Pandemic Has Federation Pivoting on Priorities, AGM Hears

Sept. 29, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Thousands in the Montreal Jewish community have become ill with COVID, and “far too many have not survived.”

That grim observation by Federation CJA president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz set the sombre tone for the organization’s 103rd annual general meeting, livestreamed from its headquarters on Sept. 24.

Gail Adelson-Marcovitz
Gail Adelson-Marcovitz

In her report, Adelson-Marcovitz signaled that the pandemic has brought into stark relief the necessity to reassess the community’s priorities and direct resources to where they are most needed.

These have been identified by the Federation as meeting the immediate needs of those most severely affected by the pandemic, both those community members already recognized as vulnerable, and others who have suddenly found themselves struggling financially or facing domestic problems, as well as sustaining community institutions and the quality of Jewish life.

“All non-essential costs are being cut to ensure everyone’s survival,” Adelson-Marcovitz said, and that’s included “a dramatically reduced staff.”

This belt-tightening was being set in motion before the pandemic was declared, and has since accelerated, she said.

The Federation wants the input of the community-at-large in this process and is circulating a survey on critical needs, completed anonymously.

Adelson-Marcovitz said the goal is to “emerge a leaner and stronger community.”

Federation CEO Yair Szlak said the organization is moving away from automatic support for “legacy” agencies to “a funding model based on outcomes,” meaning funding will be based on measurable results.

Since the pandemic, the money going to Federation’s dozen agencies has been determined on a month-by-month basis, rather than an annual allocation.

Staff was cut by 30 percent in April and those remaining have taken salary cuts, he said.

The Federation is also re-evaluating its role, with a view to transitioning to “convener and collaborator rather than central command control,” said Szlak.

Pre-pandemic priorities of bolstering Jewish identity and community security are moving forward. Szlak said that $5.5 million raised during last year’s Combined Jewish Appeal will help pay for enhanced security at 34 synagogues, schools and other institutions, a total of over 40 buildings. More than 100 volunteers have been trained to served as “the eyes and ears” at those places, he said.

Jewish Identity Montreal has been created, integrating the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre and various programs, and a mobile application called JLife will soon be launched to provide a “concierge system to the Jewish world,” Szlak said.

In July, Federation kicked off a two-year campaign to raise $100 million in lieu of the usual annual CJA drive. Treasurer Serge Levy reported that while revenue from all sources for the fiscal year ending March 31 was down $7 million, for a total of approximately $50 million, the organization is in “a strong and stable financial position.”

Harvey Levenson

The meeting did have its lighter moments. Longtime volunteer and philanthropist Harvey Levenson was treated to a tribute video in which he was good-naturedly ribbed for everything from his love of scotch to his lack of fashion sense.

Levenson, who has been associated with Federation since the 1970s, received the Samuel Bronfman Medal, the organization’s highest honour. It was presented by Samuel Bronfman’s grandson, Stephen Bronfman.

In his acceptance speech, Levenson, currently chair of the Jewish General Hospital Foundation, said COVID has “completely altered our perception of what is important in the community…Who could have believed a pandemic would make the community come together in such a cohesive manner. We must have the courage and patience to continue on this road.”

Adelson-Marcovitz is completing the first year of her two-year term. The slate of board of directors for 2020-2021 was approved by online vote, and sees Joel Segal become first vice-president, traditionally the post before the presidency.

$100 Million Campaign Aims to Soften Blow from COVID

Sept. 14, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – The co-chairs of the extraordinary $100-million campaign underway to save the Montreal Jewish community from the ravages of COVID are vested in industries among the hardest hit: Commercial real estate and live entertainment.

But Jonathan Wener, chairman of the Canderel Group, and Mitch Garber, chairman of Cirque du Soleil, consider themselves very fortunate to have the financial resources that will allow them to weather the crisis.

They are pleading with those in a similar position to think of the many in the community who are experiencing real economic hardship.

Wener and Garber head up Federation CJA’s two-year “Community Recovery and Resilience Campaign,” launched in July to replace the usual annual Combined Jewish Appeal held in the fall.

In a Sept. 8 videoconference, the co-chairs described the “suffering” in the community, particularly among small business owners, such as those in the retail, manufacturing, import/export and restaurant sectors.

Companies, sometimes built up over decades, are closing or on the verge of doing so, they said. Montreal Jews are also not being spared from the widespread job losses.

If the $100-million goal is reached, $40 million will go directly to seeing those worst hit through the next 12 to 18 months, enough time, it is hoped, for them to get back on their feet.

The virtual event was organized by The Network, the CJA division for business and professional people over age 40.

“The reality is 99.9 per cent of people are gravely affected,” said Garber. “It’s very sad. It causes me great pain.”

He is witnessing devastation in his own world. In March, Cirque du Soleil suspended all shows, putting all but a couple of hundred of its 6,000 employees out of work and reducing annual revenue, which had been between $1 and $2 billion, to zero.

Mitch Garber
Mitch Garber

Garber is also chairman of Invest in Canada, a federal agency trying to attract foreign investment.

“This is a most difficult year to ask for money,” he said. “We are asking those who can to make up for those can’t give this year. We are asking you to hurt a little bit,” he said.

Wener, who is chancellor of Concordia University, was blunt.

“Many people have lost businesses and life savings, businesses they created themselves from nothing. It’s truly sad.”

Jonathan Wener
Jonathan Wener

He knows of families in the community who have “zero income” because both partners have lost their jobs.

“This is probably the worst year since the Depression. People are suddenly below the poverty line. They are bleeding to death,” he said.

“If you lost cash flow this year, think of those who are in a much worse situation. Take a little piece of your wealth (and give to the campaign).”

Wener said he believes businesses will gradually bring employees now working at home back to the office, at least for part of the week.

“Socially, people need to congregate. You can operate a company on Zoom, but you can’t build a company on it…People need to be able to walk down a hall and ask (a colleague), ‘What do you think of this?’ That’s how you build a community.”

He’s less optimistic about in-store shopping. The growth of e-commerce, he said, has only accelerated. Across Canada, “we are over-stored.”

Wener foresees underperforming shopping centres, with their large lots, being transformed into residential units or medical offices, which would bring traffic to the remaining retail tenants.

As for the future of live entertainment, Garber believes pent-up demand will fuel an eventual return to pre-pandemic times, when the crisis eases.

“People are hungry to get back out to live events, but it will take a long time.”