$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.”