By BERNIE BELLAN I was recently contacted by Michel Aziza, who has spearheaded the drive to help Yazidi refugees known as “Operation Ezra”. Michel told me about a totally unexpected donation of $150,000 to Operation Ezra that was received from something called the Dorothy Strelsin foundation.
I was intrigued by this surprise gift to Operation Ezra. It turns out that the gift to Operation Ezra was just one of seven gifts made to local organizations by the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation.
Here is what I learned, after talking to an individual who had helped to guide the gift-giving process for a foundation about which no one here had heard until cheques started arriving recently.
Dorothy Strelsin, born Dorothy Dennis in 1913, was a one-time Broadway showgirl who had married a wealthy industrialist by the name of Alfred Strelsin.
According to information we were able to glean from the internet, Dorothy Strelsin had been an ardent supporter of the arts. Apparently, upon her death, a foundation was started in her name. The foundation has been under the direction of a good friend of Dorothy Strelsin’s, who has asked us not to divulge her name.
It turns out that the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation has grown considerably in the 20 years since its creation and, in that time, it has made donations to over 100 different organizations. From what we were told by an individual who has a close connection to the manager of the foundation, and who played a key role in suggesting Winnipeg organizations that were worthy of financial assistance, the person who has been managing the foundation wishes to bring it to a close. As a result, there has been a recent outpouring of gifts to a great many different organizations, including seven which have strong Winnipeg connections.
The six other local organizations, in addition to Operation Ezra, which received donations from the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation, include:
• The Assiniboine Park Conservancy’s Polar Bear Rescue & Care Team
• Harvest Manitoba (formerly Manitoba Harvest)
• Gaining Resources Our Way (G.R.O.W.) – a non-denominational program started by Karyn Lazareck in 2002 to help promote greater independence and self-reliance for young adults with special needs
• Siloam Mission
• BB Camp – to set up a fund to provide scholarships for Indigenous children in the Kenora area to be able to attend BB Camp’s day camp on Town Island
• The Rady JCC – for special needs programs
The funds allocated by the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation for each of the above organizations have already been distributed. As the individual who played a direct role in determining where funds from the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation would go in Manitoba told me, “it has been a humbling and rewarding experience”, first determining where those funds would go, and then seeing the impact that giving those funds has already had.
We have not heard from any of the organizations that received gifts from the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation, other than Operation Ezra. Here is what Michel Aziza of Operation Ezra wrote to me:
The generous and unexpected donation from the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation comes at a critical time for the Operation Ezra project as it continues to look for ways to help and assist many of the Yazidi families brought to Canada by the Government in 2017 and 2018.
While all the families privately sponsored by Operation Ezra through the generous contributions of our community are doing very well and have gained full independence, the 40 + families brought in by the government continue to face many financial and emotional challenges. As a result of this , Operation Ezra shifted its focus several years ago to helping these families. Many of the privately sponsored Operation Ezra families have become active volunteers for Operation Ezra in the resettlement and integration of these other struggling families.
The funds received from the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation will be applied to three main projects which include; The establishment of a small cemetery for the entire Yazidi community in Winnipeg; The expansion of the very successful farming project run in partnership with the Shelmerdine Garden centre; and an extensive and sustainable Food Assistance program for families who are still struggling financially .
A small committee has been established to discuss ideas for sustainable food assistance and this committee will oversee the management of the donated funds as well.
This most generous donation will have a significant impact on the Yazidi community. A Yazidi cemetery, the first and only one of its kind in Canada, has been on the Yazidi community wish list for several years. Its establishment will be key to a solid foundation for the long term sustainability of the community in Winnipeg. The farming project typically engages over 30 regular volunteers working the fields and providing fresh and healthy produce to a total of 52 families (approximately 400 individuals). The donated funds will allow Operation Ezra not only to expand the project to possibly other types of farming involving additional volunteers, it will also allow for the purchase of equipment and tools to help the Yazidi volunteers continue with this very successful project. The Yazidi community is paying it forward as well by donating approximately 10,000 lbs. of produce to local charities each year as a way of helping others.
All those involved with Operation Ezra are extremely grateful to the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation and its board of trustees for making it possible to continue to help build a resilient Yazidi Community in Winnipeg.
Post script: The unexpected donation to Operation Ezra is reminiscent of another large and unexpected donation ($725,000) that was made two years ago – to the Simkin Centre Foundation, by something called the Myer and Corrine Geller Trust. As I wrote around the time of that donation, I surmised that Myer Geller’s mother had been a resident of the Sharon Home.
The donation to Operation Ezra is also reminiscent of the $900,000 donation that was made by an anonymous “angel” in 2015 that went toward the purchase of the Gwen Secter Centre from the National Council of Jewish Women. (By the way, the NCJW had said that it wanted to sell the Gwen Secter Centre so that it could do something for addiction treatment here. I’m still waiting to hear what’s happened with that $900,000.)
I’ve also kept my word not to reveal the name of the angel who stepped up to save the Gwen Secter Centre, although I did discover who that person was.
There’s nothing like a surprise gift of hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a smile on someone’s face, is there?
Shabbat Unplugged returns for seventh year with increased participation
By MYRON LOVE This year’s second annual – post Covid lockdown – Shabbat Unplugged on the weekend of January 26-28 – had a different feel to it in the shadow of the dark events of October 7 in Israel (events that are being felt by, Jews worldwide), notes Shabbat unplugged co-ordinator and Winnipeg Hillel Director Raya Margulets.
“My sense is that there was a much stronger feeling among our participants of shared community,” she comments.
She reports that this year’s Shabbaton attracted 115 students,including participants from Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Toronto.
Among the participants this year were a number of non-Jewish university students – StandWithUs Emerson Fellows from across Canada – who spoke about how they have come to develop a sense of solidarity with Israel. As Shabbat Unplugged co-founder Dr. Sheppy Coodin observed, these non-Jewish students were disturbed by the anti-Israel and antisemitic actions on many university campuses. They were angered by what they viewed as a double standard where Israel was concerned and have chosen to make common cause with their Jewish contemporaries.
As usual, the weekend began with a candle lighting, Kiddush, and a traditional Shabbat dinner. Following the Shabbat service led by Coodin, a long time Gray Academy science teacher, and some of the students, there were presentations (in addition to the non-Jewish students) from representatives of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC) and StandWithUs Canada and a presentation by Emily Kalo, immediate past president of the Winnipeg chapter of Students Supporting Israel (SSI), outlining measures which are being taken to counter anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity on university campuses.
As noted earlier, Shabbat Unplugged was started in 2016 by Coodin, a science teaher at Gray Academy, and fellow Gray Academy teacher Avi Posen (who made aliyah in 2019) – building on the Shabbatons that Gray Academy had been organizing for the school’s high school students for many years.
The inaugural Shabbat Unplugged was so successful that Coodin and Posen did it again in 2017 and took things one step further by combining their Shabbat Unplugged with Hillel’s annual Shabbat Shabang Shabbaton, which brings together Jewish university students from Winnipeg and other Jewish university students from Western Canada.
“It was a pleasure working with Raya again,” Coodin said, noting that Margulets is also a former student of his who took part in the 2017 Shabbat unplugged as a student. “Raya worked incredibly hard to make the weekend a success,” he noted. “There were a lot of details to be worked out for 100-plus students as well as the presenters. She is just fantastic.”
Margulets observed that the weekend was funded in part by grants from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, CJPAC. the JNF, and StandWithUs Canada, along with a generous gift from the Asper Foundation.,
“We are looking forward to having even more students joining us for Shabbat Unplugged next year,” she says.
“Festival of New Yiddish Culture opens to rave reviews
By SHARON LOVE The Festival of New Yiddish Culture ‘Put A Yid On It’ is on from February 7th to the 11th, 2024. As stated in the program, movies, music and more is what it’s all about.
As of Friday morning (Feb. 9) we are at the halfway point of the festival. Two Yiddish films ‘Yiddle With His Fiddle’ and ‘The Light Ahead’ have both played at the Berney Theatre.
On Wednesday evening at the Handsome Daughter Cafe, a standing room only crowd took in the book launch of ‘Yiddish Cinema:The Drama of Troubled Communication’. Co-authors Jonah Corne and Monika Vrecar along with moderator Simone Mahrenholz provided an interesting discussion about the thoughts, philosophy and research that led the authors to write this text. Of special note is that Corne, Vrecar and Mahrenholz are all on staff at the University of Manitoba.
What would a Yiddish festival be without music? And lively musical as well! The opening concert was held at the Berney Theatre on Thursday evening and featured ‘Beyond The Pale’. This Toronto based acoustic ensemble which has been around from the late ‘90s started out playing classic Klezmer music. Over the years they have broadened their scope to include Balkan, Reggae, Romanian music and much more, in their repertoire. This award winning group has travelled the world while performing at music festivals and concerts. Members of the ensemble are leader Eric Stein on mandolin and vocals (Yiddish and English), Bret Higgins on base, Martin Van De Ven on clarinet, Milos Popovic on accordion, and Brigette Dajczer on violin. These musicians had smiles on their faces all evening. They seemed to enjoy making music together as much as the audience of about 150 people enjoyed being at the concert. It was pointed out that this was Brigette’s first gig with this band. No one in their wildest dreams would have suspected this. She played with energy and enthusiasm all evening and never missed a beat!
Eric Stein, who is presently the Artistic Director of Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival, introduced the numbers on the program and had a delightful rapport with the audience. During the concert he paid tribute to Winnipeg’s own ‘Finjan’ who are definitely pioneers in the revival of klezmer music and Yiddish culture.
The program was eclectic and included both material from years back as well as numbers from their newest CD. The playful tune ‘Turkish Delight’ is their original piece, in tribute to the late Irving Fields (Yitzhak Schwartz) who was a well known pianist and lounge artist. Another number, a combination of a Hora and Bulgarian music was very melodic. ‘Ruckus in Ralia’ with its strong beat was written in memory of the group’s trip to Serbia. Chazan-ja is a mix of klezmer and reggae music and traces of the Yiddish song ‘Dei Muzinke Oysgegebn’ could be heard.
Speaking of Yiddish numbers, the first song was early in the program. It was a comical love song written by Aaron Lebedeff, a Yiddish song writer and actor. ‘A Glezela Yash’ a cute drinking song and an old favourite ‘Az Der Rebbe Zingt’ had people humming along. A song about Shabbes in remembrance of Yiddish theatre star and singer Mina Berne was also on the program. With Stein on vocals these numbers added to the versatility of this group and their emphasis on reclaiming the Yiddish language through music.
As the program was coming to an end the music kept getting livelier. If, after close to two hours on stage, with a short intermission, you would have thought that these performers would be toning down, you were definitely wrong. The final number, a medley of Bulgar music, featured Van De Ven on clarinet who thrilled the crowd with a very very long held note.
After the standing ovation the encore number was a high energy series of Jewish wedding tunes. You could feel the excitement in the air! This is the third time in almost twenty years that Beyond The Pale has performed here and judging by the reaction from the audience, they will be welcomed back anytime!
The second half of this festival is also jam packed. Two more films will be shown, and the second concert features Montreal based Socalled(Josh Dolgin) in performance at the West End Cultural Centre. Bagels and a Bisl Yiddish with Prof. Itay Zutra is on tap for Sunday morning. An I.L.Peretz Folk School Alumni mini reunion will wrap up the festival late Sunday afternoon.
Kudos to Shira Newman, the Festival Producer as well as the Coordinator of Arts and Older Adult Programming at the Rady J.C.C. Shira had a vision to mount a Yiddish festival and it has now come to fruition. Thanks go out to the Rady staff and volunteers and to Lionel Steiman, Rochelle Zucker, Itay Zutra and Sharon Love of the organizing committee. The support from sponsors the Asper Foundation, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, the I.L.Peretz Folk School Endowment Trust and the Rady J.C.C is very much appreciated. This festival has provided an opportunity for Winnipeg audiences to celebrate the richness of the Yiddish culture and language.
Tom Traves: From the north end to the presidency of several Canadian universities
By GERRY POSNER There haven’t been lot of Jewish presidents of Canadian universities.
To be clear, there have been some, but not as many as one might expect – given how many Jewish academics we’ve had in Canada over the years.
One person who made the short list of Jewish university presidents in this country has been none other than a former Winnipegger – right out of the north end of Winnipeg: Tom Traves. Now retired, Traves had a long and distinguished career in the university setting as President of Dalhousie University in Halifax, serving for 18 years in that position.
Traves’s tenure as Dalhousie president followed a four-year term as Vice- President of the University of New Brunswick. But, if you read the CV of Tom Traves, you can understand how this came to be.
Tom was a graduate of the University of Manitoba with a B.A. ( Hons.) in 1970, followed by an M.A. from York in 1973, and a Ph.D., also from York, in 1976.
Tom began his teaching career at York (where he spent many years) in 1974 as a lecturer, then as an associate professor, from 1976 to 1991. From 1981 to 1983, Tom was the Chairman of the Division of Social Science at York. He was soon appointed, in 1983, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, where he served until 1991. From York Tom moved to the University of New Brunswick, where he became both Vice President (Academic) and a Professor of History, from 1991 to 1995.
Then, in 1995, Traves was invited to be the President and Vice- Chancellor of Dalhousie University for a six year term. When that term ended, Tom was appointed again for another six year term. And still later, in 2007 – for yet a third term of three years. When that ended, he was renewed for another three year term. Would you not agree that Tom Traves and Dalhousie had a strong connection, to put it mildly? Just to lend credence to this statement, it was during the Tom Traves tenure that enrolment at Dalhousie grew by over forty percent and external research grants and contract income increased by over three hundred percent. Now, those are impressive statistics. Perhaps the most telling assessment of Traves during his time at Dalhousie is a comment made by a former member of the University’s Board of Governors, who noted that Traves had been at the centre of a fund raising campaign which raised over $250 million during his time at Dalhousie, the highest total in the history of the province. When asked about Traves and his successor, Richard Florizone, this board member called them both remarkable individuals: “I would hire them for my company in a minute, and they would make me money.”
To read through the list of books, articles and other credits of Tom Traves is more than the Jewish Post & News could put on its website, as it might overload the system. But for sure some of the highlights of his career (aside from all the boards he has sat on across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), would be the awards and honours that have come his way. He was the recipient of an award not commonly given to Canadians: the Filosofie Hedersdocktor Honoris Causa, from Umea University in Sweden in 1997, and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Commemorative Medal in 2000. Not to be forgotten was Tom’s inclusion on the list as one of the top 50 CEOs in Atlantic Canada in 2005, 2006 and 2007. There were so many other major awards, culminating in 2014 when he was appointed to the Order of Canada.
With all of that, Traves was still in demand when he retired and moved back to Toronto in 2016. He was asked to be the Interim President of Brock University in 2016 while that university sought out a long term person to fill that position. Once he completed that role, he semi-retired, taking on consulting activities over the last number of years.
How did a quiet unassuming boy, son of Sam and Marjorie Traves (Kay), brother to the late Nancy Traves, a product of West Kildonan, advance so far and so fast? Did he show signs of this kind of superior level of scholarship and leadership in his early days? Some might answer that it was his time spent at West Kildonan Collegiate that spurred him on to greater heights. Was it perhaps his days as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba (from 1966-1970?) No one can say for sure, but the truth is that Traves had a speedy trajectory upward and even in retirement he has moved along at a decent clip. He is quite active these days, playing Bridge, golf, and now Pickleball. In large part, he and his wife Karen (Posner), my first cousin, (and that connection to the Posner family might be the real reason for his great success) have focused time and attention on their grandson Ben, son of his daughter Julie. There are also trips to the Washington D. C area, where his son Will and his wife live, along with his oldest grandson, Daniel.
In short, the Tom Traves story is just another Winnipeg success story – if the city wishes to lay claim to it: North End Jewish boy makes good in the east. The best part of the whole story is that, if you know Tom, or just met him, you would never have an inkling of his accomplishments, so unassuming is he. That is Tom Traves.