By BERNIE BELLAN
It’s been almost eight months since the province imposed the first lockdown due to the COVID pandemic. While we’ve had our fair share of stories in this paper about how the pandemic has affected so many of us, we’ve also been trying to avoid dwelling on the terrible toll it’s taken.
You’re undoubtedly inundated with those types of stories from so many other media. Instead we’ve tried to find stories that illustrate the often innovative ways in which both individuals and organizations within our Jewish community have responded to the challenges presented by the awful disruption in life that we’ve all encountered to one degree or another.
One organization in particular has amazed me in the way that, despite its relatively small size, it has filled several voids in the community that were left when other organizations were either unable or unwilling to provide services that were desperately needed by some members of our community. I am referring to the Gwen Secter Centre. (Elsewhere in this issue we have a story by Myron Love about the upcoming tea that Gwen Secter will be holding –but not an actual tea.)
The reason I wanted to write this article was to explain how the Gwen Secter Centre – somewhat surprisingly, came to be involved in offering a firstrate online concert series that anyone can watch from their home – so long as you have a computer or tablet (and you register in advance, as will be explained if you continue reading).
I contacted our community’s go-to impresario, Karla Berbrayer, who has been organizing concerts and other programs for various organizations for so many years that it’s hard to know where this community would be without her. I told Karla that, while we’ve been running ads promoting the concert series, we really hadn’t explained to readers how the series had come about, which led to a phone interview – interrupted strangely when her phone line went dead. (Later Karla emailed me to say that an MTS crew that had been installing new cables in the area had accidentally cut the line to her home, leading not only to the loss of landline connection, but the internet and TV as well. If that had happened in our home my wife would have blamed me.)
When our phone interview resumed Karla related the story how the online concert series had come about. She said she had been working for Gwen Secter the past year (2019) “doing a series called ‘All About Jews’. That’s when Becky (Chisick, Gwen Secter executive director) and I solidified our working relationship – and she had hired me back to do the same series in 2020.”
The idea behind that series was to offer monthly Friday lunch time programs featuring either a speaker or a concert. The first program in “All About Jews” – in February, featured children’s author Harriet Zaidman speaking about the Winnipeg General Strike while the second program – on Friday, March 13 (the last day before the province wide shutdown went into effect) featured Kevin McIntyre singing songs from Broadway musicals with a Jewish connection. The day of that second program Karla said she “wondered whether anyone was going to be here? “ The first case of COVID had just been announced the day prior, Karla noted.
“The room was absolutely full,” she continued, “and I said to one woman in the audience that I was afraid no one would come today, and she said: ‘Karla, we just want to be entertained.’ So I was adamant that I would continue bringing that to them.
“And once it became mandatory that this specific demographic was not going to be able to mingle freely in an environment like they had been, I suggested to Becky that I could do a virtual concert series. I said to her that if we wanted to bring culture to her membership I saw this as the only option and I’m happy to do it.
“We all have to reinvent ourselves,” Karla observed, “and ‘pivot’ – that’s a great word – and if you don’t reinvent yourself, it’s game over,” she suggested.
“ At that point Becky said :‘Let me think about this’ and then she called me back shortly afterwards and said: ‘Karla, let’s just do it.’ “
“So that was amazing because she gave me carte blanche to put together a high quality concert series and gave me free run to manage it the way I felt it should be managed. Becky deserves a lot of credit. I produced the series but without Becky it wouldn’t have happened.”
Of course, by now many of us have become used to the notion of watching Zoom events, but frankly the quality of many of those sessions leaves something to be desired. And for Karla Berbrayer, the idea of simply offering concerts via Zoom was a non-starter.
“From the start I made a decision that I did not want to do a concert series where everyone is recording themselves from their living room or their kitchen – on their cell phone. I wanted a high end event. I wanted to record the performers in a theatre (which, in this case, turned out to the Berney Theatre), with lighting and sound and a tech crew – basically everything except the audience.”
As it turned out Karla managed to record 10 different concerts – all in the same day!
Each concert is between 20-30 minutes. The concerts run the gamut from “jazz to pop to Borscht Belt to Broadway,” Karla observed. “I try to give it a lot of variety so that if you don’t like a specific concert you’ll like another one.”
“I would bring in a group or a performer and they would ask me: ‘How many takes do I get?” and I’d say: ‘One. You just perform as if there’s a live audience. We’re not doing any editing.’ “
“Each one was able to have the feeling of playing live in a theatre, having a tech crew. It was also a good feeling giving all these people work as well. After all,” she added, “their lives had been shut down because of the death of live entertainment in the city”.
The series opened in October. Karla explained how it works: “Every Monday at 9 am we release a concert. They’ll be released weekly right up until mid-December. There are 10 concerts altogether and all people have to do is register at and they’re immediately given a link that will allow them to watch a concert. Also, every week they’re sent a reminder when the next concert is coming up.”
So far, concerts have featured local performers Nadia Douglas, Erin Propp and Larry Roy, Shayla Fink, and Aaron Hutton with Paul De Gurse.
I asked Karla whether the concerts can be viewed if you don’t happen to watch one on a particular Monday?
“Yes,” Karla answered. “The concerts are archived so if you want you can go online and watch an earlier concert – by going to the Gwen Secter website once you’ve registered. You can watch a concert any time of day and as many times as you’d like.”
The response to the concert series has been terrific. Over 364 individuals have registered at www.gwensecter.com as of the time of writing. As well, statistics of how many people are actually watching the concerts live indicate that, as of the date of writing concerts have been viewed 729 times.
As for cost, Becky Chisick was adamant that the series would be offered free of charge. Funding for the series is provided by the Manitoba Arts Council.
I suggested to Karla that while Gwen Secter deserves full credit for stepping up to fill a cultural void in our community, the fact that it’s the Gwen Secter Centre filling that void still comes as somewhat of a surprise. It wasn’t that long ago that the Gwen Secter Centre’s very survival was in question. Now it’s rising to the fore of Jewish community organizations that are stepping up during the pandemic. Who would have thunk it?
Working with late night talk show stars Colbert and Stewart dream job for former Winnipegger
By Myron Love When the Jewish Post last touched base with Raffie Rosenberg in the summer of 2020, she was back in Winnipeg for a few months during the Covid lockdown reconnecting with her father, Lewis Rosenberg (her mother, the late Dr. Fran Steinberg passed away ten years ago) and other relatives while looking forward to returning to New York in the fall to continue her studies at Columbia University.
As far back as she can remember, she noted in that earlier interview, she has had her sights squarely set on a career in the entertainment industry. “I started dancing lessons when I was two years old,” she recalled. “I loved it.”
She added that her interest in the theatre was also stimulated by her parents, both of whom had been involved in the arts. Prior to pursuing a career in medicine, her mother studied at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. She also taught dancing and further studied dance at York University. Her dad also has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree – Theatre Design and Technology – from the University of Minnesota.
Having graduated previously (in 2016) from Western University’s Ivey School of Business, Rosenberg earned her second degree – an MFA – with a focus on theatre management and producing – from Columbia in 2022.
And she is very happy to report that, over the past two years, she has had the opportunity to work behind the scenes with two of her heroes in the entertainment business – none other than the king of late night television, Stephen Colbert, and his predecessor, Jon Stewart.
She got on with Colbert’s “The Late Show” as a production intern during her final semester at Columbia shortly after graduation from Columbia for a five-month period (January-May, 2022) and followed up on that coup by being hired as a production assistant on Stewart’s return to the air waves via Apple TV with “the Problem with Jon Stewart,” a weekly series featuring hour-long single subject episodes. The show launched in the fall of 2021. Rosenberg joined the production team in the fall of 2022.
(The show was recently cancelled.)
Those were my dream jobs,” Rosenberg notes – “to work with both Stewart and Colbert on televised shows that include elements of live theatre (such as a studio audience and band).”
She points out that entertainment internships are difficult to get – especially in late night. “The team at Colbert is really proactive about interviewing a huge number of candidates and taking a look at people from the online applicant portal,” she reports. “I got lucky and the timing was right for that internship.”
She notes that, being in an entry level role at The Late Show and at The Problem, she didn’t work with either host directly. “The staff of The Late Show is over 100 people and at The Problem there were around 60 of us,” she says, “but both Jon and Stephen are incredible bosses. They’re kind, focused, and great leaders. Even though I never worked with either directly, being able to work on their shows was a huge highlight and definitely a childhood dream come true.”
Her role was different for each of the shows – reflecting the different responsibilities in her job titles and the fact that Colbert is nightly and Stewart’s show was weekly.
“As a production assistant, I was more involved in areas such as research, working on the podcast and deeper dives into current events ,” she points out. “Also, we were working with a longer lead time on Jon’s show – which gave us more room to expand on individual subjects.”
In her independent work as a creative producer, she points out, she is more involved in sourcing funding to help get the project off the ground, crafting the narrative, working with the script writers and hiring lead actors and the director.
For the past two summers, Rosenberg has produced the Arts in Action Festivals for the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. The BAC was founded in 2016 by a group of actors and activists with the goal of using the arts to try to create as a vehicle to help create a more just world. The two-day Arts in Action festivals present workshops, performances, panels and screenings in furtherance of its goals.
With the conclusion of production for the “The Problem With Jon Stewart” last fall, Rosenberg is open to new projects – one of which is a collaboration with a couple of other Jewish artists on a coming-of-age comedy.
It would seem that Raffie Rosenberg has a bright future to look forward to in theatre and film production.
Husband and wife team of Russel and Rori Picker Neiss bringing different aspects of Jewish learning to Limmud Winnipeg
By MYRON LOVE Rori Picker and Rusell Neiss say they are excited about their upcoming first visit to Winnipeg. The couple, Jewish educators – originally from New York, who have been living and working in St. Louis for the past ten years – will be here on the weekend of March 9-10 – as presenters at our community’s 14th annual Limmud Fest.
Russel Neiss is promising Limmud attendees that those attending his presentation will be in the first audience to view the digitized version of “The Story of Purim,” an award winning Jewish educational filmstrip which is part of a recently rediscovered lost cache produced by the NY Bureau of Jewish Education in the 1950s.
“We’ll view the slides and table-read the script together as we see how much the field of Jewish engagement and education has (and hasn’t) changed over the last 70 year,” notes Russel Neiss.
Russel is a 2005 graduate of City University of New York. The recipient – in 2020, of the prestigious Covenant Award (which recognizes educators who have made a noticeable impact on Jewish lives through innovative educational practices and models), served for several years as vice-principal of a Jewish day school in the New York area.
In 2014, Russel changed careers. He became a software engineer specializing in the development of software programming for Jewish educators for an organization called Sefaria. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to digitizing the entire body of Jewish religious writings in order to make them available so that anyone can engage with the textual treasures of our tradition.
“A couple of years ago,” he reports, “I came across a cache of film strips produced by the New York Bureau of Jewish Education in the 1950s. These films would have been shown to students in the 1950s and ‘60s. They have not been viewed for more than 60 years.”
At Limmud, he will be showing a film called “The Story of Purim.” “We’ll view the slides and table-read the script together as we see how much the field of Jewish engagement and education has (and hasn’t) changed over the years,” he says.
His second presentation – on Sunday afternoon – will focus on “what the atheist computer scientist Richard Stallman can teach us about how Torah learning can thrive in the world today while delving into the interplay between Hacker Culture, the Free Software Movement and the teachings of great Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.”
Rori Picker Neiss will also be doing two presentations – one of which will be a study of leadership as exhibited by Moshe Rabbenu in the matter of the Golden Calf. For those who may not know or remember the story in the Torah, some days after leaving Egypt, Moshe climbed Mount Sinai to commune with Hashem. After some time had gone by and he didn’t return, the frightened Hebrews, believing that he wasn’t coming back, gathered together everything they had that was made of gold and created a golden calf to worship – an act of blasphemy that resulted in severe divine consequences – including the Israelites having to wander in the desert for 40 years until the last of the offending generation had died out.
“What we can take away from this episode,” Rori observes, “and what Hashem made clear to Moshe- is that leadership is not about the leader and fame and glory. Leadership should be about doing what is in the best interests of the people.”
Her second presentation will be an exploration of what the early rabbis thought about Jesus and Christianity as seen through a censored Rabbinic passage.
Rori Picker Reiss has the distinction of being one of the first half dozen Orthodox women to be ordained – through the Yeshivat Maharat organization – founded in 2009 – to serve as clergy.
“I welcomed the opportunity to study Talmud and our religious texts,” she says of her decision to enroll in the Maharat program. ‘My ordination presented me with a number of different ways to serve our community.”
In St. Louis Maharat Rori served as Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at the modern Orthodox Bais Abraham Congregation. She was also Rabbi in Residence at Holy Communion Episcopal Church, chair of the cabinet of Interfaith partnership of Greater St. Louis and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Previously, she worked as acting Executive Director for Religions for Peace-USA, program coordinator for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, assistant director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, and secretary for the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.
While there may be some among the Orthodox community who may be uncomfortable with the concept of women serving as clergy, Rori reports that she was generally well-received in St. Louis and was able to build many relationships both within the Orthodox and the wider communities.
Rori and Russel have recently moved back to New York City where Rori has been appointed the Senior Vice-President for Community Relations for the Jewish Council for Public affairs.
Three organization join forces to mount Mission to Israel in May
By BERNIE BELLAN In response to many requests received from members of Winnipeg’s Jewish community to organize a volunteer mission to Israel, for the first time ever three different organizations have joined together to organize just such a mission – from May 20-28.
Titled “HINENI 2024,” the mission is being mounted by the Jewish National Fund, Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, and Bridges for Peace.
The mission will include five days of intensive volunteering and visits to various sites in Israel. It will also include three meals a day and ground transportation.
There will be an information night at the Asper Campus on February 28 but, in advance of that information night, we contacted JNF Manitoba-Saskatchewan Executive Director David Greaves to ask whether he could provide some details about the planned mission prior to that information meeting and describe how it all came about.
Greaves said that both the JNF and the Federation were thinking of organizing missions in May, so it was only natural that they would combine efforts.
“The Federation has organizational experience, and they’ll be able to handle the registration process,” Greaves explained, while “the JNF will be able to handle the logistics on the ground,” such as arranging accommodation, transportation, and meals.
And Bridges for Peace was able to step up and negotiate some very good pricing for air fares for anyone who would want to fly on specific flights – details for which will be announced in the coming days. (Greaves noted that flights have not been included as part of the package as many individuals indicated that they wanted to make their own arrangements getting to Israel.)
Yet, unlike any other mission that the JNF has mounted in years past, Greaves wanted to make it clear that the May mission will be a “volunteer” mission, during which participants will be expected to “be on their feet four-five hours a day” engaging in tasks whose exact nature is still being formulated – in conjunction with various Israeli organizations.
“We’re looking at volunteering primarily in the south,” Greaves said, including picking fruit and vegetables. As of this moment, he added: “We’re still investigating various volunteer possibilities.”
Included in the mission tentatively, accordiing to Greaves, will be visits to the site of the Nova music festival, where 364 primarily young Israelis were massacred (along with 40 abducted), as well as visits with families of hostages and a visit with the mayor of Sderot.
As far as accommodation is concerned, Greaves wanted to make it clear that mission participants will not be staying in four or five star hotels.”Most likely they will be three star hotels,” he noted. And, when you take into account the cost of providing three meals a day along with bus transportation and other ancillary costs, Greaves suggested that the mission cost, which will be no more than $3,000 (exclusive of air fare), is quite reasonable, especially when you take into account typical costs associated with visiting Israel and the relatively low Canadian dollar. As well, Greaves said that couples travelling together will probably pay somewhat less per person – around $2500 per person, he suggested is likely.
I asked Greaves how many people they were hoping to have participate in the mission. He said that they’re looking at around 40. Although it would be great if there were a larger response, he added, the logistics of having to hire an additional bus would make it difficult to plan a mission with two buses unless the number of participants warranted that.
“If response is overwhelming, we’d get a second bus,” he added though.
I asked Greaves whether there are JNF missions of a similar nature being planned in other Canadian cities and he said there were – “in Toronto and Vancouver,” but he also wanted to emphasize that they are both being planned locally – unlike every other JNF mission, which has always been planned at the national level – until now.
In addition to the combined organizational efforts of the JNF, Jewish Federation, and Bridges for Peace, five Winnipeg congregations are also lending their support to the mission, helping to promote it among their respective congregants.
If you would like to obtain further information about the mission and are unable to attend the February 28 information evening, contact either David Greaves at the JNF at firstname.lastname@example.org or Abby Flackman at the Jewish Federation at email@example.com.