Lance Davis, chief executive officer of JNF Canada (photo from JNF Canada)
Noa Tishby, an Israeli who hit it big in Hollywood as an actor, writer and producer before bursting on the scene as an activist voice for Israel, will be in Vancouver June 29. She is the headliner for the first Negev Dinner in Vancouver since the pandemic.
The Negev Dinner is a tradition of the Jewish National Fund of Canada, with annual dinners taking place for decades in regions across the country.
Michael Sachs, executive director of JNF Pacific region, says that Tishby’s upcoming visit is a response to demand.
“A lot of people in the community really want to hear from her,” said Sachs. “The rising antisemitism, as well as the delegitimization of Israel – these are issues that are forefront in our community.”
Tishby is, he said, “one of the best spokespersons for the state of Israel and for the Jewish community at large.”
With her 2021 book, Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, the Los Angeles-based Tishby placed herself firmly in the realm of show biz activist, but on a topic that many public figures avoid. (See jewishindependent.ca/tag/noa-tishby.) Her entertainment industry work includes appearances on Nip/Tuck, Big Love and NCIS, and she is the co-executive producer of the HBO series In Treatment, an adaptation of the Israeli series BeTipul.
“To be able to have her in Vancouver, we just couldn’t miss out on it,” said Sachs, adding that this young, dynamic woman has an appeal that can expand the reach of JNF and the Negev event.
“We are also working on student pricing and we want ‘angel’ tickets,” he said. “The idea is to get as many people in our community in front of her so they can hear her message.”
This dinner will not have an honouree like such events have had in the past. Part of that is simply the desire by the organization to try different things but it is also because, with JWest, the redevelopment of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and other projects, there are “a lot of asks” in the community right now, said Sachs.
While JNF has sent out “save the date” notices for June 29, the location is not yet set. The organizing committee is co-chaired by husband-and-wife team Mike and Lisa Averbach. The project to which proceeds of the event will be allocated is to be announced in the next few weeks.
While the June event will be the first JNF gala in Vancouver since the pandemic, some took place in other regions last year, said Lance Davis, chief executive officer of JNF Canada. He has witnessed some pent-up demand to celebrate with community again.
“When people get together during cocktails and they haven’t seen each other for such a long time, the hugs and the warmth – it’s wonderful,” he said.
During the pandemic, JNF held Negev “campaigns” – fundraising initiatives that did not involve in-person events. Despite the financial and social impacts of the shutdown, Davis said the organization’s revenues have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
“It’s a wonderful news story that we are bouncing back and moving in the right direction,” said Davis, who has been CEO of the national organization since 2017, following five years leading the Toronto region.
JNF Canada, like Jewish and pro-Israel individuals and organizations worldwide, is coming to terms with the changed political dynamic in Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu’s new coalition, frequently referred to as “the most right-wing government” in the country’s history, is shaking up the global discourse on the region. The resignation of Israel’s ambassador to Canada, announced last Saturday, is just one reaction in an uncertain new environment. Davis, like leaders of other organizations, is emphasizing neutrality and independence.
“I just want to state unequivocally that JNF Canada is nonpolitical and nonpartisan and, as such, we are going to continue to do our work regardless of who is in government,” he said. “We are mission-driven and that means simply building the foundations for Israel’s future. We will continue to help the land and the people of Israel as we have done for decades with left, right and centrist governments. Nothing has changed. Our resolve to enhance the lives of Israel’s citizens is not impacted by the current regime and this is the time for Diaspora Jewry to communicate with our extended family in Israel that we are indeed a family and as such we will always be there for them.”
For all the ink spilled on the subject, Davis thinks the supporters of JNF Canada are sophisticated enough to understand the dynamics.
“For those people who say, I can’t be a part of this because I don’t support the government of Israel, I just hope that we can have a conversation with them,” he said. “You need not worry that one penny of that money goes to the government…. It’s only for charitable purposes and I think that if we are given the chance to explain this, people will understand we are nonpolitical and nonpartisan.”
The Israeli political climate may be a new variable, but JNF has not been without its critics over the years, some of whom accuse it of promoting Israeli “colonialism.”
“There is no question that there’s a whole host of anti-Israel parties who are taking an adversarial position,” he said. “I just wish that they would actually look at what we’re doing because is building a PTSD and health centre that serves all citizens, Jewish, Arab, Christian, Muslim, everybody – is that colonialism? Building a home for abused women with nowhere to go? It’s literally a lifesaving asset and, rest assured, Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis will be using this facility – how is this colonialism? What exactly is it that they are protesting against?”
At a Negev Dinner in Vancouver a few years ago, which was raising funds to improve a facility for the most vulnerable sick kids in Israel, Davis saw protesters outside.
“I showed up at the dinner and I said, I wish these people understood what they were protesting against,” he recalled. “Because what you guys are doing is building a resource for the sickest kids, Jewish, Arab, Christian, Muslim – they’re all Israelis, they’re all welcome at this facility. Do they even understand what it is they’re upset about? And shame on them for protesting your efforts to build this facility for the most vulnerable children.”
One new initiative that Davis is particularly excited about is JNF Canada’s Climate Solutions Prize, a competition among Israeli researchers to fund breakthrough research focused on combating climate change.
“We’ve made an effort to raise $1 million a year over the next number of years,” he said. “We have a blue ribbon panel of scientists and engineers and businesspeople who review these researchers’ proposals.”
Last October, they presented the first awards, totaling $1 million US to the leaders of three research teams. Ben-Gurion University’s Prof. Itzhak Mizrahi and his team are working to ameliorate the methane emissions caused by cows. Dr. Malachi Noked of Bar-Ilan University seeks to reduce global emissions by improving ways to store renewable energy safely, efficiently, economically and in quickly accessible forms. Prof. Avner Rothschild of the Technion is working to produce green hydrogen through electrolysis of water.
Recipients are scientists who are well advanced in their work but need a boost in funding to achieve a breakthrough.
“This is the largest climate solutions prize that’s offered in Israel, by a long shot,” said Davis. “There are prizes to encourage green technologies, but in terms of the size and the scope, we are by far and away the largest prize.”
And, at this point, it’s an exclusively Canadian project. He hopes that other JNF organizations – there are about 40 countries with similar national bodies – will jump on board and make the prize a bigger success.
Israelis are renowned for successes in financial technology, cyber- and agri-tech, said Davis. “But, in terms of climate solutions, they really haven’t had a home run yet,” he said. “We felt that we need to give people a little push to get them over the top.”
Jewish National Fund of Canada was formally established in the late 1960s, but the iconic symbol of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, Jewish National Fund, the pushke, or blue box, has been in Jewish households in Canada and around the world for a century. The tin has been used for collecting coins that were forwarded to local offices around the world and combined to help build the nascent yishuv and then the state of Israel, beginning by planting trees and then expanding into all range of development projects.
Davis explained that JNF Canada is fully independent and not structurally connected with the Israeli organization.
“We are not a subsidiary,” he said. “We are not answerable to any other charity.… We get to decide what projects we take on. Canadians give money to things that they want to support and we bundle all that money from coast to coast and we take on projects.”
JNF Canada works with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael on some initiatives but works with other charities on a range of undertakings.
“We, the Canadians, decide what we want to do and the Israeli entities are our agents,” he said. “They do the work for us. People often … have it reversed [thinking that] Israelis tell us what we need to do and we just do it. No, it’s the opposite. They work for us and that’s the way it should happen.”
Started in 1948, Negev dinners have taken place, usually annually, in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Windsor, London, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Atlantic Canada. The name comes from the fact that the earliest dinners benefited projects in the Negev Desert. JNF Canada now funds projects throughout Israel, but the name has stuck.
“I think that when Canadians think about JNF a few things come to mind: trees, blue boxes and the Negev Dinner,” said Davis.
JNF Pacific region executive director Michael Sachs, left, in a meeting at Aviv House for autistic adults in Israel. (photo from JNF-PR)
Three Israeli projects supported by the Pacific region of the Jewish National Fund of Canada are advancing well, according to Michael Sachs.
Sachs, executive director of JNF Pacific region, visited the initiatives July 7-18. He was joined on the Israel trip by local JNF supporters Lisa and Mike Averbach. The trio surveyed projects in Rishon LeZion, in Jerusalem and at Nir Galim, a moshav near Ashdod.
The project in Rishon LeZion, south of Tel Aviv, is a women’s shelter that has faced challenges in reaching completion. In collaboration with the Israeli group No2Violence, the facility was supported by two Negev dinners in 2016 – one in Vancouver, honouring Shirley Barnett, and one in Winnipeg, honouring Peter Leipsic.
The shelter is envisioned to welcome 10 to 12 families and provide victims of domestic violence with a safe environment where they can access therapy, secure income and new housing.
Emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence is gravely lacking in Israel, where it is estimated that 65% to 70% of women and children escaping domestic abuse cannot access alternative housing due to lack of availability.
“I wanted to go and see with my eyes, with my feet on the ground, how it’s progressing,” said Sachs of the project. “Finally, shovels have started going into the ground and the foundation has been laid. This project, it had been stalled for multiple reasons, COVID included, but I wanted to go and see the progress because we have a commitment that we make to our donors in our community to fulfil the project no matter what.”
One of the things that impressed Sachs most about the shelter is that it is adjacent to a community centre.
“For women and children who are in crisis, the ability to have a community centre, a place to go, a place for their kids to go, is extremely important, on top of just the safe haven,” he said.
Last year’s Negev campaign in the Pacific region raised funds for ALUT, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, to renovate Aviv House, or Beit Aviv, in Jerusalem. This “home for life” for autistic adults was established in 1992 and is home to about 14 residents who require assistance in aspects of everyday life.
The building, more than 50 years old, was not wheelchair accessible and had infrastructural challenges. “It needed a lot of work,” said Sachs. The project, championed by honorary project co-chairs Penny Sprackman and David Goldman, saw a new roof put on the building, new bathrooms and doorways, among other upgrades.
Autism has co-morbidities and one of the residents at Aviv House has what is described as the most complex case of epilepsy in the state of Israel.
“This individual had not been able to have a real, proper shower until the renovation,” said Sachs. The renovated facility allows an assistant to accompany the resident in the new shower. “That’s just one example of how it made a difference,” he said. “The effect that we are having on the life of these individuals is immense.”
The ALUT project was especially meaningful for Sachs, he said, because it was the first initiative that took place after he became regional executive director, in April 2021. The fact that it also raised autism awareness in Canada was a bonus, he added.
A third project that Sachs and the Averbachs visited was Beit Haedut, the Testimony House Museum, on Moshav Nir Galim. The museum, located in a community founded by survivors of the Holocaust, focuses on the lives survivors made in the state of Israel.
This project is the focus of the current Pacific region Negev campaign and will involve an especially meaningful Vancouver component. In an interactive space, Vancouverite Marie Doduck, a child survivor of the Holocaust, will present virtually to visitors about her life. She will be the only English-language presenter in the virtual space, meaning that every Anglo visitor to the museum will “meet” her and hear her testimony.
Sachs has heard the question before: Why a Holocaust education centre so close to Yad Vashem, the world’s foremost education, commemoration and research centre on the topic?
“My answer is, why not?” he replied. “Why not have more places teaching people about the Holocaust, the tragedy that happened? It’s our responsibility to make sure that more and more of these centres are supported and able to function and teach a population that is starting to forget. It’s not that because you have one, you can’t have the other.”
The quality of the museum is also significant, he said: “It is a Holocaust centre that, in my eyes, punches above its weight class.”
Being close to Ashdod, where many cruise ships arrive, and near the Negev Desert, the location is also easily accessible for visitors.
Sachs hand-delivered Doduck’s recorded testimony to the museum. He credited the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for its assistance in making the technically complex project possible.
Returning from his first trip to Israel as JNF Pacific region executive director, Sachs was rejuvenated.
“Most people come back from Israel and they’re drained,” he said. “I came back with a newfound energy because, when you see the fingerprint JNF Canada has on the state of Israel and you see the efforts, the progress, the impact that our local community – our tiny little local community – is having on the ground there and for the people in Israel, it’s awe-inspiring. It really is. You come out of it and you are more energized than ever to continue to make a difference.”
Lance Davis, chief executive officer of JNF Canada, commended the Pacific region in a statement to the Independent.
“On behalf of JNF Canada, I am so proud that we have advanced two key projects for our organization, the Vancouver/Winnipeg women’s shelter and the renovation of the Aviv House supporting autistic individuals,” said Davis. “Thanks to the generosity of donors from the Pacific region, we are able to help build the facilities that will transform the lives of vulnerable Israelis in a profound manner. Our JNF supporters can take great pride in the fact that together we are building the foundation for Israel’s future.”
Due to COVID, JNF has not held a Negev Dinner in Vancouver since 2019, opting instead to run campaigns without the traditional gala event. Sachs hopes 2023 will see a return to normalcy.
“God willing, we’ll all be able to be back together next year for a wonderful and beautiful Negev Dinner with a wonderful honouree,” he said.
Michael Sachs, executive director of the Jewish National Fund of Canada Pacific Region. (photo from JNFPR)
It is full steam ahead for Michael Sachs as he enters the home stretch of his first year as executive director of the Jewish National Fund of Canada’s Pacific Region.
“This has been the job of a lifetime. I really feel like this is something I have always wanted to do and had a passion for, and now, to actually be able to do it, it doesn’t feel like working,” said Sachs, who started at JNF on April 5, 2021.
Like anyone taking the helm of an organization, particularly during a pandemic, Sachs has had to confront some challenges and JNF has had to adapt and be nimble. For example, events such as the Negev Dinner, the black-tie fundraising gala that is ordinarily a premier item on the organization’s calendar, was one that might not play well in the virtual world. So, JNF switched course and focused on other ways to attain its goals. It collaborated with ALUT, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, to help restore Jerusalem’s Aviv House, a half-century-old building in need of maintenance, accessibility and safety renovations. The facility allows its residents, all individuals with autism, to live semi-independently.
“It was, for JNF, a project to take on wholeheartedly. We can say it was a very successful campaign and we raised more money than we set out to,” said Sachs, who praised the efforts of honorary Negev Project co-chairs Penny Sprackman and David Goldman.
For Sachs, who arrived at JNF from the private sector, achieving such an outcome in his first year was gratifying. Prior to joining JNF, Sachs was vice-president of sales and operations for ERL Diamonds.
“I wanted to bring that business approach – that we are coming in and we are taking on a project and we are going to get it done in a good time frame and on budget. These are things that are really important to donors. They really appreciate that and it resonates very well,” he said.
Sachs, too, is constantly striving to connect the community with JNF. Much like a peacock, he said, the organization wants to show its feathers, as its range of projects has expanded considerably over the years. He sees JNF Pacific Region as educating the community on the range of issues with which JNF is involved, from the climate change solutions campaign it is running this year, to reinforcing shelters in Israel that are targeted by rockets – at the same time as supporting an organization for autism.
“The days of our grandparents’ JNF, of the blue tzedakah box, are not gone,” said Sachs. “But JNF has evolved and become so much more. We invest in water desalinization and social infrastructure, and this will create an opportunity for donors to see we are more than just planting trees. We want to do events with our community that allow the community to see JNF for who we are and allow us the opportunity to be in front of our community.”
A recent example Sachs highlighted is the Kids Got Talent project last Hanukkah, in which grade school students presented videos for a chance to win gift cards from Amazon. This initiative provided the opportunity for JNF to engage with a generation of younger parents, as well as their children.
Sachs is pulling out all the stops to reach every demographic. Active on social media, he may well be the only executive director of a Jewish organization on TikTok. “If we don’t engage younger people, there’s not going to be a future here for our community,” he said. “This group may not come to us, we have to go find them.”
On Feb. 28, JNF Pacific Region, along with PJ Library, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and JCC inclusion services, are hosting Let’s Talk Neurodiversity, a panel discussion with teachers and mental health professionals. On March 31, together with Rise of the Comics, JNF will provide a means for the community “to laugh again” with an evening of stand-up they are dubbing “Jewish National Funny.” These are all vehicles, Sachs said, for JNF to showcase what it does in Israel.
Sachs is no stranger to community organizations. He has been president of the Bayit in Richmond and has volunteered with Jewish Federation, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Tikva Housing Society and Kehila Society of Richmond, among others. In 2017, he was recognized with the Jewish Federation’s Young Leadership Award, as well as the Jewish Independent’s 18 under 36.
Sachs said the switch to heading a nonprofit has been immensely enjoyable. As he moves into his second year of steering JNF Pacific Region, his enthusiasm has not waned one iota.
For more information on what JNF Pacific Region is doing, visit jnf.ca/vancouver.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Left to right are Lynne Fader (Kehila Society), Adam Ben-Dov (Connect Me In), Toby Rubin (Kehila Society), Michael Sachs (with daughter Desi and son Izzy), Monica Flores and Steve Uy (Garden City Bakery). (photo from Kehila Society)
The Covid Challah Initiative was started by Michael Sachs and is a partnership between Richmond’s Kehila Society, Richmond’s Garden City Bakery, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s Connect Me In and North Vancouver’s Congregation Har El. The initiative aims to ensure that everyone in Metro Vancouver who needs a (free) challah is delivered one. (For the story of how the initiative started, see citynews1130.com/2020/05/03/challah-delivery-covid-richmond-family.) To sign up for a challah contact, visit jewishvancouver.com/challah-delivery. Each week’s registration opens on Monday and closes Thursday at noon – and people need to register each week, as this is not a recurring service.
Left to right: Councilor Kelly Greene, Councilor Bill McNulty, Bayit past president Michael Sachs, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, Bayit president Keith Liedtke, Councilor Chak Au and Councilor Alexa Loo at the Bayit, after the mayor officially proclaims Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the city of Richmond. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
On Jan. 22, emotions were near the surface in a Holocaust commemoration that included the official proclamation of Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the city of Richmond. In a packed sanctuary at the Bayit, a synagogue in the province’s second-largest Jewish community, survivors, rabbis, community leaders and a host of elected officials from all levels of government were on hand to mark what was billed as an historic day.
Writer and teacher Lillian Boraks-Nemetz spoke as a survivor of the Holocaust and shared her first-person account, as well as the moral implications of what happened and the weight of survival.
“Not a day passes when I don’t ask myself why did I survive when six million perished, 1.5 million children and among them my 5-year-old sister,” said Boraks-Nemetz. “And I survived. Why? When every European Jewish child was automatically sentenced to death by Hitler, I won. Was my survival a miracle? A twist of fate? The will of God? Why me?”
She recalled the day everything changed, Sept. 1, 1939.
“I was alone on the porch of my grandfather’s summer home when masses of airplanes passed over my head. I heard shots, explosions, my dad ran to get me and we barely made it to the shelter, where the sight of crying children and frightened people confirmed my own fears,” she said. The Nazis invaded her Polish homeland. Jews lost all human rights, her father lost his right to practise law, her uncle was prevented from practising medicine. Teachers, professors and businesspeople were all kicked out of their positions. Jewish children did not attend schools and they were bullied, a precursor of the much graver fate to come.
Soon the Jews of Warsaw were imprisoned in the ghetto, where a Nazi-created dystopia developed.
“People stole food from each other,” she said. “All morality ceased to exist in an amoral world.”
Young Lillian was smuggled into the factory where her mother was a slave labourer. Lillian’s grandmother had bought a small house in a village and promised it to a man in exchange for posing as her husband, creating a pretext of a non-Jewish Polish family. Lillian was then smuggled from the ghetto through bribery and survived the war with her grandmother and the man.
“What were my chances of surviving? The rate of a child’s surviving the ghetto was seven percent,” she said. “We were liberated in 1945 by the Russians. But liberation isn’t liberating to survivors.”
While adults worked to reestablish their lives in a new country, children were left largely to their own devices to assimilate all that had happened. Psychiatry or any professional help was largely nonexistent.
“I was told to forget and to let go by people who didn’t have a clue what was on my mind or my soul,” she told the audience. “This was not a physical wound that results in a bruise or a scab, which then falls off and mostly disappears. This is a branding on the soul of fire caused by man’s inhumanity to man, woman and child. The enormity of the Holocaust is still largely incomprehensible and still emotionally inaccessible to those who were born here.”
Judy Darcy, British Columbia’s minister of mental health and addictions, shared the story of how her father survived the Holocaust and subsequently hid his Jewish identity to everyone, including his own children, until the last years of his life, when he tried to reconcile his experiences in meetings with the late Toronto rabbi Gunter Plaut. Darcy’s story was featured in the Independent (Feb. 24, 2017, jewishindependent.ca/mlas-father-hid-past).
Rabbi Levi Varnai, spiritual leader of the Bayit, recalled his family’s survival during the Holocaust, and Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, spoke of the human potential for good and evil.
“We must understand that we as human beings have the capacity for immense love but also to create immense pain and it’s only through disciplining ourselves through education and through moments like this that we ensure that the community that I think we all want, which is a community of love, is what will remain,” Shanken said.
Richmond’s Mayor Malcolm Brodie spoke at the event. In an interview with the Independent after, he noted that he often receives requests for proclamations. Recently, the urgency for making a statement and standing with Jewish people was accentuated when a Richmond auction house had to be pressured to cancel the sale of Nazi military memorabilia. Participating in the commemoration with the Jewish community was significant for him, said the mayor, and the past is a lesson for the future.
“I found it quite moving,” said Brodie, noting the remarks by Boraks-Nemetz and Darcy. It is important, he said, “to remind people, and the greater community, to watch out for the signs, because something like this – hopefully never on the scale – but something could happen again.… There have been enough times recently that antisemitism is still a real thing. It is something that we don’t hear too much about but it is something that is very real. In addition to honouring these millions who died, we have to educate young people to make sure that everybody knows the facts and we make sure that it never happens again.”
Michael Sachs, a Jewish community activist and past president of the Bayit, was pivotal in organizing the event – which was co-hosted by the Bayit, Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Kehila Society of Richmond and Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver – and ensuring the attendance of the elected officials. Among the attendees were the mayor, most of Richmond’s city councilors, all four of the city’s members in the Legislature, Member of Parliament Alice Wong and former MP Joe Peschisolido, as well as others.
“There were 100 chairs and it was standing room only,” Sachs said afterward. “It’s historic because it’s the first time in Richmond that this proclamation has been made. To have such an outpouring of elected officials, VIPs and all these people coming out – it’s the first in history in Richmond.”
Sachs was effusive in his praise for the mayor for his actions. While many commemorations are taking place because it is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, that was not a prime motivator of the Richmond event, said Sachs.
“It’s the first step of many that will come,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a real public acknowledgement that will lead to more public education. We had someone who was there, one of the aides of an elected official, and he came up to me afterwards and he said, ‘I didn’t know anything about the Holocaust.’ That’s one person right there,” Sachs said. “And, hopefully, this moment continues to help bring Holocaust education into every classroom in this province.”
Michael Schwartz of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia accepts the Award of Merit: Excellence in Community Engagement on behalf of all the partner organizations in the Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour. (photo from JMABC)
The 2019 B.C. Museums Association Awards for Outstanding Achievement were handed out on Oct. 2 at the BCMA conference gala at Courtyard by Marriott in Prince George. The awards recognize institutions and individuals who have exemplified excellence in exhibitions, community engagement and innovation within the province’s museums, galleries and cultural heritage community. This year, three Jewish community groups were honoured for their work.
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre received the Award of Merit: Excellence in Collections for its collections management system, which provides access to Western Canada’s largest collection of Holocaust-related artifacts, survivor testimonies, archival materials and publications (collections.vhec.org). The award recognizes recent excellence in collections best practices, which may include innovative approaches to collecting, collections management, preservation, repatriation, collections-based research, dissemination and accessibility.
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC), along with 16 partner organizations, including the Jewish Independent, received the Award of Merit: Excellence in Community Engagement for the Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour. The award recognizes a recent outstanding success in community engagement, as demonstrated by ongoing participation of new audiences, new partnerships with community organizations, and supporting needs of the community through innovative programming.
Co-led by Carmel Tanaka and Michael Schwartz (director of community engagement at the JMABC), the walking tour celebrates the history of Vancouver Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods Hogan’s Alley, Jewish Strathcona, Japantown (Powell Street) and Chinatown. The guided walking tour builds awareness of the contributions of early immigrant communities then and now. Originally conceived in celebration of Vancouver Asian Heritage Month and Canada’s Jewish Heritage Month, the first series of tours debuted in May 2019.
With the theme of education, the route began at the oldest elementary school in Vancouver, Lord Strathcona Elementary School, referred to as the “League of Nations” for its multicultural makeup. When the triangle rang at the end of the day, school continued for many children in the form of nearby programs where students learned language and cultural traditions. Tour participants learned how these diverse communities interacted with one another in their common struggles, and how they were impacted by the urban renewal of the area.
The Cross Cultural Strathcona Walking Tour Working Group comprises Association of United Ukrainian Canadians; Benny Foods Italian Market; Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden; Musqueam Elder Larry Grant (honourary advisor to PCHC-MoM and VAHMS); Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association; Heritage Vancouver Society; Hogan’s Alley Society; Jewish Independent; JMABC; Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre; Pacific Canada Heritage Centre Museum of Migration; Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society’s explorASIAN; Vancouver Heritage Foundation; Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall; Vancouver School Board; Vancouver School Board Archives and Heritage Committee; Wongs’ Benevolent Association; and Youth Collaborative for Chinatown.
After leading the Bayit in Richmond for the last five years, Michael Sachs has stepped down as board president, to spend more time with his young family.
Michael’s efforts and dedication have given members of the Bayit much for which to be grateful. During his tenure, Michael had a vision for how he saw the community and, as a man of action, he followed through. With a philosophy of engaging with everyone, he worked together with all of the Jewish organizations in Richmond and beyond, without ever losing focus that he was building a Bayit community.
Michael’s stepping down from the position of president doesn’t mean he won’t continue to be involved in the Bayit. As past president, he will remain on the board of directors and continue to be a part of the Bayit’s future.
Current Bayit board member Keith Liedtke will take over as the Bayit’s interim president. He shares Michael’s vision and sees the need for a strategic plan that will allow the Bayit to continue growing and filling the community’s needs.
The Bayit thanks Michael for his contributions as president and for his decision to stay on as a member of the board.
Rabbis Noam Abramchik, left, and Aaron Kamin. (photo from Pacific Torah Institute)
After 16 years in Vancouver, the Pacific Torah Institute yeshivah is closing. The school, which operates out of the Lubavitch Centre at Oak and 41st Avenue, was established by Rabbi Noam Abramchik and Rabbi Dovid Davidowitz in 2003.
Over the years, the program – which offers an education based on the Chofetz Chaim Yeshivah in Queens, N.Y. – has graduated more than 100 students from the high school and more than 200 in the beis midrash program. It is currently led by Abramchik, who is originally from Chicago, and Rabbi Aaron Kamin, who joined the yeshivah from New York in 2005.
Abramchik spoke of the dwindling number of students. “The high cost of living has driven most of the shomer Shabbos community out of Vancouver to other cities,” he said, estimating that 45 Orthodox families have left Vancouver in the last three years. Schara Tzedeck’s Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt calls it, “the frum flight,” he said.
Families from all over North America have sought out PTI for their sons, he said, “But now, the community essentially felt that we were a luxury that could no longer be afforded, since the actual number of local ‘customers’ was slim to none.”
Abramchik spoke of the yeshivah students as “the most visible sign of Orthodox life in Vancouver.” PTI’s biggest contribution to Jewish life in Vancouver, he said, was “its adherence to Torah, studied at the highest level.”
The impact on religious Jewish life will be “immeasurable,” he said. “We offer university-level Judaic studies.” Few communities offer a post-high school program, he said, so the closure of PTI will mark a dramatic change for Jewish life in Vancouver.
Michael Sachs joined the board of PTI a year ago, when a secondary board was established by local professionals, with the purpose of keeping the yeshivah in Vancouver. Sachs, who is president of the board of the Bayit shul in Richmond, began his connection to PTI in its early years, with a stint as the coach of the school’s basketball team.
Sachs said there was a need for a yeshivah in Vancouver, even if most of the students came from elsewhere. “There’s a lack of understanding in the community about the extent of the yeshivah’s contribution to local Orthodox families,” he said, adding, “PTI is not the only institution affected by the yeshivah’s closure.” Other schools – Shalhevet Girls High School and Vancouver Hebrew Academy – shared resources with PTI, he said, “which allowed them to benefit from more staff and lower expenses.”
Sachs said he is heartbroken about the closure. “This is a loss that ripples across the whole Jewish community,” he said. “Any loss to a Jewish community is a big loss. The impact will be economic, social, educational and personal. People are losing their friends to other cities.”
He said, “The students ate at Café FortyOne, at Omnitsky; the yeshivah rented space at Lubavitch Centre; these students volunteered in our community.” He described the “impossible task” of saving the yeshivah, despite the rabbis and staff having made personal sacrifices to try and keep it afloat.
July 18 will be the last day of classes for PTI students. After that, the school will be packed up and moved to Las Vegas, where it will merge with another yeshivah there. The boys will continue with their program while living in dormitories. While yeshivot have moved in the past – especially after the Second World War – the merger is a new concept.
The future is still uncertain for some PTI students, who have been interviewed for yeshivot in Toronto, Milwaukee and Denver, among other places. Some families are considering yeshivot in Israel. The PTI program is highly regarded, Abramchik explained, “cities have been vying for the boys. Fifteen cities have asked PTI students to move to them, and 10 boys are coming this week to be interviewed for the new [merged] program in Las Vegas.”
Abramchik and Kamin spoke with regret of the move.
“We feel very rooted in this community,” said Kamin. “Three of our kids were born here, we’ve made brises, bar mitzvahs here. My married kids are very emotional, they feel as though their home is being uprooted.”
Abramchik agreed. “Kids are part of the mission,” he said. “They’re invested in the yeshivah and it’s been an anchor in their childhood. It’s very painful.” However, he said, “You have to be adaptable as educators, trends are changing all the time.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
Fall fun with some of the JI’s 18 Under 36 continued. (photo by Lianne Cohen)
Over the past month, each of the JI’s 18 Under 36 honourees has taken the time to do an email or phone interview with Pat Johnson, so we could get to know them a little better. Once you meet them, you’ll understand why these 18 young achievers and community-minded folk were chosen by the JI’s selection panel with the help of external adjudicator Kara Mintzberg, B.C. regional director of CJPAC (the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee).
The second group of honourees at the JI Chai Celebration on Dec. 6 at the Rothstein Theatre were (alphabetically): Ariel Martz-Oberlander, Logan Presch, Maya Rae Schwartz-Dardick, Michael Sachs, Allie Saks, David Schein, Rotem Tal, Carmel Tanaka and Rabbi Levi Varnai. Mazal tov!
*** Ariel Martz-Oberlander Age 24 Theatre Artist and Community Organizer
Ariel Martz-Oberlander describes herself as “a theatre artist, writer and teacher.” As a “Jewish settler on Coast Salish territories with diasporic and refugee ancestry,” her practice is rooted in a commitment to place-based accountability through decolonizing and solidarity work. She divides her time between theatre and community organizing, and specializes in creative protest tactics on land and water.
Those values have led her to co-found Kids for Climate Action while in high school, and to become vice-president of Fossil Free U of T, a leader of B.C. Sea Wolves, a Vancouver-based “kayaktivist” group, and an organizer of Paddle for the Peace (against the Site C hydroelectric project). She worked with aboriginal activists re-occupying and protecting their traditional land, Unist’ot’en Camp, in northern British Columbia, was a founding member of the Peace Camp at BC Hydro offices and has staged protests against the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline.
This year, she received the (Vancouver) Mayor’s Arts Award for Community Engaged Arts in the emerging artist category. Her award citation stated, in part: “Martz-Oberlander is a facilitator with the True Voice Theatre Project, producing new shows by residents of the Downtown Eastside and vulnerably housed youth, in collaboration with the Gathering Place and Covenant House. Her most recent work, created with support from the LEAP program, won a research and development prize from the Arts Club. Martz-Oberlander is also the associate producer for Vines Festival, presenting accessible, free eco-art in Vancouver parks.”
She received a community grant to screen environmental documentaries at Gordon Neighbourhood House, and theatre fellowships involving writing and directing original works. She has directed, written and acted in plays, and was a program director for Vines.
She has guest-taught senior students at King David High School on issues of social justice and volunteered as a facilitator for Or Shalom’s Dialogue Project, as well as leading children’s services at Or Shalom.
“My work seeks to invite people to take global issues personally. As the descendant of diasporic refugees, it is my desire to fight for the right of the people of this land to maintain their ancestral homelands and inheritance,” she says. “Community, belonging, my inheritance all give me a sense of my right to be in this world.”
Her future goals? “To get a puppy.”
*** Logan Presch Age 21 Business Student
Logan Presch is a University of British Columbia student and a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the traditionally Jewish fraternity.
Presch, who is from Salmon Arm, B.C., is also a member of the Jewish Students Association, although he is not Jewish.
“Throughout my life, members of the Jewish community have always accepted me, been my friend, and helped shaped who I’ve become,” he says. “I care deeply about my friends, brothers and mentors, and want to reach out and help in my fullest capacity.”
Putting that caring into action, Presch has been a leading opponent of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanction movement at UBC. He filed a petition that stated, in part, that the BDS referendum question “creates a toxic atmosphere for students supportive of the state of Israel, and is destructive of open and respectful debate on an important issue.” He went on to say that the campus referendum “drove a wedge between religious groups on campus who had previously enjoyed inter-faith outreach and collaboration.”
After university, Presch hopes to follow his passion to work in the music industry, as a manager, agent or touring manager, and possibly pursuing a career in singing as well.
*** Michael Sachs Age 36 Wholesaler of Diamonds/President of The Bayit
The Bayit describes itself as a warm and vibrant synagogue in Richmond committed to making everyone feel included and, as the name suggests, at home.
The suburban shul has recently seen a dramatic uptick in membership due to the leadership team of Michael Sachs, the synagogue’s president, and spiritual leader Rabbi Levi Varnai.
Born in Stamford, Conn., Sachs moved to Vancouver in 1993. Three years ago, with his wife Shira and two children, he moved to Richmond. While his day job is as a wholesaler of diamonds with ERL Diamonds, since last year he has been busy not only with the routine business that comes with the job of a congregational president, but with tasks that go above and beyond.
“I can be caught on my drives to or from work, calling members of our community to see how their job search is going,” he says. “Dealing with other professionals in the community, seeing how the apartment hunt is going for a family, checking in with someone who may be under the weather, touching base with the Bayit team on the status of current projects.”
One of his nominators calls Sachs a “problem solver, creative thinker, a sort of advisor at times, and often a sounding board to both individuals and organizations.”
In addition to raising a family and taking care of business, Sachs is also founder of Marc’s Mensches, an initiative directed at youth to encourage and reward good deeds, and is the political liaison for the Kehila Society of Richmond.
“Judaism is the core of my life, from keeping kosher to attending synagogue, and even for guidance in difficult decisions,” he says.
And his efforts have been noticed. He was co-recipient of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s 2017 Young Leadership Award.
“After moving to Richmond almost three years ago, and experiencing all that the Jewish community offers in Vancouver,” he says, “I felt a calling to jump in and serve to do whatever I can to help the Richmond Jewish community to continue to grow. My goal is simple: keep growing the Richmond Jewish community. Our community is growing every day at record rates, especially with the higher cost of living in Vancouver.”
Says Sachs of his fellow recipients of the JI’s 18 Under 36 Awards, “Every one of these 18 members of our community is an ambassador of the Jewish people. Every positive ambassador from our community creates a ripple effect across the world.”
*** Allie Saks Age 29 Occupational Therapist
As an occupational therapist working in hospital settings with people who have Parkinson’s disease, Allie Saks saw a problem.
“The medical system tends to treat patients once they are already quite progressed in the disease,” she says. “In reading the research, I knew that exercise can delay the progression.”
She heard about a program called Rock Steady, which was founded in Indianapolis by Scott Newman, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 39. Newman discovered that non-contact boxing training lessened his symptoms.
Rock Steady boxers train to improve overall fitness and strength, as well as speed, balance, agility, reaction time, hand-eye coordination, mental focus, and range of motion. The ultimate goal is to delay the progression of the disease and improve overall quality of life. The movement has now expanded to almost 500 affiliates worldwide, helping people with Parkinson’s “fight back.” One of those affiliates is Rock Steady Boxing Vancouver, which Saks founded in May 2016.
“I wanted to provide that to people living with Parkinson’s in our community,” says Saks, who also practises as an occupational therapist in Fraser Health Concussion Clinic. In this role, she provides intervention and follow-up services to individuals who have experienced a concussion or mild to traumatic brain injury, in order to manage symptoms and facilitate speedy recovery.
“In addition to the physical benefits, Rock Steady Boxing also provides a means for people to build social connections and community,” she says. “This is especially important for the Parkinson’s population, that can often become quite reclusive.”
Helping people with Parkinson’s live better lives accounts for Saks’ motto that, when life gives you lemons you make lemonade.
“I was always taught being diagnosed with Parkinson’s can be the ultimate ‘lemon.’ I hope I can make a meaningful contribution to my boxers, to delay the progression of the disease with Rock Steady Boxing, and make those ‘lemons’ a little sweeter,” she says.
Her Jewish heritage and commitment to tikkun olam also play a role in making Rock Steady accessible to all.
“Soon after starting our program, people with Parkinson’s started to call saying they could not afford the cost of the program,” she says. “I felt I could not turn people away because of this, and that everyone should have equal opportunity to participate, despite financial barriers. I decided to create a scholarship program, where people pay what they can, and the remainder is covered by funds raised during Rock Steady fundraisers. We have held three successful Rock Steady fundraisers to date, which have helped cover anywhere from 75% to 100% of the cost of our classes for a number of our boxers.”
Saks’ future plans are to expand Rock Steady to reach as many individuals living with Parkinson’s disease in Vancouver as possible.
*** David Schein Age 28 Director, Food Stash Foundation
When David Schein saw the documentary Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, it had a profound impact on him.
The film follows a Vancouver couple, the filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer, as they survive for six months only on discarded food in order to draw attention to massive food waste in North America.
Seeing people living with hunger while tons of food went to waste, motivated Schein to found Food Stash Foundation. The group has a straightforward, twofold mission: “to rescue food from producers and suppliers that would have been destined for the landfill, and to deliver edible food items to food-insecure households and individuals in Vancouver.”
Food Stash picks up edible food from bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores, things like imperfect produce, day-old bread and grain products, items that aren’t moving quickly off the shelves and food that has reached its best-before date but remains fine. The food is subsequently delivered to households and individuals who need it, and to charities that feed people. Suppliers include Whole Foods, the August Market, COBS Bread, Rosemary Rocksalt, IGA, Cupcakes, Tractor, Windset Farms, Virtuous Pie, Nesters, Terra Breads, Elysian Coffee, and many other shops, restaurants, cafés and bakeries.
Among the agencies Food Stash supports are the Island Refugee Society of British Columbia, Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, the Kettle Society, MPA Society, Steeves Manor, Watari, Masjid Al-Salaam and Education Centre, Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society, Directions Youth Services, AMS UBC Food Bank, Atira Women’s Resource Centre, and South Granville Seniors Centre, among others.
“I think change happens by starting small in one’s community and setting an example that other communities can follow,” Schein says. “I don’t want to wait for government policy to change or be the driver in creating more sustainable communities, but instead think that we can help and contribute to making our communities better in whatever ways are most important to us.”
Last year, Food Stash was responsible for rescuing and redistributing 167,110 pounds of edible food – and the amounts are rising daily. The foundation has only one paid employee, a part-timer who is a refugee from the Philippines. A volunteer team of 16 does the rescuing and delivery. Schein has recruited students to support Food Stash, including some from King David High School, where he previously taught French and Spanish.
A new pilot program is underway, in partnership with Jewish Family Services. The Grocery Box Program will deliver fresh food to those most in need. The pilot will initially provide 10 Richmond families with four boxes per month of healthy, fresh, quality food. These include produce, bread, dairy and juice, items not frequently available at the food bank because of a lack of ability to store perishable foods.
Of Schein, one of his nominators stated: “His humility is a measure of the loving kindness of his food justice mission and of his acknowledgement that he’s at the beginning of a journey to learn more about how to solve a complex and systemic problem and how to build community partnerships.”
*** Maya Rae Schwartz-Dardick Age 15 Student/Musician
Maya Rae Schwartz-Dardick recorded her debut album this year and has already been recognized by CBC Music as one of Canada’s Top 35 Jazz Musicians Under the age of 35.
Under the performing name Maya Rae, she was just 13 when she performed at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. While her voice has wowed audiences, it is also her philanthropic spirit that is gaining attention. She routinely performs at fundraisers for organizations and causes, raising $20,000 to date. Of this, $6,000 was raised to help resettle two refugee families in British Columbia. Other causes for which she has shared her talents include support of homeless youth, anti-bullying campaigns and a fundraiser for Nepal earthquake victims. The CD release party for her first album was a fundraiser for Covenant House, which helps youth 16 to 24 who have fled physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse or are street-involved.
“I like to use music to make the world a better place,” she says. “I like the way my music touches people.”
A member of Temple Sholom’s Youth Board, Schwartz-Dardick enjoys singing at synagogue and reading Torah during the High Holidays. She plays regularly at Louis Brier Home and Hospital to bring music to seniors in the community.
Now working on her second album, she plans to tour in 2018, and “continue to use my music to help raise awareness around important community issues.”
“The world of jazz has been blessed with child prodigies for as long as the genre has existed,” CBC Music writer Scott Morin wrote of Schwartz-Dardick. “Maya Rae is faithfully continuing the tradition of young, prodigious voices taking their incredible talents to the jazz art form, and at only 15 years old she has an incredibly bright future ahead.… Her debut album, Sapphire Birds, produced by Cory Weeds, one of the hardest-working cats in the business, was released earlier this year on the Cellar Live label, and shows a supremely gifted artist who is able to phrase like Sarah Vaughan but write a lyric like Joni Mitchell. Watch out for this talented singer and composer.”
“If my music can make a difference towards helping people and making the world a better place, I can’t think of anything else that I’d rather be doing,” Schwartz-Dardick told the Independent last year.
*** Rotem Tal Age 34 Restaurant and Food Truck Owner/Entrepreneur
Rotem Tal was born in Haifa, Israel, and has been in Vancouver since 2008. But the décor in the Main Street restaurant Chickpea, which he cofounded with fellow sabra Itamar Shani, shouts “Israel!”
The entrance sports a Dizengoff Street sign, winking at the Tel Aviv hotspot, and a mural features David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir crossing Abbey Road.
After traveling the world following his military service, Tal settled in Vancouver for its laid-back vibe, yoga classes and mountains. He studied at Simon Fraser University, where he was active in Hillel and, after graduation, took a job as Hillel’s outreach and special events director. That involved a lot of cooking and hospitality. He was also a founding resident of Vancouver’s Moishe House, a hub for young Jewish adults.
Tal is committed to environmental sustainability. At Hillel, he replaced all plastic utensils with reusable ones and instituted a composting program.
He also made a very personal commitment to the health of children in the developing world. He raised $3,500 in a fundraising effort for Save a Child’s Heart by cutting off his signature dreadlocks. Save a Child’s Heart is an Israeli charity that provides life-saving heart surgeries to kids in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
Tal left Hillel to follow his dream of becoming a professional full-time chef and restaurateur. With his friend Shani, Tal started the Chickpea food truck, an Israeli vegetarian option that gained quick fame and a strong following. Earlier this year, they opened the 2,400-square-foot storefront restaurant on Main Street and took the vegetarianism a step further, eliminating eggs and dairy to make the place vegan. Even the shakshuka replaces eggs with a spicy vegetarian sausage.
While running a restaurant has been a long-term goal, now that he has realized it, there’s another vision on the horizon.
“Myself and Itamar – aka Chickpea – are going to open a few more restaurants and raise money for our ultimate goal: opening up a farm/retreat-wellness centre/space for music festivals and arts,” he says. “We are working towards finding a piece of land around 200 acres and designating it to being a community space. We will grow our own food (within the limitations of the seasons), have our Chickpea community live there, and hold space for healing and rejuvenating others. Think permaculture, Burning Man, yoga centre = Chickpea.”
Tal’s connection with his Judaism emerged largely after he left Israel. “I was traveling for many years by myself, or would meet friends in different countries like Australia or the States,” he says. “I noticed that, although Judaism never played a major role in my upbringing (since I was raised in Israel and Jewishness is just all encompassing), wherever I landed, no matter where I came from, the Jewish community always welcomed me with open arms. I was always able to find a place to stay, work, and friends.
“Although I truly believe that connection and helping others is a human attribute,” he continues, “I think that it is strongly ingrained in Jewish culture … probably because we were persecuted for so many years and we had to stick together. I myself try to bring this vibe to everyone, not only the Jewish community. I believe that the Jewish community is a special one within the human community, and I strive to make connections with everyone.”
*** Carmel Tanaka Age 30 Community Relations Manager, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region
Carmel Tanaka credits her unique family history with helping form her worldview and ability to meet people on their own terms.
“Turns out, I’m pretty good at connecting people and building bridges,” she says. “Might have something to do with my eclectic professional background and varied personal interests and experiences, which helps me relate to anyone.”
She found this out, she says, while serving as the director of Hillel Victoria, where she enhanced the connections between the Jewish students organization and other individuals and groups on campus. That bridge-building was on full display during Hillel’s Holocaust Awareness Week at UVic last year.
Tanaka created an imaginative and moving commemoration. As is traditional, six candles were lit in memory of the six million Jewish lives lost in the Shoah. A seventh candle was lit to symbolize hope. To light the candles, she brought together the diversity of the campus community, including representatives of First Nations, African, German and Slavic communities. UVic’s Multifaith Services participated, as did the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island and advocates from the Sexualized Violence Task Force. UVic Holocaust educators and representatives of the administration lit candles, as did children of Holocaust survivors. Student leaders, including some who had returned from the university’s I-witness Field School, which takes students to Central Europe to explore how the Holocaust is memorialized, joined the ceremony.
In another symbolic act, recollecting Kristallnacht, participants took shards of a broken window and pieced them back together, creating a “resilience window” that has been used at subsequent community commemorations.
During the ceremony, Tanaka spoke about her family’s history. She is a granddaughter, on her mother’s side, of survivors of the Holocaust. On her father’s side, her Japanese-Canadian grandparents were interned during the Second World War, losing everything, including a prosperous fishing and cannery business, which was confiscated by the federal government. “It takes a community to overcome trauma and rebuild a peaceful future,” Tanaka said at the commemoration. “It also takes a community to prevent trauma from happening in the first place.”
During her time in Victoria, Tanaka also assisted the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island’s Yom Hazikron and Yom Ha’atzmaut events. To help raise funds for a Syrian refugee family sponsored by Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El, she performed as the Fiddler, as well as volunteering as the music director, in a staging of Fiddler on the Roof.
Tanaka recently took the position of community relations manager at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, another role that requires making connections. “In many ways, my new role is a natural progression from what I did at a local level, just now at the provincial level,” she says.
Recently, she says, she has been putting her health first, “becoming part of the Megaformer (Lagree Method) fitness family, shedding 30 pounds and counting, strengthening my core and breaking under 200 pounds on my 30th birthday! It’s going to make the upcoming ski season so much more amazing.”
Her family history also reflects her food choices. “I identify as ‘Jewpanese’ and it permeates everything that I do, especially in my cooking,” she says. “Soy sauce and chicken schmaltz are my two secret ingredients in just about every dish.”
*** Rabbi Levi Varnai Age 29 Rabbi, The Bayit
The Richmond synagogue known as the Bayit has its roots back a few decades in the Eitz Chaim congregation, an early institution in the emerging Jewish community of the southern suburb.
As young families have been priced out of the Vancouver real estate market, a large number of them have moved across the bridge to find more affordable housing. In response, a plethora of Richmond-based organizations have popped up to meet the demands of the growing Jewish population.
The Bayit, though, had fallen on difficult times for a few years. After a series of rabbis, the congregation went a spell without a spiritual leader until July 2016. That’s when a new congregation president and a new rabbi took the helm, ushering in a younger leadership team and sparking what has been, so far, a dramatic renaissance in the life of the shul.
Rabbi Levi Varnai was assistant rabbi at the Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel on West Broadway, providing spiritual care and connections especially for young families. Then, Michael Sachs, who had recently moved from Vancouver to Richmond, became president of the Bayit and, at the first board meeting, the congregation hired Varnai as rabbi. In little more than a year, the synagogue has grown exponentially.
“Richmond is becoming a pretty big place,” says Varnai. “There are many, many young families here and, of course, you’ve got Richmond Jewish Day School. We do a monthly Friday night dinner, which is very, very popular for young families. We get an average of 100 people for such an event. On the holidays, we’ve got 250, 300, sometimes even 350.”
Varnai laughs that, as a born Vancouverite, moving to Richmond meant breaking down a stigma. But it wasn’t the biggest move in his life.
When he was 12, his family made aliyah. He studied in yeshivah in Israel, then went to New York for rabbinical studies. He married an Israeli woman and served as chaplain to the elite, top-secret intelligence unit 8200.
“Of course, I had nothing to do with the unit itself,” Varnai clarifies. “I just ran the synagogue and supervised the kosher food in the kitchen.” Nevertheless, he adds, “It was quite an experience.”
Because of economics, Varnai says, the Richmond Jewish community is diverse and comparatively youthful. “You talk about the young South African family, the young Russian family, the young Israeli family or a family from Montreal,” he says. “You’re moving to B.C. because it’s a beautiful province and you have the option of either living in Vancouver or paying 30% or sometimes 40% less in Richmond. It’s like a no-brainer.”
Reaching young families is key to the future, he says. “If our parents are involved but we can’t get our kids involved, where is the future of Judaism?” Religious services are only part of the Bayit’s appeal, he adds.
“In English, we say synagogue, in Yiddish we say shul. The word in Hebrew is beit haknesset, meeting place,” he says. “A gathering place. When Jews gather, obviously one of the things they do is have services. But the main point is the gathering place. That’s where the emphasis is. A place where the Jewish community is together, to laugh, to have fun, to gather together, to have social events and whatever it may be that provides community and takes care of one another.