test.” So, I studied the names of all of the people in the Knesset and practised in front of the mirror, and I got the job.
JI: What happened at IBA and where did you go from there?
LS: I started off as a newsreader but eventually my boss let me go out in the field. I went out as a one-woman band. I went and bought a video camera and all the equipment. I would mic myself up and take my camera out on a tripod and do the interview, write the text and send it to my editor in three-minute news package format while sitting in the front seat of my Peugeot. These were some of the most incredible days of my life, being in the thick of things.
It was during this time that I came to realize that there were so many stories that were not being covered, i.e. co-existence, Israeli doctors working with injured Palestinians, stories that I felt would change the world’s perception of what was happening in Israel. So, I started to tell them and sent some to CNN and they must have liked them because I got invited to Atlanta and met with Ted Turner, who offered me a job as a correspondent. Wolf Blitzer sort of took me under his wing.
JI: What were some of the stories you covered for IBA and CNN?
LS: I was sent all over, to Ethiopia to cover the migration of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel … to the Vatican to cover the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. I went to Baghdad and Kabul and all over the Arab world.
JI: Were you concerned about any danger in covering some of these assignments?
LS: No. I was a CNN producer, an American journalist on an American passport and did not at any time feel in danger. I was running on pure adrenalin, and was determined to tell the story for people who did not have a voice.
JI: You accompanied the Israel Defence Forces during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. What was that experience like?
LS: For me, this was the first time that I found myself reporting on a big story alongside the major players of the world media…. I had just interviewed Ariel Sharon and was forming my own opinion on this. I was conflicted, lots of questions were running through my mind, like, was the government right? What were these people entitled to? [Stern ended up making a documentary about the experience, called Disengagement (2006).]
JI: Were you treated any differently for being a woman reporter?
LS: War reporting is a man’s world. Here I was a young, blond, American, female journalist with not great Hebrew, with an English accent, with very seasoned male war reporters, trying to be one of the guys. I had to earn the respect. It was not easy. It took time.
JI: How did people react to you in the various areas you visited?
LS: Good reporters get people to open up to them and to trust them. You have to ask the tough questions, be relatable, get people to be real. I let people know I would tell their story … like they told it to me.
JI: Has your attitude towards covering the news changed over the years?
LS: I always remember the quote from Abba Eban, “To be a realist in Israel, you have to believe in miracles.” My time in Israel was one miracle after another. When I did my first stand up in front of the camera during the Second Lebanon War, a rocket landed near me and I was not afraid. I felt as if the camera would protect me and I was so dedicated to telling the story that I did not think of any danger. But one of my colleagues, Steve Sotloff, was beheaded by ISIS, and that was a wake-up call for me. I would not go back to some of those countries now even though I have been offered opportunities to report in Iran and Syria.
JI: In addition to reporting, you did a three-year diplomatic stint at the Vatican as a liaison for the Israeli government. What was that like?
LS: I studied Italian because I had to read 20 newspapers a morning and brief the Israeli ambassador on what Italians were saying about Israelis. Twice a week, I also got to sit in on meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and his cardinals…. I learned what it meant to be an Israeli diplomat in the Vatican. It was very interesting but it was also the first time I had to be careful about being open about my Israeli and Jewish status.
JI: What does your future hold?
LS: I am writing a book, but I am not sure what to focus on. I think writing a memoir is a bit egotistical at the age of 35. I have been roaming the world for 15 years, I am ready to put down some roots and I am getting married again next year.
JI: Do you have any advice for women considering career options like yours?
LS: I believe in tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. I think the best advice I can give is to be strong and to follow your dreams. Remember that small things make a difference. Don’t be afraid to try. Put yourself out there. Make an impact.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
A film that brings Palestinian and Israeli women together in a weight-loss group. Who would have thought that was possible? American-Israeli Yael Luttwak did, and she made it happen. Luttwak, the keynote speaker at Choices, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual women in philanthropy event, held on Nov. 1 at Congregation Beth Israel, captivated the audience with her story.
“The idea came to me at a time when
I was attending Weight Watchers in Tel Aviv,” said Luttwak. “The peace process had broken down and Ariel Sharon had been hospitalized and I had this image of Sharon and [Yasser] Arafat jogging together on the beach and working it all out. It struck me, as I listened to women in my group who were uninhibited in sharing their struggles with health and weight and body image, that there was so much humanity in that room. What if we could capture this humanity and bring together women who otherwise would never have an opportunity to meet?”
She set out to find women who would be willing to participate in this social experiment. She approached Orthodox women, West Bank Muslims, American-born settlers and Bedouins. Fourteen women agreed to get involved. The Jerusalem Cinémathèque in East Jerusalem became the meeting place. Filming took six weeks.
The women metamorphosed during the process, as they started to come to the meetings in nicer clothes and make-up, and they began to share their thoughts (and recipes). “This was the first opportunity for Arab women to meet Jewish women that were not soldiers, and for Israeli women to meet Arabs that did not want to kill them. At the beginning, everyone was nervous, but very polite (unusual for the Middle East) but, within a few hours, they were all talking and sharing stories.”
The women found common ground on many issues that emphasized their similarities. Even when there was political turbulence, violence on the streets of Jerusalem and curfews, the Arab women would cross the checkpoints to attend the meetings. When Luttwak asked what it was about the group that kept them coming, they answered that it was their only opportunity for hope. And so, the 2007 documentary A Slim Peace came to be. It premièred at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and screened in the United States on Sundance Channel.
While promoting the film, Luttwak was approached by English philanthropist Dame Hilary Blume, who offered to seed fund more women’s groups. She told Luttwak, “Don’t waste your talent on films. You have hit on something. You are building bridges. This is your destiny.” As a result, the nonprofit Slim Peace developed and, over the past eight years, it has opened 33 groups in six cities and two countries. Luttwak said, “It’s a train I cannot stop.” She has also been able to keep making films about contemporary issues. Her final messages – we all have to do our part for tikkun olam (repair of the world) and to never give up hope.
Prior to Luttwak’s talk, Ricki Thal addressed the audience: “My name is Esther Zuckerman Kaufman and I was born in Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 11, 1920. I was one of the Jews on Schindler’s List.” Everyone’s attention caught, Thal then told the story of her grandmother and grandfather, Leon, both saved by Oskar Schindler. They never spoke about their wartime experiences and the family had no idea that they were Schindler Jews until they all went to see Steven Spielberg’s movie. That moment changed Thal’s life. It led her to explore her family’s history, to participate in March of the Living on two occasions, as a student and as a chaperone, and to become involved in the Jewish community. Kaufman died in 1999 but not before she appeared in New York on The Phil Donahue Show to tell her story to television audiences. Thal finished almost as she began: “My name is Ricki Thal and I was born in Vancouver in 1979 and I am proud to be the granddaughter of Esther and Leon Kaufman.”
CBC television personality Belle Puri emceed the night, co-chair Debbie Jeroff gave opening remarks and Stephen Gaerber brought greetings from Federation. Two video presentations, a raffle and a meal catered by Susy Siegel completed the night, and then 500 Jewish women went out into the rain inspired, full of good food and hope.
Left to right, shinshiniot Ophir Golumbek, Tomer Tetro and Lian Swissa are volunteering with various organizations in the Greater Vancouver Jewish community. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
For the first time, Vancouver is participating in the Shinshin program through the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (JFGV) in conjunction with the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Shinshin is an acronym for shnat sherut, meaning year of service, which is exactly what the three 18-year-olds who arrived on Aug. 31 are here to provide the Vancouver Jewish community.
The project, which is co-funded by JFGV and the beneficiary agencies, is an outreach program created by the Jewish Agency to give exceptional Israeli youth a meaningful gap-year experience that furthers the objectives of the Jewish Agency for promoting goodwill and education about Israel. According to Vancouver’s shinshin coordinator, Lissa Weinberger, the program has been wildly successful and popular among the Jewish communities that have had the chance to host Israeli teens in the past. JFGV had planned to begin hosting Shinshinim in 2016 but because of the enthusiasm of participating agencies, they fast-tracked the program and made it happen this year.
Shinshin has been embraced by communities in England, the Netherlands, South Africa, North America and South America, growing from 54 participants last year to 100 this year. The Israeli youths volunteer with young people in schools, synagogues, Jewish community centres and other Jewish organizations to build awareness and give access to a teen perspective on Israel. According to Weinberger, the program has been so effective at building relationships between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish youth that there is a plan to grow it to 300 Shinshinim within five years.
Weinberger said that the young women in Vancouver – Ophir Golumbek, Tomer Tetro and Lian Swissa – will be working six days a week for the next nine months, with a few weeks off spread over that time.
“When we were discussing their schedule, we were told to keep them busy. They were coming to give back, not sit around,” Weinberger said.
The Shinshiniot (feminine plural) will be hosted by local families during their stay, a different family every three months. The host family experience is crucial to the program as it gives the youths a soft landing here in Vancouver, in a family environment.
Jennifer Shecter-Balin will be hosting one of the Shinshiniot for the first term. She spoke for her family when she said, “We are excited for the experience. I have been communicating with Ophir via email and I have been thoroughly impressed by her maturity, enthusiasm and introspection.”
In an interview with the Jewish Independent the day after their arrival, the three young women were indeed bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. Golumbek will be working primarily with students at Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT), with the Temple Sholom Sunday school as her Sunday job. Tetro will divide her time between the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and Congregation Beth Tikvah. Swissa will be working with King David High School, Congregation Beth Israel and Richmond Jewish Day School.
Each one of the Israelis comes with a history of volunteerism and leadership, as well as an impressive command of English. None of them comes from an English-speaking home in Israel but all are eloquent and clear in their goals for their year of service in Vancouver.
Golumbek explained why she applied to the Shinshin program. “I have family in the U.S., third cousins, and they all went on Birthright and I saw how it made them [connected to] Israel. Some came back to study and one made aliya. Each one of my cousins told me about a person who influenced them to love Israel and I wanted to build that connection for people here.”
Swissa echoed Golumbek’s interest in building connections with local Jews and added, “I believe that Jewish people have a shared history and we should create a shared present and future. We are here to learn about Vancouver and Judaism outside of Israel, as much as we are here to share our love of being Jewish in Israel.”
It’s not surprising that 18-year-olds who can express these types of ideas when jet-lagged were selected from the 1,700 applicants to the Shinshin program. Swissa and Tetro have leadership experience and a strong basis in working with other Jewish teens from a two-year program they did in high school called the Diller Teen Fellowship, which brought them to Chicago and Baltimore, respectively, when they were in grades 10 and 11. Their experience working within a pluralistic Jewish environment has prepared them for their work in Vancouver. Golumbek participated in a special program of her Scouts called Seeds of Peace in Maine, which brought together Israeli, American, British, Palestinian and Egyptian teens to work on building relationships and tackling issues of conflict.
When asked how they feel about being away from their families, they all teared up slightly. Swissa is the youngest of seven children, so it’s a shock for her to be without family here, while Tetro will miss her 5-year-old sister. Golumbek has a brother who is finishing his army service this year and, while she said she will miss her family, she looks at this year as an opportunity to get ready for being away when she goes into the army, while making an impact and making new connections. She said, “Our host families will be like a new family … we are grateful for the chance to come here, to make a mark. Thank you is a small word for what everyone has done for us so we could be here.”
Tetro spoke for all three volunteers when she explained what they hope for the year to come. She said, “We are so excited because this is a brand new program and nobody knows what to expect, but we are also stressed because we want to make the best impression. We want to build a really good base for next year so all of the kids will be eagerly waiting for the next Shinshinim to come.”
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
Rabbi David Wolpe joins FEDtalks on Sept. 17 at Queen E. Theatre. (photo from Facebook)
When the man Newsweek calls the most influential rabbi in America gets up to speak in Vancouver this month, he may be as surprised as the audience by what he has to say.
“I really never know exactly until I get up to speak,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, who will be here Sept. 17 as one of four speakers at FEDtalks, the annual campaign launch of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. “I do this somewhat spontaneously and it will depend somewhat on what I hear the other people say because I don’t want to repeat what they would say.”
His talk, Inspiring Jewish Life, will address “something about the way in which our efforts have surprising and unanticipated consequences both in our community and in the world,” he told the Independent in a telephone interview.
Wolpe has also been dubbed one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of eight books, including the bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. His most recent book, David, the Divided Heart, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards. He has taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College and UCLA. He is a prolific writer and commentator.
Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, of which about half of the congregation are Jews of Iranian origin, which gives him an acute perspective on the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 world powers.
“I would say in the Iranian Jewish community in L.A., the consensus is fairly strong against the deal,” he said. “It’s not unanimous, but it’s fairly strong.”
Wolpe sees a glimmer of hope but overall fears the deal is a bad one.
“The biggest reason for optimism long term is that the Iranian population is so young … and that many of those young people don’t support the theological or political views of their leaders,” said the rabbi. “That’s the reason long term for optimism and, of course, Iran and the United States have had an alliance in the past. Maybe one day that could be renewed.
“There is plenty of reason for worry, however,” he continued. “I, myself, oppose the deal. I think most of my Iranian congregants do as well. But whoever is correct about this deal, or no deal, I think that the prospect that Iran will get a nuclear bomb is both frighteningly real and just plain frightening.”
Wolpe is the son of a rabbi and has been taken aback by the persistence of global antisemitism across generations.
“When I started out in the rabbinate, I really did believe that, unlike my father’s rabbinate … antisemitism wasn’t going to be the theme of Jewish life anymore,” he said. “I really thought that. I thought it was on the wane. So, the resurgence through Europe is disheartening and pretty scary.”
Wolpe traveled in Europe this summer and sees little reason for optimism. “I wish I did,” he said. “The mood in Europe is very pessimistic.”
He believes that the United States is relatively well inoculated against antisemitism.
“Unlike the countries of Europe, the United States did not have an identifiable majority and minority,” he said. “Most antisemitism arose when there were the French and the Jews, the Germans and the Jews, the Russians and the Jews. The Jews were the clear, identifiable minority in most of these countries. That’s not true in America. We are a patchwork of minorities and, as a result … to be a Jew is not to be the one who stands out as being different.… America has historically not been a place that is hostile to Jews. Are there antisemitic acts? Yes. But I don’t see any serious signs that [tolerance toward Jews is] changing or threatens to change.”
Wolpe will be speaking at the event during the Days of Awe and said it is a good time to reflect on the positive.
“Rosh Hashana is really about our sense of gratitude, about the gift of everything that we have because we are showered with blessings,” he said. “Even though we focus on all the dangers and difficulties of our lives, we are just bursting with wonderful and extraordinary and often unprecedented blessings in our lives.”
Left to right are Stephen Gaerber (Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver board chair), Mayor Ilan Orr of Yesod Hamaaleh, Mayor Rabbi Nissim Malka of Kiryat Shmona, Mayor Giora Saltz of Galil Elyon, Vancouver Deputy Mayor Andrea Reimer, Mayor Binyamin Ben-Muvchar of Mevoot Hahermon and Ezra Shanken (Federation CEO). (photo by Rhonda Dent courtesy of JFGV)
One of the goals of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver is to strengthen the community’s partnership region in Israel, Etzbah HaGalil (the Galilee Panhandle). The efforts of Federation are combined with five other Jewish communities across Canada (Atlantic Canada, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton). Known as the Partnership2Gether (P2G) Coast-to-Coast initiative, this is the framework on which relationships between the people of Etzbah HaGalil and these communities of Canada are built and strengthened. The relationships foster a love of Israel and a long-term commitment to Jewish peoplehood, promoting the growth and health of each community involved.
The P2G Coast-to-Coast’s partnership is governed by a joint steering committee comprised of representatives from five Israeli and six Canadian partner cities, and Federation recently hosted the committee’s biannual meetings from June 15-17. Representatives from the local community included Stephen Gaerber, national chair of the Coast-to-Coast partnership; Karen James, chair of the Israel and overseas committee and P2G; and Pam Wolfman, chair of the local Gesher Chai (Living Bridge) committee. The meetings were an opportunity for representatives from Israel and across Canada to review funded projects together and explore potential investments in Etzbah HaGalil’s ongoing progress in three key areas: youth and education, the Gesher Chai program (which includes people-to-people exchanges between the two countries) and capacity building (social programming and regional development).
Etzbah HaGalil is geographically, economically and politically isolated. Residents often miss out on the social, educational and employment opportunities available to those living in central Israel. Through P2G, Federation strategically invests funds to reverse the north’s overall vulnerability by laying foundations for community resilience, emergency preparedness and economic growth.
One of the many projects in which Federation is investing is a new initiative called Green Farms, which develops and supports organic farming in the region. Through a partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of British Columbia Farm, two professors mentor and work closely with Israeli farmers; they have been to Israel and will be going again. During the recent P2G meetings, committee members visited UBC Farm to see their environmentally responsible farming project. Committee members were surprised to discover such a beneficial program in our own backyard. “I was impressed by the extent of the farm, the diversity of plants grown, and how they are mentoring some Israeli farmers,” shared James. The goal of the program is to build a healthier, more sustainable food system in northern Israel. Program like this are a key focus of the partnership and of Federation’s investment.
Micha Biton headlines the community’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations April 22. (photo from Micha Biton via Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
Seven years in the making, Laura Bialis’ documentary Rock in the Red Zone premièred last October at the Haifa Film Festival, and has since enjoyed several other prominent screenings in Israel. Less than a kilometre from the Gaza Strip, Sderot has been a favorite target of Hamas rocket fire for the last decade and a half – but it has also been the birthplace of a unique style of rock music, producing more than its share of popular bands and singers. One of the rock pioneers featured in the documentary steps off the Israeli silver screen and into Vancouver’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on April 22 to lead our community’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations – Micha Biton.
JI: Your stop in Vancouver is part of a North American tour for Like Water. Are you traveling with a band? If so, who and what instruments?
MB: Exactly a year ago, my fifth album, Kmo Mayim (Like Water), was released in Israel and we performed a series of concerts around the country in celebration of the release – a tour that was very successful and drew attention from radio, television and media outlets. Subsequently, I performed in both San Francisco and New York and realized that, despite the fact that over half of the audience does not understand Hebrew, the music touched the hearts of those who heard it. For this concert in Vancouver, I am coming with five amazing musicians: Yossi Shitrit (electric guitar), Shir Yerushalmi (electric guitar), Hillel Shitrit (keyboards), Itamar Abohasera (drums), Shai Zrian (bass).
JI: In which other cities are you performing on this tour? For how long are you here?
MB: We are coming directly from Israel, and Vancouver is the first city on our tour. After Vancouver, I will perform in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I’ll be in North America for less than two weeks. Due to my heavy performance schedule in Israel, I couldn’t carve out more time to tour on this trip, but I always manage to make a little time to take in the atmosphere of the cities in which I perform. This is not my first time in Vancouver – last year, during the war between Israel and Gaza, I brought my whole family to Vancouver to visit my wife’s family and I fell in love with your beautiful city and people. I’m excited that on my second trip to Vancouver I will get to perform for the wonderful people that I met in Vancouver.
JI: Like Water is your fourth solo recording?
MB: Kmo Mayim is my fourth solo recording, but it is my fifth album. In 1997, I produced my first album, Tanara, with a group of talented musician and it received critical acclaim in Israel. Soon after, I became a solo artist and, over two decades, I recorded four albums of original music. For me, Kmo Mayim is a very personal album that I wrote about relationships – friendships, love, connection with God. Every song tells a different story, and every story has an open-ended moral attached to it. I’m very proud of this album and I’m happy that my audiences like it.
JI: You are one of the pioneers of the renowned rock music scene in Sderot. Could you share a bit about its development, how it has changed over the years?
MB: In the 1990s, I created a band called Tanara, a period that saw an incredible explosion in the Israeli music scene, especially in Sderot. Bands like Tippex, Knesiyat Hasechel and ours developed a new sound that was special and unique to Sderot, combining rock music with the Moroccan/ethnic sounds of our neighborhoods and our childhoods. In those early days, Sderot was underdeveloped and family-oriented. We didn’t have much to do, so music became our lives and we played and composed in the bomb shelters all of the time. (In those days, we used the shelters for writing music and rehearsing for concerts. Today, unfortunately, they are used as shelters from the rockets fired from Gaza.) In addition, it was a town where everyone knew everyone – there was no such thing as a stranger in our town, and the warmth created by this strong community significantly influenced our ability to create something unique musically.
JI: How about your own style? How would you describe it now versus when you first started out?
MB: My musical style hasn’t really changed much over the years. I’ve been very successful continuing to write ethnic rock in the style that I helped to create and I am lucky that my audience appreciates my style and my sensitivity. While my roots are strongly planted in Sderot, I am different than most of my fellow musicians from the area. At the age of 10, after my father died, I left my Moroccan biological family and was fostered by an Ashkenazi family in Jerusalem. From that early, tender age, I started to live between two cultures, understanding the beauty of each, and using both of them to influence the way I compose and the way I live. It turns out that my foster mother, Galila Ron-Feder, was a modestly successful author in Israel who shortly after my arrival chose to write an entire book based on my life and my journey (and I was only 10!). This book, El Atzmi (To Myself), became her most successful book. It became a series of books, and then a movie. It has been translated into 27 languages. The influence of Galila and her world, and the world of my parents together, helped me to create a new world of my own. My music and the lyrics that I write are very connected to the fact that I have lived most of my life straddled between these two worlds.
JI: A 2007 New York Times article refers to “Biton’s anthem for Sderot,” which was “I don’t leave the town for any Qassam.” What is it like living in Sderot these days? Are you hopeful for the future?
MB: In the quiet days of peace, we love living in this area. My nine brothers and sisters and their families live in Sderot, and my family and I live on the border between Sderot and Gaza in Netiv Haasara, a moshav where we can see Gaza from our backyard. This is my home, and we are very drawn to this place. For the past 10 years, we have lived with the reality that at any moment, day or night, the sirens will start and we have 15 seconds to run to our bomb shelters. Our children have grown up with the feeling that life is beautiful but uncertain. This past summer, and several times in the past, we have been forced to leave our homes and our community because of the imminent danger that the conflict caused. Rockets fell on our yard. A rocket hit my wife’s parents’ home, who live a block away from us, destroying precious family heirlooms. For every rocket that fell last summer, there are hundreds of rockets that have landed around us in the past 10 years that go unreported but, for us, they are very real. When we came to Vancouver last summer, my 4-year-old son looked at me and asked, “Abba, why don’t they have tzeva adom (warning sirens) here in Vancouver?” and I explained to him that not everyone has to deal with rockets falling on their heads all of the time. It was a very sad moment for me.
In 2007, when I wrote the song ‘I don’t leave the town for any Qassam,’ I felt that people were deserting Sderot and all of her beauty because of the situation. I wanted to give them strength and remind them that it was critical to stay and to fight for our hometown. Less than a year later, I wrote HaTzad HaMuar (The Lighted Side) from the same place in my heart. Despite all of the pain, I wrote, don’t forget the light, the hope, the optimism. Because that is really what Sderot is all about. Not a place where rockets fall, but a place of warmth and love and peace.
JI: In the same article, you speak about Hagit Yaso as a star almost certain to rise to the top. She has, of course. And she played here in Vancouver last year for Yom Ha’atzmaut. Are there any current young Sderot musicians for whom we should be keeping watch?
MB: Hagit is an amazing singer and an extraordinary human being. I’m proud to stay that she was one of my most talented students when I taught music and theatre in Sderot. I am so happy for her success and that she represents a new generation of musicians that has emerged from Sderot. The wonderful thing about this young generation is that they are succeeding to continue the tradition of Sderot, bringing exciting new musical projects to Israel and to the world. During one of my tours, I invited her to the stage to sing with me, and it was a really beautiful moment of connection between the pioneers of the music scene and the young musicians of this generation.
One of the new, talented musicians climbing up the ladder at the moment is my cousin Tzafrir Yifrach, who concentrates on world music. He has exceptional talent and is performing quite a bit these days around Israel, and musicians from all over Israel love coming to his recording studio in Sderot to work on their own projects with him. Another rising talent is Nir Vaknin, who is in the process of finishing his debut album.
JI: If there is anything else you’d like to add, please feel free.
MB: During the time that I was in production for Kmo Mayim, I started another project with a musician from the U.S., Lisa Tzur, who was the executive producer of Kmo Mayim. I’ve traveled a lot in North America and have performed at synagogues where the singing was so beautiful that I never forgot it. I wanted to be a part of that somehow. Taking words from the prayer service and from Psalms, as well as a few original texts, we recorded a project that is different than anything else that I have recorded. The idea was to create music that was accessible and singable by audiences that were not necessarily Israeli. Lisa comes from that world (as a lifelong member of the Reform Jewish movement and as an ordained rabbi) and together we created something very special that will be released this summer both in Israel and in the world.
Masha Shumatskaya’s visit here was part of an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee tour of North American cities. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
All Masha Shumatskaya wants is for the fighting to stop so she can go home. The 24-year-old Jewish Ukrainian English teacher was living and working happily in the city of Donetsk until April 2014, when pro-Russian separatists arrived two hours north of her hometown and declared their intention to form a people’s republic.
Until that moment, her life had been quite ordinary. Shumatskaya, a slender beauty with gentle eyes, was one of some 15,000 Jews in Donetsk, a city that boasts a Jewish community centre, a Chabad-run synagogue, a kosher café and various Jewish youth and cultural groups. “I never once experienced antisemitism growing up there,” she said. “I was never afraid to say I was a Jew.”
By May 2014, the pro-Russian separatists had moved into Donetsk and were threatening the safety of civilians. They bombed the Donetsk airport and the violence forced the closure of many schools and business offices in the city. Shumatskaya and her friends began making plans to move to other cities in Ukraine, such as Kiev, Odessa and Kharkov. She chose Kharkov, five hours’ drive from Donetsk, leaving her parents behind.
But Shumatskaya is one of the lucky ones. There are some 7,000 Jews still living in the war zone in Ukraine, many of them elderly. They’re dependent on the Joint Distribution Committee’s aid for food, medical support, rental subsidies and basic necessities.
Shumatskaya was in Vancouver recently as a guest of JDC, where she met with Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver representatives and media to tell her story. With her was Michael Novick, executive director of the American Jewish JDC in Bellevue, Wash. “The situation in Ukraine has become a high priority for the JDC,” he said. “It’s not just the Jews, mostly elderly, still living in the conflict zone, but also the 2,500 Jews who’ve fled and need assistance, and another 60,000 Jews we’ve been helping all along with basic humanitarian supplies.” The JDC estimates the cost of its monthly relief for these Jews to be more than $387,000 US.
The political unrest has had widespread effect. The Ukrainian economy has plummeted, the purchasing power of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has dropped more than 50 percent and inflation is between 25 and 30 percent. “A year ago, the average pension of an elderly person we were assisting was equivalent to $150 US. Today, that same pension is only worth $50 US,” Novick said. “People have lost their jobs, their businesses, and Jews who could previously take care of their own families are now coming to the JDC’s Hesed welfare centres.”
The JDC has 32 Hesed welfare centres in Ukraine, and 160 of them across the former Soviet Union. Among those Jews requiring their services in Ukraine, Novick said they represent “the poorest Jews on earth, living in really dire conditions. For them, the lifeline provided by Hesed in terms of supplemental, basic humanitarian assistance, is vital.”
He added that the emergency funds being supplied by JDC are not part of its budget. “But the situation in Ukraine is so dire that we’re not waiting – we’re simply spending money and hoping that individuals, federations and foundations that meet Masha and hear about this story will come to our assistance.”
Shumatskaya’s 10-day visit to North America included stops in Seattle, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York. Last year, JFGV made a $25,000 grant to JDC for its various programs.
As she looked to the future, Shumatskaya was uncertain what it would hold for her. “I feel attached to Ukraine and I feel some responsibility to help with what’s going on there,” she said. “If I had to leave Kharkov I don’t know where I’d go. But I know that I don’t want to become a war refugee again. Once in my life was quite enough.”
Her message to Vancouver’s Jewish community is twofold: a reminder that Jews are responsible for each other, and one of gratitude for the support she and her fellow Ukrainian Jews have all ready received.
“Without that support we literally would not have survived,” she said. “I wish we could finish this need for assistance fast, but it’s out of our hands. We’re praying every day that we can live in a peaceful country without the assistance provided by the JDC.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.