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Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver

February 24, 2017 | 28 Shevat 5777 | Shabbat Candlelighting at 5:30 p.m.

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Sometimes this time of year can seem like a bit of a lull in community activity, but just below the surface there is much to see.

You might have expected our office to be closed and quiet on a Sunday, but last weekend it was bustling with dozens of the 50+ young Jewish adults we have interviewed recently for Birthright-Israel trips. This is a huge number for us, and we’re thrilled there has been so much interest in these life-changing trips. If you know of someone who is 18-26 years old and is interested in connecting to their Jewish roots through an Israel experience, they can apply here. Participants build very strong relationships on these 10-day trips and through other Israel experience programs we support, like Masa Israel Journey. It was great to see so many of them get together for a reunion this week and reconnect with each other.

Our work in Israel was a focus of an event in Palm Springs on February 21st where Mort Naiman, associate vice-president of global philanthropy at The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), spoke to a group of major donors from across Western Canada. From Parisian Jews we helped to make aliyah to lone soldiers who choose to come to Israel without their parents to serve in the IDF and need extra support, JAFI and Jewish Federations are there to help. The work of JAFI has never been more important than today, and we are very fortunate to enjoy a leadership position with Karen James at the board level.

This event, now in its fourth year, is one we participate in along with the Federations in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. Recognizing that some of our most committed donors spend a great deal of time outside our community, we make the effort to come together at this time to continue our discussions about the many important initiatives we have on the go.

There is one issue in particular that we have all heard much about lately, but that many people don’t realize is affecting the Jewish community, because they don’t see it firsthand. That, of course, is the fentanyl crisis. On February 22nd we, together with Congregation Schara Tzedeck and the Jewish Addiction Community Services (JACS Vancouver), were proud to present a panel discussion on the crisis, featuring Rabbi Rosenblatt, Dr. Jenny Melamed, Rebecca Denham and David Berner, moderated by Dr. Auby Axler.

Jewish communities have often struggled to accept that addiction is an issue that affects us, too. It is, and providing support in a Jewish community context is incredibly beneficial. Jewish Family Service Agency has had a clinical counselling program in place for at least 35 years and continues to provide support to people living with addictions and families affected by it. JACS Vancouver complements the existing programs that are available both inside and outside of our community by acting as integrator/catalyst, to match client needs with the most appropriate resource(s) for their situation.

Addiction is often incredibly isolating, both for the addict and for their loved ones who suffer alongside them. It’s something I can attest to personally. Those of you who have also seen family members struggle know that addiction is one set of hurdles, but that stigma and shame present a whole other set of challenges. The JACS Vancouver model of support includes an “understanding of Jewish family life and traditions (that) facilitates trust and empathy and allows participants to speak openly and honestly knowing that they will be understood and validated.” Considering that some other programs in the general community are rooted in non-Jewish religious teachings or take place in non-Jewish religious locations, not everyone feels comfortable taking part.

This wasn’t the only event recently that focused on how to end the cycle of pain that is felt throughout a family. JFSA , in partnership with the Jewish Seniors Alliance, Congregation Beth Israel, and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, hosted an event called Understanding Intergenerational Trauma that drew 900 people. That level of interest just goes to show how eager people are to give help and get help from Jewish organizations and in a Jewish context.

On that note, I want to highlight another organization that is providing an invaluable (albeit very different) service to those who could use a helping hand: the Hebrew Free Loan Association. This Shabbat we read parshat Mishpatim, and the mitzvah of the interest-free loan is at the heart of HFLA’s work. They help students afford a university education; they help community members avoid getting trapped in the cycle of payday loans; and they help those struggling to pay down high interest debts. But what HFLA really does is help community members maintain their dignity while they get back on their feet, or so they can stay on their feet.

This week really showed how much more we can see when we look a little closer. We saw dozens of Birthright-Israel applicants get closer to connecting with their roots. We saw the deepening commitment of our major donors. We saw the reality that addiction knows no boundaries, but also the innovative and effective ways our community organizations are responding. And we saw the incredible reach of HFLA – a perfect example of touching lives in ways we simply cannot see on the surface.

Shabbat shalom.

Ezra S. Shanken
CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver