Bob Freedman/Marjorie Blankstein

A meeting with a New York consultant proves to be a key turning point

By BERNIE BELLAN
As we approach the series of events which the Rady JCC will be conducting that will mark the 100th anniversary of the YMHA’s being granted a charter in Winnipeg, we thought it appropriate to look back at how the Rady JCC came about.


In past issues, we’ve told stories about the old YMHA – not only on Hargrave, with which many of us are familiar, but also the Albert Street Y, which predated the Y on Hargrave.
Since the Rady JCC opened in 1997 as part of the entire Asper Campus project, instead of focusing only on the construction of the Rady JCC, what we are about to present is some background information as to how the entire Campus project came about. Much of it is already well known, but now that we have 22 years of history to look back upon, it is worth examining events that led to the building of the Campus.
In order to do that, we thought it appropriate to interview two individuals who were among a trio of individuals who played indispensable roles in the building of the Asper Campus: Marjorie Blankstein and Bob Freedman. (The third individual was Sheldon Berney. We’ll have more about him in our next issue.)

As a fundraiser and philanthropist, Marjorie Blankstein’s name is synonymous with giving in both the Jewish community and the community at large. Together with her late husband Morley, the Blanksteins were active in community affairs for as long as anyone can remember. Considering the pivotal role Marjorie played in the building of the Asper Campus it was fitting that the focal point of the Campus, the Max and Rose Rady Jewish Community Centre, is named for her parents. (Read more about Max and Rose Rady on page 4.)
Bob Freedman, who was CEO of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg at the time the Campus was built, was also a prime driving force behind the construction of the Campus. Having been appointed the new Executive Director of what was then the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council in 1986, Bob was immediately thrust into a process which began with consultations that had no clear goal in sight and ended up with the magnificent new Campus only 12 years later.

 

Gary Tobin

How that process developed is a fascinating story. Both Marjorie and Bob are owed a heavy debt of gratitude by the entire community. Following is an account of what led to the building of the Asper Campus.
I began by asking Marjorie Blankstein what predated the concept of building a Jewish “campus”? “I remember there was quite a bit of discussion about doing something – I think it began as far back as the 1980s,” she said.
“What do you recall about the background to what eventually became the campus project?” I asked Marjorie.
“I was on the board of the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council (and was president of the WJCC in 1986-87) and I became the chairman of the planning committee,” Marjorie explained, “because we were having problems in the community. The Y’s membership was down, the schools’ enrolments were down.”
“The planning committee was set up to see what we could possibly do because of what was happening to our community,” Marjorie noted.
“We went to some other cities in the States,” and, acting upon advice from the Council of Jewish Federations, an urban planning expert from Brandeis University by the name of Gary Tobin was brought to Winnipeg to consult with various members of the community.


In May 1986 Tobin met with 30 representatives of the Jewish community.
According to Marjorie Blankstein, Tobin told the members of the community with whom he met that “You can do nothing – and your community will still go downhill, or you can do something.”
However, according to a report in our own paper, Tobin’s message was not quite as stark as that (although it’s possible that Tobin may have been more pessimistic about the Jewish community here than what we reported in our version of that meeting). Here is what we reported in October 1986: Tobin said to the group: Winnipeg has a vibrant Jewish community that is neither shrinking nor dying.”
According to Bob Freedman, who had just become executive director of the WJCC on May 1st (1986), Tobin told the community representatives with whom he met that “your community is still bigger than two-thirds of the Jewish communities in North America, so stop moping and groaning.” The Jewish population of Winnipeg at the time was about 16,000, which was down from its peak in 1961 when it was shy of 20,000, and it had witnessed a substantial decline especially since the 1970s, but Winnipeg’s was still the fourth largest Jewish community in Canada.
(Further, by 2011, according to the National Household Survey of that year – also the last year for which reliable census data exists, the Jewish population of Winnipeg had declined to 12,005. While one might make an argument that the Asper Campus has been a huge boon to the Winnipeg Jewish community, it hasn’t been able to stave off the continued decline in the population of our community. One might argue that if it had not been for the Grow Winnipeg initiative, which was launched in 2004, and which was directed at increasing Jewish immigration to Winnipeg from other countries, our population would have declined even more precipitously._

Bob Freedman also pointed out that in 1980, when he was Chair of the Board of Jewish Education, there were “1100 students” attending Jewish schools in Winnipeg at five different schools: The Talmud Torah (which Bob affectionately referred to as “Talmud Torture” during our interview) and Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate on Matheson Avenue, the Peretz School on Jefferson, Ramah Hebrew School on Grant, and Or HaTorah School in the Herzlia on Brock Street. Enrolments, however, were on the decline. (Compare that with today, when we have 494 students at Gray Academy and approximately 50 attending the Jewish Learning Centre. Everything is relative – right?)

At the same time though, as Bob Freedman pointed out – and which will be noted in a later part of this story that will run in a future issue, there were only 600 members at the YMHA on Hargrave. Thus, while educational institutions at the time were not in serious trouble (although the Peretz School would end up closing in the 1980s after having merged with the Talmud Torah), the Jewish community centre was definitely in decline.
As well, the demographic shift in the Jewish population of Winnipeg from the north end to the south end that had begun some years earlier was continuing to transpire.
Again, in our October 1986 report we wrote that Tobin suggested that “to strengthen and enhance the community and stem the tide of decreasing participation at the schools and community centre which were no longer adequate to meet the needs of the community,” it would be necessary to take some form of “positive action”.
“According to Bob Freedman, Tobin said: “You have a responsibility for the future. You just can’t sit back and do nothing”.
As Bob put it, “Marjorie was sitting there enthralled. So, after the meeting – when we were having coffee and cookies, I said to her: ‘Marjorie, you’d be the perfect chair of our long-range planning committee – and she agreed, on the spot. That was May 2, 1986.’ “
To be continued next issue.