by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – Delegates to the 20th Na’amat Triennial Convention gathered in Calgary on October 13 in the wake of vicious terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas against innocent Israeli men, women and children in Southern Israel, beginning on October 7.
Despite the grief and anger reverberating throughout the Jewish world following the deadliest pogrom against the Jewish people since the Shoah, some 68 Na’amat members forged ahead, steeled by their resolve to continue doing the work Na’amat (formerly Pioneer Women) has been doing since 1925 when the organization was first established in the Holy Land: Empowering women and children.
Na’amat USA President Jan Gurvitch and National Fundraising Chair Susan Miller’s attendance at the convention exemplified the warm cross-border relationships that have led to joint programming and fundraising efforts in support of Na’amat projects.
The convention theme – Get Inspired – was reflected in a stellar lineup of local speakers including Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, who once again expressed her strong support for the people of Israel and the local Jewish community. Other keynote speakers included Dr. Robbie Babins-Wagner, CEO of Calgary Counselling Centre (Mental Health in Uncertain Times); Deborah Yedlin, CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce (Breaking the Glass Ceiling); the Honourable Ronald D. Ghitter, founder and board member of the Dignity Forum (Antisemitism and Human Rights Nationally and Globally); and Michal Lavi, owner and creative director of Park by Sidewalk Citizen and Sidewalk Citizen Bakery and award-winning independent filmmaker, who spoke about her vision for building community through a unique fusion of cuisine and cultural engagement.
Unable to travel to Calgary due to the attacks on Israel, Na’amat Israel President Hagit Pe’er and Shirli Shavit, Director of the International Department for Na’amat Israel, delivered moving online presentations. A Shabbat morning talk by Pe’er was interrupted when an air raid siren forced her to take cover in a bomb shelter.
Despite the crisis, Na’amat leaders and members rightfully celebrated achievements made during the presidency of Hamilton pediatrician Dr. Sandi Siegel, whose three-year term as Na’amat Canada president proved challenging due to the isolation caused by the COVID 19 pandemic.
Despite the fact that the organization’s fundraising and social activities were forced online throughout most of her presidency, Siegel proudly reported that Na’amat Canada nonetheless managed to disburse a remarkable $2.3 million dollars in support of projects in Israel.
Additional charitable dollars raised by Na’amat Canada supported women and children here in Canada through a number of initiatives including educational scholarships and School Supplies for Kids, a program that helps children and youth fleeing domestic violence together with their mothers. Originally launched in Calgary by local Na’amat President Stephanie Sacks some 25 years ago, the program has since been adopted by Na’amat chapters in other Canadian centres.
It was a point of pride for incoming Na’amat Canada President Susan Inhaber that programming planned by National Convention Chair Doris Wexler-Charow and Local Convention Chair Stephanie Sacks were infused with western hospitality while providing insight into local culture and history. Josie Nepinak—an Anishinabe woman from treaty four who is an advocate for indigenous women and families impacted by domestic violence—spoke about the history of residential schools and the impact on her life. The session was followed by drum songs by mother and daughter duo Chantal Chagnon and Cheryle Chagnon-Greyeyes. Saturday evening featured line dancing by and with The Chinook Country Line Dancers.
The weekend was capped off by heartwarming tributes to and by newly-minted Na’amat National President Susan Inhaber on Sunday, October 15 at a gala banquet where she was feted by family, life-long friends, former colleagues, and fellow volunteers. Most have worked shoulder to shoulder with Inhaber professionally or on behalf of Na’amat Canada and Beth Tzedec Congregation, where Inhaber currently serves as the Commissioner of the National Minyan League and frequently leads weekday prayer services.
The closing banquet featured a performance by Calgary comedy duo Yenta and Shmenta (AKA Joy Feldman and Linda Gutman); music by Zeev Berger and the Schmoozers; and Israeli dancing led by Edmontonian Robin Marcus.
Well before the October 7 attacks on Israel, Inhaber had chosen the Na’amat daycare in Sderot as the focus of a special president’s fund. Only one kilometre from the border with Gaza, Sderot is frequently a target of rockets launched from Gaza. Inhaber stated that when the air raid sirens sound, residents of Sderot have a mere 15 seconds to reach their bomb shelters. During her installation, Inhaber shared the news that residents of Sderot were in the process of evacuating.
As Shirli Shavit had told convention delegates in an online presentation a day earlier, the social services needs of Israeli citizens will rise due to the severe trauma caused by the October attacks and hostage takings. Historically, Na’amat has played critical roles in providing a range of services in support of at-risk women and children through their networks of daycare centres, domestic abuse shelters and the like. The organization and its supporters are now being called upon to redouble their efforts.
In her first address as national president, Inhaber paid tribute to Sandi Siegel, Na’amat Canada Executive Vice President Vivian Reisler and National Admin Person Pam Segal, and leaders and members she has been privileged to work with. Surrounded by her family, she took particular joy in the presence of her three-month-old grandson.
A member of Na’amat since 2000, Inhaber steadily rose through the ranks of the organization. She looks forward to leading the Freda Sohmer National Leadership Seminar in Israel this spring, when participants will have the opportunity to hone their skills while visiting the various institutions supported by Na’amat Canada.
In the meantime, Inhaber is laser focussed on the goals she has set for her presidency: increasing awareness about Na’amat’s work in Israel and Canada, with a particular emphasis here in Western Canada; building the organization’s donor base; and encouraging legacy giving. Inhaber said that she is also devoted to increasing Na’amat’s social media presence
During the convention plenum, Na’amat Canada members voted to continue raising funds in support of one of its most cherished projects, the Kanot Youth Village. The construction there of a junior high school wing will be the organization’s main focus during the next three years.
“…Being able to visit and see the students learn and teach and blossom will be a highlight for me,” Inhaber said, while urging Na’amat faithful to also “Watch for an exciting new refurbishment project at the Rhodie Blanshay Benaroch Children’s Centre at our Glickman Centre for family violence prevention.”
The words Am Israel Chai were proudly declared frequently throughout the National Convention and will continue to be the rallying cry of some 400 Na’amat members across Canada led by Inhaber, the first-ever national president west of Winnipeg.
To join Na’amat Canada or make a donation in support of any of its worthwhile projects, including Susan Inhaber’s President’s Fund for the Sderot Daycare Centre, go to www.naamat.com.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.