For those who celebrate it, Christmas is a time for families and friends to get together to enjoy each other’s company.
Dinners, parties and gift-giving are part of the seasonal tradition, yet for the more than 1,400 men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces, duty calls – and the duty can take them to far-flung posts around the world, often thousands of kilometres away from their loved ones.
It is one of the sacrifices that military life requires, but Rick and Lillian Ekstein want to soften the blow as much as possible.
This year, the Toronto-area couple provided the families of Canadian Forces personnel stationed overseas with $50 grocery store gift cards to go towards their Christmas dinner. And for the soldiers posted around the world, they provided them with real maple syrup for their Christmas breakfast, as a symbolic and tasty reminder of home.
The gift cards given to the Support Our Troops Fund, the program that provides financial support and assistance to Canadian Armed Forces members, are being distributed by Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services.
“Because of contributions from generous donors such as the Eksteins, Support Our Troops can help deployed members and their loved ones ease the burden of separation during the holiday season,” said Commodore Sean Cantelon, CEO of Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services.
It was the least we could do, said Rick Ekstein, a businessman from Thornhill, Ont.
In a thank you card to the military families that accompanied the $50 gift, the Eksteins say: “We are indebted and grateful to you and your serving family member who is currently overseas.” The Eksteins sign the card “on behalf of the grateful Jewish community of Canada.”
A member of the Regional Council of the Queen’s York Rangers, a reserve unit in the Armed Forces, Ekstein has had the chance to interact with members of the military for years.
“It made me realized how lucky we are to have such qualified people in our military defending us,” he said.
Ekstein said his business often takes him away from home and he spends prolonged periods away from his wife.
“I know what it’s like to be separated on holidays and it’s not easy on (Lillian Ekstein) when I’m half way around the world. I credit my success on a supportive family,” he said.
Canadian Forces personnel are deployed abroad for months at a time. “It’s a very long time to leave your family alone,” he said.
“People don’t know how hard it is for the families being alone for six or seven months. Lillian and I recognized that and we wanted to say thank you.”
Altogether, the couple spent $75,000 on the gift cards and maple syrup.
It’s about saying thank you, especially at Christmas.
– Rick Ekstein
And although it was a personal project, he thought it appropriate to include the Jewish community in his thank you card. “As Jews, we are living in one of the safest countries in the world, because we’ve got brave men and women in uniform around the world protecting our values and keeping us safe,” he said.
For Ekstein, this year’s project is not a one-off: he’s starting to get word out to friends, family and colleagues, to reprise the program next year, and he’ll be inviting all Canadians to contribute to it.
He’s also calling on Canadians to visit the Support Our Troops website, to help military families this year.
“It’s all about appreciation for how hard the men and women in the military work and about saying thank you, especially at Christmas,” he said.