National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver section, members. Seated, left to right, are Lisa Boroditsky, Jill Kipnis and Sandi Hazan Switzer. Standing are Heather Sirlin, left, and Jane Stoller. (photo from NCJWC Vancouver)
Members of National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Vancouver section, have been busy close to home, not only supporting various initiatives for disadvantaged children in local schools – Books for Kids, HIPPY, Operation Dressup, and hygiene and nutrition school programs – but learning more about the Jewish history of the city.
On Sept. 8, more than 25 people participated in a sold-out walk through the “old city” of Vancouver, organized by Lisa Boroditsky, Jane Stoller and Sandi Hazan Switzer. Participants were enthralled by the stories of Harry Hammer, by the geographical and architectural details, to say nothing of the oral history of horse-drawn carts, family stores and tales of running to the bus for cheder.
NCJWC members also worked nationally, supporting successful efforts by CIJA (Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs) to get Parliament to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism; and internationally, issuing a call to action to participate in the campaign to free human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been imprisoned in Iran’s Evin prison since June 2018.
In May of this year, Prof. Irwin Cotler, chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Montreal, addressed the executive of the International Council of Jewish Women on the issue of human rights. He made a compelling case for participation in the campaign to free Sotoudeh, sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes in Iran because of her work defending women’s rights. She has been imprisoned four times since 2010.
Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are integral to ensuring rule of law and the functions of democracy; they are fundamental principles clearly defined in international law and they are the inherent right of all people. These two democratic themes were betrayed in 2018 when, as part of peaceful protests, some women removed their hijabs and waved them like flags and then were prosecuted for this behaviour. For defending these women, Sotoudeh has been unjustly imprisoned.
The International Council of Jewish Women executive voted to support Cotler’s recommendation and Debby Altow, vice-president for Canada on this executive, circulated a backgrounder and sample letter of protest for 33 affiliates worldwide. Both email and postal addresses for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and UN Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, were distributed, making such protest letters easier to submit. For more about Sotoudeh and NCJW Vancouver section, visit ncjwvancouver.org.
One of Tag Meir’s annual events is Flowers of Peace. Participants hand out roses on the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day. This year, they gave out some 2,000 flowers as a message of peace to Muslims and Christians in the city. (photo from Tag Meir)
To counter what Tag Meir head Gadi Gvaryahu described as incitement by radical settlers through Tag Mechir (Price Tagging), Tag Meir (Light Tagging) was formed.
Tag Meir, which started in 2011, is operated by members of the same segment of religious Zionistic Judaism that started price tagging (attacking Palestinian property and people) in 2009. Members of Tag Meir started visiting victims on both sides of the conflict in an effort to show solidarity and repair physical and psychological damage.
Today, Tag Meir is supported by many organizations and institutions in Israel from all segments of Jewish society – secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews – coming together to stand against hate and intolerance.
Though he now lives in Rehovot, Gvaryahu still considers Jerusalem home. He is the eighth generation of his family to live there.
Gvaryahu was deeply affected by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the fact that the killer had come from his segment of religious Zionism, Kippot Srugot (Knitted Kippot). He decided he had to put his passion for helping animals aside – he is a farm animal behavioural researcher by training – to find ways to mend Israeli society.
“I decided it’s about time to be more involved in public business – not politics, but more education,” said Gvaryahu. “Me and a few other families initiated a synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue in Rehovot, named after Yitzhak Rabin.”
Gvaryahu realized there was something wrong with the education system when he received a call from the head of his son’s yeshivah, demanding his son apologize for an outburst.
“Six months after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, a famous rabbi came to my son’s school,” recalled Gvaryahu. “He said that now, with Rabin dead, all his bad things were forgiven. And he didn’t even mention that he was murdered. He just treated him like someone who’d sinned a lot, talking to the whole synagogue, like 400 students, including the head of the synagogue … and they were all silent, except one person – my son.
“My son said, ‘How dare you say that? He just passed away! And, how dare you say that he has sins? He was killed, murdered!’ Then, he left the room, crying.”
When the rosh yeshivah called, Gvaryahu commended his son’s actions and said, “This rabbi should apologize. I’m not going to ask my son to apologize.”
Eventually, they consulted a leading rabbi who declared that Gvaryahu’s son “did a wonderful job and there’s no reason for him to apologize.”
It was at that point that Gvaryahu decided they needed to start their own school.
The first time that Israelis heard the term “Price Tag” in the context of payback was in December 2009. It was dubbed so by a small group of extreme right-wing West Bank settlers who had begun indiscriminately attacking Palestinians.
Gvaryahu explained the psychology behind it: “Something happened to us by Palestinians, by the army, by politicians, whatever … someone will pay the price. The thinking is, we don’t care that you’re innocent, we don’t care that you are Christian, Muslim…. You’re not Jewish, you’ll pay the price. We’ll burn, damage your mosque, your house, your car, your olive trees, and that’s called, ‘Price Tag,’ happening almost daily in the West Bank. Most of them, we don’t hear about. But, after a terror attack by Muslims, unfortunately, we have a bunch of them in the last two months … there’s been attacks by extreme settlers.”
While Tag Mechir destroys, Tag Meir aims to rebuild and bring light. “So, we call the people, the victims, in hospitals, villages, wherever, mosques, monasteries or churches, and we create a solidarity visit,” said Gvaryahu.
“Over the years, we’ve gained many, many Jewish, Christian and Muslim friends, and that’s very important. It’s important, because it’s a correct response to that crime, because they want to create terror or fear, especially among Muslims and Christians. So, those visits strengthen the relationship between Jews and Muslims and Christians. We have three Facebook pages – one in Hebrew, one in Arabic and one in English – with 35,000 followers.”
People in Israel not connected to Tag Meir have started solidarity visits by themselves, aiming to mend fences with Palestinian neighbours. “First, you know, I’m happy about Tag Meir,” Gvaryahu said about this development. “Second, that they get that this is the right way to respond to a hate crime or a price tag attack – it’s wonderful. It’s what we want to happen.
“This isn’t something that can be solved quickly. It’s education. We try to educate society, especially the Zionist society, we hope.”
This year, due to the rise in Tag Mechir attacks, Tag Meir held an education symposium on Sept. 10 at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, near the home of the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. Among the speakers were the former head of the Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, Yaakov Peri, senior rabbis from different segments of society, and the mother of one of the Jewish victims of terror, Sarah Rosenfeld.
“Her son [Malachi Moshe] was murdered and she will give her strong condemning opinion about ‘price tag,’” said Gvaryahu prior to the symposium. “When we came to visit the Rosenfeld family, she said that, if Malachi would be with us, he would join Tag Meir.
“This is very unique about Tag Meir, that we visit both settlers and victims of Tag Mechir on the Palestinian side. It’s not that pleasant an activity sometimes, but we feel it’s very important.”
One of the yearly events Tag Meir hosts is a flower giveaway called Flowers of Peace. They go out into the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day and hand out roses. “This year, we spread 2,000 flowers all over the Old City,” said Gvaryahu. “It’s a symbolic act, sending a message of peace to Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem.”
While Gvaryahu said 40% of the people in Jerusalem are Muslim, Jerusalem Day is only celebrated by the Jewish population. He said some of the songs that are traditionally sung must irritate the Muslim population. “Unfortunately, we don’t celebrate it, in our opinion, in the right way,” he said. “We just march with Israeli flags from West Jerusalem to the Western Wall through the market. Not all the songs are horrible, but a few of them are. So, this is our response. We march with Flowers of Peace.”
We are now well into the Hebrew month of Elul, which provides an incentive for heightened introspection, a chance to practise teshuvah, changes in our lives, before the Days of Awe, the Days of Judgment, the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The shofar is blown every morning (except on Shabbat) in synagogues during the month of Elul to awaken us from slumber, to remind us to consider where we are in our lives and to urge us to consider positive changes.
How should we respond to Elul today? How should we respond when we hear reports almost daily of severe, often record-breaking, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms; when July 2019 was the hottest year since temperature records were kept in 1880; when 18 years in this century are among the 19 hottest years and 2014, 2015 and 2016 successively broke temperature records; when polar ice caps and glaciers are melting far faster than projections of climate experts; when climate scientists are warning that we could be close to an irreversible tipping point when climate change could spiral out of control with disastrous consequences, unless major changes are soon made; when we appear to also be on the brink of major food, water and energy scarcities; and when, despite all of the above, so many people are in denial, and almost all of us seem to be, in effect, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as we approach a giant iceberg?
Israel is especially threatened by climate change since, among other dangers, a rising Mediterranean Sea could inundate the coastal plain, which contains much of Israel’s population and infrastructure; and the hotter, drier Middle East projected by climate experts makes terrorism and war more likely, according to military experts.
It is well known that one is not to shout fire in a crowded theatre – except if there actually is a fire. The many examples of severe climate change indicate that the world is on fire today. Therefore, we should make it a priority to do all that we can to awaken the world to the dangers and the urgency of doing everything possible to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
We should urge that tikkun olam (the repair of the world) be a central focus in all aspects of Jewish life today. We should contact rabbis, Jewish educators and other Jewish leaders and ask that they increase awareness of the threats and how Jewish teachings can be applied to avert impending disasters. We should write letters to editors, call talk shows, question politicians and, in every other way possible, stress that we can’t continue the policies that have been so disastrous.
As president emeritus of Jewish Veg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I want to stress that shifting toward a vegan diet is something that everyone can do right away. It would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and it would be consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.
The afternoon service for Yom Kippur includes the book of Jonah, who was sent by God to Nineveh to urge the people to repent and change their evil ways to avoid their destruction. Today, the whole world is Nineveh, in danger of annihilation and in need of repentance and redemption, and each one of us must be a Jonah, with a mission to warn the world that it must turn from greed, injustice and idolatry, so that we can avoid a global catastrophe.
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD, is professor emeritus, College of Staten Island, president emeritus of Jewish Veg and president of Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He is the author of several books, including Judaism and Vegetarianism and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and more than 250 articles at jewishveg.org/schwartz. He was associate producer of the documentary A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.
Ought is one of the 3,000 most frequently used words in English. We say one ought to do something as an indication that some action is good, proper, expected or owed. The word should carries many of the same implications. In recent years, should and ought have been criticized as being negative words, engendering guilt and removing individual initiative from people. People have begun to say, “I don’t like shoulds” or “Religion is too full of shoulds.”
The contemporary psychological pushback against ought and should is rooted in efforts to help people feel better about themselves. Moreover, it is suggested that, to liberate ourselves from should statements, we must more clearly express what we want and why we want it. It is important to fill in the gap between, “You should take out the garbage,” with the reasons why such an action is desired.
In many ways, the contemporary discussion is based in the work of David Hume (1711–1776), the great Scottish philosopher. He noted that many people make factual observations, describing events or people, and then make a casual transition from statements about what is to claims about what ought to be. In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume cautioned against using descriptive statements (about what is) as the basis for prescriptive statements (about what ought to be). For example, the observation that locally grown produce is readily available in the market and the claim that one ought to eat local are not connected. What is missing is the explanation of why eating local might be environmentally beneficial, economically justified and morally desirable. The present situation may be described as it is. But if we think that something should (according to our values) be changed, we can begin to think about how to change things that are into what we believe they ought to be.
The claim that there is a smaller Jewish community now because of the Holocaust does not immediately lead to the conclusion that one should financially and politically support the state of Israel. Making the moral claim is not enough. We must be able to give reasons to fill in the gap between the demographic implications of the deaths of so many Jews and the importance of Israel to the continuation and rebuilding of the Jewish people.
Yet ought and should are also ways of thinking aspirationally, articulating what we hope or want to be. My colleague, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, has written about the is/ought dilemma in a way that reminds us of the power and possibility of ought (and should):
“Think ought. Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be. Not what is a synagogue, but what ought a synagogue to be. Not what prayer is, but what prayer ought to be. Not what ritual is, but what ritual ought to be.
“Focus from is to ought, and our mindset is affected. Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future. Ought challenges my creative imagination, opens me to the realm of possibilities and to responsibilities to realize yesterday’s dream.
“Ought and is are complementary. Without an is, the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. Without an ought, the great visions of tomorrow fade. Ought demands not only a knowledge of history but of exciting expectation. Is is a being, ought is a becoming. Ought emancipates me from status quo thinking. Ought is the freedom of spirit.”
The Torah tradition is built around the idea of ought and should. “Barukh atah … Praised are You who commanded us” is a core concept of Judaism, critical to who we are as Jews. This idea is at odds with contemporary sensibilities that seek to discard shoulds and oughts. We recognize responsibilities, obligations, mitzvot, as essential to the building of individual character and collective community. Whether those obligations are interpersonal or directed toward the Holy One, they encourage us to look beyond ourselves to see a greater good.
Many times during the Days of Awe, we will use the words should and ought. Instead of thinking of these words as ways of placing guilt on others, let us try to explain why something – attending shul with the family, marrying within the Jewish community, giving tzedakah – is important. Let’s try to fill in the reasons for our claims of should and ought.
As well, the Yamim Nora’im lead us to see statements of should and ought as moral claims that extend beyond past history. We might hear such comments as indications of our responsible aspirations and our hopeful desires. Then should and ought can be motivational terms. They push us forward toward making the world, our society, our family and our closest relationships a bit better.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl is rabbi emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto and is a rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem. He is the author of scholarly articles in the area of Jewish philosophy and mysticism.For more articles from the SHI, visit hartman.org.il.
Earlier this year, the Bayit in Richmond launched Belong. The goal of the program is “to create a community where belonging grows and isolation disappears.”
Belong was developed by a committee of six Bayit members: Mel Bauer, Matti Feigelstock, Shelley Goldberg, Shira Sachs, Dan Shmilovitch and Rabbi Levi Varnai.
“There are people that you know you should be connecting to, [or] they should be connecting to you as an organization, but, for whatever reason, they’re not. So, we started talking about how we could address that issue as the Bayit,” explained Shmilovitch, who has been active in the Jewish community for more than 30 years.
There is never just one reason why people feel isolated, he said. “People are isolated for a whole range of reasons – health issues, economic circumstances, mental health issues, maybe they are recently widowed or divorced.”
It is easy to assume that Jewish communities are inherently so strong as to make isolation impossible, but this is not the case. Shmilovitch spoke of the need for “deepening Jewish connections … because isolation is a huge problem in every community and it affects the Jewish community as well, for all age groups.”
There are challenges in combating isolation. “As a Jewish organization, as a synagogue, you’re always looking to invite people in,” he said. “But, when you have people who are isolated and really disconnected, your approach has to be different to get that connection because that’s not their mindset. At that moment in time, that’s not where they’re at.”
The Belong committee started their planning by examining the obstacles that prevent people from making contact. There is more to being a community member than simply going to shul, explained Sachs, who is a teacher at Vancouver Talmud Torah.
She noted that people can still feel “uncomfortable or isolated” attending social gatherings outside regular services. She talked about how loneliness has a profound effect on a person’s health and can lead to depression. Using her own childhood story as an example, she described arriving in Canada when her mother, now deceased, was pregnant with twins; Sachs is the oldest of four.
“Community became so important to us,” she said. “We didn’t have the language and, within a couple of months, we went from a family of four to a family of six. My mom was a new mother in a new country, with twins.”
Going to shul helped the family make connections, learn about which schools the family wanted for the children. As a parent herself now, Sachs described how this ethos has shaped her own approach to family life. “When we came back from L.A., it was the number one thing to do – find a community and slowly grow with it. Now, how do we do that for others?”
The Belong committee determined multiple strategies for community development, the first of which was through Friday night dinners. The Belong team sought Bayit members who were willing to invite people to meals at home. They also reached out to Jewish Family Services for help locating people in Richmond who needed help.
“If you have a lady who is a single parent, you match them with another single parent,” said Sachs. “If you have a person who is passionate about literature, you sit them with someone who has the same passion. It was all assigned seating.” She added, “It’s comforting to know, ‘I don’t have to worry about that.’ Maybe that anxiety is why people haven’t come to a dinner.”
Belong is also working to offer food deliveries to families in need. “Food security is an issue in the Jewish community,” said Shmilovitch. The program has been running for awhile now but he hopes that deliveries will become more frequent in future.
“There are vulnerable people in the Jewish community – whether they don’t have enough food, feel isolated for a short time or in the longer term. Regardless, it’s hard to come out at the other end. That’s what drives us.”
In addition, Belong has created a support structure for new mothers. Inspired by and in partnership with Mamatefet, a support organization for Hebrew speakers in Vancouver, Mama Belong will work to diminish the feelings of isolation that often follow the birth of a baby. (See jewishindependent.ca/mothers-embrace-mamatefet.) Mama Belong started delivering baskets to Jewish mothers this summer.
The future of Belong came into focus at the May 12 launch. Current members of the Bayit were invited to learn about the new program. Guests were given a card with tear-off tabs that suggested a wide range of ways in which people could contribute, including hosting Friday night dinners, Russian language conversation groups and cash donations, among other ideas. Between 90 and 95% of the attendees folded over a tab.
From Mama Belong to food bank deliveries and Shabbat dinners, the program is striving to create a warm sense of community for those in need. “You never know what’s going to happen at what point in your life,” said Shmilovitch, but “something’s going to happen to connect you.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
Then-mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat and Nomi Levin Yeshua at the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada gala in Toronto in 2014. (photo from Nomi Levin Yeshua)
This article is the first in an occasional series about people with British Columbian roots having positive impacts in Israel and elsewhere.
When Nomi Levin Yeshua went to Israel in 1990, she wasn’t committed to staying there. Almost three decades later, the Vancouver-born and -raised woman can look back on a career that has impacted the face of Jerusalem and Israel.
Thanks to a chance meeting over Shabbat lunch with her grandmother’s former neighbour’s sister – “You know Israel,” she said, laughing – Yeshua had barely arrived in Israel when she got a job as assistant to the assistant to Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s mayor – but the job was more than that.
Shula Eisner, Yeshua’s new boss, had been working for Kollek since 1965, just before he began his 28-year run as mayor. Kollek was chairman of the Israel Museum and, before that, had served 11 years as director general of the prime minister’s office under David Ben-Gurion. In that role, Kollek effectively created almost all of the government agencies in the new state.
“One of the things he believed was that there had to be a national museum,” Yeshua told the Independent recently while in Vancouver for a milestone birthday of her mother, Shanie Levin. “He went around raising money to start the Israel Museum. He had an office there and [Eisner] was originally hired there to work with him with all the foreign donors. Then he was elected mayor and he kept to the Israel Museum office.”
In 1966, Kollek founded the Jerusalem Foundation, where Yeshua now works.
“That was his way of creating a forum for supporters of Jerusalem around the world, to be part of creating a new vision for Jerusalem. Then, a year after that, with the Six Day War and the reunification of the city, suddenly everything was just multiplied,” she said.
Yeshua acknowledged that Kollek’s multiple roles as mayor, head of the national museum and leader of a major foundation would probably not be sustainable today, but that was a different time.
“For him, it was all fluid,” she said.
To accommodate his different hats in the era before email or even fax machines, there was a driver who shuffled between offices, taking papers back and forth.
When Eisner moved over to another foundation, she handed her baton to Yeshua, who worked with Kollek through his last years as mayor and continued until a few months before he passed away, in 2007. She continues to run all donor relations for the Jerusalem Foundation and she personally handles Canadian fundraising for the organization.
The Jerusalem Foundation was started by Kollek because he saw that Jerusalem was a very poor city.
“A lot of religious institutions that don’t pay taxes at all are in Jerusalem, so he knew that it was always going to be a challenge for the city to have a balanced budget, to expand the city, to develop the city, to provide for the citizens of the city, so he knew that he was going to need to raise money,” she said.
Kollek pioneered a fundraising model that is now almost universal across Israeli and Jewish philanthropy.
“He connected every donor to a specific project and they knew that their money went to that project and they could come – and now their grandchildren come – and see those projects. To this day, they can still track the money. The Jerusalem Foundation was really at the forefront of that movement of changing the way people were giving to Israel. Now, it’s taken for granted, but it wasn’t back in the late ’60s and early ’70s at all. That was Teddy,” she said. “He wanted people to feel personally connected to the city, to the project, to the place.”
The foundation emphasizes “shared living” and is now focused on a vision for 2030.
“This is a city that is completely about how to exist together in this space that we share. It’s not just Arabs and Jews. It’s also secular and religious, it’s poor and rich, it’s all kinds of divisions that exist in the city,” she said. “But how do we share and how do we understand each other better?”
One major project is Hand-in-Hand School for Bilingual Education.
“Bilingual education is something that Canadians completely understand but Israelis less so. This is a school that teaches in Arabic and in Hebrew, in mixed classrooms. The rest of the Israeli education system is – we don’t like to use this word but it’s the truth – segregated,” she said. “There are Jewish schools, there are Arab schools and then, even within the Jewish schools, there are religious and nonreligious. This school brings together all of the different population groups and at all times there is an Arabic-speaking and a Hebrew-speaking teacher in the classroom.” There are now six such schools around the country.
Another area of the foundation’s work is helping the most vulnerable populations in the city, through projects such as Springboard, which develops programs primarily through the education system to push gifted kids into opportunities their financial situation might not otherwise permit.
The Jerusalem Foundation is also the city’s second-largest funder to the arts, after the municipality.
“We really believe that a modern and thriving city should have a good cultural scene. Culture is not just for one population group. All members of the community should be cultural consumers. But you have to create culture that is appropriate for those people,” she said. “For example, there is a dance troupe for ultra-Orthodox women. They only perform for women, of course, because otherwise that wouldn’t work for them. But they’re really doing amazing stuff and giving these ultra-Orthodox women who want to dance an opportunity to have a really high-level, professional dance troupe within the system that works for them.”
The foundation is also building a new Hassadna Conservatory of Music.
“They help kids ages six all the way through high school with classical music education and they also provide a special program for children of Ethiopian descent who don’t necessarily have the financial means to get musical training and they have a special program for special needs kids that’s integrated,” she said.
Yeshua credits her Vancouver upbringing as foundational to her worldview and accomplishments. She grew up in the Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement and was a camper, counselor and camp director at Camp Miriam. At home, her Jewishness was nurtured in a pluralistic way.
“In terms of how my mother brought us up, Jewish identity wasn’t limited to our religious identity,” she recalled. “National identity was something that was acceptable, cultural identity was very much encouraged. I think growing up in the very open community of Vancouver – to me it always seems that way, at least – it allowed me to be Jewish in a way that I felt good with and it wasn’t only one way to be Jewish.”
Yeshua acknowledged that “many people feel somewhat alienated from Israel today.”
“I want people to understand that there is a way to engage with Israel, to support Israel, and not contradict your own value system or what you think is acceptable,” she said. “What we do with the Jerusalem Foundation is something that people can respond to, relate to, understand – to protect Jerusalem as a city that is for everyone.”
We’ve seen a huge rise in neighbourhood property crime. We’re still driving a car without a back window (yup, two windows vandalized). We also lost a flower planter in June.
We realized the flowers were gone on Shabbat. We were on our way to services when we saw that we only had one and not two matching flowerpots. This matters for two reasons. First, we use the pots to keep people from parking illegally and blocking our gate. Sometimes, the planters get moved because a truck is parked to do work at our house or at a neighbour’s. Sometimes, big trucks or strangers just run over our planters so they can turn around or park illegally at our house. Despite multiple “private parking” signs, we struggle with these issues frequently. After each run-over or blocked gate, we’re scooping up the soil and repotting the flowers, trying to keep the planters going.
Two weeks after the pot went missing, when I was helping my twins walk their bikes to the schoolyard so we could safely practise cycling without training wheels, we stopped to look at our neighbours’ yards. My kids planted the flower pots themselves as part of their birthday celebrations at the beginning of June (reason #2 for their importance). They knew exactly which colours they’d put in each planter. And – surprise – our planter was firmly ensconced in a neighbour’s front yard, a block away from home.
We tried knocking but no one was there. When we returned home, we couldn’t put it out of our minds. My husband filed a supplement to our police report, asking if the cops could help invite these folks to return our flowers. So far, nothing has happened.
One of my kids has taken to doing the early morning walk with me and our two dogs now that it’s summertime. He reflects on the stolen/lost flowers every morning we pass them. On one of these walks, he brought up another story: he’d encountered a lost dog at day camp. Others shooed it away from the grass, into the parking lot, where he feared it would be run over. No one, in his view, helped it get home.
When I mentioned it to adults at camp, I was reassured that someone had found the dog’s owner. It was also pointed out to me that many kids were afraid of dogs; perhaps that’s why it was shooed away. I responded that, even if no one taught kids how to behave around animals, that dog was a “lost item.” Jewish tradition teaches us that it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to return lost items to their owners.
Jewish tradition is full of stories and rabbinic instructions for how we are to manage theft and loss. How we should address theft, punish thieves and figure out the motivations of those who do harm are part of what we should learn and teach as Jews. It’s our responsibility to return things and to help others find that order and closure in the world.
The rabbis recognize this commandment is complex. In some cases, hungry or suffering people may steal, borrow or “find” a lost item that they need to survive. However, we shouldn’t assume that the person who lost something can always make do or be fine without it. If we budget in our household to fill two planters with flowers – so the twins can each plant one – and someone steals one? Our kids feel that one planter is clearly not the same as two. There’s no food involved in this but, aside from contacting the police or directly confronting the neighbours, we run the risk of being seen as the crooks if we “steal” it back.
We have public services – police, courts, animal services – to solve some conflicts. Yet, if public services are delayed or unresponsive, we’re left with the same moral issues. How do we solve these problems without timely intervention or help? What can we do to practise tikkun olam, repair of the world?
We rely on voting in a democratic society, as well as a responsive civil service, to make sure our public services work. (This is a hint – please vote in the next election.) On a personal level, though, my kid suffers when he worries about a missing person, a dog or a flowerpot. He is the same kid who knows what the Red Dress installations mean: I have an 8-year-old who knows these commemorate the loss of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. It’s hard to see a kid learn about this. It’s harder yet to live with loss. Imagine the huge pain of losing a person. For a kid, losing a beloved animal or giving up on something that was stolen seems hard enough.
The rabbis give ways to respond to challenges of theft or loss and it’s up to us not just to study the sources, but to live in a way that carries out their teachings. We must call others to account when they fail to do what’s right. If someone steals, promises to pay for something and doesn’t, or “loses” someone or something, it’s our obligation to ask them to honour their commitments.
It’s not OK to take a loved one, an animal, a kid’s flowerpot or to skip paying the bill. We have limited funds in our household, school and government budgets. Yet, our tradition also teaches a compassionate compromise – if a person truly cannot survive, we must help. The question we’re left with is how to find closure when the world fails us. If no one returns a missing child or animal, if we do not honour our commitments to others, what kind of a place is this?
We have a stake in making this world a better place. It starts with practical steps like helping get a lost person, dog or belongings home safely. Let’s at least honour our obligations.
Joanne Seiffhas 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. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Members of Vancouver Talmud Torah’s Grade 7 chesed club with Gia Tran, a local woman who raises money for cancer research by taking refundable containers to a bottle depot. (photo from VTT)
Since 2014, Vancouver Talmud Torah has offered a chesed (kindness) program to students in grades 3 and 6. Following requests from parents, the school introduced a mandatory chesed program for Grade 7s this year, which nurtures a commitment to volunteering and social justice.
And, this year, the initiative was pursued with a particular dedication, as students mourned the recent passing of Rose Dupaya, who worked as a custodian at VTT. She took ill last fall with cancer and died suddenly, which was a tremendous shock to the school community. In response, the students – who would often greet Rose with hugs – turned their grief into action.
When the Chesed Leadership Club heard about local woman Gia Tran, who takes refundable containers to a bottle depot every day to raise money for cancer research – more than $15,000 in 22 years – they were inspired. Following in Tran’s footsteps, the kids raised $2,000 from a bottle drive for cancer research.
VTT student Julia Andison expressed her gratitude to Tran for teaching her about personal agency. “Gia taught me that even a small act like collecting cans can make a big impact on others. And, as a chesed leader, I was able to communicate this to the younger students in our school, that every little bit counts.”
Students in the chesed club do not follow a curriculum. Unlike with subjects like math or language arts, the club was founded for students to explore their values and lead a program on their own initiative. As a consequence, the program’s success lies in the development of student ideas, teamwork and leadership.
“The minute you offer something optional and student-driven, it takes on a life of its own,” said Shoshana Burton, director of Hebrew (grades 5-7) and chesed programming at VTT.
Students are not admitted automatically to the chesed club. Instead, they submit applications and sign contracts. If they do not follow up on their commitment to leadership, they can be dropped from the program, which is both an opportunity and a challenge to the students’ organizational skills and a way to exercise their moral and management muscles.
All of the students volunteer as part of the program. Some do so once a week while others volunteer their help every day. Many organizations and communities have benefitted from the support of VTT students, including the Muslim Food Bank and residents of the Downtown Eastside.
According to their teacher, the success of the club is in its spontaneous, natural development. “You can’t know the end result when you start. You can’t plan in advance,” said Burton. “The students learn how to work as part of a team, learning to commit to a project.”
Student Celia Joffe spoke of the club’s impact on her. “Helping others gives us a sense of pride and responsibility,” she said. “The project with Gia was amazing because we ended up not only helping the cancer foundation and the environment, but we also made Gia feel special and acknowledged.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
Katie Delay, left, and Sunny Enkin Lewis are co-presidents of Grant Park High School’s Students for Social Justice. (photo from Sunny Enkin Lewis)
Earlier this year, Winnipeg Grade 12 student Sunny Enkin Lewis won first prize for her age group in A&E network’s contest Lives That Make a Difference. The contest receives hundreds of submissions from all over Canada.
“The prompt [for the contest] is along the lines of, ‘Write an essay about someone who has made a significant contribution to Canada in 2018,’” Enkin Lewis told the Independent. “So, I wrote about Autumn Peltier, who – I believe she’s 15 now, around there – is an indigenous water keeper. She’s an activist for clean water in indigenous communities in Canada. She’s spoken at the UN, she’s spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. So, she’s done a lot of amazing activism.”
Peltier is Anishinaabe and is from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario.
“I chose her for a couple reasons,” said Enkin Lewis, who was born in Toronto, but has lived in Winnipeg for the past 10 years. “First of all, I think her cause is really important in Canada. I’ve always been really upset with Canadian society and government, because we tend to look at ourselves as pretty flawless in terms of human rights. And, it is true that the quality of life for Canadians, overall, is really good. Yet, there are people, a lot of people, who don’t have the most basic of their needs met – water and shelter … and I think she has brought more awareness to that.”
In her essay, Enkin Lewis points out that Peltier not only stands up fearlessly for this cause, but that she does so from a unique worldview as an Anishinaabe person.
“She thinks of water as deserving of rights,” said Enkin Lewis. “That’s not something we would generally think of and I think it’s a really strong statement – that someone can stand up and speak of things in a way that contrasts the common logic of general Western ideas. I think that helps validate indigenous worldviews in a Western context a little more. Also, I was just inspired by her, as a young woman. I think it’s so important that young people’s voices are heard and that’s how I believe change will happen the fastest – if young people are given a platform and are accepted and respected – and she really embodies that.”
As for as why Enkin Lewis’s essay may have been chosen, she said, “I think my choice of person was really relevant in Canada today, especially since, now, I think, there’s a big focus on indigenous rights, and I think it was maybe a bit refreshing to see someone like that. I haven’t read the other people’s essays, and they didn’t tell me why mine was specifically chosen … just that they thought it stood out.”
Growing up, Enkin Lewis learned that “a big thing in Judaism is valuing life over everything, and knowing the value of human life. And, I think a big part of Judaism is also just respect for people and … everyone should have a good quality of life.
“The fact that, here, in Canada, there are people who don’t have their basic needs met, I think that’s not OK in Judaism. I think it’s important for other cultures to listen to each other, just as I think it’s important for Christian people to listen to Jewish people. And, I think it’s important for Jewish people to listen to indigenous perspectives. As a European Jew, I’m not native to this land … and it’s important to respect the people who are the caretakers of this land and who have been for thousands of years.”
Last year, Enkin Lewis led the organizing of a social justice conference at Grant Park High School, which, in turn, led to the development of a student social justice club at Grant Park. Enkin Lewis and co-president Katie Delay created the club and, because they and the teacher involved in helping to form the group will have left the school by the start of the next school year, Enkin Lewis hopes the younger members will pick up the ball.
“I think our club is very student-centred, very much about what we care about right now, and it gives me and other people an opportunity to get involved in a safe and constructive way,” she said.
As Grant Park has many newcomer Yazidi students, events organized by the club have been focused on building community awareness of the Yazidi situation.
“We did a drive for school supplies for underprivileged students in Winnipeg, and the biggest thing we’ve done is organize a coffeehouse and a couple other events for Yazidis with the help of a local organization called Operation Ezra. We had a bake sale where we sold traditional Yazidi foods, a Yazidi dance class to educate people about the culture, etc. I find that people are not really aware of what’s happening to the Yazidi people.
“We had a coffeehouse in the evening and invited community members, students, parents, anyone to come. There were student performers and a speaker talking about what’s happening, and a Yazidi performer.”
Enkin Lewis’s essay win comes with a $3,000 cheque for her and a $1,000 cheque for her school. She plans to follow her family’s Jewish custom of donating a portion of everything they earn. “I haven’t narrowed it down to a specific organization yet,” she said, “but I’m going to donate it basically to her [Peltier’s] cause – water in indigenous communities. Other than that, I will probably put it toward my education.”
Left to right are Toby Rubin, Marie Doduck and Lynne Fader. (photo by Lianne Cohen)
On May 5, the Kehila Society of Richmond celebrated its 20th anniversary. The society honoured Marie and Sid (z”l) Doduck for the support and guidance they have given to the society since its inception, and celebrated members of its first board of directors. The special annual general meeting, which took place at the Richmond Country Club, also saw the initiation of Kehila’s current board and the event featured speaker Dr. Sherri Wise, who shared her story of surviving a terrorist attack in Israel. More than 90 people attended the AGM.
“The difference that Kehila has made for our Jewish community in Richmond … for the quality of living for those residing here – we continue to be an integral part of the Richmond community at large and are partners within it, making a difference every day,” said Lynne Fader, co-executive director with Toby Rubin.
“Kehila’s weekly seniors program on Mondays is an essential service for most of our attendees,” said Rubin. “We are meeting so many of their needs: from free ESL programming to food sustainability and socialization and education. We are very proud of our program and its vitality.”
The 2019/2020 Kehila Society of Richmond board of directors is Sherri Barkoff (co-president and treasurer), Mark Babins (co-president), Keziah Selles (secretary), Ruth Singer (seniors’ representative), Shauna Osten (community outreach), Shelley Morris (human resources), Courtney Cohen (community outreach) and Harley Godfrey (finance committee), with directors Rabbi Levi Varnai (the Bayit representative), Lu Winters (Richmond Jewish Day School), Jeff Rothberg (Beth Tikvah) and Sanford Cohen (Chabad Richmond).
“I am proud of the collaboration that we do with all the organizations in Richmond to help those in need, seniors, families and youth,” said Barkoff.
Kehila’s partnerships include the Multifaith Richmond Food Aid Delivery Program, a faith-based group of organizations working to feed the homeless, isolated, low-income and frail in the general population. Kehila assists with deliveries, cooking and, when viable, food vouchers and items of warm clothing. Kehila has facilitated a partnership with the Richmond SPCA and Tysol Pets to assist with these community members’ animal companions.
Kehila also participates in Light of Shabbat, with Chabad of Richmond. This biweekly, by-donation program has volunteers of all ages doing the cooking, packaging and delivering of kosher Shabbat meals to 30-plus individuals.
The Len Babins Nutritional Subsidy Program is a donor-sponsored initiative focused on RJDS but not exclusively. It provides hot lunches twice a week for children in need at the school; children are screened discreetly through the school counselor. Approximately 254 meals per term per student are provided, with a total of 17 children from 12 families accessing the service. But the number of children served is higher than this because, additionally, Kehila funds a healthy lunch for these same children who, on days of no hot lunch program, do not have lunches.
Chabad of Richmond and Kehila also partner in the Richmond Community Seder, an annual, by-donation event that has been held for numerous years. Generally, about 70 people attend the seder and many take food home for a second seder or out of need. This year, for the first time, a full seder meal and supplies were delivered to those who were unable to attend.
Lastly, Kehila spearheads Rose’s Angels, an annual outreach program that provides warm clothing, hygiene products, children’s books and more to local community agencies whose clients are in need of assistance. This year, more than 1,100 individuals benefitted from the program, which is run through donations of many kinds.
Cory Bretz has made a video of Kehila Society’s work and Lianne Cohen photographed the 20th anniversary event – the video and photos can be found on Kehila’s Facebook page (facebook.com/113139405408718).