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CJA launch hears tale of harrowing escape from Yemen

Combined Jewish Appeal 2016 campaign general chair Joel Segal, centre, is surrounded by his division chairs, from left, Ariel Sabbah (Sépharade), Jeremy Levy (YAD FedNext), Joshua Hasen (YAD), Gilda Shahin-Abdulezer (Women’s Philanthropy), Marc Kimmel (Network), and Doug Liberman (West Island)

MONTREAL – The more than 700 people who filled the historic Monument National to celebrate the launch of the 2016 Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA) campaign recently were given a sobering reminder of how dollars raised here can save lives far away.

Manny Dahari, a Yeshiva University student in New York, recounted the harrowing two-year ordeal he faced to get his family out of war-torn Yemen. The rescue was done through a covert operation led by the Jewish Agency, to which CJA contributes annually.

The family was among 19 Yemenite Jews brought to Israel in March. The details of the mission remain secret, Dahari said, but it is safe to say it involved Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They were rescued from a mountainous area controlled by rebels in Yemen’s civil strife.

Dahari, 22, one of nine children, was sent out of the country by his parents when he was 14, along with an older brother. His family was among only about 500 Jews remaining in Yemen by 2006.

From the United States, he worked closely with the Jewish Agency to orchestrate the escape.

Those two years were filled with anxiety and dashed hopes, as earlier rescue attempts fell through. His fear was well founded – he had relatives who had been killed, kidnapped or arrested because they were Jews. Some were coerced into converting to Islam.

“When I was a child, I had to kneel before a Muslim adult who put a gun to my head,” he recounted. “Luckily, he walked away.”

Dahari’s message was that this would not have been possible without the support of Jews around the world, as well as the State of Israel. “I am forever grateful,” he said.

The audience also heard quite a different story about the impact of CJA.

It was related by Richard Marceau, a former Bloc Québécois MP and now general counsel and senior government adviser for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a CJA beneficiary.

Marceau, who represented a Quebec City riding from 1997 to 2006, visited Israel at CIJA’s invitation. He was so impressed with the country that, he said, “it changed my life.”

A francophone Catholic who had had little contact with Jews when he was growing up, Marceau began to look more deeply into Judaism and, in 2004, completed his conversion to the religion.

For him, being Jewish is more than a faith. It has meant adopting an enthralling culture that respects the dignity of all people, which has benefited all Canadians, Marceau said.

CJA Women’s Philanthropy chair Gilda Shahin-Abdulezer also told of how she and her family were helped by the Montreal Jewish community after they fled Iraq in the 1960s, when Jews, who had lived there for centuries, faced increasing persecution.

“No other gift has the power to impact so many Jews,” she said.

General chair Joel Segal acknowledged his family’s experience was less dramatic, but nevertheless explains why he is at the helm of the campaign today.

His father, Alvin, a leading philanthropist of the Montreal Jewish community, came to Montreal as a teenager from upstate New York, following his widowed mother who had remarried a man from here.

Young Alvin began working in his stepfather’s men’s clothing factory. After he received his first cheque, two people arrived at his workplace and informed him of the community tradition of donating one’s first pay packet to CJA.

“It was $35 – all he had in the world – but he signed it over, figuring he’d get another cheque next week,” Joel Segal said.

Segal paid tribute to last year’s CJA team, headed by general chair Barry Pascal, which raised $39.9 million. Segal did not announce a goal for this year’s campaign, which officially ends on Nov. 21.

On that day, the celebration of Federation CJA’s 100th anniversary will begin.

On the program at the launch was an excerpt from the Segal Centre’s recent hit Yiddish musical version of the satirical Mel Brooks classic, The Producers. The Segal Centre is a federation agency.

It was fitting because in that very theatre the first Yiddish play in Montreal was staged 120 years earlier.

The evening’s entertainment was also contemporary, featuring soulful American Jewish singer Matisyahu and young Long Island native Andrew Lustig, whose I am Jewish slam poetry has been a YouTube sensation.

Segal underlined that CJA has one of the lowest overheads of North American charities. About 90 cents of every dollar raised goes directly to the cause, thanks to corporate sponsorships that defray the costs of running the campaign, he said.

For the sixth consecutive year, over $1 million was contributed by corporations. Costs are also kept down thanks to the work of more than 700 volunteers, he said.