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Jewish organizations struggling with realities of dealing with unprecedented situation

kitchen staff at Gwen Secter

By BERNIE BELLAN
The impact that COVID-19 has had on Jewish organizations in Winnipeg has taken many forms.

 

Arguably the most immediate impact was felt by staff at the Rady JCC when all activities came to a crashing halt there in the middle of March. Over 160 staff were laid off as a result, although 30 members of the day care staff were rehired when the Province ordered the Rady JCC to reopen the Kaufman Early Years Centre, which the Rady JCC operates at the Asper Campus.
When I spoke with Rady JCC Executive Director Rob Berkowits the third week in March he told me that he and staff who work in the finance department has just finished processing 1900 refunds of various sorts, including tickets for the sports dinner and registration payments for various programs – all of which had been canceled.
I asked Rob whether the “financial hit that the Rady was taking could be measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars” and he agreed that was the case.
The news hasn’t got much better, although when I spoke with Rob again recently he did tell me that the provincial government has given permission for the summer day camp program to go ahead, but with tight restrictions involving social distancing. (There will be no swimming in the pool, for instance – which has always been a highlight for most of the kids in the day camps.)
As far as operating the day camp program goes, Rob said that “We’re pleased to offer a service to the community – and not just the Jewish community.”
When asked how many campers attended the day camp last summer, Rob said it was from 800-900, but since many of the kids were enrolled in more than one session, he wasn’t able to say how many individual kids were enrolled in the day camp altogether.
What he did say though, was that losing the sports dinner would deal a huge blow to the day camp program, since one of the principal benefits of the dinner was that much of the profit has flowed into camperships for families that otherwise might not be able to send their kids to camp.
Turning to the day care program, Rob was glad to report that the daycare at the Campus had once again reached its maximum capacity of 50 and, as a result, the David and Ruth Asper Early Learning Centre on Grosvenor had now also reopened (on Monday, May 4). At the time that I spoke with Rob (which was on May 7), he said there were now 10 kids at the day care on Grosvenor.
As far as any other programming at the Rady JCC goes, like just about everything else, it’s all up in the air. “We are planning our programming for the fall,” Rob said, but whether it will proceed as planned, of course, is totally unknown.
While the Rady JCC has seen an almost total shutdown of all activities, the Gwen Secter Centre has found itself in a situation where it is being called upon to serve an unexpectedly vital role in the Jewish community.
As I noted in our April 15 issue (which was our last printed issue), “the Gwen Secter Centre has stepped up to fill a void left by the inability of Meals on Wheels to take on any new applicants.
“Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick told me that the kitchen staff (which consists of only two women, Galina Melenevska and Cathy Koltowski) had been busy all week the week of March 30-April 3 preparing some 60 meals for seniors who had been unable to register for Meals on Wheels.”
When I contacted Becky again on May 5 to ask her whether the kitchen staff was turning out as many meals as it had been when I last spoke with her, she sent me the following email response:
This week we are sending out 194 meals (emphasis mine, Ed.) – a huge increase from the first week of 6 meals. When I started organizing this initiative I figured that we would eventually get to around 120 meals weekly. The recipients of the meals are beyond grateful. I get regular phone calls expressing appreciation not only for the meals but the friendly wave (and smile if someone isn’t in a mask) from outside their windows. We are so happy to be a part of something so special during these unpredictable times.
Currently it is still Cathy & Galina in the kitchen. The numbers have increased so rapidly that we are considering a part-time kitchen assistant.
“We did receive support from JFM and we are very grateful. Additional support is coming from:
The Azrieli Foundation
The Winnipeg Foundation
Seniors Can!
Foodrescue
“Starting this week we are including challahs every Friday so everyone will have the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat in their homes.”

And, although I did ask the directors of every Jewish organization that is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation to send me a brief description what the major impact has been upon their organization as a result of COVID-19, I received only one response from the director of a Jewish organization, who asked that their response not be quoted.

I’m sure, like many of you though, you received an email from a synagogue describing the difficulties that synagogue is now facing. Here is an excerpt from an email sent out by the Shaarey Zedek to its members:

“Over the last number of weeks, we have been working to mitigate as much as possible the impact on our congregants and community during this pandemic. The need to still be your synagogue during these times was paramount in all our decision making. Our Executive was very mindful in terms of the financial impact this was and continues to be on the well-being of our institution. Obviously, our revenue streams have been affected in many areas. With the closure of the building many events scheduled to take place in our synagogue have either been postponed to later dates or cancelled outright. All Bar / Bat Mitzvahs for May & June have been postponed. Rabbi Leibl, the head of our B’nai Mitzvah program has been working directly with the families impacted by this decision, to reschedule to a more suitable date. Major Dinners, Galas and celebrations scheduled to take place at the shul have been postponed. This includes the Gray Academy Graduation Dinner and Dance, which we were all looking forward to hosting. All the above translates into significant reduced revenues to our Catering department.
“Some of our other revenue streams, such as Membership Dues, Donations, Programming Registrations, etc., have all been drastically reduced with the shutdown of the building.
“To offset a great deal of this loss in revenues, we have significantly reduced many of our ongoing expenses. It was decided and agreed that rather than layoff some staff with uncertainties as to their expected return, for the short term all staff would have their salaries drastically reduced. We will also be applying to the CEWS (Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy) which should help retain our staff, at least until Mid-June. We have created new, albeit reduced, revenue streams through our catering department. Joel Lafond and staff prepared and supplied significant Passover meals to many of our congregants. After this, he developed a Takeout Menu with Friday pickups, which has been greatly received by many. Thank you to all who are supporting us in this initiative. I encourage you to check out our Takeout Menu on our website if you have not already done so.
“Our cemetery operations have not been affected as much by Covid19, as we are still able to perform funerals. However, with the coming of spring it remains to be seen as to how we maintain our cemetery over the summer due to reduced resources. All major projects at the cemetery, which include maintenance and repair of concrete stripping and borders, and headstone repairs are done in the summer months when warm weather better allows for the work. Also, the main tasks of cutting the grass and removal of weeds and diseased trees account for much of the labour expense incurred over the summer. An area yet to be determined will be the planting of flowers on our graves, as this requires a significant amount of money, time and manpower. The Board of Directors in conjunction with the Cemetery committee will need to determine whether this should be a consideration for this year.
“With the closing of our building to the public, our expenses have dropped significantly. We want you to know that overall, we are doing okay and are preparing for the safe return to activities in our synagogue and community. Our Executive Committee and senior staff have been working on scenarios and preparing various budgets based upon when and how we emerge from these most unusual times. We are beginning to plan for scheduled B’nai Mitzvahs in the Fall and Spring and have rescheduled many of the earlier events that were postponed. We are now in the planning stages for our upcoming High Holy Days and want you to know that we will do everything possible to ensure we are able to celebrate together in a healthy, safe environment.”
In an email sent out by Congregation Etz Chayim to members, much the same sentiment as was expressed in the Shaarey Zedek email was present:
“…And so, we adapt, we learn, and we serve our congregation—our community—in unconventional ways. Unfortunately, our new reality—though temporary—has put us in a precarious situation financially. Many of our programs and events have been cancelled or postponed, including B’nai Mitzvah, community events, the annual golf tournament, and other catered functions that typically generate substantial revenue. To be blunt, there is very little money coming in.

“We have already made some tough decisions to adjust our staffing and cut other expenses, and we continue to look for additional savings. We have applied for funding from government and community programs, but there is still uncertainty around the nature and timing of this possible funding.

“We will emerge from this challenging period a stronger, healthier, and more tightly knit community deeply committed to enriching Jewish life. Imagine the joy we will all experience the first time we gather in person at Etz Chayim for a simcha or for Shabbat. And imagine the comfort we will bring to each other in times of sorrow when we can meet face-to-face in our sanctuary.

“These days will come, but we need your help to weather the storm until we can start generating new revenue again.”

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Israeli representative in Canada Sarah Mali talks about October 7 heroes

By MYRON LOVE Conflict often produces acts of heroism – but it is not only warriors who become heroes.  As Sarah Mali noted, heroism can come in many forms.  
 
Mali, the Director General of JFC-UIA Canada in Israel, made a stop in our community on Thursday, May 30, on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, during which she did a presentation at the Berney Theatre providing an update on the situation in the Jewish State from her perspective as  an Israeli – with a  focus on the different faces of heroism..
The British-born Mali made Aliyah in 2000 after earning a degree from the London School of Economics.  She also has degrees from the Hebrew University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  The mother of four – the older two currently serving in the Israel Defence Forces – was the Director of Israel Engagement for the Jewish Federation of Toronto from 2007 to 2012. She returned to Israel to undertake her current assignment in 2012 and now lives in Jerusalem.
Mali is an accomplished writer and public speaker who was named one of “50 of Our Favorite Women Right Now” by ”Future of Judaism” in 2022.
Mali was introduced by Paula Parks, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s President.  She presented her stories of heroism through a series of photographs. She began by recalling the first time in Israel that she heard sirens going off.  “I was in the car with one of my daughters,” she recounted.  “We weren’t quite sure what to do at first. But we got out of the car and did what all Israelis do.
“These past eight months, sirens have been sounded almost daily. Just recently, there was renewed rocket fire toward Tel Aviv.” 
 
The first group of heroes that Mali highlighted was the group of 14 young female soldiers who were kidnapped from their IDF base near Kibbutz Nahal Oz – near the Gaza border – which was overrun on October 7.
She spoke of the 60,000 residents of Israel’s north who were forced to leave their homes because of the danger from Hezbollah in the north and the heroic way that their fellow Israelis throughout the country have opened their homes and hearts to these internally displaced refugees, along with survivors of the attacks by Hamas in the south.
While Mali noted that she and her family are safe – living in the centre of the country – she described a recurring nightmare of loss. 
She told the story of Avitel Aladjem from Kibbutz Holit.  When the kibbutz was attacked, Aladjem was tasked by her neighbor, Canadian-born Adi Vital Kaploun, with looking after the latter’s two children – a three year old boy and a baby. Kaploun was murdered and Aladjem and the children were put on bicycles and driven to the Gaza border. For some strange and miraculous reason, the terrorist left the threesome at the border.  So Aladjem put the baby in a sling, picked up the three-year-old boy and carried both children back to safety.

Mali further praised the courage of the Magen David Adom medics who unhesitatingly put themselves in danger in those early desperate hours to save lives – and have continued saving lives throughout the war.  She recounted one story about an Israeli soldier who was shot in the neck and pronounced dead.  One medic, however, noticed that he was wearing a wedding band.
The medic noted that meant someone was waiting for the soldier at home and suggested the first responders should check him again  for any vital signs.  They found a pulse and had him evacuated by helicopter right away.  He was able to make a full recovery.
(Mali also noted that more than 15,000 Israeli soldiers have been wounded in the current conflict.)
One of the photos that Mali put on screen was the rescuer visiting the recovering soldier in hospital.
She spoke of the tremendous efforts of Israeli mental health professionals who have been having to deal with tens of thousands of traumatized Israeli of all ages.
She noted the miracle of her own daughter recently giving birth – bringing a new life into a world gone mad.
Another photo she posted was of a letter from a seven-year-old girl in Toronto who wanted to donate $23 to Israel to help with food, clothing and housing.
Mali’s final paean was to all the Jewish communities in the Diaspora – including our own – that have raised tremendous sums of money (over $4 million alone from our community), have staged rallies in support of our Israeli brethren, and many of whom have travelled to Israel, not only to show their support, but also to volunteer to help in many ways. 
“You are all heroes,” Mali told her audience.
Following her presentation, Mali took several questions from the audience.  One question concerned the ongoing conflict with Hezbollah in the north. “My head tells me that the IDF has to end Hezbollah,” Mali responded.  “But, as a mother with children serving in the IDF, I would be terrified.”
In answer to a second question about what some view as Israel’s poor public relations record, Mali pointed out that a major problem is that the Western media see the conflict – and the world –  in terms of victims and oppressors, and the Palestiniand in this worldview are ever the victims – and therefore, can do no wrong – while the Israelis are the oppressors whose every actions are judged as criminal or evil.
In concluding, Mali described the strong sense of determination and solidarity among most Israelis – an attitude exemplified by her own 17-year-old son who is impatient to join the IDF and take up the fight.
She added that “We Israelis want you to come to Israel, hear our stories and share them back in your communities.
 “Israel is a strong country with a strong army,” she observed.  “We are fighting not just for our own people but also for all Jews – and we are fighting against evil. This is our moment.”

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New York-based choreographer Josh Assor returning to hometown and Rainbow Stage for upcoming “Mary Poppins” production

By MYRON LOVE Josh Assor has a lengthy history, both with “Mary Poppins” and Rainbow Stage. So it would seem to be a no-brainer for Canada’s only summer theatre to invite the former Winnipegger-turned New York-based choreographer to return to his home town to choreograph this summer’s Rainbow Stage production of Mary Poppins (August 15-September 1).
Assor’s first experience with the beloved musical came just a short time into his stage career.  In 2011, the son of Hanania and Leslie Assor was cast in a touring production as Neleus, the statue who is brought to life by Mary.  In February 2012, he was elevated to the Broadway production in the same role.  In 2018, having transitioned from acting to choreography, he was tasked with choreographing a production of “Mary Poppins” at the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock, Missouri.  (He was invited back to Arrow Rock in 2019 to choreograph “Cinderella”).
“It is always nice to come back to Winnipeg where I started my career,” Assor says.
When it comes to musical theatre, Josh Assor has written a story of great success.  He was attracted to theatre and acting from a very young age. He actually began with some television roles, followed by stage work.  Some of the shows that he appeared in at Rainbow Stage were: “Peter Pan”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat” and “The Little Mermaid”.
Along the way, the young performer began taking dancing lessons.  “I started training rather later in life in dance,” he recalls. “I enrolled in Ken Peter Dance Express when I was 15.  Originally, I was most interested in hip hop.  I then followed with tap and, a couple of years later, I began studying all forms of dance, including jazz, ballet and musical theatre.  By the time I was 17, I had decided to seriously pursue a career in the theatre.”
Assor attended Gray Academy to the end of Grade 9, then moved to Grant Park High School for Grades 10-12 to take the school’s well-known performing arts program. 
The budding performer left Winnipeg after graduation for Los Angeles where he had scored a scholarship to study at the prestigious EDGE Performing Arts Center.  He then moved to Toronto – at age 19 – to begin the next phase of his career.
“I signed with an agent in Toronto,” he said in an earlier interview with the Jewish Post. “Toronto is where most of the auditions take place.  I did some television but mostly worked on the stage.”
His first major role was in a production of “West Side Story” at the Stratford Festival in 2008, he recounts.
While he may have been based in Toronto over a period of three years, he notes, he spent a year in Montreal and the rest of the time in touring productions, which continued after his move to New York in 2010. 
In addition to touring with “Mary Poppins,”  he also toured as a  member of the cast of “The Wizard of Oz” and Disney’s first national tour of “Newsies” (in which he was the assistant dance captain).
After more than two years in ‘”Newsies,” Assor explained in that earlier interview, he was ready for a change of pace.  “From day one, to become a choreographer was always my goal,” he noted.   “I am happiest when I can be at my most creative.  I felt that I had had a good run as a performer.  I accomplished what I had wanted.  It was time to focus on my development as a choreographer.”
Back in New York,  his goal was to become a member of the faculty of the world-renowned Broadway Dance Centre.  He started as a substitute teacher, became a guest instructor and, for the past several years, has been a member of the faculty, focusing on musical theatre.
“People come from all over the world to study with us,” Assor said.
In addition to his teaching, Assor has continued to work professionally as a choreographer. Choreographic credits include: New York Fashion Week, the New York City Knicks, Audi, Celebrity Cruise Lines, Modos Furniture, Hard Rock Hotel, and Soho House, as well as regional productions of “Mary Poppins,” “Anastasia,” “Fiddler On The Roof,” “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” “Cinderella,” “Newsies,” and the world premiere of “Medicine the Musical,” which ran off-Broadway. He also choreographed Cedar Point (Ohio) Amusement Park’s 150th Anniversary Spectacular ,as well as the series ‘DJ Burnt Bannock,’ produced by Eagle Vision. He was the associate choreographer for the “Saturday Night Fever” National Tour as well as the Canadian Premier of “Newsies.”
In March 2020,  due to the pandemic lockdowns, Assor came home to Winnipeg for a while and, once here, he got a job with Eagle Vision, working with them for almost a year behind the scenes on a number of large scale television and film projects, such as “Burden Of Truth” and “Esther”.
Assor is currently choreographing a production of “Fiddler On The Roof” that just opened at a theatre in the Boston Area called North Shore Music Theater. He reports that he will also be choreographing “Fiddler” again in Connecticut in early 2025.
He adds that he has a new show that he choreographed – titled “Retrospect” – that will be mounted in various theme parks across the US.  Also coming up is a  week-long dance retreat at the End of August – which he co-owns with Orielle Marcus – titled “The Reset Dance Retreat”. 

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Penny Jones Square passionate advocate for Israel

By MYRON LOVE Perception is not reality.  While the perception may be that the world is once more against Jews and the State of Israel, we are not reliving the darkest days of the 1930s and early 1940s.  Polls consistently show that in both Canada and the United States, the great majority of the population is on our side.
In our own community, we can see the strong support we receive from such Christian Zionist friends as Reverend Don and Victoria James and their fellow Bridges For Peace members,;Pastor Rudy and Gina Fidel and the members of his Faith Temple; and John Plantz and the Church and Field Ministries.
But there may not be a more ardent supporter of Israel and fighter against antisemitism in our community than Penny Jones Square.  Penny has long had a strong feeling for Israel and the Jewish people but, since the horrendous events of October 7, she has taken it to an entirely new level.
Over the past eight months, Penny has been ubiquitous.  She has been attending pro-Israel rallies and speakers as well as counter-protests against anti-Israel protests.  In May alone, she was at the reading of the Megillat Shoah,  B’nai Brith’s “Unto Every Person There is a Name”, the Yom HaZikaron ceremony at the Rady Centre,  the JNF’s “Warriors’ Journeys” with two IDF reserve soldiers, and the Bridges for Peace event, “It’s about Time”, a ceremony in honour of Jewish Heritage Month at the Manitoba Legislature, the weekly rally in support of the hostages at Kenaston and Grant, and the Jewish Federation evening “Update from the Ground” with Sara Mali, Director General of JFC-UIA Canada in Israel.
Penny has also found time to pop up at one of the anti-Israel protests at City Hall  and the pro-Palestinian student encampment at the University of Manitoba  to take photos and report on them – as well as Ron East’s screening of his Oct. 7 massacre video at the University of  Winnipeg encampment.
I first met Penny seven years ago while on a JNF mission to Israel.  We found that we had similar views on a range of subjects.  On Tuesday, June 4, I was able to meet with Penny at the Asper Campus and gained an understanding of what inspired her devotion to Israel and the Jewish people.
Penny –  who grew up in Riverview and River Heights, attended the University of Manitoba and has an MA in English from there –  recalled that she “was awakened to the horrors of the Holocaust” at the age of 13 after seeing the 1959 movie, “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“That led me to an ongoing study of antisemitism and the Holocaust and my abiding interest in standing up for Jews and fighting antisemitism,” she said.  “Along the way, I have acquired a profound admiration for Judaism and Jews who are, to my mind, ‘the light unto the nations’ that they were commanded to be.”
At the age of 22, she married David Square (who passed away almost three years ago) and they moved to a plot of land near Tyndall, Manitoba – off the grid, so to speak.  Penny and David spent four years building their own log home, cutting down trees from their property for the logs.
“We pursued our vision of living a self-sufficient lifestyle,” she recounted, “living mortgage-free, cutting our own firewood, growing our own food, and creating a magical sanctuary with flower gardens, two Zen gardens, a vegetable garden and numerous forest trails for walking and cross country skiing.”
She concedes that “it was a difficult life maintaining gardens, lawns and trails and bringing in the winter firewood – as well as working as one-of-a-kind art furniture designers and builders, but it was also a life blessed by the natural beauty surrounding us and by the beauty we created in our home, our art, and our cherished refuge”.
After almost 20 years, the couple closed their custom furniture business. While David pursued a career as a journalist and novelist, Penny worked at the University of Manitoba in the bookstore and as a tutor.
(A few months ago, Penny sold her property in the country and moved into Winnipeg.)
It was in 2007 that Penny really began to immerse herself in the study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.  It started when she signed up for Dr. Catherine Chatterley’s course on the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust.  (Chatterley specializes in the study of modern European history and the Holocaust and is the founder of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism.)
“I spent some time as a grader for her course and as a copy editor for her journal, “Anti-Semitism Studies,” Penny said.  “David and I promoted her annual lectures.  David took photos and I published articles about them.”
The couple also joined Winnipeg Friends of Israel – founded by Yolanda Papini-Pollock – and Penny helped with some of Papini-Pollock’s initiatives.
Penny notes that her love for Israel and admiration for the Jewish people was greatly strengthened by that 2017 trip to the Jewish State.  “To witness the transformation of a land of malarial swamps and desert to the wonder of Israel’s astonishing natural beauty, its olive and almond groves, forested areas and vibrant and thriving kibbutzim,  moshavim and cities – as well as the joy, resilience and exuberance of the Israeli people was awe-inspiring – while our tour of Yad Vashem was overwhelming and intensely saddening.
“In this present moment, I believe that it is my moral responsibility to denounce the immoral and irrational hatred of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism fiercely, fearlessly and honestly and state my allegiance  with the righteous and ethical example of Israel and the Jewish people.  Moral courage and a commitment to the truth are what is required of us to stop the lies and prevent this radical evil that is Islamic Jihadism from prevailing over the good and the humane, democratic values.”

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