I recently was appointed board chair for Tikva Housing Society. When I was asked to join the board three years ago, I knew nothing about Tikva or their invaluable work. However, as a real estate professional, I did have a keen understanding of the housing affordability crisis in the Lower Mainland, and knew that our Jewish community was not immune to the crisis. Hence, I understood the importance of Tikva Housing, which is why I joined the board.
Tikva is a charitable, nonprofit society providing access to affordable housing for low- to moderate-income Jewish individuals and families. Every year, in March, the society turns to the generosity of the community to support its mission and now, more than ever, Tikva needs that help.
The widespread effects of COVID-related job loss have placed many members of our Jewish community at risk of homelessness. Tikva offers short-term rent subsidies for those living in market rental housing who are facing a temporary crunch and are unable to afford their rent. The demand for this kind of assistance has increased greatly in the last 12 months. The amount of subsidies that we can provide is directly in correlation to the amount that we can raise from private donations and foundations, and donations are urgently needed to help people stay in their homes. There are already more than 200 Jewish people on a waitlist for affordable housing, and the demand is only growing.
With all levels of government focused on affordable housing in general, we are seeing numerous initiatives being considered and Tikva is in conversation with government agencies and housing developers to explore new partnerships. Currently, Tikva owns and/or operates 61 affordable housing units in the Lower Mainland: 11 units at Dany Guincher House in Marpole; 18 units at the Diamond Residences (Storeys) in Richmond; and, thanks to the Ben and Esther Dayson Charitable Foundation, 32 townhomes were added last summer. The Ben and Esther Dayson Residences in Vancouver’s River District form a family-oriented community with more than 60 children.
This coming summer will see Tikva tenants occupying 37 units at the Arbutus Centre on Yew Street. The cost to Tikva will be a nominal $1,500 per unit annually, and the Diamond Foundation has pledged to cover this expense for all 37 units for the first five years.
In 2022, 20 units on the third floor of a five-storey building will be home to Susana Cogan Place. In partnership with Polygon, BC Housing will provide full financial support for this project, which is named in memory of Tikva’s founder and affordable-housing trailblazer, Susana Cogan, z’l.
Expanding Tikva’s affordable housing portfolio means that more low- to moderate-income Jews can stay close to their synagogues, schools and the multitude of Jewish community amenities. While Tikva Housing will operate a total of 98 units by the end of summer 2021 and 148 by the end of 2022, it’s still not enough to meet the needs.
Housing is the cornerstone and foundation of a dignified life. The Hebrew word tikva means hope. Please support Tikva Housing Society’s current campaign, which runs to March 22, and help us bring hope – and housing – to those most in need in our Jewish community.
Outside Richmond Jewish Day School, Courtney Cohen accepts a donation to Rose’s Angels, which was collected by RJDS students and staff. (photo from Rose’s Angels)
This past February, the eighth annual Rose’s Angels event took place, although it looked very different from that of previous years, due to COVID-19.
Rose’s Angels, which is under the umbrella of the Kehila Society of Richmond, was founded in memory of Courtney Cohen’s grandmothers, Rose Lewin and Babs Cohen. It was established after Courtney Cohen and family friend Lynne Fader came together to discuss how to best honour the grandmothers, while giving back to the community – Rose Lewin and Babs Cohen were both very philanthropic and instilled this value in their families. Since its inception in 2013, Rose’s Angels has donated more than 6,000 care packages to not-for-profit organizations within the City of Richmond.
With the pandemic impacting not-for-profits around the city, Cohen and Fader knew it was essential to push forward and fundraise for donation items and monetary gifts for recipient agencies. Gift cards, slippers, non-perishables, toiletries and feminine hygiene products were among the donations received from the community.
“We adapted and innovated this February’s event to allow for volunteers to still play an integral role,” said Cohen. “Volunteers assisted with pickup and delivery of the bulk donation items to our recipient agencies. Volunteers are an essential part of Rose’s Angels and we truly appreciate their support and dedication year after year.”
Rose’s Angels donated to 12 Richmond not-for-profit agencies servicing those most vulnerable. Among these agencies were Turning Point Recovery Society, Light of Shabbat (Chabad of Richmond), Richmond Family Place, Tikva Housing, Richmond Food Bank, Pathways Clubhouse, and Nova Transition House (Chimo Community Services).
“Although we were unable to host our large community care-package event in person this February, our community came together in another wonderful way,” said Cohen. “People donated generously and this allowed us to purchase specific items that were both needed and wanted by our recipient agencies.”
She added, “We look forward to 2022, when we can have our amazing volunteers together again to safely assemble the Rose’s Angels care packages.”
For more information about Rose’s Angels, or to make a donation, contact Cohen or Fader at the Kehila Society of Richmond, 604-241-9270, [email protected] or via kehilasociety.org.
Then-Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt and members of National Council of Jewish Women in front of the first Mobile Hearing Clinic, outside Vancouver City Hall on June 11, 1984. After raising the funds to build and operate the clinic on a trial basis, NCJW sold it to the provincial health department for the nominal price of $1. They did the same with a second mobile clinic in 1986. (photo from JMABC L.16459)
Passover is one of the foundational stories of Jewish tradition. Around the seder table each year, we learn from our elders the guiding principles of Jewish life: how to be a good person, think of others and pursue justice in the face of persecution.
These same themes can be found in the history of our community locally. The families who laid the foundations of our community, and those who continue to build its future, arrived here from all corners of the world. Mutual aid societies like the Hebrew Free Loan Association (HFLA) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (preceded by the Jewish Community Chest and the Jewish Fund and Council) have helped welcome and support new arrivals.
The HFLA was established in 1915 by Solomon Weaver and, while it folded in 1936, it was revived in 1979 by the Jewish Family Service Agency under the leadership of Shirley Barnett. Going at first by the name of the Hebrew Assistance Association, the organization was established to aid a new wave of Jewish immigrants arriving from Russia. With initial capital provided by Joe Segal, Jack Diamond, Morris Wosk and Leon Kahn, the association began issuing loans of up to $3,000. To date, the HFLA has granted more than 2,000 loans, giving people “a hand up, not a hand-out.”
Passover also teaches us that we should apply these principles beyond our own community. As it is written in Exodus: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” This philosophy can be seen as a guiding principle for community groups such as the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).
Founded in 1983 by local survivors of the Holocaust, the Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society for Education and Remembrance was formed with the goal of establishing an anti-racism education centre. This goal was realized in 1994 in the form of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC). Education is central to the mandate of the VHEC and, each year, the centre reaches more than 25,000 students and teachers through exhibits, school programs, teaching materials and professional development initiatives for educators.
Since 1924, the Vancouver section of the NCJW of Canada has been dedicated to social action and human rights. For close to a century, its social justice efforts have taken diverse forms, from pioneering a provincial mobile hearing screening program for preschoolers to championing the cause of Nasrin Sotoudeh – illegally imprisoned in Iran – to recent fundraising and awareness initiatives against human trafficking.
These are just a few of the many organizations and individuals who make real the lessons of Passover each day. It has been inspiring to learn more about these and other people and groups as we at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia collect stories for our upcoming celebration book marking our 50th anniversary.
We invite you to share your story with us and be a part of this milestone publication. Share your family story, recognize someone notable, or sponsor this project. Full information is available at jewishmuseum.ca/fifty-years.
Olga Campbell is raising money for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s anti-racism programming. (photo from Olga Campbell)
Half of all sales during March of Olga Campbell’s multiple-award-winning A Whisper Across Time: My Family’s Story of the Holocaust Told Through Art and Poetry will be donated to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s anti-racism programming, engaging youth and teachers in promoting human rights, social justice and genocide awareness. Campbell’s goal is to raise $5,000. Her objective is to raise “concerns about the fragility of democracy and the rise of white nationalism, racism and antisemitism in the world today.”
In A Whisper Across Time, Campbell – whose mother lost all of her family during the Second World War – writes, “This is the story of one family out of millions of families who went through the Holocaust.”
As quoted in the Jewish Independent when the book was published in 2019, “It is ‘the story of survival and death,’ ‘of how trauma of such magnitude is passed from one generation to another to another….’ It is also an ardent call for readers to remember Rwanda, Rohingya, Bosnia, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Cambodia.” Campbell notes in the book that, “by the end of 2016, there were 65.6 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people in the world.” She pleads, “eighty years ago, the world looked away / we must not look away now.” (Read more at jewishindependent.ca/a-story-told-in-art-and-poetry and jewishindependent.ca/whisper-across-time.)
Campbell will be giving away five signed copies of her book. Everyone who wins or buys a book before the end of March will also receive a signed miniature print – images from the book.
Winners of the book giveaway will be announced on March 21, which is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Alex Cristall, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver board chair, arrived early at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Jan. 26 to sign community recovery cheques for grant recipients. (photo by Rob Trendiak)
On Jan. 26, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver released the first round of community recovery funding to address the urgent needs arising from the pandemic’s impacts. A total of $416,000 in grants was distributed among 21 partner agencies and community organizations.
“When COVID first hit, we immediately developed a comprehensive strategic approach to address its impact,” Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of Jewish Federation, told the Independent. “We met with our partner agencies to learn firsthand about how they were coping, and we released $505,000 in emergency funding just days into the initial lockdown.
“We then worked closely with major donors to launch the Community Recovery Fund, which became a key focus of the annual campaign. We also established the Community Recovery Task Force, comprised of well-respected and experienced community leaders, to work with us to respond effectively to the immediate and long-term consequences of COVID that are affecting our community agencies. During the annual campaign, we asked donors to make an additional gift to support community recovery, if they could.
“We have always been fortunate to have an extremely generous community, and the depth of giving this year has been extraordinary,” he said. “Community members have responded to the call to help in unparalleled ways, however they can. They understand the breadth and scope of need, the immense challenges facing organizations, individuals and families, and that recovery will take some time. Most of all, they appreciate that we are all partners in recovery, and have really stepped up to play their part.”
The initial relief grants were distributed to 19 of Jewish Federation’s partner agencies, as well as to the Louis Brier Home and Hospital and the Hebrew Free Loan Association.
“For the first round of grants, all Jewish community organizations were invited to apply for up to $25,000, regardless of their size,” explained Risa Levine, chair of the Community Recovery Task Force. “Our priority was to meet organizations’ urgent needs resulting from the pandemic, and to ensure they could continue to deliver their programs and services. In the next few weeks, as part of this initial round of funding, we will be recommending grants for synagogues and other places of worship. These grants will be awarded in late February.
“The task force expects the two rounds of funding after that will focus on longer-term needs,” she said. “For example, are there organizational changes that would substantially increase an agency’s capacity to deliver their programs? We also recognize that the pandemic has gone on longer than anyone anticipated, and that the uncertainty of what lies ahead continues. New needs may emerge and COVID-related government subsidies, which have helped a lot of our agencies, may end. So, ensuring organizations’ ongoing sustainability in the face of pressures created by the pandemic will continue to be a priority.”
When the task force met with community organizations last summer and fall, the focus was on understanding how the pandemic had affected the programs and services they offer. While the details differed, said Levine, “they all had been impacted by COVID in similar ways.
“Based on this information, the task force identified six themes, which ultimately became funding categories for the recovery grant application: technology upgrades; critical social services; COVID-related expenses; revenue and rental losses; mental health support for staff and community members; and organizational capacity. Community organizations were invited to apply for a grant to meet urgent, COVID-related needs in two of these six categories.”
The recovery grants comprise but one of three funding streams being distributed in the next couple of months. Other financial assistance will come from the Jewish Community Foundation’s Unrestricted Grant Program, and allocations from the Federation’s annual campaign.
“The Jewish Community Foundation’s Unrestricted Grant Program is designed to complement Jewish Federation’s annual campaign allocations by providing charitable organizations with seed money to support new, innovative programs and services,” explained Shanken.
Grants awarded through the program “give charitable organizations the opportunity to pilot initiatives that address the community’s evolving needs, or to launch startup and capital projects,” he said. “Once the programs demonstrate success over several years, they may then qualify for ongoing funding through Jewish Federation’s allocations.
“This year,” he added, “the foundation adapted some conditions of the program to be as responsive as possible to organizations challenged to deliver their programs and services in new and innovative ways. In this way, the Unrestricted Grant Program is complementing the work of Jewish Federation’s Community Recovery Task Force, which has identified areas of critical need through its consultation process with community organizations.”
The Unrestricted Grant Program funds for 2021 will be awarded in mid-February.
“Jewish Federation has always been proactive and strategic about preparing for crises, so that we can lead a coordinated community response,” said Shanken. “And, while this is unlike anything the community has ever been through, we are in a strong position to respond. We have in place the infrastructure, the community planning expertise, and the staff and team of experienced leaders needed to respond swiftly and effectively to the enormity and ongoing uncertainty of COVID’s impact.
“We know how vital it is to get funds working in the community, and this involves so much more than fundraising,” he noted. “As the pandemic evolves, we will continue to adapt our strategic approach so that we are well-positioned for today and tomorrow, and to convene with all of our stakeholders so that we have our finger on the pulse of the community and can problem-solve together. We’re also collaborating with Jewish federations across North America to leverage their collective knowledge and capacity.”
Levine acknowledged the board and staff of our local Jewish Federation “for their vision and professionalism in organizing the task force and leading the recovery process, as well as the many generous donors who have supported this crucial work.”
She said, “I have been inspired and buoyed by the commitment and passion of everyone involved in the task force’s work to ensure that our community continues to function effectively: by the task force members for their dedication to the work, and by the community organizations for their candour and resilience in adapting their operations to meet the needs of community members.
“The biggest challenge,” she said, “has been to focus and refine our work to be able to respond effectively to the needs we learned about. Hearing firsthand about the challenges that organizations faced revealed the enormity of COVID’s impact through a sharper, more personal lens that added another layer of urgency to our work.”
Despite the challenges, Shanken said, “I remain positive because of the tremendous fortitude and the outpouring of compassion and generosity that I see every day. I am incredibly proud of how this community has pulled together to tackle the road to recovery, and am convinced that we will emerge stronger.”
At 109, Richmond resident Reuben (Rube) Sinclair might be Canada’s oldest Second World War veteran. (photo from Reuben Sinclair)
A Richmond resident is almost certainly Canada’s oldest Second World War veteran. Reuben (Rube) Sinclair received a special recognition on Remembrance Day, though, because of confidentiality issues, Veterans Affairs Canada can’t confirm he’s the oldest service member. But, at the age of 109, basic statistics suggests that, if Sinclair isn’t the oldest, he’s got to be close.
The centenarian spoke with the Independent virtually via Zoom about his life and what advice he might have for aspiring super-seniors like himself.
Sinclair was born in 1911 on the family farm near Lipton, Sask. Lipton was one of many “colonies” created by Baron Maurice de Hirsch in Canada, Argentina and Palestine to resettle oppressed Jews from Europe. Sinclair’s father, Yitzok Sinclair (born Sandler), traveled from Ukraine, via Liverpool and arrived at Ellis Island Jan. 4, 1905, on the SS Ivernia. He made his way to Saskatchewan, where he was given land by de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association. However, the land was poor and so the newcomer worked for the Canadian National Railway long enough to save up and buy a better plot and build a house. When he was settled, he sent for his wife, Fraida (born Dubrovinsky), and their two young sons.
Reunited in Lipton, the family grew to include not only Samuel and Sol, who were born in the old country, but the only sister, Clara, then Rube and the youngest, Joe.
The last survivor of his birth family, Sinclair has fond memories of the farm life. He and the other two youngest did chores while the older two headed to university. Samuel became a medical doctor and Sol was a professor of agriculture at the University of Manitoba.
“There was a whole colony of Jewish families,” Sinclair said. “My parents had one of the largest farms – 16 quarter-sections [more than 2,500 acres]. I remember we had 42 horses. We had milk cows. I had my jobs. My job was to go collect the eggs from the chicken house and, when I was 12, I was already driving our car.… Always things to do on a farm.”
Yitzok donated a few acres to the community and helped construct a school, which doubled as a synagogue. On Shabbats and Jewish holidays in winter, the boys would sleep in the hayloft so the local men could stay in the house and not walk home in the freezing Saskatchewan weather.
“My father was a leader in the community,” he said.
Sinclair joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and was stationed in North Battleford, Sask. In the days before radar was commonplace, he taught Allied pilots how to take off and land in the dark using a “standard beam approach,” which involved a navigation receiver that allowed the pilot to line the aircraft up with the runway when preparing to land.
“In the air force barracks, I was on the top bunk,” he said. “I always got the top bunk because the younger generation would come home drunk and I wouldn’t sleep in the bottom bunk.”
One day, he encountered a barrack-mate in tears. Sinclair recalls the conversation: “They’re sending me to Vancouver, he said, and my family is all here around Brandon, Manitoba. So I said, that’s no problem. When they want a person to go to Vancouver, they don’t care who the person is. Vancouver wants one person. So, I said, don’t cry. We’ll go see the commanding officer. I told him that my wife has got family in Vancouver and I’d be glad to go instead. He said they don’t care, all they want is one person. So, I was the person who went to Vancouver at that time and I’m still here,” he recalled with a laugh.
Joe, the youngest of the five siblings, had served in the army and after the war joined Rube in British Columbia. They started Sinclair Bros. Garage and Auto Wrecking, in Richmond, just across the two old Fraser Street bridges from Vancouver.
“My job was to go out and find old cars and we had a tow truck,” Sinclair said. “I’d bring them in and my younger brother would wreck them. We opened a wrecking company.” They also bought surplus army vehicles to fix up and sell.
The business soon became a sort of family compound. A small house adjacent went up for sale and the Sinclairs bought it, bringing parents Yitzok and Fraida to the coast. Then sister Clara and her husband Morris Slobasky bought a general store that was next door.
Because of his wartime experience, Sinclair developed migraine headaches and was told to go to a drier climate. He thought Arizona sounded good, but his wife, Ida, had siblings in the Los Angeles area and a brother-in-law offered him a job in a furniture store in Anaheim.
In 1964, Rube and Ida packed up the three kids – Nadine (now Lipetz), Karen and Len – and moved to Southern California.
“He put me in charge of the furniture store,” Sinclair said of his brother-in-law. “I knew nothing about furniture, but I learned pretty quick.”
Soon he was in business for himself again.
“Then my boss that I worked for in Anaheim, his wife wasn’t very well and she spent a lot of time in Palm Springs,” Sinclair recalled. “So, he said, instead of me going back and forth, I’ll move to Palm Springs and you can have the store, just pay me for the inventory.”
In 1994, Ida had a stroke and the couple moved back to British Columbia. She passed in 1996. Rube still lives in their Richmond condo.
Rube and Ida were active in their communities. In Los Angeles, they raised more than a million dollars for City of Hope, a cancer hospital and research facility. Both were active members of Schara Tzedeck Synagogue here, he especially in the Men’s Club, and he is proud of his lifetime honorary membership in the shul. In addition to their three adult children – Nadine is in Vancouver; Karen and Len in California – he has six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
Asked if he has any advice for others, Sinclair didn’t hesitate.
“That’s easy. I always say, if you have a problem, don’t worry; you’ll lose your hair. Fix it. If you have a problem, fix it. Don’t sit back and worry. Worry is not going to help.”
Any bad habits?
“I don’t think so,” he said after a thought. “I spent most of my life working and, in my spare time, working for people less fortunate. That was my enjoyment in my spare time.”
Two years ago, the City of Richmond named Sinclair an “honoured veteran.”
Recalled daughter Nadine: “He was part of the Remembrance Day service in Richmond and they made a big deal about it. They sent a limo and he sat with the mayor and the Silver Cross Mother. They gave him a wreath and then they walked him around. He was up on the dais with the mayor and the head of the RCMP as the soldiers all walked by. It was a very big deal for him.” Last Remembrance Day, he received a certificate from Veterans Affairs.
If, by some chance, Sinclair is not
Canada’s oldest veteran of the Second World War, he seems determined to attain that title.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I still have some unfinished business.”
The Vancouver Jewish Food Bank is now distributing more than 10,000 kilograms of food every month. (photo from BI and JFS)
According to the Community Food Centres Canada report Beyond Hunger: The Hidden Impacts of Food Insecurity in Canada, “Even before COVID-19, nearly 4.5 million Canadians struggled to put good food on the table for themselves and their families. In the first two months of the pandemic, that number grew by 39%, affecting one in seven people.”
Demand on the Vancouver Jewish Food Bank has almost doubled since the start of COVID-19. The organization is now distributing more than 10,000 kilograms of food every month; supporting seniors, families and individuals. While some of us have been impacted by food scarcity during COVID-19, those most in need live in a state of constant worry about where their next meal will come from.
The 1996 World Food Summit defined food security as: “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” To this end, Jewish Family Services and Congregation Beth Israel are hosting More Than a Bag of Food on Jan. 28, bringing organizations and people together for a Tu b’Shevat program on food security in our community and beyond.
Vancouver Talmud Torah and Richmond Jewish Day School students are raising awareness about the food bank and reaching out to recipients. King David High School is hosting a cooking demonstration with Hilit Nurick and Rabbi Stephen Berger at 4 p.m. on Jan. 28, which will feature local ingredients and discuss the need for healthy food for everyone. Hillel BC is running an online quiz, with prizes, and a deep dive into information around food security.
At 7:30 p.m. on the 28th, there will be a Zoom panel including Dr. Tammara Soma, assistant professor, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University; Dr. Eleanor Boyle, educator and author; Krystine McInnes, director and chief executive officer of Grown Here Farms; Mara Shnay, chair of the JFS client advisory committee; and Cindy McMillan, director of programs and community partnerships at JFS. Lawyer Bernard Pinsky will moderate the discussion.
“This is an important conversation,” said McInnes. “The stakes are very high. The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief just how vulnerable we are, given the way our society is organized. ”
Food systems produce and deliver based on historic demand. With the advent of COVID-19, the system has been stretched, leading to empty grocery shelves and desperate food banks. International supply chains are no longer reliable, with Russia and Vietnam limiting the sale of wheat and rice outside of their countries. Canadian food production plants have been hard hit by pandemic outbreaks and the lack of international workers. This is particularly problematic when food production is concentrated at large facilities; for example, two plants in Alberta provide 70% of Canadian beef.
“We are going to talk about initiatives from local to global,” said Boyle, “and panelists will let audience members know about some of the creative approaches to food security that are being taken at the Jewish Food Bank, as well as what’s going on around the world to try to shift agriculture and diets toward being better for climate and public health.”
I was crying in front of the computer screen during a funeral service livestream. Again. It wasn’t my first of this pandemic. Even if the person didn’t ostensibly die of COVID, he’d been ill alone, unable to see family for long stretches because of it. And, because of COVID, I couldn’t be at the funerals in person, which were all in the United States. In normal times, I’d be rushing across the continent to be at these services with my family.
The person being eulogized, Rabbi Laszlo Berkowits, was a family friend, and was close to my parents. I called him “uncle” as a kid. He and his family were always part of our family’s holiday celebrations and gatherings. I played with his kids at his house. Their phone number was my elementary school’s emergency contact for me.
Rabbi Berkowits (Uncle Larry) was my family’s rabbi. He was also a Holocaust survivor. For a person who spent his teenage years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, my Uncle Larry’s positivity, joy and ability to find the good in others were amazing. He had an incredible, long career, supporting and inspiring others to make positive change.
At the funeral, his family and friends (including my pediatrician) talked about how my Uncle Larry felt so grateful for the kindness of others, including the kindness of strangers. Without that help, he wouldn’t have survived the Second World War. Without the assistance and loving kindness of strangers – in Sweden, the United States and beyond – he wouldn’t have regained his health, gone on to serve in the U.S. military or received a full scholarship to become a rabbi. He wouldn’t have had the opportunities that truly enabled him to make such a difference in so many others’ lives.
The article was about how I try to carry around snacks (granola bars) for my kids, just in case they need one, but that, sometimes, the best option for me is to offer that extra snack to someone else on the street, who is hungry, instead.
The thing is, since the pandemic started, like many Manitobans, we haven’t been out and about nearly as often. I don’t carry around snacks now because my kids are remote schooling. We’re working and learning at home, trying, like most of us, to reduce the number of people who might get sick or die from COVID. On a daily basis, I am not physically handing out those granola bars to anybody other than my kids.
A week ago, I got the most amazing email from a single mom friend who is a grocery store cashier in a city more than 200 kilometres away. She works very hard to keep her family afloat. She’d been waiting until her break to write me: “A man came through with 25 boxes of granola bars. No judgment – they were on sale! Then, he tells me he read an article about someone and their child or children who handed a person a granola bar and it stuck with him. So, now he has granola bars in his car and always hands them out to panhandlers and people who need them when he can.”
I could imagine her hearing this at the grocery store, her jaw dropping in surprise. She told the man that we were good friends and that she would tell me about this. The man said to pass along that, she wrote, “he has been doing this since the week he read your article and to thank you! Simple acts of kindness are what is keeping him going these days.”
When I read her email, I cried. It had been “one of those pandemic days” – where the news, the work and learning struggles at home, had all felt so hard. We’re all tired of worrying, so concerned about our loved ones. In fact, I’d been feeling badly that I couldn’t do more for others, write more, donate more, while juggling things on the stay-at-home front.
Another email from my friend arrived. She’d mentioned this man’s purchase to one of the grocery store owners. He’d said, if she sees this man again, the store would give him a discount on these purchases. Then he printed out the story to pass along, too.
I felt so grateful to this anonymous stranger who was carrying around all these granola bars to feed others, and continuing this kindness when I couldn’t. I wanted to thank him, but I also respect just how many anonymous givers might be out there. It takes all of us to beat this pandemic. Next year, I hope to host my amazing essential worker friend and her kids for a big celebratory Chanukah dinner again.
I’m so heartened to hear that the kindness my Uncle Larry encouraged in others is continuing to be passed along. I carry with me his constant reminders to be an upstanding person who does the right thing, who helps others, shines a light for others, even if he himself isn’t here anymore.
My Uncle Larry would say, “Be the best. Be a blessing.” He’d add something like, “We never know how long we’ll be here on earth. It’s our job to do good for others whenever we can – right now.”
At his funeral, another longtime family friend, Sam Simon, spoke, reminding us: “Be that stranger whose kindness is a blessing to someone so that they, too, can become a blessing to the world.” I am sure the biggest blessing of all would be if more people took that to heart.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
David Adams as Scrooge and Scotia Browner as Tiny Tim in Metro Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play. (photo by Nicol Spinola)
Metro Theatre was all set to provide socially distanced, safety-first live performances of A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play this month. But then the provincial restrictions on gatherings came down, and the struggling theatre company had to cancel its in-theatre run. But the production team used what holiday spirit it had to film the show and an online version will be available for viewers to watch from Dec. 21 through Jan. 3.
“We are fortunate to have our talented friends Nico Dicecco and [playwright] Erik Gow film the show and put together a beautiful digital stream of it that is available by donation,” stage manager Kat Palmer told the Independent.
Palmer has had a few shows canceled since the pandemic hit. “Right at the beginning of COVID,” she said, “I was in rehearsals for a sweet little concert Wendy Bross Stuart put together called With a Song in My Heart. I was also looking forward to Hello Dolly! at Theatre Under the Stars. And, most importantly, my company, Raincity Theatre, was gearing up for our production of Cabaret. Obviously, intimate, site-specific theatre is not possible during COVID.”
But A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play was created with COVID-19 protocols in mind. The theatre is a large space, enough for patrons to be distanced from one another. “Even the set was designed to keep actors more than six feet apart at all times,” said Palmer. In rehearsals, every cast member arrived masked and wore their mask until they were in their show spacing, she said. For the stage show, they were ready with two understudies, prepared to go on, lest “any actor wake up with any sort of tickle in their throat.”
But those plans went for naught when, last month, large public gatherings were prohibited and the show, which was to open Dec. 3, was delayed to organize the online version.
“It is no surprise that COVID has deeply impacted our arts community,” said director Chris Adams. “The Metro Theatre is a not-for-profit theatre company that relies on ticket sales to get by. Once a thriving arts hub in a former movie-house, Metro has been hit hard by COVID restrictions that have seriously impacted their revenue. The Metro also rents out their space to schools and dance companies over the quieter spring/summer months but, due to our new reality, that was also impossible this year. The Metro Theatre is at risk of closing its doors.”
Nonetheless, the show is also raising money for the charity Backpack Buddies.
“When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, charitable giving soared overnight,” said Palmer. “The story has forever changed how we celebrate the holiday season and reminds us of the importance of generosity. It is in this spirit that the Metro always selects a charity to support each year at Christmas.
“Early in the show, we meet Abigail – an orphan who speaks of food insecurity. It is shocking to find parallels between children today and the Dickensian era. British Columbia has one of the highest child poverty rates in Canada, with 20% of children living below the poverty line. The Backpack Buddies program provides backpacks of food to children in need so that they do not go hungry over the weekend.”
A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play is an original work by writer Gow, based on the Charles Dickens novel, of course.
“With Christmas Carol, there is an expected order that ghosts appear. Erik has decided to shake it up,”
said Adams. “There are also some scenes that do not appear in the book that add an extra level of character development.”
The radio play stars David Adams as Ebeneezer Scrooge, who meets all the characters in A Christmas Carol, “from Bob Cratchit to Jacob Marley, but with only six actors creating and voicing over 40 of the beloved characters,” reads the play’s description. Joining David Adams “on stage” will be Roger Monk, Jill Raymond, Chris Ward, Emilia Michalowska and Scotia Browner. The COVID covers were Jim Stewart and Courtney Shields, who is also the assistant director of the production.
“All of our actors have created a character for their narrator in addition to playing every character in the piece,” said Palmer. “For the majority of our performers, they play four or five characters each. For the simplicity of the storytelling, David plays Scrooge but has also created a very unique and distinct character for his narrator. While David has played many Jewish characters, like the Merchant of Venice, Tevye and Fagin, he is not Jewish himself. Although, he has had to learn some Yiddish for roles from time to time.”
As for being a Jewish person working on a Christmas play, Palmer said, “At this time of year, I sometimes feel like Scrooge. I despise the commercialism of the holiday season, how it seems to consume the entire month of December and don’t get me started on cheesy Christmas movies. But, as a Jewish person working on this show, it is easy to see Jewish values on every page of the script. Yes, A Christmas Carol takes place at Christmas but, in many ways, A Christmas Carol is really a story of teshuvah, tzedakah and tikkun olam…. It’s a story that celebrates kindness, charity and human transformation – ideals that all parents hope to instil in their children – ideals that have deep roots in Jewish tradition. Don’t we all want to believe even the worst among us has a core of goodness?”
The filmed version of A Christmas Carol – The Radio Play is available by donation at metrotheatre.com.
Members of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay, are among those helping provide relief services during COVID-19 and after a devastating fire. (photo from IBB)
Times are tough for everyone, but that hasn’t stopped one Vancouver group from organizing an urgent fundraising drive to support an orchestra that is a testament to the transformative power of music.
Instruments Beyond Borders (IBB) is a registered Vancouver-based charity that supports music education in disadvantaged communities. The group is raising funds to support the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay (aka the Landfill Harmonic) as they are dealing with two major crises: not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but a devastating fire in the landfill, next to which they reside.
Since 2014, IBB has delivered donated instruments and funds to the Recycled Orchestra, which was borne out of a desire to teach music to eager children living in the marginalized landfill community of Cateura.
The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura is internationally renowned, performing all over the world with their instruments made out of recycled materials from the neighbouring landfill. They deliver a resounding message of environmental stewardship and hope and endurance in the face of poverty.
The pandemic has suspended the capacity of the orchestra to travel internationally – which was a major source of their revenue. Compounding the hardships wrought by the pandemic, the Cateura landfill recently suffered a major fire, resulting in the destruction of many of the orchestra families’ homes. Consequently, this has all but eliminated the opportunity of the parents to derive much-needed income from the gathering of saleable recyclables from the landfill.
In 2014, IBB donated $10,000 towards the building of a music school in Cateura. Fortunately, the school was not damaged by the fire, and today it is temporarily being used as a food relief centre – for the preparation and distribution of upwards of 5,000 meals daily to the devastated local community. Incredibly, the students of the Recycled Orchestra, along with the Orchestra’s Parents Association, have become the hub of relief services.
In the midst of these crises, Favio Chavez, the orchestra’s founder and director, is determined to keep both the orchestra and the hope of music alive, and to support the orchestra’s education program.
The IBB fundraising drive aims to assist the orchestra recover from these dire circumstances. To jumpstart this urgent appeal, the Ben and Esther Dayson Charitable Foundation has pledged to match the first $5,000 donated.