Calgary Jewish Federation President Lisa Libin on re-engaging in the New Year

Calgary Jewish Federation President Lisa Libin.

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Lisa Libin is on a mission to re-engage Jewish Calgarians. The newly elected president of Calgary Jewish Federation (CJF) says she is fortunate to serve at a time when many community members are craving connection following years of social drought due to COVID-19.

It is no surprise that Libin – born and raised in Calgary to a family with deep roots – has ascended to the CJF presidency. Her mother, Marilyn Libin, who taught and then served as principal at the I. L. Peretz School and The Calgary Jewish Academy and led Canadian Hadassah-WIZO as national president, continues to take a keen interest in community affairs. Lisa’s father, the late Stanley Libin, was a community leader in his own right. Together they were – and Marilyn remains – philanthropically generous.

Some two decades ago, when I interviewed Marilyn and Stan Libin for an article in the Jewish Free Press, Stan spoke with pride about how he and Marilyn – who had been lifelong “consumers” in the Jewish community – were tremendously pleased to be at a stage of life where they could be producers.

Now their daughter continues the family legacy.

 Prior to assuming the CJF presidency Lisa Libin served on the JCC board and then the CJF board, eventually sharing the vice-presidency with Maggie Rabinovitz (who now shares the role with Adam Maerov). When long-serving Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) chair Jared Shore became co-president of CJF, Libin was appointed JCRC chair.

Her tenure was a busy one, as she worked shoulder to shoulder with Shore, his co-president Jordan Balaban, and Federation CEO Adam Silver to respond to what Libin described as “reactive issues.”

Spurious comparisons were being made between government COVID measures and the horrific human experiments that Nazi doctors carried out in concentration camps during the Shoah. The use of the yellow star and swastikas at demonstrations, including those of the so-called Freedom Convey, were abhorrent to a Jewish community that literally felt the rising tide of antisemitism. In the wake of hostilities in Gaza, toxic rhetoric spilled into the streets of Canadian cities, including Calgary, and onto social media in an unprecedented barrage. Jews faced what Libin calls “a perfect storm.”

“We saw how awful social media could be and the impact it had on our students,” recalled Libin who said it was an  “uphill battle” to “fight the skewed perceptions” of what was happening in real time, not to mention the complicated history of the Middle East.

“Social media isn’t a conversation, it’s pick a side,” noted Libin, adding that Jewish students experienced unprecedented levels of online harassment.

“Our survivors were scared to go out. They had been through the Holocaust and were seeing a rise in antisemitism….For them to experience that again in their lifetime is heartbreaking,” Libin added.

“Our top priority was to make sure our community felt supported and safe.”

Federation reached out to schools to explain what Jewish students were facing; created an action alert email group to keep community members informed and responsive; and maintained close contact with all levels of police. Notably, the Calgary Police Service increased its presence in the parking lots of Jewish schools, Libin said.

Helming the JCRC during such a challenging time prepared Libin for her transition into Jewish Calgary’s top lay leadership position.

“Jared and Jordan’s co-presidency happened during an unprecedented and challenging time,” reflected Libin. “There is a lot they would have liked to have done from a community perspective that just wasn’t possible because of the pandemic…They had to refocus and reprioritize to ensure our community remained strong both emotionally and financially during COVID.”

Shore, Balaban and Libin are great examples of leaders spawned by a strong and supportive community.

Having benefited from both Jewish day school and summer camp experiences, Libin says she was  “enveloped” by community including good times in BBYO and Hillel. She took comfort in the embrace of Calgary’s tightly-knit Jewish community when she experienced the untimely loss of her father in 2005.

At the time, Libin was living in Toronto where she studied Public Relations at Humber College, having already earned a bachelor degree in communications at the University of Calgary.

In Toronto Libin fully grasped the magic of the Calgary Jewish community. While she enjoyed TO, she notes that being Jewish can be taken for granted there and does not involve the same effort necessary in Calgary.

Libin “…missed that deep community connection” she had known in Calgary, where she returned together with her husband, Jeremy Yanofsky, and their daughter Samara (now 12). Their son Elliott (now 9) was born in Calgary.

Libin and Yanofsky sent their kids to CJA, which Libin describes as a “special place.” She also loved the city of Calgary and felt the lure of the Rockies.

“I wanted the kids to have what I had in this community,” said Libin. “My closest friends are still my day school and Camp BB friends. To have friends that were your friends when you were five years old is just so special.”

Today Libin’s children continue that chain with her friends’ children.

As these words are written, Libin looks forward to bringing the community together for a family-friendly United Jewish Appeal (UJA) opener on September 18. Federation has opted for a COVID-safe outdoors experience: a community walk followed by a celebration in the field adjacent to the JCC.

“We need to be cautious but we also have to be optimistic,” Libin told AJNews.

While COVID forced the use of virtual gathering places like ZOOM, Libin says the positive upshot was that people who had previously found themselves unable to participate in community events could once again take part.

Reticent to throw the baby out with the bathwater, Libin says Federation will offer a mix of in-person and online programs, so that those who are not quite ready to gather in person can continue to connect.

Libin expressed pride in Here to Tell: Faces of Holocaust Survivors, the exhibit, book and documentary film spearheaded by Marnie Bondar and Dahlia Libin, co-chairs of CJF’s Holocaust and Human Rights Remembrance and Education department.

“What they are doing is unprecedented,” Libin said. “It brought out so many members of our community who we haven’t had touchpoints with for years…It was such a phenomenal way to show them the important work that Federation does and to keep them engaged.”

“I remember hearing many times from my own parents that it just can’t be this core group of major supporters. At some point it needs to be passed on to the next generation and I think that’s something I really want to work towards – getting people more engaged in whatever way works for them so that things don’t fall to the same group of people over and over again.”

Libin also wants to engage those who are new to the community and to model the vital importance of giving back to community.

During the pandemic, Federation convened Monday calls with key community agencies so that lay and professional leaders could “check in on each other” and ensure that any gaps in community services were addressed during the health crisis.

“It is important to keep the dialogue going as we move toward a more normal environment,” Libin said.

Federation and UJA leaders are working hard to deliver programming that is relevant to community members of all ages and stages.

The key to providing all that programming and supporting the vital work of UJA beneficiaries rests in broadening the culture of giving, especially among young donors, Libin says.

“It is easier to grow donors than to cultivate them later in life,” she adds.

While last year’s UJA goal of close to $2.6 million was met, the annual fundraising campaign has been flat for years.

“It’s no longer about meeting our goal, it’s about raising the bar and properly seeding everything we are doing,” Libin says.

While UJA seeks to meet the current needs of the community, The LIFE & LEGACY project, locally coordinated by CJF and the Jewish Community Foundation of Calgary, is all about planting seeds that will help to ensure the financial future of the community through after-lifetime giving.

“It is such a great initiative,” says Libin. “Whatever our future community looks like, we need to be financially strong.”

As always, raising dollars is predicated upon raising consciousness.

“Many members of our community don’t truly understand everything that Federation does and the impact it has on our community. As a communicator, I want to ensure that we do a fantastic job of showing how we support Jewish life, particularly at the local level,” Libin says.

“There are parents out there who have no idea that their child’s classmate wouldn’t be able to be at that Jewish day school if it wasn’t for the IBP [Integrated Bursary] program.”

PJ Library books seem to “magically appear” in the mailboxes of young Jewish families, adds Libin, but that is in large part due to the generosity of donors who are committed to ensuring Jewish literacy in young and growing families.

“Federation works hard behind the scenes to create the strong community everybody sees,” adds Libin.  “I want everyone to see the machine behind that.”

Examples abound, including Federation’s ongoing relationship building with various police services to ensure a safe community and effective responses in the face of antisemitism and hate crimes.

“We need to identify the new needs of our community. [After spending] so many years at home, the biggest priority is feeling that we are part of a physical community again.”

Libin says that means working with the Halpern Akiva Academy and CJA to ensure that their attendance is strong and encouraging people to return in person to key community hubs like the synagogues and the JCC.

“A lot of these challenges aren’t new,” says Libin, adding that she is confident that the community will rise up to meet them.

“There has been a ‘What can we do’ attitude particularly over the last couple of years,” she says.

It was in that spirit that Federation’s COVID Relief Fund was established on Jared Shore and Jordan Balaban’s watch, helping agencies like Camp BB Riback make ends meet when they couldn’t operate during the pandemic and helping other key community partners sustain their operations through COVID and the inevitable financial downturn that followed.

“We pivoted continuously to make sure that especially our most vulnerable people were taken care of from the get-go,” added Libin, in particular lauding the work of long-time JCC staffer Nessie Hollander who was a “G-dsend” in ensuring that the needs of seniors were met.

As the managing director of Brookline PR, Libin says her professional life in communications and strategic communications aligns beautifully with her role as CJF president.

“My detail-oriented personality is hopefully going to ensure that we are looking at things through different lenses to ensure that we are always delivering the best quality product that we can,” Libin said.

Many Brookline clients happen to be members of the Jewish community, and Libin says she loves the intersection between her professional and volunteer roles.

A notable client is the Glenbow Museum; Libin was delighted to work on their communications for the Here to Tell Exhibit.

Another priority for Libin is the re-establishment of relationships with government and interfaith groups, especially in light of forthcoming changes in the UCP leadership and the relatively recent election of Mayor Jyoti Gondek and a new city council.

“We’ve met with most council members and with the mayor,” Libin said.

Libin is seeking to ensure that local, provincial and federal politicians understand the unique challenges faced by the Jewish community.

Libin sits on the City of Calgary’s Anti-Racism Action Committee where she is contributing toward the development of a strategy to combat racism.

It is important to be proactive, Libin adds. “We need to be in a place where, as a community, we are supported and feel secure but we also have to support people [beyond] our community.”

“We met with Mayor Gondek and talked about the impact that yellow stars at rallies have, in particular on our survivors…the fact that City Council in the past, even though we have had super strong supporters like Diane Colley-Urquhart and Jeromy Farkas, literally stayed silent when the Proud Boys and white nationalist rallies were happening.

“Silence is agreement,” says Libin.  “We need to make sure they understand the impact on our community.”

We need others, not just us, speaking out against these outrages, Libin says, adding, “If and when there is another Mideast crisis, staying silent cannot be an option.”

As she forges ahead, Lisa Libin continues to find inspiration in the example set by her late father.

“He was a humble and modest individual who made such an impact for so many people. He’s always in the back of my head,” says Libin, adding that it was from her father that she learned the value of hard work, gratitude and giving back.

“I’d like to think that if he were here today, he would be really proud that his commitment to this community has been carried on.”

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

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