MONTREAL — It might have been a Boxing Day scene: shoppers crowding around the counters calling out their orders, stuffing their bags with wares.
Volunteers pack mitzvah baskets
But this was Nov. 25, the official closing of the 2008 Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA), and the venue was the Gelber Conference Centre.
In view of the sombre economic times, the approximately 400 canvassers and other volunteers and staff associated with the campaign were instructed to dress down and be prepared to roll up their sleeves.
The mood was good, but instead of the traditional revelry, volunteers were asked to pack mitzvah baskets for those in the Jewish community who are poor, ill or isolated.
The centrepiece at each table was a stack of reusable shopping bags, and at either end of the room were tables containing neat stacks of non-perishable food, toys, hats and mitts, cosmetics and other basic necessities, all donated by businesses.
Volunteers opened the cardboard filing box under the bags, and selected two different cards profiling typical clients benefiting from Federation CJA agencies and services.
There was Ida and Henry, an older couple who had saved prudently for their retirement, but could not have anticipated that the financial meltdown would wipe out 30 per cent of their portfolio. They are too elderly to go back to work, and unbeknownst to his wife, Henry is cutting back on his heart medication.
The young are in need, too. Deborah and Avi, the parents of four children, have been struggling financially and emotionally since she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She had to cut back on the hours she works as a dental assistant, and Avi’s small computer repair business does not make that much money. Deborah’s mother has been helping with the children, but now her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Shelley, who is divorced, is raising three children on her own. She is battling depression and needs prescription drugs and therapy. She can’t afford such activities as hockey and karate for the two boys, and even buying winter clothes has become a strain on her limited budget.
These were only some of the cards that volunteers read, after which they filled their two bags with appropriate items from the stock areas.
It didn’t stop there. These shopping bags were personalized with colourful tissue paper and ribbon, and everyone was busy for some time with scissors and staplers. A Chanukah card was signed and attached to each bag and the handles closed with a cheery stuffed animal key chain.
Pledges to the 2008 CJA actually exceeded those of the previous year, with $40.3 million raised for the mainline campaign and another $10 million was designated for specific projects.
“Not long after the launch of our campaign, we faced the worst international financial crisis in our generation, which posed enormous challenges as everyone’s anxiety grew,” said federation president Marc Gold, who came in blue jeans.
“The community once again demonstrated its great generosity and compassion. It recognized that in tough times, CJA is all the more crucial.
“But we are not out of these difficult waters yet,” he added, as the job of collecting pledges continues.
General chair Michael Etinson said the economic downturn, in fact, spurred many people to give, because they realize the impact it may have on Jews here and in Israel. In fact, 6,275, or 40 per cent, of donors increased their pledge over last year, he said, and the incremental increase was matched by Alvin Segal, chair of Peerless Clothing Inc., who contributed $1 million.
Proceeds from the campus campaign doubled, the young leadership campaign was up 18 per cent, and the women’s campaign gained 6 per cent to $7 million. More than 50 new members of the Lion of Judah category for women who give a $5,000 minimum were inducted this year.
Etinson also credited an innovative marketing campaign, which included billboards and television ads on the theme Repair the World. Its website drew 4,000 visitors to a video of a young woman talking about her family’s difficulties and how CJA assisted them. As well, many large donations were made at the start of the campaign, in the early summer, before the full severity of the crisis hit.