More than 700 members of Vancouver’s Jewish community showed up for the annual campaign kickoff of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (JFGV) Sept. 17.
The event, titled FEDtalks, featured short, TED-style talks from four speakers: retiring Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler, Challah for Hunger founder Eli Winkelman, Appleseeds Academy CEO Dafna Lifshitz and well-known Los Angeles rabbi David Wolpe.
The speakers touched on the refugee and migrant crisis, caring for the hungry, helping those on the periphery of Israel and Jewish identity and values.
“Their messages are our messages, and they reflected the soul of who we are as a federation,” said Ezra Shanken, federation CEO.
Cotler, a law professor, human rights lawyer and former justice minister, placed particular emphasis on the civil war in Syria, the refugee and migrant crisis it’s caused and how the world can help.
“Behind every statistic is a human being. Behind every statistic is another Alan Kurdi,” he said, referring to the toddler whose lifeless body made newspaper front pages around the world after he drowned in the Mediterranean as his family tried to reach safety. “While atrocities were unfolding in Syria, the international community was behaving as a bystander. The world dithered while Syrians died.”
He also discussed the recent Iran nuclear deal and the Canadian Parliament’s conclusions four years ago.
“Our foreign affairs subcommittee in the Canadian Parliament unanimously concluded that Iran had already committed the crime of incitement to genocide prohibited under the genocide convention. Yet as we meet, not one state in the international community has undertaken its obligations… to hold Iran to account for its state-sanctioned incitement to hate and to genocide.”
Eli Winkelman, founder of Challah for Hunger, shared her story of turning the simple act of baking challah into an initiative for social justice.
“Having just returned from Israel, I started baking challah in my dorm kitchen,” she recalled of the organization’s beginnings at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., in 2004. “Within a month we had a good handful of regular bakers coming back week after week and complaining that their friends were eating all their challah.”
Eventually she and her student friends were baking 50 to 100 challahs a week, selling them in a campus courtyard and donating the money. Today, on that same campus, they’re selling up to 300 loaves a week, and Winkelman’s organization has 90 chapters on university campuses in three countries.
She challenged the audience to think about the complexities of improving the world while living in it. “What do you value? How do your actions show what you value? How does your money and the way you spend it in the world help create a world that shares your values?” she asked.
Dafna Lifshitz, CEO of Appleseeds Academy, discussed how her organization tries to bridge the digital divide in Israel.
“There are 1,300 hundred start-ups in Tel Aviv. Nothing in Kiryat Shmona in the north. Nothing in Eilat in the south. What you see is not a start-up nation, it is a start-up metropolis,” she told the crowd. “I believe Israel should be a start-up nation for all.”
She highlighted three programs that are making a difference, including [email protected], which delivers computer training, including certification from Cisco Systems, to at-risk youth in the Northern Galilee. This helps them get placement in elite IDF units, which in turn leads to highly-skilled well-paying civilian jobs, thus helping break the cycle of poverty one teen and one family at a time. The program is supported by the JFGV, whose partnership region is the Upper Galilee.
Rabbi Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, referenced the refugee and migrant crisis with specific emphasis on the Jewish tradition of caring for those in need and on the power of collective giving.
“When we see tragedy and difficulty it mobilizes our energy like nothing else – and this is as old as Judaism,” he said. “Sometimes, through the federation, you change the lives of people you don’t know, and you change them forever.”