Calgary UJA starts strong despite COVID challenge

Calgary Jewish Federation 2020 UJA Chair Nelson Halpern and Director of Development Diana Kalef.

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Calgary Jewish Federation leaders are optimistic about this year’s United Jewish Appeal (UJA) campaign, welcome news given the backdrop of Alberta’s long-standing economic woes and challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

UJA 2020 Chair Nelson Halpern told AJNews he does not anticipate a drop in donations this year, despite the fact that some individuals and families are struggling due to job losses or diminished income related to COVID.

According to Federation Director of Development Diana Kalef, the UJA direct mail campaign launched in August has been well received with 20 to 25% of this year’s campaign already pledged and paid.

A new initiative – the Jewish Together Fund – will be funded using 50% of the increased portion of every UJA donation over and above donors’ 2019 gifts. This resiliency fund will directly benefit local Jewish organizations through a grant application process that is open to all organizations whether or not they are UJA partner agencies.

As these words are written, Federation staffers are finalizing the grant application forms. An initial $50,000 will be divided among organizations whose applications are accepted.

“We are seeing a broad range of needs that didn’t exist before COVID.”

“We are seeing a broad range of needs that didn’t exist before COVID,” says Kalef adding that grants can be used as emergency top-ups for previously existing programs and services or to defray costs for initiatives created because of COVID.

This year’s UJA goal is $2.5 million, down from the all-time high of $3 million in 2013. Last year’s campaign came in at $2.65 million thanks, in part, to matching gifts of $106,000 from some local top donors.

Nelson Halpern attributes attrition in campaign support to the passing, over recent years, of some of the community’s most generous philanthropists adding that subsequent generations do not always continue their legacy.

The Federation board of directors has maintained most allocations to its partner agencies over the past three years.  Partner agencies include Calgary Community Kollel, Calgary JCC, Camp BB-Riback, The Calgary Jewish Academy, Halpern Akiva Academy and Jewish Family Service Calgary.

Some North American communities raised emergency dollars this past spring in response to COVID-19 or started their UJA campaigns early, running two-line campaigns. In Toronto, fundraising by other organizations was curtailed during the spring months as their Federations raised millions of dollars, Kalef said.

In some cases, communities cut funding of some programs in order to provide emergency support elsewhere.

Federation leaders in Calgary chose to continuously assess the situation in consultation with their partner agencies, stick with the fall UJA campaign and maintain allocations at pre-COVID levels, allowing partner agencies to continue serving the community free of fear that relied-upon resources would be curtailed.

“We remain dedicated to calm leadership,” says Federation CEO Adam Silver.  “Assuming that the necessary funds are raised, we will continue helping our partner agencies to weather the storm.”

“The continued strength of our community will depend on our collective commitment to tzedakah.”

“The continued strength of our community will depend on our collective commitment to tzedakah,” Diana Kalef said.

UJA dollars help to ensure that core community programs and services – including some that aren’t on the radar of donors – are sustained.  Examples include the “community living room” at the JCC that provides cultural and seniors programming and red-letter community observances like Yom HaShoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.

Even amidst COVID, Federation staff and volunteers ensured a meaningful Yom HaShoah commemoration this past April – the first time the solemn observance was marked virtually.

Nelson Halpern – who is a former Calgary Jewish Community Council President and is chairing the UJA campaign for a second consecutive year – lauds the generosity of the campaign’s top givers.  Many made their annual commitments before UJA season officially opened, some of them leveraging their gifts to take advantage of matching dollars from charitable programs like Shaw Birdies for Kids.

Still, says Halpern, “It’s the last dollars that are hard to collect.”

Halpern sees hope for the future in the growing support of UJA by members of JAC, the Federation-supported program  for Jewish Calgarians between the ages of 20 and 40. In recent years, an increasing number have become members of the Ben Gurion Society, a top gifts category (minimum $1000) for their age cohort.

While UJA raises funds annually, Halpern is proud that Federation also takes the longer view, having joined with the Jewish Community Foundation of Calgary in bringing the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s LIFE & LEGACY program – now in its second year – to Calgary.  Federation and JCFC have partnered with 10 major community organizations to raise after-lifetime endowment gifts.

To date, over $13 million has been raised across participating local organizations.  Many donors have named Calgary Jewish Federation as beneficiaries of their LIFE & LEGACY gifts, some of them providing endowments that will guarantee their annual UJA gifts in perpetuity.

Federation staff and volunteers are also working hard to bring new donors into the annual UJA campaign, growing the local culture of philanthropy so as to affirm the UJA 2020 campaign slogan “Together WE CAN.”

“We need to broaden the base.  We can’t rely on the same people year after year,” Halpern said adding that 75% of the annual UJA campaign is gifted to the community by just 50 families.

“I’m optimistic that we have positive momentum and we will be successful,” Halpern said.

For more information about UJA, or to donate, go to or contact Diana Kalef at or 403-444-3154.

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


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