January 22, 2016 | 12 Shevat 5776 | Shabbat Candlelighting at 4:34 p.m.

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Not once, but twice this week, I was inspired by incredibly courageous individuals whose actions have and will continue to reverberate across the general and Jewish communities. When I think of them I am reminded of the Baal Shem Tov: "A soul may descend to earth and live seventy, eighty years for the sole purpose of doing a favour for another."

First, it was a true honour to attend the presentation on Sunday at which Chief Robert Joseph received the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award. Chief Joseph is the co-founder of Reconciliation Canada and has worked tirelessly to create dialogue and develop concrete programs that bring people together in an effort to find what he calls a New Way Forward. Given the tragic history of residential schools - the impact of which is still keenly felt by many, if not all, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people – it is especially remarkable that what he seeks is reconciliation.

Each year, the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award is given to an individual who has stood up against social injustice to help others. It is, of course, named for Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara, both of whom saved countless Jews during WWII.

We are very proud to have worked with Chief Joseph, Reconciliation Canada, and the First Nations community over the years to engage in open dialogue, and we believe it’s critical to keep the conversation open. "Our future,” Chief Joseph says “and the well-being of all our children rests with the kind of relationships we build today.” We couldn’t agree more.

Last night brought inspiration from another time and place – Italy circa 1943. Our community gathered together to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and to learn about the plight of Italian Jews during the Shoah through the screening of the film, My Italian Secret: Forgotten Heroes. The commemorative event was presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) in partnership with the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre and the Consulate General of Italy.

What struck me most from the film was the story of cyclist and sports hero, Gino Bartali. A hero of Italian society, Bartali refused to be muzzled by the Germans and the Italian fascists who called him their superstar. He harboured Jews in his basement, and in some of his most daring escapades, took advantage of the special freedom given to him to cycle anywhere in Italy and delivered false papers to Jews who were hiding in churches throughout the countryside. He hid the false documents in the frame of his bike, and risked his life time and time again.

When people started to figure out what he had done, he was hailed as a hero – but he never saw himself as such, preferring instead to praise those who had made the ultimate sacrifice while trying to save innocent lives. What they all have in common is that they were people of action.

Nina Krieger, executive director of VHEC made a very poignant comment at the event. She remarked that there were many people in Italy at the time who were against the fascists, and many people who didn’t like Hitler - but they didn’t do anything about it; they conformed.

As we move into Shabbat, I find myself reflecting on what it takes for an ordinary person to do extraordinary things, and I think the answer lies in what Nina said last night. When we see things in the world around us that we know are not right, will we let that thought be the extent of it, or will we stop and help even if it’s difficult? Moving from thought to action is at the heart of how extraordinary things are accomplished, be it on a personal level or a grand scale. What better time to contemplate that than this Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom,

Ezra S. Shanken
CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver

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