A mixture of mirth and pathos marked the launch of the 2018 campaign of the Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA), which was held in a huge tent in Hampstead Park on Aug. 23.
About 700 people attended the event, a celebration of the richness and diversity of the Montreal Jewish community and a reminder that many of its members are less fortunate.
It was also an expression of pride in what the State of Israel has achieved, and a reminder of the threats from enemies that challenge it today.
Jonathan Goodman, general campaign chair, said bringing everyone together in a tent was symbolic of Federation CJA’s recognition that “we may come from many backgrounds and many interests but we are one community.”
For the irreverent comedy duo of Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, creators of the web series YidLife Crisis, this was “Jewish camping – with air-conditioning.”
The pair, a.k.a. the Yiddish-speaking Chaimie and Leizer, are grateful for the support from CJA, which helped them launch YidLife Crisis four years ago, and create spinoffs that are popular internationally.
“What we enjoy most is putting Montreal Jewishness on display for the whole world,” said Batalion. Elman added they could be called “Montreal Smokespeople,” referring to the central role food plays in their vignettes.
A beneficiary offering an entirely different perspective was 94-year-old Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor Leslie Vertes. He is also reaching a wide audience.
Over the past 14 years, he has spoken to almost 20,000 students about his wartime experience as a volunteer with the Montreal Holocaust Museum. He’s also assisted countless other survivors apply for reparations as a Cummings Centre volunteer.
“I could not have done this without your generosity,” he said. “I’m living proof you can be sure every dollar you give to CJA goes to the right place, without any waste. I promise to keep talking until I’m 120.”
CJA has one of the lowest overheads of any campaign of its kind, said Mark Brender, chair of The Network campaign, with “approximately 90 cents of every dollar” going to direct aid.
That’s made possible largely by corporate sponsorships. For the eighth consecutive year, these totalled over a million dollars.
The 2017 campaign, which was the 100th, raised $53.5 million.
The theme this year is “Don’t just give – transform.”
“To transform even a single life is to transform a whole community,” Goodman said.
Attendees watched video testimonials by other people who had been directly helped by CJA when they had financial, health, or immigration problems. One young man spoke of his difficult transition after leaving the haredi world in which he grew up.
Holding back tears, Goodman spoke of his late mother Rosalind, who had been a pillar of CJA and other causes. The obligation to make a difference was a lesson he and his three siblings heard from her repeatedly.
“When I asked my mother why she was so comfortable asking [for donations], she said it was because she was asking for those who can’t ask themselves,” he said.
The highlight of the evening was performances by Lt.-Col. Shai Abramson, representative cantor of the State of Israel, and the Y-Studs, a male a cappella group from Yeshiva University in New York.
While scenes of Israel and of its soldiers were screened, Abramson gave stirring renditions of the prayers for the State of Israel, the IDF and Jerusalem, and other Hebrew melodies.
Women’s Philanthropy chair Galit Suissa Antebi said Israel continues to defend itself against attacks from across its border.
“We stand in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder, with our brothers and sisters,” she said.
The Y-Studs kept the room hopping with their versions of the classic songs Rise Up and Don’t Let Me Down, as well as the more spiritual Hashem Melech.
The campaign, which relies on some 600 volunteers, concludes in November.
The 2019 campaign leadership was introduced, headed by general chair Marc Kakon and Women’s Philanthropy chair Ruth Bensimon Choueke.