The JDC’s Zoya Shvartzman is part of the FEDtalks lineup Sept. 16. (photo from JFGV)
In returning to Vancouver, Zoya Shvartzman is retracing the route that has seen the Moldova-born woman help “write the next chapter of the history of European Jewry.”
Those words, while spoken by Shvartzman, are not about herself – she was crediting North Americans and others who support the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with helping revivify communities that were almost annihilated under Nazism and then suppressed by communism. But the work Shvartzman does in her role at the JDC means she could rightly claim to be among a number of authors altering the future for Jews in Europe.
Shvartzman and her parents made aliyah from the East European nation when she was 8 years old. At 15, she and her mother migrated to Vancouver. Here, the family had some hard times and they turned to the Jewish community.
“The Jewish community welcomed us with open arms and gave us almost a second home,” she recalled recently in a phone interview with the Independent. “It was a very, very fond memory of my time there and it has a lot to do with the Jewish community that became our family.” She will speak about this time when she presents as one of four speakers at FEDtalks, the opening event of the 2018 Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign, Sept. 16.
Shvartzman chose to pursue a degree in international development studies and political science at McGill University and so, after four years on the West Coast, she and her mother decamped for Montreal.
“After that, I decided to move to Budapest to pursue my master’s in political science because I was focusing on Eastern European politics and transitions from communism to democracy,” she said. “Because I’m from that part of the world, it made sense to go back and be there, be where it’s taking place.”
She completed her studies at Central European University, which was founded and funded by the democracy philanthropist George Soros, and, after graduation, worked for the Canadian embassy in Budapest. In 2007, she was offered a position at the JDC, where she is now director of strategic partnerships.
Shvartzman’s role is to identify on-the-ground needs of Jewish communities in Europe and convey those needs to potential funders, primarily in North America. Federations, foundations and philanthropists then contribute to help the JDC complete its projects.
“In Europe, basically, our main mission is that we build resilient communities,” she said. “We help build communities where they were shattered after the Holocaust and after communist regimes.
“In Eastern and Central Europe, we help poor Jews with basic services like food and medicine and winter relief, help to pay their utilities,” she explained. “Most of the elderly are Holocaust survivors. We work extensively with Holocaust survivors together with the Claims Conference funding. In the last 10 years or so, we developed services for children and families, modeled on the JFS [Jewish Family Services] model that you’re familiar with in Canada and the U.S., addressing the needs of poor children and families.”
Examples of projects that the JDC has spearheaded or supported include a Jewish community centre in Warsaw and a summer camp in Hungary, where children from 25 countries come to strengthen – or, in some cases, learn about for the first time – their Jewish identity. But the work is not limited to Eastern and Central Europe.
In France, the JDC has opened a “resilience centre,” to help Jewish schools, social workers, teachers, children and families respond to threats experienced by Jews in the country. Several acts of anti-Jewish terror in recent years in France have compounded existing anxieties about the security of its Jewish population and institutions.
The decade-plus that Shvartzman has been with the JDC has been a time of challenge for Jews and others across the continent.
“Especially the last four or five years have been particularly tumultuous for Jews in Europe,” she said. “There are different threats – external, internal threats. We see communities that have nearly collapsed, like the community in Greece, in terms of the economic crisis that really, really shattered it.”
In addition to the generalized economic challenges experienced by people in many countries, Jews have faced particular difficulties. Rising antisemitism and political extremism in places like Hungary and Poland have stoked once-dormant apprehensions.
Even so, Shvartzman is bullish about Jewish life in Europe and plans to share her enthusiasm with Vancouverites.
“There are many causes for optimism,” she said. “When you look at the revival of Jewish life in Europe and how these communities have gone from survival to really thriving Jewish communities, I think that’s a big cause of optimism.
“This is quite remarkable when you consider the history and some of the deep, deep traumas that this community has suffered and, today, Jews are reclaiming their heritage and are proud to be Jewish,” she continued. “All of this gives us great causes of optimism that Jewish life in Europe is thriving.”
Shvartzman’s Moldovan childhood and her current work both reflect and embody the JDC’s mission to save and build Jewish lives, said Michael Geller, the JDC’s North American director of communications.
“In her professional life and her personal life and in her life’s journey, she understands quite deeply the importance, the critical importance, of the work we do every day to ensure that needy Jews have the basic needs to continue to live their lives and, in addition, to have a strong Jewish identity, one that is their own, that they make themselves, and one that we help strengthen and empower through the kind of work that we do,” he said.
Returning to the theme of writing the next chapter of European Jewish history, Shvartzman credits overseas allies with making possible all of the achievements she and the JDC have realized.
“It’s only possible because of the support of the North American communities, North American Jewry, that chose to invest in that part of the world over the past 20, 25 years,” she said. “If I had to underline one message, it would be that: North American Jewry helping to write the next chapter of the history of European Jewry.”
FEDtalks features keynote speakers Rabbi Irwin Kula, Pamela Schuller, Arik Zeevi and Zoya Shvartzman. The event takes place at the Vancouver Playhouse on Sept. 16, 7 p.m. Tickets ($36) are available from jewishvancouver.com.
Dr. Charles Kaplan and Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. (photo from Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan)
The small group meeting to pray and learn in living-rooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s couldn’t have known for certain that their community would survive to grow into a 200-family congregation, but they did know that they’d helped start something special. That much was apparent from the start.
This year, Or Shalom, the outgrowth of that small group, celebrates 36 years, but will also say goodbye to its current spiritual leader, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. She and her husband, Charles Kaplan, arrived in Vancouver in 2005, encountering a vibrant and energetic Jewish Renewal congregation, with a permanent home on East 10th at Fraser Street – and an already storied history.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel who co-founded Or Shalom with his wife and partner, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, was in 1974 the first person to receive smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Today, Siegel is director of spiritual resources for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, where he also serves as associate dean of the ordination programs, chair of the rabbinic texts department and rabbinic director of ALEPH Canada. From his Gulf Island home, Siegel described the congregation’s early evolution, and what makes Renewal’s approach resonate today.
“We consciously chose Vancouver, Hanna and I, as a place to move to because we wanted to start a congregation and we wanted to see whether the things that made us newly excited about our Judaism were things that other people would respond to, other people who were also disenchanted or disconnected, so we were looking for a place to do that.”
About a year after arriving here, the Siegels’ vision took root. “We started the second year that we lived in Richmond, in 1978. We started what was then called the Hillel Minyan, and we would meet once a month on Friday night and the following Shabbos morning,” he said.
With help from friends, the Siegels were able to put a down payment on a home on West 22nd Avenue and started leading Shabbat morning services in their living-room. The name was changed to Havurat Sim Shalom. Over the next several years, services were held in participants’ living-rooms, rented homes and on the University of British Columbia campus. The Siegels worked in partnership, Daniel taking leadership of more traditional aspects, he recalled, and Hanna Tiferet on the creative expressions. In that way, there were various access points for participants.
“The intention was that we wanted to create something that gave ownership to people very quickly,” he explained. “So, Torah discussions, which could be done in English, and pesukei d’zimrah, which could basically be some melodies bridged by reading … were open to almost anybody as soon as they wanted to try it. And then there was leading shacharit and reading Torah, which required traditional skills, which meant that people had to decide to improve their Hebrew or whatever they needed to do. I think that was always intentional…. The motto of Havurat Sim Shalom was ‘traditional, egalitarian, creative,’ that’s what we called it.”
Harley Rothstein was a member of the young community. In an essay he wrote in 2000 about the history of Or Shalom, he shared some of those experiences. “I attended the minyan for the first time in January 1980. Entering the Siegels’ house on 22nd Avenue I was instantly struck by the enthusiastic participation. I enjoyed the meditative quality of the service in which some prayers were highlighted and certain lines repeated. I noticed a number of beautiful and unfamiliar melodies. I appreciated the depth of thought and extent of participation in the Torah discussion. I was surprised by the leadership shown by the women (I learned later that I had walked into a special women’s Shabbat). The physical layout was fascinating. Almost all participants were sitting on the floor, crowded into a limited space (Hanna’s enormous loom took up about one third of the living-room). I was delighted by the potluck lunch afterwards with the kind of vegetarian and whole foods that I had eaten for years. I was impressed by the energy and spirit of this small group and immediately became a regular participant.”
“The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters.”
Later he wrote, “The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters. We were drawn together as friends and held together by inspired leadership. What made it work was that we honored the centuries-old wisdom of the Jewish tradition while at the same time honoring our own creativity and insight, as well as our commitment to deeply held political values, such as gender equality, social justice and peace.”
By the time the Siegels left for Hanover, N.H., in 1987, Or Shalom was already on firm footing and, though it was still small and mostly consisting of friends, its early success encouraged mainstream congregations to reconsider some of what they wanted to offer. “I think Or Shalom served the function of being a kind of presence that encouraged a bit of ferment in the community, which I think was good because supposedly people cared about the fact that so many young people were not connecting … and they wanted them to connect,” Siegel said. “When we actually got them to connect, I think people had mixed feelings about that success.”
The tension between tradition and creativity was the defining feature. “The most important thing in my mind about what Hanna and I were trying to set up was a community that would be experimental and traditional at the same time,” he explained. “What Zalman called ‘backwards compatibility.’ The creativity that we do is compatible with what we inherited. That still is a very important thing to me. That’s why I do halachic thinking…. In my mind, what was really innovative about Or Shalom as we envisioned it was that combination of a creativity [that] was backwards compatibility, which was loyal to the tradition … both in the sense that we respected what we inherited and we also respected that we inherited a tradition of creativity…. I would say that was the challenge that we faced when we started it, and it would be the challenge that I would hope Or Shalom would look to finding ways to face and play with over the next 36 years.”
“Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Today, Renewal communities have sprung up all over North America – and beyond, Siegel said. “We have strong connections in Brazil, we have some people in Costa Rica now, we have a small hevre in Germany and in Amsterdam and in Stockholm, less so in England. And in Israel.” This growth can be attributed to the fact that “Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Duhan Kaplan, who has now been Or Shalom’s spiritual leader for nearly a decade, warmly described her first days with Or Shalom and her plans to continue participating in the congregation and wider Jewish community. “When Charles and I first came to Vancouver, we fell utterly, totally in love with Or Shalom – and East Vancouver. None of that has changed; if anything, it has intensified. Every week day, I appreciate Vancouver’s combination of natural beauty, access to urban services and perpetually green foliage. I especially love the winter mist and fresh air. With every Shabbat gathering at Or Shalom, I get cumulatively more relaxed. I worry less about logistics, and appreciate more deeply the way that singing, studying, shmoozing and celebrating life events together creates spiritual community. Leading the service has become a spiritual high for me; I take note of who is there, try to connect with them in thought and feeling, and help uplift the group with words and music.”
Growing up in New York, Duhan Kaplan said her “childhood experiences of Judaism were all positive: a large social circle, Orthodox synagogue, Conservative Jewish day school and Hebrew-speaking summer camp.” A self-described book addict, she graduated from university with plans to be an educator.
“My own education is ongoing; I’m in love with school,” she said. “I have a BA in philosophy from Brandeis, an MEd in adult education from Cambridge College Institute of Open Education, a two-year certificate in ayurvedic yoga from the New Life Centre, a PhD in philosophy and education from Claremont Graduate University, rabbinic ordination from ALEPH … a graduate certificate in spiritual direction from Vancouver School of Theology; and I’m currently taking graduate courses in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Honestly, I’m pretty tired: for 33 years, I’ve been working full time, going to school and raising children – without nannies or extended family, but with a great marital partnership and an organized household.”
After spending several years as a philosophy professor, Duhan Kaplan said she was looking for something new. “My leadership role in our local havurah and my powerful dreams and conversations with God led me to deeper Jewish study. I found [ALEPH]’s ordination program, a hybrid distance-learning/residential program, with an emphasis on kabbalah, just right for a philosopher juggling work, family and school. In 2005, I received smicha, moved to Vancouver and started to work at Or Shalom.”
She is inspired by and proud of her accomplishments during her tenure, including the year-long Exploring Judaism course, her experiences working closely with bar and bat mitzvah students and the more “personal moments in pastoral care, where I witness people’s reserves of strength and courage. I may be exhausted a lot of the time, but I never, ever feel my work lacks meaning.”
“Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Renewal’s orientation towards Judaism and life provides a vehicle to chart a satisfying course, she noted. “Renewal is spiritual and socially liberal. Following the early Chassidic teachers, we explore the inner spiritual journey of Jewish life. We take seriously life’s existential questions and we fully expect Judaism to help us answer them. To stimulate our souls, we study, sing, make art and have fun. Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Judaism’s evolutionary character resonates with those who haven’t fit into more mainstream Jewish life. “Or Shalom is really a community of seekers. Our members are deeply committed to Judaism, but they don’t participate out of a sense of obligation,” she explained. “Each person is genuinely and self-consciously on a path of spiritual and moral growth. Of course, we are all at different places on our path. But this self-awareness really makes working relationships easier; people reflect, reach out across conflict, and grow the community.”
Though the time has come to move on from synagogue leadership, Duhan Kaplan doesn’t plan to stop being a teacher. “Charles keeps reminding me to take some down time, but my normal way of living is to be working, going to school and volunteering. Next year, I’ll be working part time, teaching three graduate courses each at the ALEPH seminary and the Vancouver School of Theology. I’ll continue to take courses in Jungian psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and I have agreed to a big volunteer project for Ohalah: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. I hope to do some cat transportation for VOKRA, Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue. Yes, I’ll still be blogging! And I hope to put the finishing touches on the animal book.
“Of all the roles I play, educator still resonates most deeply,” she continued. “When I’m teaching, I can be scholar, deep listener and interpersonal facilitator all at once. I have to be well prepared and flexible at the same time. And I get to play with different learning modalities, as we explore really deep ideas in ways that work for the learners.
“Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies.”
A Pittsburgh native who grew up in “a relatively non-observant, culturally Jewish-identified home,” Charles Kaplan said that he “began to rediscover and explore my Jewish (religious) roots in my 30s and this accelerated exponentially after Laura and I met.” A multi-instrumentalist, he and his wife have continued the tradition of making music a large part of the service. “Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies,” he said.
And though he often gets asked by others about being the rabbi’s husband, he said “Or Shalomniks are far too comfortable with egalitarianism to even think the question! Usually, it’s asked with a clever smile, ‘You know the wife of the rabbi is the rebbetzin. What do they call the husband of the rabbi?’ My standard answer is ‘Around here they call me “the hubbetzen!”’ In all seriousness, supporting the rabbi’s work as a spouse is a challenging responsibility regardless of gender.” Among other contributions, “I’ve gotten myself involved in davening, musical events, ritual committee and even building maintenance! All with ‘ivdu et Hashem b’simcha!’”
Pat Gill and David Kauffman are co-chairs of the board of directors, and spoke to the JI about reaching the double-chai milestone. Or Shalom “occupies a unique place in Vancouver Jewish life,” said Kauffman, who first discovered the congregation in 1985. “Firmly committed to inclusiveness, we make efforts to invite and engage everyone who wants to explore, or return to Jewish life and Jewish community, regardless of their background…. As a participatory shul, most Shabbat services are different each week, portions of davening and reading Torah and Haftorah by a significant percentage of the congregation.”
Gill said she heard about Or Shalom “20 years ago when my husband and I were planning to move here from Seattle. A friend said we should check it out; we’d like it. She was so right. Our first event was High Holidays, 1994, and we were hooked!”
Both agree that Duhan Kaplan has “set the bar high” for the next rabbi. “Reb Laura has brought to Or Shalom a high level of insight, analysis of text, and ability to teach,” said Gill. “As well, her davening and leyning are exceptionally musical and beautiful…. I believe Reb Laura was the first female congregational rabbi in B.C. Her knowledge, intellect and desire to work with the greater Jewish community in Vancouver have earned respect for her and, I believe, for female rabbis in general, as women become more accepted in the role of pulpit rabbi.”
Kauffman seconded that praise. “Reb Laura has brought the aspects of Jewish life that Or Shalom dreamed of in a rabbi. Teaching that draws from rabbinic tradition and modern philosophy, davening that reflects musical influences both traditional and more recent, such as those taught by Reb Shlomo Carlebach and others. For the greater Vancouver Jewish community, Reb Laura is known for her courses all around the Lower Mainland, including Talmud Torah, Vancouver School of Theology, Melton Institute and the most recent Limmud Vancouver. We expect that Reb Laura will continue to teach in her many ways in and around Vancouver even after she leaves the role of Or Shalom’s full-time spiritual leader.”
For now, the search for an interim rabbi continues. “We’ve embarked on a rabbi search mission, one based on the thorough process that gave us such excellent results 10 years ago,” said Kauffman. “We’re looking for an interim rabbi for about a year, and posting a larger search for a full-time rabbi to start in the summer of 2015. Our process will eventually bring the committee’s three top choices to Vancouver for Shabbaton-like interviews, after which a community process will help us find the best match.”
Or Shalom’s 36th anniversary celebration features entertainment by Tzimmes and Grand Trine, on March 1, 7:30 p.m., at VanDusen Botanical Garden. Tickets at 604-872-1614 or [email protected].