“I think what we should all take away from this incident is that we need to move closer to the institutions and find ways to move forward that are more inclusive and diverse,” Maytal Kowalski told the Independent.
Kowalski was fired from her marketing and communications role at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver on July 25, the day after she disagreed with Federation chief executive officer Ezra Shanken at a meeting that included seven people from Federation and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and 25 to 30 members of UnXeptable, a group started by expat Israelis who oppose the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms. Kowalski recorded both the gathering, even though attendees were asked not to, and her dismissal. She shared the recordings with the Independent and other Jewish media. The story was broken by Haaretz, and followed by a piece in the Canadian Jewish News. As they did for the Haaretz and CJN stories, Federation declined to comment when contacted by the Independent, responding: “We cannot comment on individual employee matters due to privacy considerations.”
“I chose to approach Haaretz [first] and specifically Judy Maltz because, while this specific story is Vancouver-focused, this is an incident within a broader context of diaspora Jewish institutions throughout North America, and that’s a subject area that Maltz covers,” said Kowalski. “I didn’t want to single out Vancouver, because this is a systemic problem within our institutions, and my hope was, through Haaretz, maybe someone in
Edmonton or Winnipeg or Phoenix would read it and feel brave enough to come forward with their own story, or feel compelled to push for positive change within their own Jewish federation.”
Kowalski, who describes herself as “someone who really cares about the future of our Jewish institutions and the role they play in our Jewish community,” said a lot of the support she has received “explicitly or implicitly calls for progressive Jews to distance themselves from the institutions, and I want to say to those people that I think that’s the wrong approach.”
Both New Israel Fund of Canada and JSpaceCanada – on whose boards Kowalski sits – have supported her and, she noted, “if you look at how both of those organizations addressed the situation overall, they have talked about how we need to work together as a diaspora Jewish community to do better and be better.”
She said, “I know people will probably expect that I’ll distance myself from the community, but I’m going to do the opposite. I’ve been pushed out by the community before – I am the child of an intermarriage, and my mother’s partner after her divorce was also not Jewish, so I’ve only known being an intermarriage kid, and that was more contentious within our institutions back when I was growing up than it is today.
“But I’ve always stayed connected and, while they can knock me down, I’ll always get back up. Because building strong diaspora Jewish communities is important to me, and if I choose to walk away in defiance now, then it allows a system of discrimination to persist…. I hope that, if someone is reading this and also feels that we need to work for change, that they reach out. Maybe we can have these conversations within our shuls or other spaces that are open to it, and talk about how we use this story as a catalyst for change. If someone is planning to donate to this year’s annual campaign, they should ask about what concrete steps the Federation is going to take to make those changes.”
Born in Winnipeg, Kowalski’s family made aliyah in 1994. She lived in Israel until she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree at York University. “I lived in Toronto until March 2021, at which point my husband and I moved to Vancouver,” she said. “I have always worked in marketing and communications in the nonprofit/charity sector, and was with the Vancouver Foundation prior to coming to the Federation.”
She was with Federation for just under a year, having initially applied for a job with Federation’s Connect Me In team. “I had worked at the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto early in my career and really loved working in my own community and I wanted to get back to that,” she said. “I was already very involved in other Jewish organizations on a volunteer basis and wanted to also be involved professionally.”
About recording the July 24 meeting, Kowalski explained, “I recorded or transcribed incidents that I felt could become contentious later on, since I didn’t have any workplace protections such as a union, so I felt I had to find means to protect myself.”
Parts of the two recordings have been cited in both Haaretz and the CJN, including that Kowalski was accused of “screaming” at the UnXeptable gathering. In the dismissal meeting, Becky Saegert, vice-president, marketing and communications, at Jewish Federation, says: “So, I heard last night that the registered speakers were passionate and articulate and compelling and my understanding is that you didn’t register as a speaker, but that what happened is that you interrupted our CEO and began, as several people have characterized it to me, and used the words, ‘began screaming,’ and then only stopped when asked by the moderator to sit down.”
Listening to her remarks, Kowalski does interrupt Shanken and speaks with emotion, but she doesn’t seem to be screaming, and she stops speaking once she has made her point, which she does in less than a minute. For Kowalski, that her manager told her several people had characterized her remarks as “screaming” was particularly important.
“It’s like that quote, she said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ It’s so hurtful to me to know that all those people were good people who did nothing in this situation, which allowed for this deceitful narrative about my actions to be cemented. So, I think this should also be a learning moment where we ask ourselves, when we see something happening in our community that is wrong or unjust, what action will we take?”