Montreal Federation’s agenda topped by pandemic relief and fighting antisemitism

Stephen Bronfman, right, accepting the Samuel Bronfman Medal, from his father Charles.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, Montreal’s Federation CJA reported at its annual general meeting on Sept. 23 that $17 million in COVID-related relief has already been distributed to the most vulnerable in the Jewish community, money collected above its regular appeal.

Outgoing president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz said her two-year term was marked by two overriding and unexpected challenges: the pandemic and a surge in antisemitism.

While the federation was able to respond quickly to increased demand for social services due to COVID, combating anti-Jewish hatred, which reached an alarming level in May during the Israel-Hamas conflict, has proven to be more difficult, she indicated.

The community must invest more in finding new strategies to counter growing online antisemitism and the more sophisticated anti-Jewish expression intersecting with ideological movements and “woke-ism,” said Adelson-Marcovitz.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs needs the resources to continue to influence politicians at all levels on the urgency of addressing antisemitism, she said.

Adelson-Marcovitz said that, with the collaboration of the federation’s security team, Montreal police made 19 arrests in connection with online hate, as well as physical violence, directed at Jews.

“We must ensure our children can live safely, proudly and freely as Jewish members of Quebec society,” she said.

In July 2020, the federation a launched a two-year Community Recovery and Resilience Campaign in lieu of the annual Combined Jewish Appeal, co-chaired by Jonathan Wener and Mitch Garber. It is on course to achieve its $100-million goal, she said.

Allocations from that campaign are being made on a month-by-month basis rather than yearly.

In fact, the federation is in a strong financial position thanks to donations, as well as federal government emergency subsidies and a healthy return on investments. “We are not only surviving, but thriving,” she said.

Joel Segal succeeds Adelson-Marcovitz as president, and Steve Sebag was confirmed as first vice-president, normally the next in line for the presidency. Segal said, “We know things will never go back to exactly as they were…Federation’s role is to be a transformative force.” COVID has sharpened priorities and been an opportunity to find new ways of addressing them, he said.

Treasurer Serge Levy affirmed that the federation was in “a strong and stable financial position” at the fiscal year ending March 31, posting a $16 million surplus. Total assets have grown to $176 million from $93 million in 2020, he reported.

Chief executive officer Yair Szlak said that, in addition to the $17 million disbursed in emergency aid, over $14 million has been committed to other pressing needs. This includes $2 million for Jewish camping, $2.5 million to Jewish day schools (above the tuition assistance already provided), $500,000 for mental health support, and $1 million over three years for rent subsidy.

Szlak described the federation as moving toward a more collaborative relationship with community institutions and organizations, beyond its own agencies.

The Samuel Bronfman Medal, the federation’s highest honour for community service, now in its 50th year, was awarded to Stephen Bronfman, Samuel Bronfman’s grandson, and presented by his father Charles.

The recipient acknowledged his debt to his father for providing a philanthropic role model, and also to his mother Barbara who died in August.

“Mom’s values, her heart of gold, her sensitivities are everlasting within me,” he said.

A New York native, she was born into a German-Jewish family who wanted to assimilate, he said. Bronfman noted that he was the first boy on his maternal side to have a bar mitzvah. During her 60 years in Montreal, his mother became much closer to the Jewish community, he said.

Bronfman also paid tribute to his wife Claudine whom he married when he was 40. He joined her in her conversion to Judaism course. “Watching her Jewish soul grow and flourish has been an added inspiration,” he said.