Israeli-Canadian Ya’ara Saks is Liberal Hopeful in York Centre

Oct. 5, 2020

By LILA SARICK

It’s been the challenges of being a single parent and business owner during the pandemic that led Ya’ara Saks to seek the nomination for the Liberals in this month’s federal byelection in York Centre.

As the city went into lockdown, the demand for services at the mental health agency where Saks is the director skyrocketed, she told the CJR in an interview.

Meanwhile, the yoga studio she owns had to shift to online classes and employees were struggling.

Ya’ara Saks

“My staff are part of the gig economy – many of them are women – and watching them try to figure out how to get through this, and the vulnerabilities it exposed, was a real eye-opener [that] we never really addressed,” said Saks. “This is the moment to address them.”

Last month, Saks was appointed the Liberal candidate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, bypassing the traditional nomination process.

“I was as surprised as anyone,” said Saks, pointing out that the party’s decision accorded with its guidelines.

Gary Gladstone, who was unsuccessful as the Liberal candidate in last year’s federal election in Thornhill riding, was also seeking the nomination in York Centre. He said that although he was “disappointed” there was no riding vote, he would be supporting Saks. “I think she’s a wonderful candidate.”

Saks will face Conservative candidate Julius Tiangson, a Filipino-Canadian businessman who lost his bid for a seat in Mississauga in the 2015 federal election. Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, which does not have a seat in Parliament, has also indicated he is running in York Centre.

According to the 2016 census, 17 percent of the riding’s residents are of Filipino ethnic origin. The 2011 National Household Survey found that 13.6 percent of York Centre residents indicated they were Jewish. It has traditionally been a safe Liberal seat, although in 2011, Conservative Mark Adler defeated Liberal incumbent Ken Dryden. The Liberals recaptured the riding in 2015.

The byelection, scheduled for Oct. 26, was called after MP Michael Levitt stepped down to become CEO of the Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Apart from owning a yoga studio in the riding, Saks, 47, is the director of Trauma Practice for Healthy Communities, a charity that focuses on mental health. Addressing mental health issues, especially challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, will be a priority if she is elected, she said.

Saks, who was born in Toronto and has an Israeli father, spent her early years in both Canada and Israel, and her first language is Hebrew. “My family’s moshav, Even Yehuda (just outside Netanya) was and remains a central part of my life,” she said.

She moved to Israel in 1995 and earned a master’s degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem in international relations and diplomacy. She spent several years in the Jerusalem mayor’s office, working on community engagement projects, and moved back to Toronto in 2006.

The Liberal stance on Israel dovetails with her own philosophy, she said.

“The policy of the Liberal Party as it stands today is that a negotiated agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis would be in the best interest of both societies, and I am in complete agreement,” she said. “I think that Israelis have the right to be safe and secure within their own borders. I also think that Palestinian society should have an opportunity to come to the table and negotiate as well.”

Saks has been a committee member of the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIF), and said those who fear the organization leans too far left should examine its mandate, which is to “support Israeli society and uphold its Declaration of Independence, which were the founding values of the country.”

The NIF’s goals are in fact “in very close alignment with Liberal values,” she said.

“If we want to push back against BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel], then we want to show that Israelis do care about having a strong, democratic and socially just society. If we can show that, what better way to push back against BDS and the underlying voices of antisemitism that come with it?” she asked.

Running an election campaign during a pandemic is a challenge, but Saks says it was crucial to hold the byelection now so constituents would be represented as the number of COVID cases climb again.

Elections Canada is working with the candidates to ensure that voting can be done safely, she said.

Saks is not concerned that she could be engaged in a second campaign soon after this one should the minority Liberal government be defeated in a non-confidence motion.

Reflecting on the years she lived in Israel, she noted she had experience with the country going to the polls multiple times.

“An election is not something to be afraid of,” she said. “An election is an opportunity to highlight your commitment to the values and the policies that have been put forward and to encourage voters to use their ballot to let us know what they want.”

Pandemic Delays Plans for New Montreal Holocaust Museum

Sept. 22, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The COVID pandemic has forced the Montreal Holocaust Museum (MHM) to abandon plans for a new multimillion-dollar premises, but says the project is still going forward.

In her annual report, outgoing president Dorothy Zalcman Howard said the MHM had found “an ideal location” to build a much larger museum and “achieved unprecedented success in obtaining funding commitments…The dream was about to be transformed into reality when COVID struck, and our board faced the difficult decision of stepping back from the brink and reshaping the vision.”



Holocaust survivor Mila Messner is captured in a photographic triptych for the Montreal Holocaust Museum’s new virtual exhibit, Witnesses to History, Keepers of Memory. (Photo courtesy MHM/Stéphanie Cousineau)

But she stressed that a new museum remains a top priority. “I invite you to stay tuned for good news in the future,” Zalcman Howard stated.

In 2018, the MHM announced plans to relocate and expand, leaving the Federation CJA building that was its home since it was founded in 1979.

The Azrieli Foundation pledged to underwrite a third of the cost, up to $15 million.

Zalcman Howard did not specify where that ideal location was, but the museum had said it wanted to move downtown in order to reach a wider audience.

The only one of its kind in Canada, the museum was receiving an ever-increasing number of visitors and demand for its educational services, necessitating the ambitious expansion.

A study by an independent consulting firm supported the project’s feasibility.

The work of the MHM remains more important than ever, as “Holocaust diminishment has taken root and awareness is declining,” Zalcman Howard told the MHM’s annual general meeting, held virtually Sept. 14.

Completing her two-year term as president, she assured: “Our future is vibrant and secure.”

MHM communications director Sarah Fogg later told CJR, “We are actively looking for a new location and have explored three excellent possibilities since April. We are definitely confident we will find a great site.”

The pandemic forced the MHM to close from mid-March until its reopening, with restrictions, on July 6. Despite this curtailment, Zalcman Howard reported that the facility reached hundreds of thousands of people over the previous 12 months, including 20,000 visitors, 9,750 of those students. More than 8,700 attended some 55 events organized by the MHM and 19 Holocaust survivors told their stories to some 12,500 people before the shutdown.

The MHM now has 13,405 items in its collection, the majority donated by local survivors or their descendants, as well as 858 videotaped survivor testimonies.

Following the shutdown, the museum’s already multi-faceted online and digital presence was further enhanced and attracted even more users, Zalcman Howard related.

Executive director Daniel Amar said the website and virtual exhibits had 116,000 visitors, while videos on YouTube of survivors’ testimonies were viewed 198,000 times, a 25 percent increase over the previous year.

The MHM produces pedagogical materials and runs teacher training programs. Over 35,000 visits to the educational pages on its site were recorded, traffic that did not stop while the schools were closed.

Zalcman Howard hailed the fact that her successor, Richard Schnurbach, is the first grandchild of survivors to serve as president of the MHM.

Three new members named to the board of directors reflect the MHM’s aim of attracting a more diverse public. Yasmine Abdelfadel is a founding member of Mémoires & Dialogue, a group fostering rapprochement among Jews and Arabs of North African origin; Widia Larivière is an Indigenous rights activist; while Denis Marion, a former senior political aide to Bloc Québécois and Parti Québécois members, is mayor of Massueville, a town near Sorel-Tracy. He lived in Israel in the late 1980s, earning a master’s degree in political science at Hebrew University.

Jennifer Carter, chair of the museum committee and University of Quebec at Montreal museology professor, is vice-president.

The latest virtual exhibit produced by the MHM is “Witnesses to History, Keepers of Memory,” portraits by Marie-Blanche Fourcade and Eszter Andor of 30 Montreal survivors who were photographed at home with objects that hold precious memories.

The annual meeting began with a memorial to the 60 survivors who died in the past year, conducted by Cantor Hank Topas and Rabbi Mark Fishman of Congregation Beth Tikvah.

Canadians Help Fund Education, Cancer Research in Israel

Aug. 12, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Canadian philanthropists are giving more than $3 million to Israeli universities to fight cancer and clear hurdles to higher education for Ethiopian Israelis and Israel Defense Forces veterans.

For Sylvia Soyka of Markham, Ont., the money her family’s foundation is giving to Canadian and Israeli pancreatic cancer researchers is a personal commitment to overcome the disease that killed her father.

Sylvia Soyka
Sylvia Soyka

“This is very personal for me, and that’s why the project is named for my father,” Sylvia Soyka said in an interview. “The one thing I’ve come to understand about this disease is that nobody understands much about it, other than it’s very bad.

“There is an urgent need to shine a light on this disease now,” she added.

The Soyka Foundation’s grant will finance the second phase of research projects in the two countries looking for treatments and early diagnosis techniques.

Alex Soyka
Alex Soyka

Early diagnosis of the disease is especially important, Soyka said, because while her father was 90 when he was stricken, its victims are usually much younger.

“This is a young person’s disease,” she said. “Its victims go very quickly and often leave young families. It’s a horrible disease.

While progress is being made – when the first stage of the research started in 2014, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer was less than five percent – today it is nine percent.

“We’re making huge progress, but even doubling the survival rate still leaves you in a pretty scary place,” she said.

Soyka would not discuss the specific amount of the donation, other than to say there’s still a huge need for support.

“To a large degree it doesn’t matter because no matter how much it is it’s still just a drop in the bucket,” she said. “There is a huge need because there is still such a knowledge gap in this field.”

The Soyka Foundation’s support will finance researchers from Hebrew University’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC), the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, and Israel’s Sheba Medical Center.

Ethiopian students hoping education will be their ladder up in Israeli society will get a boost from the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation grant.

Morris and Rosalind Goodman
Morris and Rosalind Goodman

Morris Goodman, now 89, co-founded Pharmascience Inc., now the second largest privately-owned pharmaceutical company in Canada. The Goodman Foundation was endowed in 2008 and focuses on scientific research to improves public health, experiential and informal education and community capacity building.

The Montreal-based foundation is partnering with Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University to provide scholarships for needy Ethiopian Israeli students who are engaged in social, community or academic leadership activities.

Divided equally between the universities, the gift will support students pursuing graduate studies while highlighting the importance of higher education in this demographic and promoting community engagement.

Foundation president Maxyne Finkelstein said Ethiopian Israelis are held back in life because they’re denied the chance at higher education.

“In Canada people go for a second and third degree because they want to achieve the most they can,” she said in an interview. “In this case, you have a population where very few of them are able to access these opportunities.”

Israel is home to about 150,000 Ethiopian immigrants who started arriving in the country 35 years ago. According to a news release from Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, about half live below the poverty line, they are sharply under-represented in the country’s universities, and often face financial hardship in pursuing education.

Finkelstein noted that in a country where up to 45 percent of the general population has 16 years of education, only about 10 percent of Ethiopians get through to a bachelors degree.

“We looked at a gap in society and asked if there was something we could do to create greater social mobility and a real step forward toward greater financial independence and family stability for the future,” she said.

The scholarships will cover tuition and living expenses and are not targeted at any particular field of study. The only condition on the support is that applicants must do some form of community volunteer work.

“We want to advance Ethiopians in fields where they want to advance and where they feel they can make a contribution to society,” Finkelstein said. “We feel these people can be role models to other young Ethiopians, and this is an area where we can create a real social change.”

Finkelstein would not disclose the value of the gift. Applicants for the next university semester are already being recruited.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro of Calgary are investing $625,000 in a five-year program of scholarships for young Israelis who have completed their mandatory military service but who lack money for further education.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro
Lenny and Faigel Shapiro

“I have always been attracted to the IDF soldiers, these young people who come out of the army at age 22 and have no money to go to school,” Lenny Shapiro said in an interview.

“I want them to be able to have an education and get a degree,” he said. “When I was a young man in Montreal, I didn’t have that chance until I could go to night school.”

Shapiro made his money as head of Allied Resources Management in western Canada’s oil business. The scholarship program is currently supporting 60 students and he hopes to expand that to 100.

The value of each award is being increased. In addition of portion of the Shapiro gift will be matched by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University and Hebrew University.

The Shapiro scholarships cover tuition costs only.