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St. John’s used to produce so many of Winnipeg’s “best & brightest”

Bernie new pic edited 1By BERNIE BELLAN Readers may wonder why I’ve devoted so much space to writing about Aron Katz, who died tragically 49 years ago.
The reason, as I explain in my story about Aron, is that memories of a member of our community whose life was suddenly cut short – especially someone who was on the cusp of greatness, evoke strong feelings in so many of us.

As I also note in my story, a year and a half ago I wrote a very similar story about someone named Rebbie Victor. Here is what I wrote in December 2020: “It was 50 years ago this month that the life of a young woman who was loved by all who knew her was cut tragically short as the result of a totally unforeseeable incident.
“I didn’t know Rebecca Victor (who was commonly known as Rebbie), although it turns out we weren’t far apart in age.”

In that article I quoted extensively from a piece the late Abe Arnold had written about Rebbie, in which he described how immensely talented she was – and what great promise she held. Abe wrote: “Rebbie Victor was a talented young woman with mature interests in the world around her. A student of music and of dance, she showed accomplishment at the piano and had a lovely voice, but music was not all and she had a great zest for the varied experiences of life.
“Rebbie had an earnest concern for other people demonstrated by her active interest in the cause of world peace and in political activities which, to her, were truly devoted to the achievement of a just society.”

So, when I was contacted again – this time by a former classmate of Aron Katz’s by the name of Reid Linney – who asked me whether I’d be interested in writing about yet another product of St. John’s, and who was only 21 when his life came to a sudden end, I immediately responded that I would because I knew Aron’s story would also evoke a similar reaction among readers as had the story about Rebbie Victor.
Never having attended St. John’s myself, although many of my friends did, when I pored through the same online 1968-69 yearbook that I had looked at in December 2020 when I was researching Rebbie Victor’s life, I was astounded at how many names I recognized – and who have since gone on to successful careers.

There are doctors, dentists, lawyers, and businesspeople, many of whom are well known, not only in our Jewish community, but the larger community as well. And, when I looked at the names of the individuals who have contributed to the scholarship that has been established in Aron Katz’s name for a student at St. Johns’s, I was impressed with the mix of Jewish and non-Jewish names.
That was another aspect of Aron’s story that impressed me. Among the many individuals who have contributed to the scholarship established in his memory are many non-Jewish names.

Here is the wording that explains the purpose of the Aron Katz scholarship: “Aron excelled at academics, made friends easily, and exhibited uncommon courage in his life. His classmates wish to recognize a graduating student who similarly shows academic promise and exhibits empathy for others; in particular, one who has demonstrated courage when faced with a significant challenge in their life.”

To think that someone who died almost 50 years ago can serve as an inspiration for others is something that we should all keep in mind when we think of the types of role models that young people have in abundance these days.
Nowadays someone has to have a huge Instagram presence and be a social influencer of immense fame in order to attract the admiration of most young people.

But, back in the day when Aron Katz was growing up – along with his friends, the criteria for success included academic achievement and being a well-rounded person. I’m not so sure those criteria still hold when the single most important criterion for success these days seems to be how many followers you have on Instagram.
At the same time I wonder how the current generation of Jewish kids compares with kids from years past when it comes to goals and opportunities. Back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, it was taken for granted that if you did well at school and continued on the same path at university, then doors would be open to you in almost any field you might choose. The era of facing discrimination on gaining admittance to medical school, for instance – something that was a bitter obstacle for Jewish students for years, was over. All that you needed were good marks and a willingness to work hard .

Yet, in looking at that St. John’s yearbook, as I realized that so many of the names I recognized no longer live in Winnipeg, I couldn’t help but think that so many of the best and brightest have left Winnipeg over the years. That comes as a surprise to no one, I’m sure.
Back in 2016 I was curious to find out whether the trend of leaving Winnipeg once someone had acquired an undergraduate degree had continued among more recent graduates of our school system. I decided to focus on everyone who had received a scholarship from the Jewish Foundation in 2004. It was an arbitrary choice and it could well have been any other year.
Of the 45 scholarship recipients I was able to track down 41 of them. What I found surprised me to a certain extent. Of the 45, 22 were in Winnipeg. (I noted that I wasn’t sure whether some of them had left Winnipeg for a while and returned.)
I also wrote that “Of the others who are living elsewhere, eight are in Toronto, one is in Calgary, one is in Montreal, six are in the U.S., and two are in Israel.”
I also noted that many of the scholarship winners were Russian Israelis – and that the majority of the Russian Israelis had remained in Winnipeg.
In addition, I wrote that “Many of the scholarship winners have gone on to careers in the health field. Three are doctors (one is a psychiatrist), one is a naturopath, and one is an acupuncturist.
“Three others are dentists; four are nurses.
Three are lawyers, three are engineers, one is an actuary, one is an economist, one is a Russian language school operator; three are university lecturers (although someone who I thought is a university lecturer might be a learning specialist – there were two individuals from Winnipeg with the same name who could have fit the bill); while the rest are involved in business to one degree or another – including software developer, food entrepreneur, swimming school owner, goldsmith, employee of a religious store, and a senior executive with Target in the U.S.”

It was an interesting exercise and one I ought to consider doing again. (I wonder whether anyone at the Jewish Foundation itself has ever thought to track down previous scholarship recipients to see where they ended up.)

My point in writing this is simply to try to know more about our Jewish community, especially recent immigrants to Winnipeg. If it was a given back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that the children of individuals who had immigrated to Winnipeg back in the first half of the 20th century or, as was the case with so many others, following World War II, would be motivated to succeed academically – not because their parents had been well educated (because most of them weren’t), but as was almost always the case – as a result not only of pressure put upon them by their parents to succeed academically, but also due to peer pressure, then what of the current generation of children whose parents also came here – from Argentina, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, and several other countries?
In the past I’ve written about educator Dina Raihman and her “Integral School,” which places on emphasis on teaching math and physics. Although not all of Dina’s students are the children of immigrants, a good majority of them are. I’d be looking for those kids to be the next generation of academic achievers.

In reading about Aron Katz I was especially moved by something David Manusow remarked upon in a 2019 speech in which he paid tribute to Aron: “Aron was the second youngest of 7 children, all academic stars, who grew up under very modest circumstances in an old, white 2-1/2 storey wooden clapboard house on Alfred Ave. (Many years later, I still recall Aron complaining that the sound of mice scurrying about in its walls interfered with his studying!)”

Many of Aron’s peer group at St. John’s came from similar circumstances. Fifty years from now, I’m thinking that if we’re going to be able to look back upon a similar group of shining academic stars who are currently in school, they too will have been the children of immigrants.

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