This spring saw the launch of the This Year Like No Other, This Year More Than Ever 2021-2022 Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation campaign, which is raising funds to enhance care and innovate the program and service offerings for residents of the Louis Brier Home and Hospital.
Early in 2020, the foundation stepped up to assist the Louis Brier leadership in its exemplary response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By doubling the home’s funding, the foundation was able to support the home in keeping its seniors safe and engaged during one of the most challenging years of their life.
The biennial campaign, which started April 19, will run to May 28. With the community’s help, the goal is to raise $2.4 million. Campaign chairs are Harry Lipetz (board president) and Lee Simpson (immediate past president).
The $2.4 million amount is needed to keep up with the home and hospital’s funding needs, which doubled with the onset of COVID-19. While the foundation is well aware of the many challenges of the present time, we believe this year, like no other, and more than ever, we must collectively come together to care for, and give a well-deserved kavod, to the people who built our community for us in the first place. To contribute and create impact where it’s most needed after the extraordinary challenges of the year 2020. To be part of ensuring that the physical, mental and spiritual needs of the home’s Jewish seniors are met.
Louis Brier’s background
In 1945, 14 friends known as the Hebrew Men’s Cultural Club shared a vision to create a home for Jewish seniors in Vancouver. That home, initially built to accommodate 13 residents, was established in 1946. Over time, that modest facility grew, changed locations and expanded its services, eventually becoming the Louis Brier Home and Hospital, which has progressed in step with Vancouver’s Jewish community.
Today, Louis Brier is part of a continuum of care known as the Snider Campus, which also includes the Weinberg Residence, a boutique assisted living and multi-level care residence adjacent to Louis Brier.
The Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation provides and distributes funds to the Snider Campus towards maintaining and fostering the well-being of the Jewish aged of British Columbia, while supporting the enhancement of their quality of life based on Jewish traditions.
Some quick facts
The Louis Brier is a 215-bed long-term residential care home serving Vancouver’s Jewish community.
The home and hospital provide three levels of residency (intermediate care, extended care and special care).
Thirty-five residents of the current population at Louis Brier are Holocaust survivors.
Eighty percent of Louis Brier Home and Hospital’s residents are diagnosed with varying levels of dementia.
The Louis Brier has 436 employees – 195 full-time, 101 part-time and 140 casual.
The home and hospital residents range in age from 50 to 103, with the average age being 84.
The Louis Brier is an accredited institution with exemplary standing (2018). The Accreditation Canada survey team spent four days at the facility and reviewed a total of 19 required organizational practices (ROPs), 216 high priority criteria and 295 other criteria, for a total of 551 criteria. The surveyors determined that Louis Brier successfully met 100% of the 551 criteria evaluated.
The Louis Brier was awarded the 2020 Canadian Non-profit Employer of Choice Award.
The Louis Brier is the only facility in British Columbia with a companion program and has the largest recreation team in Western Canada.
The Louis Brier had a single COVID case among residents.
To donate to the campaign, click here. For more information, call 604-261-5550.
In February, the Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation and Louis Brier Home and Hospital honoured Chaim Kornfeld. And they did so in the place he has especially dedicated his time over the last four decades: the Louis Brier synagogue.
Chaim was born in Hungary in 1926. His upbringing and education were Orthodox and, for the first part of the Second World War, his family were untouched. From the start of his education at Yiddish cheder, at age 3, he was a good student. Community life continued much as it had for centuries.
Outside the home, Chaim’s memories describe a tense separation between Jew and non-Jew. “My father always used to say, ‘When you see a Shaygetz, cross the street. Go on the other side.’”
Needless to say, young Chaim did not always do as he was told. “I took the beating instead – but I fought back, too.” He adds, “Especially at Easter time, they’d call you dirty Jew.”
It’s not hard to imagine a young Chaim’s spirited response. Even at 90, he is energetic and expressive in conversation. “I was a tough kid,” he says. His daughter Tova adds with pride, “He gave as good as he got!”
In 1944, Chaim was preparing to go to Franz Josef National Rabbinical Seminary of Hungary in Budapest. Then, not long before his 17th birthday, his family was moved to a ghetto with the other Jews of their town. Then came the trains.
Chaim, his parents and one of his sisters were sent to Auschwitz. On the journey, Chaim was permitted to fill a bucket of water for the passengers to have occasional drinks. He also took the dead out of the car.
On arriving at the concentration camp, Chaim jumped out. Greeted with ordinary scenes – “children playing, laundry drying” – Chaim’s mother figured she could work in the camp laundry.
Chaim relates how “an old man came up and asked, ‘Do you speak Yiddish?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course.’” The man pointed to a German official. “He’s going to ask you two questions. When he asks how old you are, you say you’re 18. When he asks you what you do, say you’re a farmer.”
Young Chaim approached the man with his usual confidence. Josef Mengele asked him his age and profession. Chaim answered as he’d been told. Mengele told him to go to the right. His parents were sent to the left. Before they were separated, Chaim’s father made a final request: “Bleib a Yid.” (“Remain a Jew.”) Afterwards, Chaim heard others say, “You see that smoke? That’s your parents.”
At Auschwitz, the Nazis stripped the prisoners of their belongings and identity, shaving off Chaim’s hair. He smiles ruefully. “I had lovely peyis, nice and curly.” Having only spent two weeks in Auschwitz before being transferred to Mauthausen in Austria, Chaim wasn’t at the camp long enough to get a number tattooed on his arm. He has not forgotten his number, though, and barks out “67655!” at an impressive volume, but not in English, or even Yiddish. It’s in Polish, as he heard it at Auschwitz.
Asked how he managed to maintain his sanity while facing death every day, he quotes Robert Frost: “I had promises to keep and many miles to go before I sleep.” But there’s more to it. Chaim describes how he kept his promise to his father, in spite of malnutrition and brutal treatment. “I always said, I’ll get out of here.”
He speaks with gritted teeth. “I never gave up. Even when I worked in a tunnel underground, I was mumbling a prayer. I prayed all the time to make time go faster. I knew the prayers by heart from a very young age. All kinds.”
Chaim describes a life of hard labour, misery and oppression. There were about 600 steps up the quarry. We “carried rocks on our shoulders, every day. There were dogs barking, soldiers pointing guns at us.” There was a pond at the bottom. If a prisoner fell down, he says, they would be pushed in.
Chaim found that he was the only one who remembered long tracts of the Torah. He led Kol Nidre in the camp, “all the others stood around me. I knew it by heart. I got a good education.” To lead a service in such appalling circumstances takes more than just education, however. It speaks to a capacity for leadership and clarity in a situation that is baffling in its cruelty.
When the prisoners were forced on a death march, Chaim was recuperating from an abscessed ankle. Although barely able to stand, he followed the advice of a fellow prisoner, who told him that if he didn’t leave the camp upright, he’d never leave at all. Limping in extreme pain, Chaim made it out but collapsed afterwards. When an SS officer raised his gun to shoot him, Chaim spoke up with his characteristic blend of optimism and boldness. Having been reminded of what a good worker this young Jew was, the officer permitted Chaim to hitch a ride on a passing wagon.
Until this year, Chaim was active in Holocaust education. In spite of the many letters from kids, thanking him for his work, these letters can be “painful,” he says. “The reminder is not always pleasant.” One might think that even a “tough kid” could tire of telling this harrowing story again and again, but Chaim isn’t flagging. “As long as there’s someone to listen, I’ll tell.”
After liberation, Chaim lived at the “internat” (boarding school) maintained by the rabbinical college in Budapest. Completing two years of high school in one under the instruction of one Dr. Kolben, Chaim still speaks admiringly of his teacher. “She was quite a lady. Very smart,” he says.
Kolben also taught them about the culture of Budapest. It gave the boys a chance to revive their appreciation of the arts, to leave them with images of beauty, after the horrors of the war. These included trips to the theatre in Budapest, to see Shakespeare’s plays. Their influence lives on today in Chaim’s memory. “To be or not to be, that is the question, whether it is nobler.…” He pauses to let me finish the quote. After staring, dazed, for an instant, I am relieved to find “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” bubble up in my mind.
Chaim ended up in a displaced persons camp, in Bari, Italy. The hungry residents were frustrated to find that the food stores were locked away. “He led an uprising and they opened the locker,” Tova says. “He gave an impassioned speech.”
After the DP camp came aliyah. “Someone came from the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] to take people to Palestine.” Chaim arrived in 1949, right after independence, and joined the air force immediately. “I was in charge of a platoon of women. That was fun,” he laughs. “I told them, during the day, I am in charge. In the evening, you are in charge!”
Asked about his career, he describes being “a lawyer for 55 years; prosecuting, judging, the lot!” Indeed, Chaim was appointed to the bench. Having developed a habit of quoting the Talmud in his judgments, he earned the nickname “The Bible Judge.” He would make “off the bench decisions,” which were popular with the courts, Tova recalls.
Chaim had originally planned to go to engineering school but his English was not fluent enough. “It was so hard, so technical,” he says. At the end of his first year, his essay about George Bernard Shaw’s Candida got him a C-. “People who were born and raised in Canada failed that exam!” he says proudly of his grade.
His optimistic attitude was evident in his approach to work as well. As a lawyer, he was known for handing out treats at the courthouse. Known as “Candy Man,” he would move up lines of people waiting for their paperwork, greeted by out-stretched hands.
At the Feb. 25 Louis Brier tribute, Chaim was honoured with a special Shabbat service in his name. With more than 150 people in attendance, Chaim read Haftorah. As Tova, says, “like a bar mitzvah boy, beautiful.” Thanked by many for his work, he was given a Torah cover for one of Louis Brier’s volumes. Says Tova, “It was really lovely.”
Reflecting back on his survival, Chaim credits his Judaism for keeping him afloat. This is living proof of Viktor Frankl’s assertion that, to survive, one needed to seek a meaning to one’s existence, even in the camps. “I didn’t feel that G-d abandoned me,” says Chaim. “I never lost my faith.”
Indeed, he has kept a kosher home for all of his adult life. But survival takes resilience and a good deal of ingenuity, as well as faith. “We took empty burlap bags and stuffed them into our pyjamas, to stay warm,” he says. When he was starving, he ate coal. “I was my own doctor,” he says.
One might think these experiences would define him, but, when presented with the term “survivor,” he shrugs and grimaces. “Rachmanut saneiti,” he adds. “I hate pity.”
One cannot help but see the sense in Chaim’s attitude. Simply referring to this man as a Holocaust survivor would be reductive. He recently celebrated six decades of marriage to his wife, Aliza, and their four adult children all have successful careers. Still active at 90, he has built a reputation as a mensch: generous, respectful, with a buoyant spirit and a talent for relationship-building. And, even now, one sees the tough kid – the keeper of promises, the kid who took a beating rather than tolerate bigotry. And, the same kid who jumped off the train in 1944, ready to meet the eye of the man who held – and toyed with, tortured and destroyed – the lives of his contemporaries.
Chaim has only just retired. He still reads the Tanach in his office and attends shul on Saturdays and Sundays. He talks of keeping up with his hobbies: “Swimming at the JCC every day. Making my wife happy.”
Shula Klingeris an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at niftyscissors.com.
Grade 6 and 7 girls of Vancouver Hebrew Academy joined Louis Brier Home and Hospital residents in making decorations for the home’s sukkah. (photos from Vancouver Hebrew Academy)
Just before Sukkot, the Grade 6 and 7 girls of Vancouver Hebrew Academy were warmly welcomed to Louis Brier Home and Hospital, where they visited with the residents and worked on a special project. Together, the students and residents created stained glass-style decorations for the Louis Brier’s sukkah.
It is a mitzvah to beautify the sukkah and, in this art project, several mitzvot overlapped, including connecting the younger generation with those who laid the groundwork for our community – for which we are grateful – and helping both the residents and children celebrate the holiday of Sukkot with an extra level of beauty and simcha.
On June 14, the board and staff members of all the Jewish housing societies met to discuss the progress they have made, the issues they are facing both collectively and individually, and how they can work together to solve them. Attendees included members from societies for seniors (Louis Brier Home and Hospital and Weinberg Residence, Vancouver Jewish Building Society and Haro Park Centre), singles and families (Tikva Housing Society) and people suffering from mental illness (Vancouver Yaffa Housing). Though there have been discussions in the past, this Jewish Housing Forum was the first outlet that provided all the housing societies a medium to come together and voice their opinions, concerns and future goals.
There has been strong support from the housing societies, donors and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver for the societies to initiate an open dialogue and find a way to amalgamate all of their strengths to provide the best support possible for those who need it most.
“The forum was a successful, and necessary stepping stone for the future of housing in the Jewish community,” said Susana Cogan, Tikva Housing Society’s development director. “Based on the feedback we’ve received, the overall consensus is that it was very productive and we’re looking forward to meeting in the near future to exchange developments prompted by this forum.”
Some of the issues discussed included communication among housing organizations, issues residents are facing (i.e., transition from independent living to supported living), lack of awareness of the societies’ services in the community, and donor funding. Upon breaking into groups to discuss these issues, participants agreed on a number of suggested solutions, such as more communication among societies, holding regular meetings to exchange information, the sharing of resources, the need to access more units for community members and working together when dealing with acquisitions.
All of these housing societies are continuing to excel independently, so exploring the ways they can work together demonstrated how they can better serve and help support the community.
Hannah Konyvesis a volunteer with Tikva Housing Society.
Toby Nadler (photo from Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation)
On Thursday, Oct. 23, Louis Brier Home and Hospital hosted an exhibit of accomplished artist and resident Toby Nadler’s work. The exhibit was open to all residents.
In 1970, Nadler began to study oil painting at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art with the late Arthur Lismer, one of Canada’s Group of Seven. After completing a teacher’s certificate at Macdonald College in Montreal, she spent four years teaching children at elementary schools in Montreal’s inner city, where art was one of the subjects, and took evening art courses at Concordia University. She graduated from Concordia in 1980 with a bachelor of fine arts degree, majoring in studio art.
Later, she studied watercolor and multimedia art with Judy Garfin, a Vancouver artist, at McGill University. After a few years, Nadler became interested in Chinese watercolors and calligraphy, and studied privately with a group of other Westerners. The teacher was Virginia Chang, who exhibited her students’ work.
In 1984, Nadler and her late husband Moe moved to Vancouver. Nadler wished to continue studying Chinese art in her new city. She also studied Mandarin at the Chinese library and watercolors with Nigel Szeto at the Chinese Cultural Centre. He was impressed with her work but, after seeing her Western paintings, recommended she continue with her own style, as her personality did not come across in the Chinese paintings to the same degree.
Nadler joined the English Bay Arts Club and the University Women’s Club, where she studied watercolor with various artists, as well as exhibiting there. After a few years, she became an active member of the Federation of Canadian Artists. She volunteered and took courses with their artists and exhibited her own work around the city, including at the Vancouver Public Library. During an exhibit at Oakridge Shopping Centre, an art dealer from Hong Kong admired her work and wanted to know if she had unframed paintings, so that he could roll them up and ship them to his two galleries in Hong Kong. He bought 10 works.
Studying with Lone Tratt, Nadler took watercolor and acrylic courses at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, where she also exhibited. Upon request, she donated six of her paintings to decorate their seniors lounge. Her home was decorated with many of her paintings.
A resident of Louis Brier since August 2014, Nadler still occasionally paints at her leisure. The Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation accepted her donation of more than 10 paintings as part of their collection to decorate the halls of the home. They also have another few pieces, which they will use to decorate the interior of residents’ and staff rooms. It is hoped that her unique style will bring pleasure to all who see them.
At the Oct. 23 exhibit, Nadler’s son, Peter Nadler, spoke, giving a history of his mother as an artist, and Dvori Balshine thanked Nadler for all of her artwork donations. Music therapist Megan Goudreau and recreational therapist Ginger Lerner composed and performed an original song in Nadler’s honor about her contributions to the art world.
Dvori Balshine has served the Vancouver Jewish community, in one capacity or another, for 45 years. She is retiring in November from her latest post – director of development at Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation – and she talked to the Independent about her life and work.
“We came to Vancouver from Israel in 1969,” she said. As an educator who studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she found a job right away. She taught Hebrew and Jewish history until she fell into fundraising, almost by accident.
“I was hired by the JCC as a cultural director around 1980,” she recalled. “I wanted to start an art gallery and a Jewish authors festival, wanted to do events, but there was never enough money. So, I met with the community members and asked for their support. Our biggest fundraiser was held at the Oakridge movie theatre. They had a movie theatre at the time. It was the opening night of Chorus Line, and it was unbelievably successful.”
With the funds raised by this and similar events on behalf of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Balshine was at the root of the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery and one of the founders, together with Cherie Smith, of the JCCGV Jewish Book Festival. When Hebrew University asked her, as one of its alumni, to head their Western Canada division, she agreed. For 17 years, she served as the executive director in Western Canada.
“I raised lots of money for them, sent many students to study abroad, organized other specific projects. But then I thought: I should work for my own community.” In 2003, she came to the Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation.
In the 12 years she has worked at the foundation, she has led many campaigns, and established endowment funds and awards. As well, more than 600 art pieces were acquired as donations from local Jewish artists. These works hang on the walls of Louis Brier Home and Hospital and of the Weinberg Residence, making the rooms and corridors more like those of a home, less institutional. A bus and a piano, a dental clinic and a garden sculpture, multiple renovations around the home and the Gallery of Donors Wall – they all owe their existence to Balshine and her crew, to their continuous efforts to improve the quality of life of the residents. She was also active in community outreach programs, including, but not limited to, numerous musical events and lecture series, book launches and octogenarians’ celebrations.
“My dream was to leave the organization with $10 million, and we are at $8.5 million,” she wrote in her reflections of her most important activities at Louis Brier. “It is not that we didn’t raise it, we raised more, however, the demand from the home and Weinberg annually has been so great that we have only been able to invest and grow to this amount.”
She sounded modest, as if raising almost a million a year is a trifle, but for anyone else, it would be a major accomplishment, even the achievement of a lifetime.
“I believe in the mission of the organization I work for,” she said. “I do it with all my heart, my mind and my might. Of course, there are multiple challenges. One of them is that there are many Jewish organizations in B.C., and everybody needs a piece of the pie. The need is great, but there are not many industries here.”
She also encountered another challenge. “I found that it’s easier to raise money for the young, for schools and universities, than for the elderly. How do I deal with this? With a smile and an explanation. We organize events and introduce potential donors to the organization. We honor our donors.”
Her conviction that everyone should share his/her wealth comes from her family background. Both her father and grandmother were involved in their local communities on various levels, and Balshine has continued the tradition. “Some people in the community are doing extremely well. They have a responsibility to share. I learned that at home.”
Her approach to finding new benefactors is personal. “I meet with everyone I’m going to ask for donations. If I don’t know them, I look for someone who can introduce us. We have coffee together and talk. I try to share with everyone the importance of Louis Brier for our community. People give to people, not organizations. Of course, you need people skills to do this kind of work. You need to be kind, to smile, to have charm. You have to feel it, to be willing to give from yourself; otherwise, you can’t do a good job.”
With such a personal fundraising strategy, she knows many members of the Jewish community in Vancouver. “I’ll tell you an anecdote,” she said with a smile. “I love opera. Recently, I took my granddaughter, who is 12, to the opera Carmen at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I introduced her to my friends. When we came home, her parents asked her how she liked it. She said that, of course, the music was great and the show. She also said, ‘There were like 3,000 people in the audience, and my grandma knows half of them.’”
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Honoring one’s parents is one of the Ten Commandments. In Judaism, respecting and deferring to our elders is not just a value, it’s the law. That said, the opportunity to honor our elders in front of the entire community doesn’t come around very often. Which is just one of the reasons Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation’s Eight Over Eighty is so unique.
On May 25, noon, in the Great Hall at the Vancouver Law Courts, LBJAF will honor eight individuals/couples in their eighties who all have one thing in common: “They have each led by example.”
Four of the honorees are featured in this article: Dr. Marvin and Rita Weintraub, Rita Akselrod, Dr. Jimmy White and Chaim Kornfeld. Next week’s Jewish Independent will feature profiles of honorees Dr. Arthur and Arlene Hayes, Stan and Seda Korsch, Samuel and Frances Belzberg, and Serge Haber.
“I know the eight and they are wonderful,” event chair Mel Moss told the Independent, noting about the planned celebration, “Eight over Eighty is modern, yet staged in a traditional way. It is a tribute. It is light and bright yet respectful, it is a vibrant, swinging and ‘with it’ event.”
Dvori Balshine, LBJAF director of development, said, “This will be an event that the community has not seen before. People have been saying, ‘What a brilliant idea!’…. We came up with something fresh, in a new place and at a new time of day.” Even the nomination process, she added, was incredibly well received by the community
RITA AND MARVIN WEINTRAUB Books and education
Marvin Weintraub was born in Poland and came as a child to Ontario, where he ultimately received a PhD in plant physiology. Rita (Enushevsky) was raised in southwestern Ontario, near Niagara Falls, and graduated in sociology and philosophy. Both studied at the University of Toronto, where they met. They married soon after.
Settling for a decade in St. Catharines, which at the time had a Jewish population of about 500, together they started an adult education series and Rita launched a Jewish library in the synagogue that doubled as a community centre. Some of the librarians still working at the desk were originally trained by Rita.
“I have great faith in the value of education of all kinds, but particularly for Jewish adults and for youngsters,” said Marvin, who taught in the synagogue’s afternoon school. They both became active in Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and she in National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).
Marvin took a job at the University of British Columbia in 1959 and the young family moved west, immersing themselves in synagogue and community life. Rita became vice-president of Beth Israel Sisterhood and NCJW, taking special interest in global concerns like Vietnamese boat people and Soviet Jewry. She also brought her dedication to adult education, which she championed in Vancouver as she had in Ontario.
Marvin was elected president of Beth Israel and, later, Pacific Region chair of CJC, during which time he focused on addressing challenges of Jewish schools and helping teachers upgrade their skills.
Invited to the USSR in 1968 by the Soviet Academy of Science to lecture on plant virology, Marvin took the opportunity to smuggle in a suitcase filled with tefillin, tzitzit, siddurs and machzors. He attended shul morning and night for a month, using his serviceable Yiddish to identify daveners who could use the items.
In 1973, with Dr. Sid Zbarsky and Dr. Robert Krell, Marvin began the process that would lead to the first professor and program of Judaic studies at UBC, which now has three full-time and one part-time faculty.
In 1978, he was awarded a Queen’s Medal for service to Canadian science.
When the Jewish community centre at Oak and 41st was being designed, Rita convinced planners to set aside space for a Jewish library. Then Marvin set up a lunch between Rita and Sophie Waldman, during which Rita convinced Waldman to memorialize Waldman’s recently deceased husband, Isaac, with a library. Rita remains chair of the Friends of the Waldman Library and the annual fundraising telethon, which she began 20 years ago. She also has been a volunteer with Shalom BC, welcoming newcomers to the local Jewish community.
Of all her achievements, the library holds a special place for Rita. “It’s the focal point of the JCC,” she said.
RITA AKSELROD From tragedy to action
Rita Akselrod’s early experiences were forged by life in Romania, first under the Nazis, then under communism. At seven, she was barred from attending public school because she was Jewish, so a makeshift Jewish school was formed. She and the other Jews in Bacau were forced to wear the yellow star, were subject to curfews and forbidden from assembling in groups. The men in her family were conscripted into forced labor.
By the time Rita was ready for high school, the Russians had taken over and she was taken by her uncles to high school in Bucharest. Her brother wanted to go to university, but the communist regime wanted him in the army, so he fled the country. The rest of the family soon fled also, making their way to Budapest, then trekking through cornfields to an American-controlled zone before landing in a displaced persons camp in Austria.
There, she met “my Ben,” who she recently lost after more than a half-century of marriage. The couple made their way to Israel. But life was difficult in the state’s earliest years, and more so when Rita lost a baby three days after birth. They chose to move and were helped by Leon Kahn, a friend of Ben’s who had settled in Vancouver.
“Leon Kahn sent us papers and we came to Canada,” she said, acknowledging that when she first looked at an atlas, she was alarmed. “I couldn’t believe that we would come to Vancouver when I saw Alaska close by. When I was in Israel and we were corresponding, I said, ‘What’s Vancouver? It’s cold. It’s near Alaska.’ But we did come.”
Kahn set them up in a room in a shared house that had seen many Holocaust survivors and Ben began collecting junk with a horse and buggy, which he would then sell to used-goods dealers. “My husband wasn’t a businessman,” Rita said. “He came from camps and ghettos, he didn’t know the city, he didn’t know the business.”
But the family succeeded, and later sponsored Rita’s parents, brother and his family from Israel.
In 1979, tragedy struck, when the Akselrods’ daughter, Sherry, was killed by a drunk driver. She was a parole officer who had offered to trade shifts on Dec. 26 so a colleague could spend Christmas with family. The loss spurred Rita to bring the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving to British Columbia. She also became involved in grief support, which was taking place in a church.
“I was speaking to a rabbi and said, ‘Can we have it in the Jewish community? Do I have to go to a church?’” Jewish Family Service Agency started a grief support group and Rita attended. Eventually, they asked her to take it over, which she did for many years as a volunteer. As well, she has been actively involved in substance abuse education programs.
She and Ben were founding members of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and, for more than 20 years, Rita coordinated the speakers program, which has allowed tens of thousands of young British Columbians to learn about the Shoah directly from survivors. She is a past president and a life governor of the centre.
She also spent nearly three decades on the board of the Louis Brier, stopping only because she needed to devote more time to Ben when he developed Alzheimer’s. She is immensely proud of her work on denominational health, which ensured that faith-based agencies like the Louis Brier were treated appropriately when the province devolved health delivery to regional boards. A master agreement was signed between the province and the boards, and Rita noted that it “was signed in the Louis Brier, in front of the synagogue, with a priest there and other members of the denominations.”
She is a recipient of the YWCA Women of Distinction Award for community and humanitarian service and, on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she was awarded with honorary Canadian citizenship in Ottawa as a Holocaust survivor who has contributed to Canadian life through remembrance and education.
JIMMY WHITE Make friends with change
Change has been a constant for Jimmy White. He was born in Ohio but the family moved to Saskatchewan during the Depression. His father ran a store before thinking better of it and moving the family to the coast. Jimmy studied at UBC but, since there was no medical school here at the time, he headed to Toronto to become a doctor. While there, he met Beulah and they returned to British Columbia as a married couple.
Jimmy saw even more of Canada through assignments at military hospitals during the war. When peace came, he took up practice downtown and became an institution in the community.
Beulah passed away young, leaving Jimmy and two daughters. He would later marry Miriam Brook, who was widowed with three girls of her own. Sadly, Miriam, too, has since passed away, but Jimmy said he is thrilled to have five daughters.
In addition to his work and family obligations, Jimmy has been a leading voice for Zionism, as an activist in Young Judaea, then the Vancouver Zionist Organization. He was president of the Jewish Community Council (precursor to the Federation) and of the Richmond Country Club. He was a key fundraiser who helped obtain the land for and construct the JCC at Oak and 41st.
These days, he is the head of the residents council at the Weinberg Residence and enjoys yoga, concerts, bridge, art classes, detective novels and debates on politics and language.
The guiding advice of his life came from his mother, he explained. “She said, ‘Make friends with change.’ In her day, there was a horse and buggy. Then the automobile came in. What a big change that automobile made. And now computers and everything! If you don’t make friends with that, you’re left behind. You don’t have to like it, but you have to make friends with it.”
He was amused by a young visitor recently who came to the Weinberg Residence from a Jewish day school. “One of the kids said to me, ‘You’ve had so much change in your lifetime, now there’s no more change left, there’s no more to discover … iPads and iPods,’” Jimmy recalled. “I said, ‘It’s just beginning.’ He said, ‘What else is there to discover?’ I said, ‘That’s exactly what they said when the automobile was invented and when the computer came along. Somebody’s going to invent an antigravity pair of shoes.’”
CHAIM KORNFELD Never give up
Chaim Kornfeld was born in 1926 in a small town in northeastern Hungary, the youngest of eight children. While his father ran a grocery store and his mother managed the large, observant family, Chaim studied at cheder and yeshivah – until 1944. It was at that comparatively late period in the war when the Jews of his town, and of much of Hungary, were placed in ghettoes before being transported to camps.
In May 1944, Chaim was separated from his parents, sisters and grandmother on the platform at Auschwitz. Dr. Josef Mengele sent Chaim to the right and the rest of his family to the left. His father’s last words to Chaim, before he and the others were sent to the gas chambers, were “Never forget that you are a Jew.”
Chaim survived Mauthausen and Gusen, where he worked in an airplane factory. He survived a death march just four days before liberation in May 1945. Of his large family, only Chaim, a sister and two brothers survived. He finished his secondary education in Budapest and was preparing to enter rabbinical school when the Jewish Agency offered him the chance to go to Israel. He leapt at the opportunity, joined the Israeli air force, and was a founding member of Kibbutz Ma’agan. But educational and professional advancement was limited in Israel’s early years and Chaim took his brother up on a sponsorship to Canada.
In Saskatoon, Chaim taught Hebrew school in the afternoons and evenings, while attending university. During this time, he corresponded with a young woman he had met in the Israeli military, Aliza Hershkowitz, and convinced her to join him on the Prairies. Chaim and Aliza would raise four children (a fifth passed away in infancy).
While at the University of Saskatchewan law school, he served as camp director for Camp B’nai B’rith in Pine Lake, Alta. Practising law continuously since 1960, he is proud to be one of the oldest in his profession.
Chaim is a board member, past president and life governor of the Louis Brier Home. He shares his story of survival and accomplishment with students at the annual high school Holocaust symposium and he swims six days a week at the JCC, where he has been a member for 40 years.
For years, he has served as a Torah reader at the Louis Brier synagogue. Responding to the honor of being recognized for his dedication to community, Chaim said he is embarrassed by the fuss. “I don’t look for honor,” he said. “I never looked for kavods.”
His advice for others? “I would advise people – and I still do in my office sometimes – to never give up. That is my motto in life. Whatever comes up, I won’t just lie down and take it.”
He emphasized his enduring love for his wife Aliza and added, “I always come home for dinner.”