By BERNIE BELLAN It’s been a while since I’ve been able to report on Gray Academy without having to focus on how Covid had so drastically affected the lives of both students and teachers there. While every other school in the province was similarly affected, Gray Academy offers so many unique programs – almost all of which had to be put on hold for the past two and a half years, that when I spoke with Head of School Lori Binder on Tuesday, September 20, hearing of everything that had been going on there in just the short 11 days that the school had been open when we talked was somewhat overwhelming.
I began by asking Lori how it felt to be back – now that all restrictions that had previously been imposed by the province had been lifted?
“It’s a wonderful start to a new school year,” Lori said. “It’s quite positive all around.”
While Gray Academy had complied with all requirements having to do with Covid that had been imposed by the province, Lori noted that “in each of the past two and a half years we did our own due diligence in addition to requirements from the province.”
For instance, Lori referred to the “dashboard” that Gray Academy maintains on its website which gives information about any cases of Covid that may be reported among both students and families of students. (The website is password protected and is accessible only to families of students as well as staff.)
“No other school is keeping a dashboard that I’m aware of,” Lori observed.
With reference to programs and activities that are now back in place after a long hiatus, Lori said: “Almost all of the things that we weren’t able to do are back.”
For instance, she mentioned that a trip that students were originally supposed to have taken in the spring of 2019 to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. – when those students were in Grade 9, was now happening – as we spoke, although the students were now in Grade 12. (Students had left for Washington on Sunday, September 18 and were scheduled to return on September 21. That trip had been an annual event sponsored by the Asper Foundation for years.)
As to whether students who are now in Grades 10 and 11, as well as the current Grade 9 class, will also be able to participate in similar trips to Washington, Lori said that they will, but the timetable for doing that has not been set as yet. She added that the school is working with the Asper Foundation on planning future trips.
Turning to other activities that are back in full swing, Lori noted that “athletics are back,” the musical “Mama Mia” will be put on in February, “band is fully back – with wind instruments” (as well as instruments that don’t require special breathing techniques; there were band sessions during Covid but when you have to wear a mask the amount of music a band can perform is somewhat limited). “And now our kids can sing freely,” Lori added.
Something else that has resumed is the debating program – with members of the debating team scheduled to head to Boston in October 2023.
And – here’s something that I noticed when I attended the G.R.O.W. in Gimli 20th anniversary celebration on September 14 at a house just across from the campus parking lot – and wondered why the parking lot was so full that evening: Gray Academy families were experiencing a “fun fair” (on September 14) for the first time since 2019 – on the grounds of the Asper Campus.
“We had a gathering of all our high school students in the Berney Theatre the first day of school,” Lori observed – but there wasn’t room for all 221 of them – which is an indication of how robust enrollment in the high school is once again. (The Grade 12 class alone has 45 students, which is close to the highest number it’s ever had. Lori said that she’ll have full enrollment figures available to give me by the end of September, noting that a couple of families in the JK-6 years are still in the process of enrolling their kids. She said though that she expects enrollment from JK-12 to be somewhere in the area of 468 students.)
And, while this year’s Grade 12 graduating class currently has 45 students, the 2024 and 2025 graduating classes will also have over 40 students each, if enrollments remain as they currently are.
In some respects, while Covid restrictions may have been lifted, changes that were instituted in the past couple of years, including staggered drop-off and pick-up times, and separate entrances for different age groups, have remained in place.
However, as Lori noted, the physical markings on floors that demarcated different areas for different groups of students have all been removed. “Our kids can all walk freely now,” she said.
I wondered though whether any students are still wearing masks?
“Some are choosing to wear masks,” Lori answered. “As we communicated with families prior to the start of school year, that would be no problem. Our school is a mask-friendly environment.”
I asked also about the HVAC system in the school: How good is the ventilation?
“We still have good respiratory and sanitization etiquette” systems in place, Lori explained. “Our HVAC system is a MERV filter-13 system – one of the best filtration systems available, with the cycle of fresh air intake increased” substantially over what used to be in place.
Insofar as curriculum is concerned, Lori said that the school is about to embark on a two-year project to “reimagine its Hebrew curriculum,” thanks in large part to a grant that it has received from the Jewish Foundation.
As well, a new strategic plan for all of Gray Academy will be launched in January 2023, Lori added.
Speaking of Hebrew, I asked whether the exchange program with Danziger High School in Kiryat Shemona, during which students in Grades 10 and 11 go to Israel, while students from Danziger come here in turn, is back on?
“Yes, it is,” Lori answered, with students from Gray Academy scheduled to travel to Israel this coming Purim. However, rather than students from Danziger coming to Winnipeg this current school year, the plan is for them to come next Sukkot, which begins late September next year.
As far as the graduating class’s usual trip to Israel goes, Lori said “we have enough data to support Grade 12 going,” but with the planned resumption of March of the Living (which has also been on hold for three years) – also around the same time, it is not yet clear how many students might want to go on a graduating class trip to Israel in 2023.
As if reading about all these activities weren’t enough to want to make you pause and take a breath, Lori continued: “Our student council just went on a leadership retreat to Camp Massad” (which was the very first time that’s happened, she noted).
Grades 8 and 9 will also have their own spirit weeks, which often take place in Gimli or Hecla, over the next few months, she added.
I asked about plans for a Shabbaton – which would often take place in Gimli or Hecla in the past?
“This year the Shabbaton will be at the Clarion Hotel,” Lori said.
Some other interesting facts that Lori mentioned during our conversation include:
• This fall year marked marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of Gray Academy.
• The school has more than 65 new students. (Interestingly, some of the students new to the school this year are from Ukraine.)
• 17 students left the school when their parents moved to different cities.
• Once again the school has an international student – from Brazil, the sibling of a previous international student.
• The Kaufman Silverberg Library is once again open to students – something that hadn’t been the case since March 2019. And – for the first time, students can now access digitized books there.
One final note though – and this is more a sign of the times when it comes to restaurants of all types: Schmoozer’s is not accessible to in-person visits by students during school hours – because Schmoozer’s doesn’t have enough staff on hand to accommodate all those students who would typically want to come there for lunch. Instead, arrangements have been made to have lunches delivered to designated drop-off points within the school itself if parents phone Schmoozer’s prior to 9:30 am on a given day and place their orders.
Schmoozer’s now under management of Shaarey Zedek Catering
By BERNIE BELLAN Schmoozer’s restaurant at the Asper Campus is now under the management of the Shaarey Zedek catering department.
Apparently, according to Curtis Martin, Executive Director of the Asper Jewish Community Campus, the Shaarey Zedek has actually been operating Schmoozer’s since December 1, except for the time it was closed over the winter break.
The Shaarey Zedek officially took over Schmoozer’s as of Monday, January 8. Shaarey Zedek Catering has actually been located in the Schmoozer’s kitchen for some time now – since the Shaarey Zedek closed for renovations in the summer of 2022.
While Shaarey Zedek Executive Chef Joel Lafond is continuing to work at the Asper Campus location, the day to day management of Schmoozer’s is in the hands of Sous Chef Jennifer Middleton. Once the Shaarey Zedek’s renovations are complete, Lafond will move back there, while Middleton will remain at the campus. In addition to managing Schmoozer’s, Curtis Martin says that Middleton will also to continue to provide catering services for “on-site Campus agencies and events.”
One of the main differences now that Shaarey Zedek is operating Schmoozer’s is the expanded hours. Rather than opening at 10 am, which was when Schmoozer’s opened under its previous management, Schmoozer’s will now be open at 8 am, Monday – Friday. It will also be open until 6 pm Monday- Thursday, and until 3 pm on Fridays.
According to Joel Lafond, plans are to have Schmoozer’s open on Sundays as well, beginning in February.
As for the menu, it now features a number of breakfast items, such as bagels and breakfast platters, in addition to the usual lunch items, such as tuna salad, egg salad, grilled cheese, quinoa bowl, pizza, a variety of salads, soup, fries, pasta, and “Beyond Burgers.”
Lafond said that plans are also in the works to expand the menu. He mentioned falafel as an example of something new that will be available at Schmoozer’s in the not too distant future.
While it’s nice to see Schmoozer’s the fact that there have been so many different managers of that particular facility speaks to the difficulty inherent in trying to offer kosher food without running into huge financial problems.
I’m not privy to the financial exigencies that Schmoozer’s has faced over the years – ever since it first opened under the operation of Omnitsky’s – then run by Eppy Rappaport, in 1997. At first, just like everything else associated with the Campus in its early years, Schmoozer’s was teeming with customers. Eventually though, Eppy Rappaport moved to Vancouver. I don’t recall every single manager of Schmoozer’s since, but I know that Barb and Lisa Reiss managed it for quite some time, as did Maxine Shuster – for a very long time, until it was placed under the management of Beth Jacob in 2021.
I certainly wish Joel Lafond and Jennifer Middleton of Shaarey Zedek Catering well, but I’m sure they’re aware how difficult a challenge operating Schmoozer’s in the black presents.
At the same time we haven’t had a really good kosher restaurant in Winnipeg for years, not since the closing of Desserts Plus, maybe Bermax Caffé as well.
You can still eat kosher food at the Gwen Secter Centre, also the Garden Café in the Simkin Centre, but neither of them is the kind of place where you can simply drop in and enjoy a kosher meal (although the Garden Café is open for lunch Monday to Friday).
Is the high cost of kosher food affecting the quality of food served at the Simkin Centre?
By BERNIE BELLAN From time to time I lead a discussion group at the Simkin Centre with residents there. It was when I was doing that recently that I was told something by one of the residents that quite shocked me. We were talking about the food at the Simkin Centre and I asked the residents how they liked it?
I asked residents how often they get served chicken and I was told “We get chicken, but only dark meat.” According to that resident all that the Simkin Centre serves residents are thighs and drumsticks.
I asked Simkin Centre CEO Laurie Cerqueti about that and she said she’d have to get back to me after checking with the food services manager. I also asked Laurie what the daily allowance is on a per capita basis for all meals? (By way of comparison, when I did a story about kosher food in 2018 I reported that daily allowance for Simkin Centre residents – for 3 meals, snacks, and special dietary needs, was only $8.75 per day per resident.)
Here’s what Laurie wrote back to me, in response to my question: : “The last official number I have for food is from the 21/22 fiscal year and it was $9.64 per day. I know for this year as of the end of October we are over budget on food by $150,000. We must continue to fund any costs on food from our existing annual budget or through fundraised dollars. We have not had any increases from government for any operational expenses in 15 years.”
Insofar as the issue of residents being served only dark meat from chickens was concerned, in a subsequent email I received from Laurie she wrote that white chicken meat is used in chicken schnitzel served to residents.
I know I’m beating my head against the wall when I suggest that the Simkin Centre ought to allow nonkosher food to be served. When I last checked with Laurie Cerqueti, 60% of the residents at Simkin weren’t even Jewish. As for the Jewish residents, for those who would want kosher food, it could be brought in from the Gwen Secter Centre. (By the way, that idea isn’t mine. It comes from a former CEO of the Simkin Centre who also thought it was ridiculous enforcing kashrut rules at Simkin when it mattered to only a tiny fraction of its total residents.)
For that matter, residents are already allowed to bring nonkosher food into the facility, but it has to be eaten either in their rooms or in the family visiting room, so the precedent is there – it’s only a matter of taking it to the next logical level.
But I know: Kashrut is a sacrosanct element of the Simkin Centre, isn’t it? So, even if the Simkin Centre is running a huge budget deficit on food –and that money must be taken out of other operations, it’s absolutely fundamental to the Simkin Centre that it continue to serve only kosher food – even if that means residents only get white chicken meat when it’s served in schnitzel.
Winnipegger Shayna Wiwierski building up large following as beauty and lifestyle influencer
By MYRON LOVE “Growing up [in River Heights], I was always a girlie girl,” recalls social influencer Shayna Wiwierski. “I loved dressing up and doing my hair, and reading lifestyle and glamour magazines.”
In my experience, childhood interests are a good indicator of adult careers. In Wiwierski’s case, she has parlayed that passion for style and beauty into a position as a social influencer through her online blog, “A Pop of Colour.”
The daughter of Susan Engel-Wiwierski and the late David Wiwierski established A Pop of Colour in 201. Currently she has approximately 30,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, and another 4,000 on TikTok.
Scrolling through Wiwierski’s Instagram, you will find photos and videos from her most recent vacations, her bridal shower (she is getting married in the summer of 2024), and regular daily leisure activities accompanied by beautiful photography and partnerships with various companies.
“When I started my blog, I was only offering beauty tips,” she recalls. “I have since added content focusing on lifestyle, travel, and fitness.”
In an interview she did with CTV five years ago, Wiwierski noted that, in the beginning, the costs for the beauty products that she promoted through her blog she paid for herself. Over the years though, she, as with sister social influencers, have established working relationships with companies which send her products to promote on her various social accounts.
Wiwierski points out that to be a successful social influencer requires a lot of time for setting up photo shoots, editing and posting of content, as well as monitoring the likes, comments, and overall feedback on the posts.
“I know a lot of people think social media is a super easy job to do, but it really does take a lot of time,” says Wiwierski. “From creating the content, planning the posts, and then seeing what does well and what doesn’t, there is a lot of time and effort involved if you want to be successful at it.”
Content creation isn’t Wiwierski’s full-time job. She says it’s her “5 to 9 after her 9 to 5”, as she is also the editorial director at DEL Communications Inc., a Winnipeg-based trade publication company. The company is a publisher of mostly annual industry and association magazines covering topics in a variety of niche industries.
“Although in high school [Grant Park High School], I originally wanted to be on TV, after I graduated from university in 2010, I had the opportunity to join DEL and I’ve been there ever since,” she says, adding that she has a Bachelor of Communications and Rhetoric from the University of Winnipeg and a diploma in Creative Communications from Red River Polytechnic (formerly Red River College).
For the past few years, Wiwierski has been dividing her time between Winnipeg and Montreal. She met her fiancée – who is originally from Ontario – when he was doing his residency in Winnipeg.
“Montreal is a great city,” she says. “People always ask me which one I love living in more, but I really do love both; they’re so different.”