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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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Allocations to Beneficiary Agencies of Jewish Federation largely unchanged from previous year

By BERNIE BELLAN I’ve been reporting on allocations given to the 12 beneficiary agencies of the Jewish Federation for over 10 years now. I have also been producing tables each year to show how much allocations have gone up or down over the years, but I’ve simply run out of room to produce a table that would be readable and fit into a reasonable amount of space, so this year I’m providing a table that shows allocations only for this year and each of the three preceding years.


By way of explanation, each year the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg allocates funds to 12 beneficiary agencies, although one of the agencies, The Irma Penn School of Jewish Learning, did not apply for funding this past year (nor either of the two preceding years). As well, as the report of the Allocation Committee notes, “The Jewish Learning Institute resumed their participation in the Allocations process after a hiatus of a few years to enhance their revitalized programming. “

The allocations are to be given to the agencies on September 1.
The total amount allocated to the agencies is slightly higher than the total of last year’s allocations to agencies: $2,856,400 in 2024/25 compared with $2,793,000 in 2023/24. Interestingly, the most ever allocated by the Jewish Federation to its beneficiary agencies was $3,003,000 in 2021/22. In 2014/15 the total allocated was $2,653,800, so when one takes into account the effects of inflation, the allocations that agencies are to receive this year are far less than what those agencies received 10 years ago.
In the report of the Allocations Committee, it was noted that The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg (JFW) raises funds through the Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA) Campaign, which are used to sustain the programs and services it offers to the Jewish community, its beneficiary agencies, and global needs. The Allocations Committee has developed a process for beneficiary agencies to request a portion of the funds raised by the CJA Campaign and reviews these requests while considering community priorities. This year, the events of October 7, 2023, and the subsequent war meant that the activities of the Jewish community here and in Israel are more important than ever.
Our committee is aware of the increased financial pressures that are being faced by Jewish community organizations. High inflation, the rising costs of goods and shipping, as well as needed increases in staff wages, means that our community organizations are being challenged. These rising costs are also being met by the JFW. Thank you to the tireless CJA Team, professionals and volunteers, who make the Allocations process possible. The money given by our donors is vital to the continuing growth and success of the Winnipeg Jewish community.
The Allocations Committee is composed of volunteers who sit on the Committee, as well as; the President and Vice President of the JFW Board; the Chair and Vice Chair of the CJA Campaign; the Chair(s) of the Women’s Philanthropy program; the Chair(s) of the Planning Committee; and the Chair of the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba. The Asper Foundation’s President participated in the committee this year and was an invaluable resource. Volunteers who serve on beneficiary organizations’ boards are not permitted to sit on the Allocations Committee, as this presents a conflict of interest.
2024 Innovations to the Allocations process
Last year, only those organizations which requested $250,000+ were asked to present to the committee, but many of the smaller beneficiaries told us that they wanted to discuss their organization’s requests in person. After receiving feedback from the beneficiary organizations, the Allocations committee decided to reinstate presentations by all beneficiaries.
2024 was Brent Schacter’s last year as Chair of the Allocations committee. Thanks to Dr. Schacter, the Allocations process was able to become more aligned with granting processes common in non-profit and scientific funding. Vice Chair Jack Hurtig will be assuming the role of Chair for next year’s process.
The committee allocated a slightly larger amount of total dollars than what was recommended by the Board before the process began. The Board approved this slightly larger amount to ensure that our community organizations can continue delivering their high quality of services and programs.


There were no major differences in allocations between the 2023/24 allocations and the 2024/25 allocations.
Gray Academy of Jewish Education did see an increase of $15,000 in its allocation, although the total allocated to Gray Academy is still down $160,000 from what it received in 2021/22. As well, the Rady JCC will see an increase of $20,000 in its funding over the past year’s funding.
Something else of note is that the position of “senior concierge,” which was created in response to the isolation that many seniors experienced during Covid, has received an increase of $10,000 in funding. In an article I wrote in 2023, Danielle Tabacznik, who was the first senior concierge for the Jewish community, explained what the role of senior concierge was: “I’ll be reaching out to seniors in the Jewish community who may or may not be isolated and who may not be connected to services. I’ll be checking in with them to make sure they’re doing okay…to see whether they do need referrals to services. I’ll also be asking them whether they’re feeling isolated, what programs or services might help them.”

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The reawakening of Rochelle Rabinovitz

By GERRY POSNER Many of us undergo transformations of some kind during our lifetimes, but surely one of the most profound changes to occur to anyone was one which took place in the life of Rochelle Rabinovitz, formerly Rochelle Brownstone, daughter of the late Jack and Lorraine Brownstone. Rochelle is a former Winnipegger who has been living for the past 50 years in Calgary, which is where she and her late husband Mervin Rabinovitz settled back in September 1974.

Rochelle was the eldest of three children, raised in a secular Jewish home – with some Jewish education, but quite limited, as it was for many Jewish kids raised in the south end of Winnipeg in the 1950s and 60s. Her life began on Borebank Street, later Waterloo, and still later on to Brock Street, all in River Heights in the south end of Winnipeg. She was friends then and remains friends even to this day with (as they were then known and in part still are) Carla Singer, Anna Mae Silver, Carolyn Lupa, Rhonda Krindle, Brenda Jacobson, and Judy and Joyce Wolinsky, both of blessed memory. Tanya Morgan became a very close friend from Grade 7 through university and an adventure travel partner afterwards.

Rochelle attended the University of Manitoba from 1962-66. Upon graduating from Science, she was off to Montreal where she worked as a computer programmer. Rochelle loved being away from home and was part of the Expo experience in 1967 in Montreal. After a brief stop in Scotland and a temporary job in Winnipeg, Rochelle was off to Europe for 4 months as part of her real education. On her return to Winnipeg, she worked for nearly four years as a programmer/analyst at the University of Manitoba Medical School. She even lived on her own in an apartment at the then Canterbury House Apartments on Roslyn Rd.
In 1970, she received a call from a Mervin Rabinovitz, a teacher at the dental school in Winnipeg and a former South African who had accepted an 18-month teaching contract at the dental school. They discovered that they not only worked in the same building, but coincidentally, he also lived in Canterbury House. One thing led to another and, in February of 1972, they were married at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. Mervin and Rochelle soon decided to move to Montreal so that Mervin could get his Master’s degree in Orthodontics. During those two years Rochelle worked at the Royal Victoria Hospital in computer programming and taught programming at a private school.

In September 1974 – some 50 years ago, Rochelle and Merv made the decision to move to Calgary where an opportunity beckoned for Merv and, as they say, the rest is history. The couple bought some acreage outside of Calgary, built a house there, and that became home to their three daughters – born between 1979 and 1983.
It was in 1984 when Rochelle’s kind of awakening began with respect to her Jewish roots. It was a time when Rochelle’s eldest daughter was about to start school. To help Rochelle and Merv decide whether they should send their daughter to public school or the Jewish day school in Calgary, Rochelle began reading a well-known book, “To Be a Jew, “ by Rabbi H. H Donin. The values set out in that book resonated with Rochelle and the couple elected to send their daughter to day school.

Rochelle’s real moment of epiphany began when she attended the Jim Keegstra trial. For those not old enough to remember who Keegstra was, he was a high school teacher who promoted hatred against Jews. After listening to all the hateful things Keegstra had said about Jews, Rochelle began to wonder how comprehensive the Jewish education she had received had been in terms of teaching about antisemitism, but after some deep thinking and conversations, Rochelle came to realize that she had to understand and learn her own history. She also realized she had to be pragmatic and face the reality that we Jews were – and srill are, a very small minority in Canada and indeed in the entire world. She concluded that we, as Jews, should not shrink from expressing our Jewish identity – even in the face of people who hate us. At that point, she was ready to embrace her Jewish roots and embrace it she certainly did.

From becoming a regular attendee with her family at Shabbat services, to organizing a weekly women’s study group as well as a Shabbat Shalom monthly book club, and establishing a meaningful link with Israel, Rochelle gradually came to appreciate and marvel at the wisdom of Sabbath observance.
All of this led to Rochelle pursuing her Jewish education at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. She began to “ appreciate additional aspects of my Jewish inheritance including mysticism, philosophy, Talmud and history,” she says. Her family called her a “born again” Jew, but she regarded her transformation as a “baal-tesuvah,” one who has returned to Judaism.
Ultimately, Rochelle earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and later began working on a Master’s degree. She became active in Jewish-Christian dialogue and multi-faith organizations. She has been involved extensively in the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, serving as Treasurer, later Vice President, and ultimately, President. Her Judaism gave her the confidence to reach out to others and speak up when confronted by ignorance and bigotry. This awakening changed her life.

Rochelle is now the Past President of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews – Alberta region and a co-founder of the Inter-Faith Network of Calgary. Her Judaism is essential to who she is. In fact, it was only because she was at synagogue on the weekend when I was in Calgary recently attending her synagogue where we bumped into one another at the kiddish table (Where else?), that caused me to realize that the Rochelle Rabinovitz story was one worth telling.

If truth be told, Rochelle looks the same as she did when I knew her as a teenager in Winnipeg, but she is a different person than the girl I knew back in the 1960s. she was always a positive person, but from my conversations with her, I felt as if a light was shining on and through her. Her parents would be amazed.

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After nine months of war and trauma, Israeli kids are finding a respite at Canadian summer camps

Camp Northland B'nai Brith in Ontario appealed for funds to help Israeli kids attend camp. (Credit: Facebook)

By ALEX ROSE (CJN) Camp Northland B’nai Brith has a pretty standard operating procedure for emergencies. When a fire or other urgent situation occurs, a siren rings that triggers a set of emergency protocols.

This year, though, the camp—located in Haliburton, Ont.—is removing the siren from their protocols.

It’s not because they don’t want to be prepared for emergencies. It’s because they want to be prepared for the Israeli campers and staff who are coming this summer. And, as camp director Simon Wolle learned, the sound is unfortunately similar to the air raid sirens used in Israel.

For that reason, Northland decided to ditch the sirens, so none of the Israelis will have to relive the trauma of the last year in the place that is supposed to be an escape from it all.

“We can give these children a home that is safe, that is comfortable, where they’re going to be in an environment full of laughter, full of smiles, full of activities, heavily programmed, being busy, being active. Just being able to be kids means the world,” said Wolle.

“I think the fact that they’re going to come here and be given that experience in contrast to the darkness that they’ve had to live in now, since Oct. 7, is going to be… what will feel like a new life for them. And it’s super exciting to be able to give that to them. They don’t even know yet what they’re about to experience and how positive this is going to be. And they deserve it. These kids deserve it.”

There are five groups of Israeli staff and campers attending Northland this year. The first is Kids of Courage from Beit Halochem, a hospital in Israel for disabled veterans. Since 2016, Northland has been bringing in campers whose parents were severely injured or disabled in the military. This year, for the second time, a former Beit Halochem camper is returning as staff.

The second are the shinshinim, Israeli students who spend a year in Canada between graduating high school and starting their military service. They spend the first 10 months associated with a synagogue or Jewish school, and the last two at camp.

The third are the shlichim from the Jewish Agency for Israel, who spend a summer at camp after completing their service in the Israeli military. Some of this year’s shlichim staff were on a navy warship or in Gaza only two weeks before starting camp.

The fourth are independent campers, not associated with any programs, whose parents heard that Canadian Jewish summer camps could be a good option for their kids this summer.

And the fifth didn’t even exist until just before the camp season started. They are a group of 13 campers and two chaperones from Kfar Szold, a small kibbutz just over five kilometres away from the border with Lebanon. A few weeks ago, a group of Canadian Jewish camps and community members worked together to find a summer home for these 15 Israelis, who have been living under the shadow of rocket fire for months on end.

The exact distance between Kibbutz Kfar Szold and the Lebanese border is important, because all residential areas that are within five kilometres of the border have been evacuated because of the constant rocket fire coming into Israel from Hezbollah.

Kfar Szold is the closest residential area to the border that was not evacuated. And although they don’t meet the criteria for evacuation, their situation is very similar to that of their neighbours who were moved away.

Elinor Gofer is one of those neighbours. She lives in Kibbutz Hagoshrim, 2.5 kilometres from the border with Lebanon, where she works as a real estate agent (although business has of course been put on hold for the time being). Hagoshrim is one of a group of kibbutzim, including Kfar Szold, that are all connected, with their children attending the same schools.

“I can’t believe these people weren’t evacuated. Their kids go with our kids to our school and they’re just located shy of 500 meters from what the government said isn’t safe. And as someone from Kibbutz Hagoshrim, I know what my kids are going through. I have teenagers, I also have small kids,” she said. 

“We get hotels, we get help. And this is a major help, but these people don’t even have the opportunity to go anywhere else. They have to stay in their kibbutz and there’s daily missile attacks. The entire area, there’s not even medical care.”

Back in the winter, Gofer had helped a group of children who had been evacuated secure spots at summer camps in the United States. Eventually, word of that initiative got to Amir Epstein, who runs the Jewish advocacy organization Tafsik, and he offered to help find summer camp spots for the kids in Canada. Although the evacuated children had already been placed, Gofer recognized an opportunity to offer some respite to the kids stuck in Kfar Szold.

“I said, ‘wait a second, there’s someone here that can help. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to see, there’s so many other children that need this.’ And specifically on that Friday (that Epstein reached out), we came home to visit our kibbutz and there were two direct hits on Kfar Szold,” Gofer said.

At that point, Gofer reached out directly to Epstein to see if he would help find spots for kids who hadn’t been officially evacuated by the government. She also offered to help with whatever she could, even though none of her own children would be going, because she is fluent in English and there is no real estate to sell. She also sent Epstein photos that she had taken of the direct hits on Kfar Szold. 

Once Epstein agreed to help, Gofer’s next call was to the kibbutz director at Kfar Szold.

“She almost cried on the phone. She was so, so excited that we even thought about them because those people, they feel like everyone forgot about them. I mean, they’re living in a place of war, and they don’t even have financial aid or any kind of notice from the Israeli government,” Gofer said.

Once Epstein and Kfar Szold signed on, it was only a matter of finding spots for the Kfar Szold campers. A message went out to the Canadian Jewish community, and word quickly got around.

Wolle, director of Northland, soon heard about the plight of the kids at Kfar Szold. “For us, this was a very simple answer,” he said.

“There were people from our family, our extended family in Israel, asking for help. And when that happens, we have a policy of saying, ‘We are here,’ and we were prepared for this.”

Multiple summer camps offered spots to the campers, and all of them worked together to find the best solution, Wolle was quick to point out.

Many other initiatives also bring Israelis to camps across Canada. One of those programs is OneFamily, an organization for those who were injured or lost family in terror attacks, which has been sending children to Camp Timberlane since 2006. Another is Israeli Victims of War, which is sending over 200 Israelis to camps across Canada this summer.

In the end, Northland was chosen for the Kfar Szold campers because it had room for all 15 of them—in part because they had held 40 slots in reserve in case just such a need arose. The 13 campers and two chaperones from Kfar Szold will arrive on July 28, for the camp’s second session.

Wolle, Epstein and Gofer are all grateful for the opportunity to help bring these kids to Northland.

Wolle has always been proud of the efforts Northland and other camps have been making over the years to offer a taste of Canadian summer paradise to deserving Israeli campers. But he recognizes the increased importance of providing a safe and joyful home for Israeli campers and staff after a year filled with fear and trauma, and what it means to be able to make a difference from the other side of the world.

“Whether it’s being a camper in the cabin welcoming them, whether it’s being the staff taking them on this journey, whether it’s the board of directors, who have authorized these initiatives, whether it’s the chaperones that are going to be here to facilitate, I think everybody is going to have the reward and that feeling of we’ve done something to help and to contribute… because that’s what everybody that I’ve interacted with is seeking.”

Gofer, who knows firsthand what Kfar Szold is going through, empathizes most of all with the parents, who are able to do something positive for their kids in such a difficult time.

“It’s so fulfilling for me as a person to do something. I don’t know personally the parents or the children, but just to hear their gratitude,” she said. “It’s not even what we’re doing for the kids. It’s even giving the parents the feeling that they’re doing something positive for their child. They can allow their child to have this kind of experience and adventure… it even gives them some kind of hope that they’re able to give their child something like that.”

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