By BERNIE BELLAN I’m not especially keen on doing the kind of “looking back on the year that was” type of column that crops up in so many other publications this time of year.
For one, I don’t pretend to be all that aware of everything that is going on within our Jewish community. I don’t read synagogue bulletins for instance, so I can’t say that I’m all that knowledgeable about what is going on within particular synagogues when it comes to programming.
Also, while I do pay some attention to fund raising activities in which various Jewish organizations are involved, especially the Jewish Federation, I can’t say that any particular fund raising effort that may have gone on in 2015 was so memorable that it made much of an impact on me.
But – there were certain events that did occur in the year just past that did stand out for me, and which will continue to resonate in 2016 and beyond.
Of those, the two that had particular significance were the announcement that the Gwen Secter Centre is going to be able to remain at its present Main Street location and the dismissal of Adam Bronstone as CEO of the Jewish Federation.
While those two events were not at all connected, the fact that it was an outsider who came to the rescue of the Gwen Secter Centre (whose name has yet to be divulged) and not the Jewish Federation (which had been in a position to resolve the Gwen Secter dilemma had that angel donor not stepped forward), speaks to the type of inertia that tends to paralyze many organizations when it comes to taking bold steps.
Again, in case you had forgotten some of the chronology of events that accompanied the Gwen Secter saga, the National Council of Jewish Women had warned for some time that it was going to sell the building that houses the Gwen Secter at 1588 Main Street by May of this year. While many different parties were involved in various rescue plans, including the key participation of St. Johns MLA Gord Mackintosh, it was a plan to have the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority step forward to provide $30,000 a year in funding for the Gwen Secter Centre that seemed to be the basis for a resolution to the centre’s dire situation. What remained, however, for that plan to succeed was for the Jewish Federation to forgive an ongoing loan which it had made to the NCJW that had amounted to $90,000 and which would have risen to $120,000 by May of this year.
Apparently the Federation was unwilling to forgive that loan, although every time I would contact a spokesperson for the Federation to try and determine where things stood vis-à-vis negotiations with the NCJW over that loan, I was told that negotiations were progressing.
As well, there had been a plan that took shape last winter to relocate the Gwen Secter Centre to the Rosh Pina Housing Co-op and for a while it looked as if that was going to provide a practical solution to Gwen Secter’s problem of needing a new home. When members of the co-op, however, decided that they didn’t want to share their building with members of the Gwen Secter Centre, however, that plan, too, fell apart.
Now, while it seems that a serendipitous resolution to this entire situation has been achieved, I can’t help but wonder how close we came to seeing the Gwen Secter Centre close – or, at the very least, forced to move to a much less favourable location.
I still continue to wonder why the National Council of Jewish Women, which is now but a shadow of its former self, was so driven to hold a gun to the heads of the Gwen Secter members. We had been told all along that the NCJW wanted to use monies to be attained from the sale of the Gwen Secter Centre to move forward with its next project: something to do with addictions. Further, now we are informed that project will indeed begin to take shape once the sale of the Gwen Secter building is completed.
But, why oh why was it necessary to, if not completely eradicate an existing and vibrant organization that served the needs of so many seniors in our community, cause so much worry and consternation to those seniors, even if there was another worthwhile cause to which the NCJW wanted to devote itself?
As with so many stories that have to do with how particular organizations within our community run themselves when faced with serious challenges, there are so many aspects of this story that remain to be disclosed.
Which leads me to the second major story which I referenced at the beginning of this column: the dismissal of Adam Bronstone as Jewish Federation CEO – something that was unprecedented in either the history of the Federation or its predecessor, the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council.
Bronstone’s tenure as Federation CEO was an uneasy one. A cerebral sort – he had a PhD in International Relations, apparently Bronstone had impressed the hiring committee that was tasked with finding a replacement for outgoing CEO Bob Freedman back in 2014. “He gave a really good interview”, I was told. Later, when more and more questions began to be raised as to Bronstone’s fitness for the position, members of the hiring committee were blamed for not doing a proper job of vetting their search. But, at the time, Bronstone did seem to be qualified for the job - and he was a former Winnipegger to boot.
It’s never easy to step into the shoes of someone who had held a position for as long as Bob Freedman had (27 years), and who was thoroughly versed in all the ins and outs of running what had grown into a fairly large bureaucracy. (The Jewish Federation now employs 17 people – a far cry from the days when the late Izzie Peltz used to run things essentially on his own with the help of his secretary.)
Bronstone told me that he had wanted to streamline operations at the Jewish Federation and have it obtain a better idea what its core purpose should be. Whether or not his assessment that the organization of the Federation needed updating, his personality and temperament did not endear to him to many of the people he worked with – nor, apparently to members of the Federation board.
Bronstone was regarded as aloof and autocratic by many. In the end, he was also forced to shoulder a large degree of responsibility when the Combined Jewish Appeal 2014 campaign fell some $200,000 short of reaching its goal.
While it was pointed out that, in the two years prior to Bronstone having taken over the position of Federation CEO, legendary fundraiser Gail Asper had chaired the CJA campaign, thus leading to the campaign setting new records both those years, the accusation that Bronstone was insufficiently involved in fundraising himself seemed to prove his undoing.
Now that the Federation is in the hands of longtime Federation employee Elaine Goldstine, morale seems to have improved at the Federation. There is a question though, whether the Federation does need to be “shaken up”, as Bronstone suggested was the case. Like many other Jewish institutions in this city, the Federation does tend to rely on past and established practices, rather than seeking to reinvent itself.
Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, especially when things are going well, but it’s not at all clear that the future of Winnipeg’s Jewish community is as rosy as the Federation had been suggesting was the case ever since the project “Grow Winnipeg” was announced by the Federation in 2001. At that time the population of Winnipeg’s Jewish community was about 14,000 and the plan was to see our population grow to 18,000 by 2010.
While the surprising influx of many Israeli families into Winnipeg did contribute to what seemed to be a growth in our community here, and community leaders such as Gail Asper were heard to say that our community now numbered 16,000 (in 2014), the results of the National Household Survey of 2011 must have come as a shock to Jewish Federation planners.
In 2014 the Jewish Federation released findings from a Montreal demographer by the name of Charles Shachar, who had come to the conclusion that, as of 2011, our population was no more than 13, 690. Thus, despite the relatively large scale immigration of many Israelis into our community over the previous decade, our population had shrunk, not grown. The only conclusion one can draw is that there has continued be a large exodus of Jews from Winnipeg – something that has plagued our community for years, but which shows no sign of abating.