30th Anniversaries celebrated for Calgary’s Jewish Foundation and Jewish Historical Society

by Maxine Fischbein

(ANNews) – Jewish Calgary has some celebrating to do as the Jewish Community Foundation of Calgary (JCFC) and the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta (JHSSA) mark their 30th anniversaries.

While the work of the JHSSA highlights the stories of the dreamers, achievers and everyday people who built a rich Jewish presence in urban and rural Southern Alberta, the JCFC devotes its efforts to economic self-sufficiency, giving us faith in our community’s future.

The two organizations come of age in 2020 – a year that has shown us the meaning of counting blessings and saving for a rainy day.

Hal Joffe

Hal Joffe – who served as president of the Calgary Jewish Community Council (now Calgary Jewish Federation) between 1987 and 1990 – has vivid recollections of the ferment in Jewish Calgary during the late 1980s and early 1990s that led to the establishment of both the JCFC and the JHSSA a century after the arrival of Calgary’s first permanent Jewish settlers, Jacob and Rachel Diamond in 1889.

But, first, some historical context.

Following the arrival of Jewish Calgary’s patriarch and matriarch, pogroms in Eastern Europe brought an influx of Jews who were escaping oppression and brutality;  others seeking economic opportunity in the new world soon followed.  Jewish Calgary began to grow.

The Chevra Kadisha – by necessity the first Jewish institution in Calgary – was established.  Synagogues, Jewish day schools, the Calgary Jewish Centre (now the JCC), Calgary Jewish Community Council, Jewish Family Service and a plethora of other organizations followed.

Jewish communities sprang up in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, while Jewish homesteaders, farmers, ranchers, cowboys and businesspeople contributed to rural life throughout Southern Alberta.

By the sweat of their brows and with great generosity (despite often modest means) Jewish pioneers and later immigrants built up their institutions and contributed disproportionately to the greater community.  Jews prospered in business, academia, education, medicine, science, art and culture, politics, sports  and virtually every other imaginable field.

The 1970s saw a large influx of Jews, mainly from the USSR, Israel, and eastern Canada.  In addition to local resettlement efforts, the community was maintaining and growing organizations and responding to existential crises facing Jews in Israel and around the world through the local United Jewish Appeal campaign.

By the 1980s and 1990s the community had grown and changed.  Lots of ideas were in the air, and some highly motivated people were ready to run with them.

“We saw that looking forward into the future, we needed to stabilize and to build a nest egg for the community,” recalls Hal Joffe.

“A charitable foundation was a way to do that . . . and to fund some of the extras that were want-to-have rather than need-to- have.”

“It was an overnight success that took 30 years.”

The establishment of a charitable foundation was not a new idea, says Joffe, who was attending meetings of Canadian Jewish Congress and the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and learning about foundations that had been established in Montreal, Toronto and communities across the United States.

“This was something whose time had come for us,” said Joffe.

Such a foundation could help maintain the community through endowment gifts, the interest from which could provide for the community in worst-case scenarios and support charitable causes that spoke to the heart of donors but for which there was not always the room in Community Council annual budgets.

Joffe brought the idea to the CJCC board and what was then known as the Calgary Jewish Heritage Foundation (renamed the Jewish Community Foundation of Calgary in 1994) was incorporated on January 25, 1990, under the leadership of Gertrude Cohos, beginning with 10 funds and $80,000 in assets.

“Donating to the Foundation is an important and affordable way of ensuring a community for your children and grandchildren,” says Gertrude Cohos, who recalls strong support for establishment of a community foundation by Harry Shatz z”l,  CJCC’s inaugural executive director, though the foundation was founded and incorporated many years later during the tenure of his successor, Drew Staffenberg.

“[The Foundation] was something that needed to happen,” recalls Joffe. “People who were very active in the community were not going to be around forever. We wanted to give them an opportunity to leave a legacy.”

Meanwhile, another idea was brought to Hal Joffe by his cousin, Jay Joffe z”l – the establishment of a Jewish historical society.

Jay Joffe z”l

Having previously attended a meeting of the Southern Alberta Pioneers and their Descendants, Jay had been surprised and pleased to see a photo of Jacob Diamond on the wall of that organization’s log cabin and to learn that this Jewish man –  his own Grandfather – was considered a pioneer.

Jay took a deep dive into that organization, ascending to its presidency.

“Jay never joined an organization that he didn’t plunge into after the second meeting,” recalls his widow, Barb Joffe. “It really bothered him that Jews didn’t think of themselves as pioneers.”

“Jay was absolutely crazy about the institution of a historical society,” recalls Hal Joffe, adding that for anything good to happen, you need the people who are “meshugah l’davar” – crazy for the idea.”

“He was relentless,” Hal Joffe said.  “If you look at our institutions, nothing ever got built without people being that driven.”

Hal recalls that Jay at first felt it was the responsibility of Community Council to establish and conduct a Jewish historical society.

“As good an idea as that was, those were years when the community had other pressures,” recalls Hal.

“We were trying to get Jewish people out of the Soviet Union and helping Israel to rescue Ethiopian Jews. These were expensive propositions, especially for a community of our size,” added Hal, emphasizing that this was the kind of initiative that proved the urgency of raising endowment funds.

Tenacious as Jay was, Community Council could only offer some staff time, office space and moral support.

“So Jay went out and built it, which, in the long run, was a better thing,” Hal Joffe said.

The JHSSA was incorporated on July 4, 1990 with Jay Joffe as president.

Meanwhile, the JCFC was taking root.

“We knew what the goal was, but it took a while in terms of how to set it up,” recalls Cohos. “At first, it was like amateur night at the Bijoux, but it solidified over the years.”

Milton Bogoch, who served as president of the Foundation between 2001 and 2011, can attest to that.

“In the process of listening to donors, we made ourselves more worthy.”

“I am immensely proud of how it’s grown,” said Bogoch who recalls that JCFC assets doubled from $3 million to $6 million dollars during his presidency.

“In the process of listening to donors, we made ourselves more worthy,” Bogoch said.

Like Cohos, Bogoch lauds the work of those who succeeded them.  “Those who have come later have done a fantastic job of raising the standards higher and higher,” Bogoch said.

JCFC leaders have included chairs Donna Riback z”l , Robert Kalef, Sam Switzer, Bettina Liverant Zeisler and Stuart Myron and executive director Morris Bleviss.

Similarly, the JHSSA has raised its bar.

Saundra Lipton

“It’s truly amazing that in 30 years so much has been accomplished,” says current JHSSA president Saundra Lipton, who expresses awe about the strides made by Jay Joffe and a long list of dedicated volunteers, including former presidents Sheldon Smithens, Jack Switzer and Betty Sherwood.

The Society produced research tools, programs, exhibits and publications including the JHSSA’s popular journal Discovery, distributed for free to the community. Major undertakings included two exhibits that led to the highly popular books, Land of Promise and A Joyful Harvest.

“It really reflects a huge dedication from so many members of our community to recording and representing our history. . . . In the early years almost all of it was volunteer work,” Lipton said.

Lipton is grateful for what she calls the “continuity of support” by volunteers, sponsors and donors including people like Bertha Gold z”l , who collected oral histories, resident historian Jack Switzer z”l , and long-serving board member Manny Cohen z”l  who passed away shortly before the Society’s 30th anniversary.  She also points with pride to cross-generational support of the JHSSA. Examples include inaugural Discovery editor Sid Macklin z”l,  whose daughter, Halley Girvitz, serves on the Board of Directors, and early JHSSA staffer Naomi Kerr whose daughter, Roberta Kerr, is the archivist.

“It reflects a huge dedication from so many members of our community – past and present.”

Former and long-serving archivist Agi Romer Segal underscores the significance of the organization.

“It defines the community and validates that it has a claim.  Putting down roots gives us a stake,” Romer Segal says.

The Historical Society plays an important role within and beyond the Jewish community and is a respected source for researchers.

“A more balanced picture emerges when you record the community history,” notes Romer Segal, adding that the community relies on this.

“I know this because all the organizations come to us when they have their anniversaries,” said Romer Segal who has often helped them to piece together their own histories.

Building up communal trust has been critical to the success of both the JHSSA and the JCFC.

The JHSSA had to prove its credentials when it came to collecting and preserving the precious photos and archives that tell the story of Jews in Calgary and Southern Alberta.

At first, says Romer Segal, JHSSA was “ . . . an historical society with archives.”

“Jay’s dream has grown into a professional institution.”

“Now we are running as we should be,” adds Romer Segal, characterizing the operation as a “responsible repository” where people can share their oral histories and donate photos, letters and other precious documents knowing that they will be stored and cared for with the highest archival standards.

“Jay’s dream has grown into a professional institution,” Romer Segal says.

That kind of good stewardship also goes to the very heart of the Jewish Community Foundation of Calgary’s mandate . . . a critical thing when it comes to dealing with what Milton Bogoch calls “OPM — other people’s money.”

Stuart Myron

“I take pride in the trust that community members have placed in the JCFC,” echoes current Chair Stuart Myron. “That trust has led to the increased generosity of a growing number of fund holders and their passion to ensure a strong and vibrant Calgary Jewish community.”

“Our total assets under management now exceed $20 million and successive JCFC leaders have improved our governance and professionalism while increasing community impact. Our By-Laws and policies align with current standards and are reviewed by our Board of Directors regularly and our processes for monitoring the performance of investment managers is robust and sophisticated,” says Myron, on whose watch JCFC assets have tripled from $6.7 million to $20.3 million.

“Since the establishment of the JCFC in 1990, we have granted nearly $5.8 million in support of Jewish organizations,” Myron said.

“The vigorous response gives me optimism for the future of the Jewish community.”

“It was an overnight success that took 30 years,” quips Hal Joffe.

But when you take the historical view, it happened in the blink of an eye.

The 30th anniversaries of the JCFC and JHSSA were marked online during October AGMs held just two days apart – a fitting symbol of their interrelatedness.

While one of them preserves protects and shares the past, the other grows the philanthropic means that will allow for the continued unfolding of Jewish life in Calgary.

The trajectory of that story depends on all of us. History is not made only by the famous; nor is philanthropy the sole domain of the wealthy.

Saundra Lipton urges all community members to think of the JHSSA when they are cleaning up homes and deciding what to do with old papers and photos that can help flesh out the collective story of Jewish life in Southern Alberta.  Even tiny details of everyday life provide clues to a proud past, says Lipton.

For its part, the JCFC is educating the community that you don’t have to be a Rockefeller to open a fund and lend financial support to current initiatives or to give an after-lifetime gift that will support Jewish Calgary in perpetuity. That is why the JCFC has teamed up with Calgary Jewish Federation to bring the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s LIFE & LEGACY program to Calgary.

The JHSSA is one of 10 local Jewish organizations seeking LIFE & LEGACY gifts from donors who wish to support charitable organizations and causes in perpetuity through vehicles like bequests and insurance policies.

“In the first 15 months of the four year program, 350 letters of intent have been garnered by our local partners with an estimated future value of $13 million,” says Stuart Myron. “The vigorous response gives me optimism for the future of the JCFC and the Jewish community.”

Indeed, the best is yet unwritten.

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News. 

2 Comments on "30th Anniversaries celebrated for Calgary’s Jewish Foundation and Jewish Historical Society"

  1. Sam Fishman | Nov 29, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Reply

    Great article !

  2. Gary Blackstien | Jan 24, 2021 at 7:05 am | Reply

    1972-73 cohort of Canadian Young Judaea at Machon L’madrichei Chutz La’aretz trying to find Hal Joffe

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