Cautious optimism. That seems to be the consensus among Jewish school administrators as students and teachers prepare to return to classes in September.
One of the key lessons of the past year-and-a-half has been that things can change swiftly and the pandemic response requires resilience and adaptiveness.
“We’ve all learned that whatever is final is only final until it changes,” joked Russ Klein, King David High School’s head of school. Despite the circumstances, he said, the last academic year was a good one. He credits students, parents and teachers for working together, being flexible and making the best of the situation.
“It sounds strange to say, but, in terms of the context, we had a really good year,” he said. “People were incredibly positive, even with a few COVID cases here and there.”
The biggest challenges were wearing masks, cancelling extracurricular activities, including inter-school sports, and the cancellation of all school trips. Grade-specific cohorts were instituted, with staggered schedules to avoid interactions between groups.
As it stands now – unless changes are announced before classes starts Sept. 13 – cohorts will no longer be required. Klein hopes that some competitive sports will also be possible.
While hoping for a school year that is as normal as can be, Klein is also confident that the experience of last year has made the entire school community more sanguine about changes to routines.
Like Klein, Emily Greenberg, head of school at Vancouver Talmud Torah, gives kudos to students, parents and teachers.
“I would say the last year was all about being flexible and understanding that we couldn’t anticipate for sure how things were going to go,” she said. “It was really a team effort. We were really appreciative of our parents and staff and everybody as regulations shifted…. This was the ultimate team effort because it would not have gone as well as it had had we not all rolled up our sleeves and done the work we had to do to get through to where we are today.”
A big remaining question is how kids under 12, who have not yet been cleared for vaccinations, will be required to behave at school.
Some people use the term “new normal,” but Greenberg prefers “near-normal.”
“I am hopeful that our near-normal will be one that we can all live with and still appreciate the liberties that we are starting to gain back,” she said.
With about 500 students set to converge on the school this year, Greenberg is confident that students, parents and staff will step up again to do whatever it takes to learn safely.
“I think the most important piece is just understanding the team mentality,” she said. “The school can’t do it alone. No business can do it alone. Everybody has to play their role.”
Shalhevet Girls High School had a different experience than most. Because of its small student body – this year 11 students will be starting classes – there was no need to form cohorts. However, Ian Mills, incoming principal at Shalhevet, noted that the confluence of Jewish holidays coinciding with the start of the school year raises concerns about kids spreading the virus to siblings, parents and grandparents.
“We are going to encourage mask use, I think, no matter what happens,” said Mills. They will also continue to have the sanitization stations to which everyone has become accustomed and disinfecting protocols will also proceed.
“We’re just really excited,” he said of the new school year. “But, also, things can change. I’m not letting my guard off.”
Vancouver Hebrew Academy also benefited last year from its relatively smaller size, being able to accommodate more of its student body within the capacity limits that were set by the government. Outgoing head of school Rabbi Don Pacht told the Independent in a June interview, “I think schools have been doing a phenomenal job overall, but it’s easier when you only have two cohorts instead of eight cohorts.”
By the time of that interview, basically all of the VHA students had returned to the classroom. Unfortunately, the JI was unable to reach VHA’s new head of school, Rabbi Barak Cohen, for an update before we went to press.
Like all administrators, Sabrina Bhojani, the new principal at Richmond Jewish Day School, will be closely watching the edicts coming from the province’s ministry of education and public health officials.
“Until we have that information, we are hoping things are going to be normal,” she said. “Right now, it’s a waiting game and things are changing minute by minute.”
“I think people are hopeful,” she said. “There is always a little bit of anxiety as well. I think it’s mixed emotions [but] I think people are optimistic for a back-to-normal start.”
Left to right are new heads of school Ian Mills (Shalhevet Girls High School), Sabrina Bhojani (Richmond Jewish Day School) and Rabbi Barak Cohen (Vancouver Hebrew Academy). (photos from interviewees)
Three new principals will be joining the Metro Vancouver network of Jewish day schools this fall. Richmond Jewish Day School, Shalhevet Girls High School and Vancouver Hebrew Academy will all be under the helm of new administrators who bring decades of varied experience to the community.
Ian Mills, who has served as Shalhevet’s social studies teacher for the past six years, is taking over from Meira Federgrun, who has led the school for the past four years. RJDS’s new principal, Sabrina Bhojani, steps into the shoes of outgoing principal Ronit Amihude, who was at the helm for three years. And Rabbi Barak Cohen will be VHA’s new head of school this fall, replacing Rabbi Don Pacht, who served as the school’s head for 17 years.
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Mills, who was born and raised in Dundas, Ont., received his bachelor of arts from McMaster University and his bachelor in education from the University of British Columbia. This past spring, he was accepted into a two-year master’s program at Simon Fraser University.
He also has a broad teaching background, having served as a substitute teacher in Melbourne, Australia, as well as at King David High School. Even when he was studying at UBC, Mills said teaching wasn’t far from his life. He supported himself as a ski and snowboard instructor at Grouse Mountain, garnering both awards and promotions for his work.
“I want students to be true to themselves and recognize what is special about who they are and what they bring to the table,” Mills told the Independent. “Sometimes in education, the grade you receive on a project or test becomes the measuring stick of who you are as a student. Instead, I want students to realize that skill sets come in a wide variety of forms.”
He said the recent updates to the provincial curriculum will help teachers lend support to students’ individual strengths, including “interpersonal skills, social/personal responsibility, leadership, and a host of other ways people are valued – I applaud the fact teachers now have more opportunity to foster these aspects of students.”
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Bhojani, who was born in Ontario, grew up in Metro Vancouver and considers it her home. She received a bachelor of science and a bachelor of education from UBC, as well as a master’s in educational leadership and training from SFU. She served as faculty in the teacher education programs of both SFU and UBC, and worked for the B.C. Ministry of Education, where she developed curriculum and testing methodologies. As a school-based educator for the B.C. Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation, she taught teachers about the importance of agricultural and food knowledge.
“I believe learning about agriculture is an essential component of being a global citizen in the 21st century,” Bhojani said.
She has also worked as an educational consultant for Canadian School Bahrain, a nonprofit whose mandate is to empower children with confidence and the “moral values of integrity, responsibility, respect and courage,” in addition to academic excellence.
“Character education is an important part in developing the whole child and is essential in helping all members of the school community to learn, understand and practise behaviours that reflect universal ethical values,” said Bhojani. “It is essentially what guides us to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult to do so. I believe this is true of all faith-based education, and these kinds of enriching values certainly apply to Jewish education today and tomorrow.”
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Cohen was born in Davenport, Iowa, and studied at Ohr Somayach and the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem while completing his smichah (rabbinic ordination). He holds a bachelor’s in behavioural science and a master’s in educational leadership from Bellevue University in Nebraska.
Cohen is no stranger to British Columbia’s Jewish community. He served as rabbi for Aish Hatorah in Victoria before taking a rabbinical position in St. Ives, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. As rabbi for the local Masada College, he launched an enriched Jewish studies program called Torah Stream that became fundamental to teaching elementary school children Hebrew and giving them the building blocks and confidence to study Torah.
“The curriculum was based on standard religious studies programs and outcomes found in religious schools worldwide, and accompanied Masada College’s outstanding general studies offering,” Cohen explained. The program meant that congregants no longer had to bus their elementary school-aged children an hour each way to Sydney to attend Hebrew classes. Cohen was later appointed head of Masada’s elementary school.
“I would define my outlook in Jewish education as one of looking at our incredible history of Jewish scholarship and recognizing that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Cohen told the Independent. “At the same time, there’s always room to better our practice.”
For Cohen, that means “finding ways to more fully engage our students in the depth and breadth of Jewish wisdom, translating that wisdom into 21st-century know-how and building strong foundations in meaningful and relevant knowledge and practice.”
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Rabbi Don and Meira Pacht with their children, left to right, Ora, Shimie, Shoshana and Aharon. (photo from Pacht family)
“We’re very excited for this new adventure,” said Vancouver Hebrew Academy’s Rabbi Don Pacht of his family’s impending move to New York City. “But Vancouver is a huge part of our lives and always will be a huge part of our lives.”
Pacht has been head of school at VHA since 2004. On July 20, 7 p.m., the school will host the Virtual Garden Party, honouring Pacht and his wife Meira for their service to the community and in support of the school’s Fortify Our Future campaign.
“Hebrew Academy is going to need the support of the community,” Pacht said. “And, as it goes through a leadership transition especially … we need to ensure they are fiscally stable.”
VHA has found a new head of school – Rabbi Barak Cohen, who will come here from St. Ives, Australia. “He used to live in Victoria,” said Pacht, “so he understands the West Coast of Canada as a community.”
Cohen comes with much experience in Jewish day schools, added Pacht, who has known Cohen for many years. The two rabbis have been in touch “in terms of passing the torch of the school,” but there won’t be a physical overlap. “For the next school year,” said Pacht, “I’m going to remain connected as a consultant and available, essentially, for Rabbi Cohen, for the board, for anyone who needs whatever is still in my head and not on paper.”
Pacht and his family will be in Vancouver until late July. They came here from Rochester, N.Y., via Torah Umesorah, the National Society of Jewish Day Schools. When the organization suggested the position in Vancouver, Pacht was interested because his friend Rabbi Dovid Davidowitz had recently come to the city, along with Rabbi Noam Abramchik, to set up the Pacific Torah Institute (which left Vancouver in 2019, after 16 years of operations).
Two aspects in particular of the city’s Jewish community struck him.
“Number one, there was a real growth-oriented spirit,” he said. As well, he added, “I think it is unique and special in the integration across the gamut of the community. You can live your entire life in New York City and never meet a Conservative Jew.” But, in Vancouver, “no one would think twice about attending Hebrew Academy’s events even though they themselves are not Orthodox or families of Hebrew Academy and I wouldn’t think twice about attending an event put on by another organization or school even though they’re not my ‘flavour’ of Judaism.”
That everyone works together “for the cumulative benefit of the broader community was very, very impressive to us,” said Pacht.
When Pacht began his first year at VHA, there were more than 100 students. Currently, he said, enrolment is just under 100. He pointed to demographic changes.
“In the 17 years that I’ve been here,” he said, “I would say we have been more successful over time in attracting a broader spectrum of families. But, we continue to lose Orthodox families in the community. There are rabbis who are leaving, or just families who have aged out of the school system. That’s really what happened to PTI…. All the pioneer families that helped establish the organization, all their boys went through and graduated and we weren’t replacing them with new Orthodox families.”
The exodus worries him, he said, “as someone who is concerned about the global Orthodox community and global growth of Torah and Judaism.” But, with respect to VHA, he said he believes the school “will be just fine” because it offers “a product that is not available in any of the other schools…. And, because it’s something that can’t be done anywhere else in Vancouver, Vancouver understands that we need it.”
For example, he said, if you’re a Schara Tzedeck family, you know that, in order to have rabbinic leadership at the synagogue, you need Orthodox education in the community. Similarly, if you want Judaics teachers, even in non-Orthodox schools, you need to educate those leaders.
When he first came to VHA, the school already had two portables and another was added. “At the height of our enrolment, we probably had 130 students in a facility that was really built for 60, and we accommodated them with three portables, and bursting at the seams,” he said.
“It was always the vision to find a more suitable home,” he continued. “We started with trying to buy the property from the Vancouver School Board.” While not successful in that effort, VHA did manage, a handful of years ago, to secure a 10-year lease from the school board. With that security, it launched a capital campaign to replace the portables and improve the property.
“The dream of being able to offer full-day daycare for 3- and 4-year-olds was finally realized a year-and-a-half ago, when we opened this new facility,” said Pacht.
Then COVID-19 hit. “It has been, without a doubt, the most difficult experience that any of our staff, myself included, can remember,” he said. Part of that was because it entailed a whole type of education that no one had been trained for – remote learning – but also because everybody has been traumatized in some way by the pandemic and schools have had to deal with much of the fallout.
VHA’s relatively small size was an advantage in this instance, said Pacht. “I think schools have been doing a phenomenal job overall, but it’s easier when you only have two cohorts instead of eight cohorts.” When students initially were permitted to attend school in-person again, for example, VHA could accommodate more of its student body within the capacity limits set by the government. Generally speaking, said Pacht, all of the students have since returned to the classroom.
Of accomplishments during his tenure, Pacht pointed to the new building and other physical improvements to the school, “along with the broader community profile. I think it’s a fair statement to say that the number of people who are aware of Hebrew Academy, whether or not it’s the school they send their kids or grandkids to, and the appreciation for Hebrew Academy, it has a very significant standing within the community…. It allowed us to expand and it allowed us to have a successful capital campaign. And it allows us to maintain a school of excellence…. I can say without a doubt that the level of education at this school is really top-notch.”
While Pacht and his family are leaving the city, he said, “This is where our children grew up. This is home – when my kids talk about home, they’re thinking Vancouver. We are leaving because an opportunity came up that we could just not say no to, and that is, I received an offer from a school in New York City that happens to be the elementary school that I graduated from … and it puts us in a neighbourhood where we are in walking distance to my parents, my children and my grandchildren.”
The Virtual Garden Party is free to attend, with donations welcome. To register, email [email protected] or call 604-266-1245.
Volozhin Yeshivah in Belarus, 2017. In learning about the institution, Mark Weintraub was moved to sponsor a lecture on it, in honour of his mother, and to champion restoration efforts. (photo by Da voli)
“How did I not know about this?” That was the question echoing through the mind of Vancouver lawyer Mark Weintraub, a longtime student of Jewish intellectual history, when he first learned about Volozhin Yeshivah, a once-illustrious place of study that he describes as “the Harvard, MIT and Yale of the Jewish people rolled into one.”
Once Weintraub understood the influence Volozhin – which was open from 1806 to 1892 in what was then Russia – had on the Jewish world, he was stunned that it was so little known. His passion about this treasure of Jewish history led to his participation in organizing a recent online class, From Volozhin to Vancouver, taught by Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, the rav and a teacher of Ohr Samayach Yeshivah in Israel, whose resumé includes having been a professor of law at the University of Maryland. It led, as well, to Weintraub’s championing of an effort to restore the still-standing building of the yeshivah, which is in Belarus.
To spread knowledge of Volozhin and to honour his late mother, Rita Weintraub, z”l, a lifelong devotee of Jewish learning, Weintraub helped organize and sponsor the online class with Congregation Beth Hamidrash, Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Vancouver Hebrew Academy and Shalhevet Girls High School. On Oct. 18, more than 60 people gathered to learn from Breitowitz on Zoom. Weintraub introduced the lecture, dedicating it to his mother, and Rabbi Ari Federgrun of Schara Tzedeck moderated the discussion. Breitowitz had risen at 5:30 a.m. in Israel to give the lecture about the legend and history of Volozhin, whose very name, he said, “carries an aura of mystery and delight.”
Volozhin is sometimes called “the mother of yeshivot,” since it was the first modern, institutionalized yeshivah, explained Breitowitz. It was established by Rav Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821), a famed kabbalist and Torah scholar. Rav Chaim was a student of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), a towering figure at the time and the leader of non-Chassidic Jewry in Eastern Europe. The Vilna Gaon had led the Orthodox opposition to Chassidism, concerned about its radical theological ideas and the possibility that Chassidim might transgress Jewish law and lead to extremist mystical movements that would disrupt or damage the Jewish community. Followers of the Vilna Gaon came to be known as Misnagdim (Opponents), as the Chassidic movement grew to become the dominant force in Eastern European Jewish life.
Rav Chaim, who did not sign the Gaon’s writ of excommunication against the Chassidim, took a gentler stance towards the movement than his teacher. He focused his efforts on teaching an intellectually intense absorption in Torah study for its own sake and a fierce devotion to the observance of halachah (Jewish law) as a form of devotion to God.
Rav Chaim formed the Volozhin yeshivah to create a new kind of environment for study. Instead of the local learning that took place in small houses of study in the shtetls, Volozhin was a large institution that provided both housing and food to its students, and taught young Jewish men from near and far. “The Volozhiner wanted yeshivahs to be non-local institutions which all of Israel had a stake in,” explained Breitowitz. “He didn’t like a few large donors but many small donors.”
The yeshivah had 24-hour learning that was intended to sustain the world with the power of Torah and de-emphasize practical legal rulings for the sake of pure disinterested study. Volozhin – and its immediate offspring in the form of other similar yeshivot started by its graduates – created both a new model of Jewish learning and a generation of non-Chassidic luminaries with a far-ranging and decisive influence on orthodoxy and beyond. A short list of the graduates it produced, or who taught there, included Rav Chaim Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav, 1853-1918), Rav Nafatli Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv, 1816-1891), Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) and many others, including both Zionists and anti-Zionists, mystics, ethicists and legalists.
The yeshivah environment encouraged creative ferment and demanded intellectual rigour, and Volozhin was not only famed for the Orthodox leaders it produced. Some of the students became leaders in the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, and it was rumoured that secret books were passed among students and housed in a hidden library full of philosophy, science and secular language texts. Among its luminaries in this regard was Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), the renowned Israeli poet and writer.
In 1892, the Russian government closed Volozhin when the heads of the yeshivah refused to change the daily schedule to curtail Torah study and include hours of government-approved secular studies. While it reopened in 1899 on a smaller scale, its glory days had passed.
Volozhin functioned until 1939, when the Second World War broke out. During the war, German soldiers used the building as a stable; later, it was a canteen and deli. The site was returned to the Jewish community of Belarus in 1989. In 1998, it was registered on the State List of Historical and Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Belarus.
It was the discovery of this history that so excited Weintraub. His mother had been a devotee of learning, libraries and study. “I wanted to have lectures to honour her, since it was difficult to communally mourn her during COVID,” said Weintraub. “I approached Rabbi [Don] Pacht at Vancouver Hebrew Academy about bringing in Rabbi Breitowitz.”
Wondering if the topic was too Orthodox for his mother, Weintraub, who has been involved in the Conservative movement for years, decided, “Nothing was ever too Jewish for her. She saw the goodness in everyone’s Judaism, no matter what it was, so I went ahead to tell this fascinating story of Jewish learning in her honour.”
For his part, Breitowitz has taken on a project to raise awareness and money for the reconstruction of Volozhin. He has begun organizing a group to work on it and is beginning “to raise momentum and find a way.”
“Five hundred years from now, Harvard, Yale and MIT are in ruins and everyone just walks by it?” he challenged. Volozhin, he said, “is a place that needs special attention from the Jewish community.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He has been published in Philosophy Now, Tricycle, the Forward and elsewhere. He blogs on Medium and is master teacher at Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver.
Metro Vancouver’s five Jewish day schools are officially in session – student orientation began the week of Sept. 8. But, while the schools are working hard to create a “normalized” and consistent atmosphere for learning, the new procedures set in place by the Ministry of Education’s Back to School program will likely take a bit to get used to.
In July, the Ministry of Education announced new guidelines for class sizes and safe attendance as it prepared to return students to the classroom. Elementary and middle school cohorts are limited to 60 persons each, while high school learning groups are capped at 120 students. The province requires masks to be used at middle and high schools whenever social distancing cannot be maintained.
King David High School’s head of school, Russ Klein, acknowledged that having to wear a mask at school may be awkward for many. As well, the two-metre social distancing requirements will, at times, be difficult, forcing students to study on their own, rather than buddying-up for group assignments. That means, said Klein, “you are also then reducing opportunities for group work. You’re not facing the kids together, you are not sitting them in bunches,” methods that have often proven to be effective approaches in large classrooms. Teachers, he added, “really like to help their kids and needing to stay six feet away from them at all times changes how you help somebody and how you interact with them.”
Many schools began implementing changes to classrooms, common rooms and lesson plans last school year when it became evident that social distancing would affect how classes were taught. Rabbi Don Pacht, who oversees the Vancouver Hebrew Academy daily operations, said the move to a brand-new building last spring helped with that transition.
The larger building, he said, “gives us a very desirable ratio of space per student. Keeping distance between learning groups and allowing for distance between desks will be easily achieved.”
Like other schools in the area, VHA has also implemented see-through “sneeze guards” and other preventive measures to reduce chances of transmission. “We have also invested in Plexiglass screens and additional hand sanitizing stations throughout the school,” said the rabbi.
Vancouver Talmud Torah began making changes to the curriculum last school year as well. Jennifer Schecter, who serves as the communications and admissions director for VTT, said the speed with which the school began implementing changes to address the coronavirus threat appears to have paid off.
“Our retention was at an all-time high this past year because I believe parents value our product and the sense of community we provide more now than ever. This is a testament to our faculty’s superb skill in pivoting and offering a robust remote learning program last spring,” Schecter said.
Technology plays an oversized role in teaching modules this year. All of the schools the Jewish Independent spoke with said they are prepared for a return to remote learning, should it occur.
“Every single faculty member has a VTT-issued MacBook Air to use at school and at home and each classroom is equipped with screencasting technologies,” said Schecter. “Our IT department is incredibly responsive, knowledgeable and stays ahead of the curve with respect to tools that can facilitate instruction, especially if VTT needs to go remote again.
“Last year, we put a solid infrastructure in place that allowed us to pivot quickly to remote learning,” she said. “We will be able to lean on this structure this year. Teachers are planning in anticipation of a potential shift to remote and will be acquainting their students with many of the same tools they did last year, such as Google Classroom.”
Meira Federgrun, who runs Shalhevet Girls High School, said students are outfitted to work either in-class or at home, when necessary. “All our students have personal laptops … and, in case students are self-quarantining/isolating, they have that as a resource to Zoom into classes on their regular schedule.”
KDHS’s Klein said teachers and administration are also preparing for increased absenteeism. “Because, when people are not feeling well, they are supposed to not come to school. And that could be the student or the teacher,” he said.
According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, children in this province have a lower rate of infection than adults. Still, preparing for the chance that some students may have to study from home while they are quarantining has required some out-of-the box thinking when it comes to lesson planning.
“Managing to keep the educational program uninterrupted and keep students that are absent in the educational flow, I think that’s going to be the challenge,” Klein said.
Pacht said parents will be expected to keep the school informed about students’ health status on a regular basis. “We know that there is stress on the parents as well,” said Pacht. “There will be questionnaires, waivers and health checks. If a child has as much as a sniffle, they will not be allowed to attend school until seen by a healthcare professional.”
Provincial COVID-19 health and safety guidelines require schools to maintain daily health checks for all students, staff, administrators and visitors, and parents’ participation with that process helps reduce the chance of an accidental infection at school.
Pacht added that the students’ sense of safety is important, too, as they adjust to this new environment. “This will be stressful for students, too, and we will focus on social and emotional support for students,” he said. “They will have to adapt to a new way of experiencing school (again!), and we want to ease that transition.
“I know that if we work together we can provide an exceptional experience for our children.”
Dr. Lara Aknin, a social psychologist at Simon Fraser University, said kids may need extra support this year to prepare them for new learning experiences.
“Helping kids feel safe and secure during the pandemic is important as we return to school this fall,” she said, offering the following research-proven ways to help young students gain confidence in today’s “new normal” classroom.
Encourage gratitude. “The pandemic has exacted a large toll on many,” said Aknin. “When possible, try reflecting on what you are grateful for.” Help students “focus on what’s good, rather than what’s lost.”
Be kind and help others. Research has shown that we feel good when we help others. It can be as simple as donating tzedakah to a special charity or comforting another student, she said, “but finding ways to help others can make you feel grateful and boost your mood.”
Maintain a daily routine that kids can follow. Doing so provides predictability and structure during challenging times.
Keep up that exercise regimen. It’s a known fact that exercise helps boost serotonin and elevate mood. Aknin pointed out that exercise doesn’t have to be a workout. It can be a dance party, a family stroll after dinner or a favourite game.
And don’t forget to socialize. “Distant socializing,” even when it’s virtually or two metres apart, reinforces kids’ social connections with their friends, extended family, schoolmates and new acquaintances,” said Aknin. “[Ensuring] physical distance from others doesn’t mean we should cut off all contact with others. Find creative ways to stay connected and have meaningful contact with friends and family with Zoom, FaceTime, or distanced visits outside.”
Jan Lee’s articles and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
New Hebrew school opens
B.C. Regional Hebrew Schools, run by Lubavitch BC, has launched a new Hebrew school for elementary students in the East Vancouver area. The Mount Pleasant location will be Lubavitch BC’s third school in the Lower Mainland.
“This program has been created uniquely for children who attend public school or non-Jewish private schools, and aims to present a comprehensive curriculum, including Hebrew language, reading and writing; Jewish pride and sense of community; Jewish holidays and customs,” said a press release announcing the opening. Rabbi Dovid and Chaya Rosenfeld serve as the directors for the three schools in the Lower Mainland. Riki Oirechman will be the new school’s principal.
Classes will take place Wednesdays, 3:45 to 5:30 p.m., at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, accompanied by a complimentary kosher meal.
The organization said it is abiding by all COVID-19 protocols and, as such, asks that parents understand they will not be able to accompany their children inside during classes or drop-offs. Parents can inquire about classes by calling 778-878-2025 or emailing [email protected]. The class schedule can be found at ganisraelbc.com.
American political commentator and writer Ben Shapiro addressed more than 900 people at the Faigen Family Lecture, which was held at Congregation Schara Tzedeck on Oct. 30. (photo by Jocelyne Hallé)
More than 900 people came out to hear conservative commentator and writer Ben Shapiro give this year’s Faigen Family Lecture, which took place at Congregation Schara Tzedeck on Oct. 30.
Saul Kahn began the evening by reading the names of the 11 Jews murdered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a few days earlier. After a moment of silence, Vancouver Hebrew Academy head of school, Rabbi Don Pacht, recited a prayer for those who were killed. The security presence at Schara Tzedeck was notable, from every attendee being checked at the entrance to several guards within the sanctuary.
In introducing the lecture, Kahn explained, “Almost a decade ago, Dr. Morris Faigen, of blessed memory, created the Faigen Family Lecture Series in partnership with Rabbi Pacht and the Vancouver Hebrew Academy. This endeavour arose from their mutual love of Israel, a shared concern for the mindset of the modern Jew in North America and a desire to help influence the next generation.”
Kahn thanked VHA’s Teagan Horowitz and office staff, Rochelle Garfinkel and the Schara Tzedeck staff, Dr. Jeffrey Blicker, “for his instrumental role in bringing this event to fruition,” the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver for help with the additional security and “Gina Faigen and the Faigen family for their appreciation of how very vital it is to have a program such as this that supports an open and meaningful exchange of ideas.”
Pacht linked the lecture’s importance to Jewish tradition, noting how the word cherubs (in Hebrew) appears only twice in the Torah. In Exodus, it appears when God is explaining to Moses how the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is to be constructed: the cherubs (“angels with childlike faces”) are set above the holy ark. However, in the beginning of Genesis, when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, God places cherubs to guard the entrance. “Interestingly,” said Pacht, “here the word is translated differently. It’s translated, by Rashi, as ‘angels of destruction.’” One explanation – from Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, who was head of the talmudic academy in Slabodka, Lithuania – is that, “as parents, as educators, we have a responsibility to take the next generation, to cultivate within them, the ideas and the ideals that we hold most dear. If we are successful in our endeavour, they are cherubic, they are the angels with childlike faces. Unfortunately, if we’re not successful, there’s an entire different pathway that may lay before them.”
Among the values that need to be imparted, said Pacht, are the centrality of Israel and the moral values as laid out by the Torah. Free speech and open debate, he continued, are “most dear to us.” He put them among the ideals we have “from our parents and our grandparents, and we want to see that passed on from generation to generation.”
This generational aspect was picked up on by Gina Faigen with humour in her welcoming remarks. She said she sometimes wonders, “because I’m a lot more liberal than my late father was, if he didn’t create this event in part so that, on at least one day a year, I would have to listen to somebody who shared his views. It’s definitely something I have come to appreciate more as the years go by. My father was passionate about ideas, about intelligent discourse on Israel, and he created this lecture series to ensure a space in Vancouver for a conservative and pro-Israel perspective. I know he would be really excited by tonight’s speaker, Ben Shapiro.
“For those of you who share these views, we hope to continue to provide a place for you here,” she continued. “And, for those of you who may not share all of the speaker’s views, it’s great that you’re here open-minded and part of this conversation.”
Blicker – who suggested Shapiro as a potential speaker after he and his family heard him at a Passover event in Henderson, Nev., more than three years ago – introduced Shapiro. Among other things, Shapiro is a lawyer, editor-in-chief of DailyWire.com, host of the podcast The Ben Shapiro Show, and author of seven books.
Shapiro addressed his critics right off, admitting that he does “sometimes phrase things in an intemperate fashion or spoken too hastily or out of anger or even, on occasion, over the course of a 17-year career of writing things, I’ve written stuff that I disagree with and that I think is immoral. It’s my job to hear those critiques, it’s my job to respond to those critiques in good will and in the spirit of self-betterment, and I’ve tried to do so repeatedly in different places and I look forward to doing so in the future, as well as tonight, that is my job. It’s also the job of my critics to keep an open-mind and not to mistake a political viewpoint for objective righteousness or to slanderously mislabel people like me bigoted or racist – that is unjustified, unjustifiable and hypocritical.”
Given what had happened in Pittsburgh, Shapiro decided to speak about his planned topic – the future of the state of Israel – in connection to global antisemitism. He described three general types of antisemitism.
• Right-wing antisemitism – “in this view, the presence of an independent Jewish community is a threat to national identity.”
• Left-wing antisemitism is “based on hierarchies of power.” Therefore, “when you see an imbalance in life and inequality in life, that is inherently due to inequity, so, if you see two people in a room and one guy has five bucks and one guy has one buck, that means the guy with five bucks somehow screwed the guy with one dollar. Left-wing antisemites, in terms of group politics, see the Jews as the people with five dollars. The Jews are simply too powerful and, thus, they must have participated in exploitation and egregious human rights violations.”
Shapiro offered his take on how intersectional theory would rank the groups whose “opinions should be taken most seriously because they have been most victimized by American society: LGBT folks are at the top, then it usually goes black folks, then Hispanic folks, then women, then Asians, then Jews, then, at the very bottom, white males.” In this framework, since Jews and Israel are relatively successful, they must have done something terrible, “be responsible for the ills.”
• Radical Islamic antisemitism “is the most traditional form of antisemitism – not Islamic, but religious antisemitism.” This is the belief, said Shapiro, “that the religion of Judaism itself is to blame for the problems in Western society. The history of religious antisemitism obviously, goes back thousands of years and it spans a wide variety of religions.”
Today, he said, “Islamic antisemitism has been combined with a sort of Nazi-esque racial antisemitism, which is why you see textbooks in the Palestinian Authority referring to Jews as the sons of pigs and monkeys, and it’s also been combined with a sort of intersectional antisemitism … Jews are successful because they are somehow damaging other people and, also, they happen to be a terrible religion.”
For Jews in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada, Shapiro said right-wing antisemitism is probably the biggest threat, “as we saw in Pittsburgh. There has been a spate of such violence that has been consistent throughout my lifetime.” He said, “The thing that folks don’t understand if they don’t live in the Jewish community is that every single person in the Jewish community is one degree removed from some sort of tragedy of this kind.”
However, he said, for Jews worldwide, radical Islamic antisemitism is the biggest threat. “Whether it is Jews who are living under the possibility of an Iranian nuclear [regime], whether it is … Jews living under the threat of Hezbollah rockets, whether it’s Jews living under the possibility of kidnapping along the Gaza border or whether it is Jews living under the possibility of being murdered while walking the streets in France, whether it is Jews being threatened with the possibility of murder in Malmö, Sweden, whether it is Jews being threatened with murder in London. Islamic antisemitism and the rise of that antisemitism throughout Europe is deeply dangerous to Jews across the world.”
“The thing that folks don’t understand if they don’t live in the Jewish community is that every single person in the Jewish community is one degree removed from some sort of tragedy of this kind.”
There are two main perspectives on antisemitism, said Shapiro. One is that antisemitism is not another form of racism, but is unique – that it comes from a “conspiratorial mentality that the Jews are behind everything bad and, therefore, the Jews must be annihilated.” The second view is that “antisemitism is not unique, it’s not an age-old virus, it’s no different really than anti-black racism or anti-Native American racism or sexism or homophobia…. That means we have to treat the death of a Jew in Efrat at the hands of a terrorist differently than we treat the death of a Jew in Pittsburgh at the hand of a white supremacist because these two Jews scan in different areas of this intersectional pyramid,” said Shapiro. “These two Jews are not equivalent. They are not being killed for the same reasons. The Jew being killed in Pittsburgh is being killed because that Jew is a victim. The Jew being killed in Israel may or may not be being killed because of victimology. It’s possible that that Jew was being killed because of Israeli settlements or some such [reason].
“The second view, as you might imagine, I believe to be deeply troubling, counterproductive and helpful to antisemitism.”
In Shapiro’s opinion, this latter, more troubling view is mainstream on the political left in the United States and in Europe. When a Jew is murdered in certain areas of Israel, he said, “we are supposed to take into account the territorial claims of Palestinians as though that justifies the murder of a civilian who happens to be living in Efrat. We’re supposed to pretend that the dispute is merely territorial and not a symptom of a broader underlying antisemitic disease. When a Jew is murdered in Pittsburgh, then we’re allowed to talk about antisemitism.” This is why, he said, Jews can be excluded from women’s marches and antisemitism can be tolerated, if the Jews in question rank lower than the antisemite in the intersectional hierarchy.
While Israel holds a high position in the world, it is under threat from forces that we refuse to call antisemitism, he continued, citing several examples, such as the numerous votes against Israel at the United Nations. Criticism of Israel is legitimate, he said, but holding the country to a higher standard than any other nation is antisemitic, “and that has been the standard to which the world has held Israel.”
He called wanting to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel “antisemitic in the extreme…. The stated goal by many of those pressing BDS is to destroy the state of Israel…. Not a single person pushing BDS has ever condemned the Palestinian Authority for insisting on a fully judenrein state, a state completely free from every single Jew. Israel allows – and should allow – millions of Arabs to live within its borders, millions of Muslims to live within its borders, that is a good thing. Israel is a multicultural, multi-ethnic democracy. The same is not true of any of the nations facing down Israel, and yet Israel is facing down boycott, divestment and sanctions for saying that we can build an extra bathroom in East Jerusalem. No other nation would tolerate this sort of nonsense. This is targeted hatred and nothing less.”
So, what is our mission, given these realities? “Well, number one, to stand up to antisemitism wherever we see it, on left and on right,” said Shapiro, whether it is coming from our allies or our enemies. “This is not a partisan issue nor should it be. And, our other mission is also the same as it ever was, which is to spread light. What we’re watching right now in American politics and, I think, Western politics more broadly, is a fragmentation of certain eternal and true values that used to undergird a civilization. Those basic values of faith and family and those values of tolerance and openness within the bounds of recognition of certain central individual rights, that’s all fragmented. And whenever society fragments, antisemitism starts to seep through the cracks. As the Tree of Life synagogue name attests, the only way to fight back against all of this is to cling to that Tree of Life, is to cling to the Torah.”
The attack on the Tree of Life synagogue was not just an attack on Jews but on civilization, said Shapiro, “because Judaism, Jews, we stand at the heart of Western civilization…. The only proper response is the same response Jews have given throughout time: to fight back, to fight darkness with light, to fight untruth with truth and fight death with life.”
After a standing ovation for his remarks, Shapiro responded both to questions submitted in advance by event sponsors and then to questions from an open mic. In total, he responded to 22 questions, which ranged from the political to the cultural, from economics to education, tort law to religion. Several of the questioners identified themselves as being Christian, many as fans.
One of the first questions was the language Shapiro uses around transgender issues. “When I’m talking about transgenderism,” he said, “the contention of folks in the political realm is that transgenderism is not, in fact, a mental illness; that, in fact, gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria, whichever DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] you choose to use, 4 or 5, that that particular disorder is no longer a disorder, it’s actually just an expression of gender identity that has no bearing whatsoever on mental health. That’s a lie, and it’s a damaging lie. And, when a society blinds itself to the realities that gender and sex exist, it is less likely to pursue policies that alleviate the pain of a lot of folks and it’s also less likely to pursue policies that have any realities extant on the ground.”
In a few responses, Shapiro differentiated between his use of language in dealing with people one-and-one versus in the political arena or on social media, noting in particular that Twitter is meant to be a more fun space, where you don’t have to be nice. He also talked about his general wariness of government intervention and offered pretty standard conservative views on immigration, economic migration, free speech and abortion.
When asked by the mother of a 14-year-old boy who brought Shapiro’s views into their liberal household about Shapiro’s portrayal at times of the left as monolithic (and unprincipled) and whether it was “part of the game, like [you do] on Twitter?” he responded, “No, it’s political shorthand.”
However, he added, he does try to distinguish between the left and liberals. For example, “when it comes to free speech, I think the left wants to crack down on free speech and I don’t think liberals do. I think liberals are happy to have open and honest debates; they just disagree with me on the level of government necessity in public life. Listen, every individual has different political viewpoints and people self-describe in different ways … but, as a generalized worldview, if I’m hitting the target, when I say the left, 85% of the time, that’s good enough for ditch work. In politics, you’ve got to cover too much ground to break down every single constituent of a particular group. Now, is it an over-generalization? Of course. But politics operates on generalizations, so do our everyday conversations.”
American political commentator Ben Shapiro will give the Faigen Family Lecture on Oct. 30. (photo by Gage Skidmore)
“We live in a world where opinions are formed, far too often, based on preconceived notions and emotion. A hallmark of the critical thinking that we impart in schools today is the ability to hear differing viewpoints and draw informed conclusions. We need to be able to engage, debate and discuss. We may ‘agree to disagree,’ but there needs to be an avenue for dialogue,” Rabbi Don Pacht, Vancouver Hebrew Academy’s head of school, told the Independent about the importance of the Faigen Family Lecture Series.
The series has featured five speakers to date: Israeli journalist Caroline Glick, American activist David Horowitz, American radio talk show host Michael Medved, British journalist Melanie Phillips and American political commentator Daniel Pipes. On Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Ben Shapiro will join that list. The next day, he will speak to a sold-out event at the Chan Centre for Performing Arts, hosted by the University of British Columbia Free Speech Club.
Among other things, Shapiro is editor-in-chief of DailyWire.com, host of The Ben Shapiro Show and author of seven books.
“We were in touch with him almost two years ago,” said Pacht. “It took months and months to find a date that worked for him and did not conflict with other events in our community.
“He was certainly a household name when we first approached him, but it is not an exaggeration to say that he has grown considerably in his craft and has become quite the celebrity in recent years. We have already sold more tickets to this event than to any of our past lectures – including a packed house for Caroline Glick [in 2011] – and we anticipate that we will have another sell-out on our hands.”
The Faigen Family Lecture Series “began as a friendship between myself and Dr. Morris Faigen (of blessed memory). We would speak at length about politics and Israel and we often saw eye to eye on issues,” explained Pacht. “Many Jews often feel as though Israel gets a raw deal when Middle East politics are reported in the news. Dr. Faigen wanted to create a vehicle to spread a more balanced – and decidedly more pro-Israel – view.”
The process of selecting speakers was set in place by Faigen, who passed away in 2012. “His daughter, Gina [Faigen], leads a committee who meet to discuss various possibilities,” said Pacht. “The committee has a mandate – based on Dr. Faigen’s wishes and stated goals – and they will shortlist possible speakers based on these criteria.”
Pacht said the selection of Shapiro reflects the values of open debate and respectful dialogue.
“When my board chair, Glenn Bullard, and I spoke with Ben recently, we asked him directly whether he thought he was maintaining Jewish standards of respectful speech. He acknowledged it was a challenge, but he said, ‘If people want to cherry-pick something I’ve said on Twitter, all I can say is, you don’t look to Twitter for meaningful conversation.’ He hoped instead that people concerned about his tone would look at his work on many issues over many years.
“In the past,” said the rabbi, “we have had people who disagree with a point expressed by our speaker. That is your right. Our expectation is that conversations will focus on the corroboration of evidence and, as always, maintain the highest standards of menschlichkeit.”
With regards to the school’s mission, the lecture series gives VHA an opportunity “to step outside of our ‘zone’ and provide a service to the community,” said Pacht. “Obviously, our primary mission is that of Jewish education. This lecture series is a way that we can reach – and benefit – many within our community who will never see the inside of one of our classrooms.
“It fits well with our value of Israel as central to the life of every Jew and as the ancestral homeland of our people,” he added. “While our lectures are not geared towards elementary school children – we are more likely to see parents and grandparents in the audience – the message is one that is supported by the philosophy of the school.”
As for the physical future of the school, Pacht said VHA “has secured an eight-year lease with the Vancouver School Board. That gives us the security that we have been lacking for years. We know that we have room to grow in our current location.”
To support that growth, aging portables will be replaced with one large modular building. “We are currently on schedule for this renovation to be carried out in the summer of 2019,” said Pacht. “We are also thrilled to report that we are over 90% towards our fundraising goal for this project.”
Encouraged by “the generous response of our community,” he said, “We have no doubt that we will be able to make up the difference and reach our goal.”
The campaign will resume after the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign has closed. “Meanwhile,” said Pacht, “we are moving forward with the process itself and our permit application has been submitted to the City of Vancouver.”
On Feb. 20, students at Vancouver Hebrew Academy packaged more than 200 mishloach manot bags full of non-perishable food items donated by the Marine Drive and Grandview Superstore locations. (photo from VHA)
The atmosphere at the Jewish Food Bank on Feb. 22 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture was almost festive. Adults chatted, kids played, as people made their way through the various lines. Vancouver Hebrew Academy students had already come and gone – having delivered more than 200 mishloach manot packages in anticipation of Purim – and Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould had stopped in to visit.
“We were thrilled to be able to distribute the Purim packages through the food bank,” Rabbi Don Pacht, VHA head of school, told the Independent. “It was the idea of Hodie Kahn and Rachael Lewinski, two die-hard VHA enthusiasts … Hodie is a past VHA parent and board member, Rachael is a current VHA parent (and a VHA alum) and board member. They have been largely responsible for building the program to where it is today. They saw this as a great way to bring the lesson of Purim into living colour. So much of the Purim theme revolves around helping others and bringing community together to celebrate – think mitzvot of sending food to neighbours and charitable gifts to those in need. What better way to celebrate as a community than to bring the joy of Purim to more and more families?”
“It’s a powerful symbol of love and friendship among our community,” said Richard Fruchter, Jewish Family Services chief executive officer, about the mishloach manot project in the agency’s February e-newsletter. He also noted that, during Wilson-Raybould’s visit, the minister spoke “with JFS about food security, housing and mental health services. She connected with the dozens of volunteers and hundreds of clients who benefit from this twice-a-month service.”
All of the items provided in the 200-plus mishloach manot gift bags were donated by two Real Canadian Superstore locations: Marine Drive and Grandview. “And they have [donated] for several years now,” said Pacht, stressing his gratitude.
In years past, the initiative has included other Jewish schools – Vancouver Talmud Torah, Richmond Jewish Day School, King David High School, Pacific Torah Institute and Shalhevet Girls High School – and “was an avenue to raise funds for all of the Jewish day schools,” said Pacht, as people donated to have Purim packages sent to friends, family and colleagues. Run under the umbrella of VHA, it was the “Vancouver Jewish Day Schools Purim Project,” he added.
“In past years, we have hosted the event at KDHS and had students from all the schools participate in various capacities,” explained the rabbi. “VTT, VHA and RJDS students packing, KDHS students setting up and cleaning up, PTI and Shalhevet students picking up items from Superstore, etc. We also have had parents from all of the schools volunteer their time to assist the packing process and deliver the packages on Purim day.
“This year, we took a step back and did not run the program as a fundraiser. With only 200 packages being prepared, that were then distributed through the Jewish Food Bank, we managed the entire process in-house.”
VHA also sent out “a mailing containing a Purim kit, with some information about the holiday and a few practical goodies as well,” said Pacht.
“What started in Ruth Huberman’s living room – at the time she was a VHA parent and board member (she now has several grandchildren attending VHA) – preparing about 100 packages, mushroomed into a program that reached the farthest corners of our community. We have over 1,200 families we connect with each year!” he said. “After 10 years of doing the same thing, we found it difficult to maintain the same momentum and enthusiasm. We are looking at various alternative models for next year. Something to refresh the program and keep the community engaged.”
Teacher Lisa Altow’s Grade 5 students at Vancouver Hebrew Academy build a machine, using a variety of household treasures. (photo by Shula Klinger)
Vancouver Hebrew Academy has a new principal of general studies this year. As well, the school site is being upgraded, with new classrooms and a brand new playground on their way.
Rabbi Don Pacht, head of school, works with two under-principals, one for secular and one for Jewish learning. Rabbi Tzvi Goldman is principal of Judaic studies and the new principal of general studies, Adam Zalba, rounds out the team.
Zalba’s role is to ensure that the students’ work meets the requirements of British Columbia’s provincial curriculum. Pacht describes Zalba as “incredibly personable. He’s one of those people that are just meant to work with children – you can tell right away.”
Zalba told the Independent he has had a “busy and eventful couple of months” at VHA. This is the first Jewish school he has worked at, and he said he has been impressed by “the professionalism, dedication and work ethic” of the teachers, as well as the support of the parents. He finds the children to be a “bright, inquisitive and joyful student body, with a thirst for knowledge.” In taking an active interest in the students’ social and emotional development, he looks forward to helping them on their way to becoming “caring, respectful and thoughtful citizens.”
“Our vision for VHA is excellence in both Judaic and general studies,” said Pacht. “We want students to be ready for whatever they choose next. For some, it’s intensive Judaic studies; for others, it’s King David or Pacific Torah Institute.” For example, Grade 7 students Chaya Yeshayahu and Devorah Leah Yeshayahu are considering Vancouver’s Shalhevet Girls High School, but are also looking at some out-of-town options, as well.
Of the two strands to the curriculum, Pacht said, “We’ve taught them to read and decode the Chumash, but we’ve also taught them to be analytical learners, for Talmud, for social studies. We strive to give them the tools they need to grow and connect with the outside world, through independent study. At 12, they leave VHA with a really solid set of foundation skills.”
VHA has been at its current site for 15 years, during which time the only upgrade has been the addition of portable classrooms. The property is owned by the Vancouver School Board, said Pacht. “For the last four years, we’ve been on a year-to-year lease,” he said. Recent lobbying at the VSB and the ministry has resulted in a new, eight-year lease. “That’s a generation in the life of an elementary school, where kids coming into preschool now can graduate from this building.”
The portables will be replaced with new modular buildings that are set up with a fast, efficient internet network. Construction for the buildings will start off-site within the next few weeks and the structures will be brought onto the property after school ends in June.
The old wooden playground structure will be dismantled at the end of this month, to be replaced shortly afterward by new, wheelchair-accessible equipment.
To fund these improvements, the school has fundraising plans, including its annual garden party, held in the summer. Pacht describes the party – which is hosted at a private home – as “a very relaxing and enjoyable event.”
Speaking of the funds needed to complete the necessary upgrades, the rabbi said, “We want to use them for the best purpose, to create the best learning environment possible.”
Shula Klingeris an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.
In a wide-ranging lecture addressing Israel’s place in a rapidly changing Middle East, Prof. Asher Susser claimed that, without a continued focus on cutting-edge technology and modernization, Israel will not survive in the long run.
Susser, who is a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, spoke at the Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel in Vancouver on Aug. 9. The event was presented by the Kollel, Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University, Congregation Schara Tzedeck and Vancouver Hebrew Academy.
The professor believes that the key to Israel’s survival is its universities, which he described as the “powerhouses of Israel’s future.”
“Without that basic education, we will not have the wherewithal to withstand the absurdity of the neighbourhood,” he said.
In opening the evening, Kollel director Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu noted the “tough neighbourhood” in which Israel lived.
Stephen J. Adler, executive director of the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University’s Ontario and Western Canadian division, said that TAU is not only the largest educational institution in Israel, with more than 33,000 students, but that it also houses the largest research centre in the country. He highlighted the university’s affiliations with the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and also with the Sackler School of Medicine in New York. Adler said TAU alumni have created, among other things, technological innovations like the Iron Dome and the navigation app Waze. Adler invited members of the Vancouver Jewish community to come visit the TAU campus, then introduced Susser, “one of our treasures.”
Susser has taught at TAU for more than 35 years and was director of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies for 12 years. In addition to various visiting professorships in the United States over the years, he teaches an online course on the Middle East that has been taken by more than 85,000 students in more than 160 countries, including attendees of the Vancouver event. He is the author of several books, including Israel, Jordan and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative, On Both Banks of the Jordan: A Political Biography of Wasfi al-Tall and The Rise of Hamas in Palestine and the Crisis of Secularism in the Arab World.
Susser discussed the root causes of some of Israel’s past successes – including its ability to modernize and the Arabs’ failure to do so – and remaining challenges. One of those challenges, he noted, is the conflicting narrative regarding the establishment of the state of Israel.
“These narratives are not just slightly different between Israel and the Palestinians, but they are completely contradictory and have virtually nothing in common,” he said. “I would say that this is one of the major reasons why Israel and the Palestinians have such great difficulty coming to terms with each other and the difficulties remain.
“Our narrative,” he continued, “is a heroic story of the self-defence of the Jewish people,” which represents “literally rising from the ashes of Auschwitz to sovereignty and independence from 1945 to 1948, in three very short years.” This was viewed, he said, as “a miraculous redemption and justice for the Jewish people” but is viewed by Palestinians as “the epitome of injustice.”
Susser also noted that the establishment of Israel, wherein “the few against the many” prevailed, is, ultimately, “a monument to Arab failure.” He said, “For the Arabs, when they look at us every day for the last 70 years, it is to look at the monument [of] their failure to modernize successfully.”
He pointed to the Six Day War as a turning point that “proved that Arabism is an empty vessel.” And he listed three reasons why Arab states have failed to advance: a lack of political freedom, a lack of first world education systems and a lack of economic equality and inclusion of women in the workforce.
These weaknesses in Arab civil society, he said, have led to “a human disaster” that has “prevented Arab countries from advancing,” and is worsened by the sectarian divisions that exist in Arab countries. The one exception, he said, is Jordan, which is a stable state in large part due to the fact that its Jordanian and Palestinian citizens are Sunni Muslims.
“Israel’s major challenges now come not from the strength of the Arab states but the weakness of the Arab states,” said Susser. Unlike the period between 1948 and 1967, when Israel was threatened by Arab states like Egypt, Israel is now threatened by non-Arab states like Iran and non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and ISIS. The problem, according to Susser, is that, “You can’t destroy Hamas or Hezbollah in six days.”
“Fighting the non-state actors is a much more difficult prospect,” he said. “These non-state actors are less of a threat to Israel but ending the conflict with them is a lot more difficult.”
The threat from Iran – which he considers to be one of the three principal non-Arab Middle Eastern powers (along with Turkey and Israel) – is “not necessarily that the Iranians will drop a bomb on Israel,” he said. The main problem is “the constraints that a nuclear Iran will pose to Israeli conventional use of military force.”
“If Israel is attacked by Hamas from Gaza or by Hezbollah from Lebanon, or by both of them together, and Israel wishes to retaliate by conventional means against these two Iranian proxies with a nuclear umbrella provided by Iran, will Israel have the freedom of operation to do it?” he asked.
One other challenge Israel faces, said Susser, is demography. He noted there are six million Israeli Jews and an equivalent number of Arabs residing in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, including the West Bank and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Can Israel remain a Jewish democracy with these demographic realities?” he wondered.
Susser concluded on a somewhat optimistic note. The conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis, he said, has allowed Israel to forge alliances with Sunni Arab nations like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, all of which, he said, “have common cause with Israel to block Iranian regional hegemonic design.” In addition, he noted, “We have cooperation with Jordan against ISIS and its allies, so the idea that Israel is against everyone in the Middle East is not the reality.”
David J. Litvakis a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.