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Mayor of Sderot pays a return visit to Winnipeg



Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi (left)
with Bernie Bellan

By BERNIE BELLAN It was just three short years ago (in February 2019) that the mayor of Sderot, Alon Davidi, visited Winnipeg for the first time. I was invited to attend a briefing that Mayor Davidi gave in the boardroom of the Taylor McCaffrey law office back then. Here is part of what I wrote about that briefing:

“Living in Sderot is 95% heaven and 5% hell.” That is how Mayor Alon Davidi of Sderot characterized living in the Israeli city of Sderot to a small group of invited guests at a luncheon held in the board room of Taylor McCaffrey law offices on Thursday, February 28. Davidi was the special guest of the Jewish National Fund during his visit to Winnipeg. The JNF has been involved in the construction of an animal assisted therapy centre in Sderot. Davidi said his talk was titled “What it’s like to thrive under pressure”. “For anyone not familiar with Sderot and where it is located, Davidi referred to a map of Israel during his 40-minute talk on Feb. 28.

Sderot is situated only one kilometer from the Gaza Strip, which means that if a rocket is fired from areas close to the border with Israel, residents of Sderot have only 15 seconds to escape to a bomb shelter before that rocket could hit. “Mayor Davidi, who is 44 years old, and who moved to Sderot 21 years ago, noted that he and his wife Nurit are the parents of seven children. “Yet, despite the constant threat of attack from Gaza, Mayor Davidi said that Sderot has actually thrived as a community. He noted that the population is now over 28,000, having grown from 21,000 in 2010.

Although there had been an exodus of residents when rockets first began to be fired during the second intifadeh in 2001, and that exodus continued until 2008 when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, with the introduction of the Iron Dome system in 2011, residents of Sderot have developed a much greater certainty that they will be protected from rocket fire. Since 2008 Sderot has continued to grow, with the construction of over 3,000 new apartments in the past five years, a sports complex, and a shopping mall.“However, the residual effects of years of bombardment by rockets launched from Gaza combined with the ever-present threat that a rocket might be coming at any second have taken their toll on many residents of Sderot, especially children.”

Although Mayor Davidi’s first ever visit to Winnipeg came only three years ago, in many ways that seems like a lifetime ago. So, when I received a text message from David Greaves, JNF Saskatchewan-Manitoba Executive Director, on Tuesday morning, May 31st, asking me whether I would be able to come down to the Asper Campus to meet with the mayor of Sderot, I actually had forgotten that we had met. So, when I walked up to the table at Schmoozer’s where the mayor was sitting with David Greaves (and two other representatives of the JNF), I was surprised when Mayor Davidi said he remembered me. (I didn’t remember meeting him.) He said that he had been to Winnipeg before and made the usual observation about even though Winnipeg was cold, it has a very warm community. (I told him that if he thought it was cold when he was here the last time, he should have been here this past winter if he really wanted to experience cold.)

As it was, much of what the mayor had to tell me wasn’t all that different from what I discovered I had written about what he told those of us who were in that boardroom three years ago – after I read my account of that 2019 visit again. What is different though is that a project financed by JNF Canada, known as The Bervin JNF Canada House of Excellence has now finally begun construction. Here is what we wrote about that project last year, prior to last year’s Negev Gala, which honoured Ted and Harriet Lyons: “The Bervin JNF Canada House of Excellence is to be built in Sderot, which is the community that has always been the most immediate target of missiles launched over the years from the Gaza Strip. This particular facility is intended to serve as an after-school education, empowerment, and enrichment centre for high school students from Sderot and its surroundings, who will be provided with the necessary tools and skills for personal and scholastic success’.”

“The choice of Sderot as the location for this year’s project for JNF Canada (and, by the way, for the first time ever, all Negev Galas held across Canada in 2021 have earmarked funds for the Bervin project – hoping to raise $4 million altogether), was made long before Sderot found itself coming under incessant fire just a few weeks ago. (Incidentally, of that $4 million to be raised across Canada, over $1. 3 million has already been raised from Winnipeg donors, including $100,000 from Ted and Harriet Lyons themselves.”

When I chatted with Mayor Davidi on May 31, I asked him how much Sderot has changed in the time that he’s been mayor? He said, “We are not ‘surviving’, we believe in our city. We decide Hamas will not win us. We will build our city to be a very strong community.” At the same time though, Davidi reminded me that the omnipresent fear of a missile being launched from Gaza is still top of mind for almost everyone who lives in Sderot. “You know that when you wake up in the morning, you always need a place to hide,” he observed. “I need to make our lives better.” We talked about the young people of Sderot – the kinds of young people for whom Bervin House may offer a life-changing experience. “The children in Sderot are like a special unit in the army,” Davidi said. “They’re always on the front line.”

In response to the difficulties with which they’re presented, Bervin House promises to give those young people opportunities to better their lives by equipping them with the skills that are so desperately needed in Israel’s mushrooming high-tech sector. “Our mission,” Davidi said, “is to prepare students with the skills to work in high-tech companies.” On that point, I asked him whether any high-tech companies have actually located in Sderot? Davidi quickly rattled off a list of names of companies, adding that as much as the Sderot economy has improved over the years, it still is well in need of support, reminding me that it first began as a development town for Sephardi refugees from Arab countries in the 1950s. Things really began to pick up though with the arrival of thousands of Russian immigrants, beginning in the 1990s, Davidi added.

When I asked him why he had come back to Winnipeg after having been here only three years ago, he said that he wanted to thank Winnipeggers for the support they’ve shown, mentioning several individuals by name, including Ted and Harriet Lyons, Larry and Tova Vickar, and Nola Lazar. Then he added this interesting tidbit: One of Nola and Matthew Lazar’s two daughters (both of whom have made aliyah) is now living in Sderot, as part of her social work training. I said that I would definitely try to contact her to ask her to describe her experience living there. I hope that I will soon be able to have a report.

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Local News

Beneficiary agencies of the Jewish Federation have received $210,000 less this year than last year as of September 1



For the first time in at least 10 years the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg has reduced the amount distributed to its 12 beneficiary agencies from what had been distributed the previous year. The funds were distributed September 1 for 2023-24.
The total amount distributed this year was $210,000 less than what was distributed in both 2022 and 2021 and is actually $500,000 less than the total that was requested by the beneficiary agencies. (The amount distributed last year was $216,000 less than what the beneficiary agencies had requested.)

In explaining why allocations are being reduced this year, the Federation reported that “Over the past few years, the Federation and community have collectively faced significant challenges, placing a strain on our financial resources. In response to these challenges, the Federation stepped in during our community’s time of need, dedicating over $200,000 from our reserves to sustain our beneficiary agencies.” (In a later explanation it was clarified that $100,000 was taken from Federation reserves in each of 2022 and 2021.)

It was further noted that the decrease in funds to be allocated to agencies represents a 7% decrease over the previous year. Dipping into reserves was described as an “unsustainable practice.” It was also noted that the Federation “notified our beneficiaries of a probable reduction in the amount of funding available well ahead of the allocation request deadline.
In describing the pressures that the Federation’s Allocations Committee faced this year in coming up with its allocations, committee chair Brent Schacter said that “We knew after the budget process last year we were going to be in a bind.” Schacter further elaborated that the two whammies that hit this year were the ongoing repercussions of Covid along with the rapid increase in inflation.
In discussing the pressures that the Allocations committee faced this year, it should also be noted that although the amount raised by the Combined Jewish Appeal – while not much more than the previous year ($6.3 million as opposed to $6.25 million), the negative effects of the drop in allocations are somewhat mitigated by two things:. A good portion of the amount raised by the CJA is in the form of “designated funds,” given by large donors and, while those funds are not available to the B & A committee to distribute, many of the beneficiary agencies did receive large distributions from those “designated funds.”
As well, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba increased its total distributions this year by $1.3 million over the previous year. While the Foundation’s gifts were spread among a very wide number of recipients, a number of the Federation’s beneficiary agencies did benefit from the increase in Foundation distributions.
Still, the challenges facing the Federation in meeting the needs of the community are leading to a major reassessment of how Federation planners are implementing budgetary planning.
A number of new innovations have now been adopted by the B & A committee, including:

  • New application forms – one for agencies requesting more than $250,000 and one for agencies requesting less
  • Beneficiaries were asked to state the anticipated outcomes of projects/programs that receive Federation funding, and to develop indicators so that they can measure those outcomes.
  • Site visits took place along with periodic meetings with agencies as a whole throughout the year to ensure that the committee gets a more complete picture of beneficiaries’ activities, challenges, and plans.
    In describing the process that the Federation undertook to “streamline” the budget allocation process, Federation President Gustavo Zentner said “Lay leadership and management had a responsibility to look at the business model.”
    It was determined that the Federation needed “a more effective way of managing the allocations process,” Zentner stated, including “more meaningful communication with the agencies to bring to light their projects.”
    Not only does the Federation want to improve its own fundraising process, Zentner continued, “We also want to help agencies to raise funds on their own.”
    Despite the reductions in allocations available to agencies this year, Zentner stressed that “we wanted to address the needs of those members of the community who are most in need.”
    Brent Schacter added: “We want to see people dig a little bit deeper” when it comes to giving. The Combined Jewish Appeal is now into its fundraising campaign for the 2023-24 fiscal year.
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Local News

Six members of the community receive King’s Counsel appointments



New KIng's Counsel appointments clockwise from top left: Laurelle Harris, Fay-Lynn Katz, Sandra Kliman, Bryan Schwartz, Frank Lavitt, Steve Kohn

A total of 17 lawyers were appointed King’s Counsel by Order in Council on August 29. Six members of our Jewish community were among those appointed. Although appointments as King’s Counsel are usually accompanied by biographical information about those appointed, there was no press release issued by the Manitoba Government announcing the appointments. When we contacted the Manitoba Government news room to ask why there was no biographical information available, the response we received referred to KC appointments announced in February (no surprise there – these are bureaucrats we’re dealing with). When we asked again why there was no biographical information available about the most recent batch of KC appointments we were told “the Province of Manitoba is in the middle of an election blackout and department communications are limited as a result. News Room has nothing further to add.”
As a result, we present here photos of Jewish recipients of KC appointments, but without any further information.

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Kayla Gordon inducted on to Rainbow Stage’s Wall of Fame



Kayla Gordon (centre) holding an award she received from Rainbow Stage after having been inducted on to Rainbow Stage’s Wall of Fame in the Builders’ category. Chris Reid (standing beside Kayla) presented the award. Also with Kayla was Brenda Gorlick, Kayla’s long- time collaborator in muscial theatre, who introduced Kayla.

Myron Love It was in the summer of 1984 when Kayla Gordon was appearing in the Rainbow Stage production of “Kismet,” that the long time actor/director/producer/photographer found herself doing her make-up sitting next to Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame, who was also appearing in the production.

“We both were playing opposite each other in the comic roles as the Ayahs to the Wazir (the main lead), and we began talking about our plans for the future,” Gordon recalls. “Nia was talking about moving to Toronto and joining the Second City company. As for me, I was in a comedy troupe in Winnipeg and just found out I was pregnant with my first child. My plan was to stay in Winnipeg, even though I was a bit jealous that she was going off to pursue her dream and I was staying put. That was my ‘Kismet’ and I never looked back.”

Rainbow Stage is where Gordon began her career in musical theatre at the age of 17 in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” After a career of more than 40 years, both on stage and behind the scenes – it is fitting that one of the leading lights of community theatre in our city has been recognized for her contributions by Winnipeg’s longest-running theatre company. On Wednesday, August 17, Gordon was one of the five inductees to Rainbow Stage’s Wall of Fame under the “Builder” category. The award is given to someone who has been part of nurturing and building our theatre community.

“It was a wonderful surprise,” says the honoree. “It brings my career full circle.” Previous honours for Gordon include the Leadership Award from the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Theatre Educator’s Award from the Winnipeg Theatre Awards for her long-time leadership within the arts community.

Gordon reports that the induction ceremony, attended by about 100 friends and family members of the inductees and Rainbow Stage staff, was held just prior to the opening night performance of “The Little Mermaid,”,the second of three shows the company is putting on this summer and early fall.
“It was also special to have one of my grandchildren, my husband Art Maister, my mom Ethel, and my aunt Evelyn Hecht at the induction ceremony,” she adds. (Evelyn also performed at Rainbow Stage in the 1950s.)
Gordon notes that while she appeared onstage in seven Rainbow Stage productions – from 1977 to 1993, she was honoured not for her acting, but for her role as a nurturer of talent through teaching acting and musical theatre at the University of Winnipeg for 18 years, as well as teaching at the University of Manitoba, Prairie Theatre Exchange and The Manitoba Theatre for Young People – also, later as the Artistic Director of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre for over 10 years and Winnipeg Studio Theatre, which she founded in 2006.

“I get a lot of satisfaction watching actors I’ve directed and students I have taught and nurtured performing at Rainbow Stage and other venues in the city,” Gordon notes. Many of them have gone on to work professionally and have appeared across Canada, as well as in Broadway productions. Some of them include: Alexandra Frohlinger (Soul Doctor/Broadway), Samantha Hill (Phantom of the Opera/Broadway), Jaz Sealey (Aladdin/Broadway), Andrea Macasaet (Six/Broadway), and Nyk Bielak (Book of Mormon/Broadway).

Gordon was an actor and high school drama teacher at West Kildonan Collegiate for the first 15 years of her career. By the mid-1990s she found herself becoming more interested in working behind the scenes as a director/producer. In 1994, she became the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s second artistic director – succeeding WJT founder Bev Aronovitch – a role she played until 2006. Following her time at WJT Gordon observed that local theatres were not hiring many female theatre directors.
“I realized that if I wanted to work as a director, I would have to create my own projects,” she recalls. So, she started Winnipeg Studio Theatre (WST) in 2006. Soon after forming the company, she invited her longtime theatre associate Brenda Gorlick to run the StudioWorks Academy, a program for emerging artists.

In 2021 she stepped down from her position at WST. “I am still interested in directing – but without the added pressures of being a producer or the full-time responsibility of running a professional theatre company,” she observes. “I like having the freedom to pick and choose the projects I want to work on.” I still plan to work on independent contracts directing theatre and creating entertainment for special events or fundraising activities in the community.”.Last year she produced and directed the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s Negev Gala tribute honouring Gail Asper and Michael Paterson. As well, stepping down from her responsibilities with WST has also allowed Gordon to devote more time to her other passion – photography. “I have been interested in photography since I was 15,” she recounts. “My father Ralph had a dark room in our basement.”
Over the past couple of years, she has achieved accreditation with the Professional Photographers of Canada in four different areas of photography: street photography (her favourite), portraiture, performing artists, and figure study. And, last year, she co-authored a coffee table book – “The Murals of Winnipeg,” with fellow photographer Keith Levit as a fundraiser for Take Pride Winnipeg, with 80 pages of photos, which sold out in two weeks and the funds will go to emerging mural artists. (That story can be found on the website.)

Kayla is grateful to have stayed in Winnipeg and she sums up her career, and how and why she managed to work in theatre all these years with a quote from Henry Winkler (aka ‘The Fonz’) “I live by tenacity and gratitude. Tenacity gets you where you want to be, and gratitude allows you not to be frustrated along the way”.

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