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By BERNIE BELLAN The remarkable progress that the members of the Herzlia congregation have made in renovating their building might serve as an example for others in our community of how sheer determination can see a dream turn into reality.


Despite going through what seemed to be a never-ending series of setbacks to their plans, the relatively small number of individuals who make up the Herzlia congregation persevered in their collective determination to preserve a home for what has been Winnipeg’s only south end Orthodox synagogue.
Through the years members of the Herzlia have had to endure more than their fair share of blows, including a sordid scandal involving a rabbi that led to a fissure within the congregation that took a very long time to heal. Then, when the City of Winnipeg actually decreed that the building itself was unsafe due to a boiler that could blow up at any time, Herzlia members faced the prospect of having either to demolish the existing structure or to renovate it. Either way, the cost estimates that came in were deemed to be far above what the congregation could afford.
As a result, a small cadre of congregants took the initiative to find an alternative means whereby major improvements could be made to the building, but within an affordable budget. That was no easy task. One of the key decisions that was made was to forego using a general contractor. Instead, and with the help of certain key individuals who were very experienced in the buildings trades, the various sub trades that were required to undertake the renovation process were hired directly by the congregation itself. Apparently that led to huge savings – something that might serve as a useful model for other community projects in the future.
At the same time though, hopes that the congregation might be able to mount a large scale fundraising campaign proved unattainable. Numbers had been put forward ranging from $1.7 to close to $2 million as the amount that would be necessary either to build an entirely new building or to complete a total renovation.
The last major capital campaign fundraising project in the Jewish community involved the building of the Jewish Learning Centre on Mathers Avenue almost five years ago. That project cost approximately $3.5 million and, while there were large contributions from the three levels of government, along with the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, the centre also relied upon the generosity of several key donors.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, in the case of the Herzlia, however, while certain individuals did make large contributions, finding an individual or several individuals who would be able to backstop the kind of project that had been bandied amount never bore fruit.
It has been suggested to me that a major reason for the drying up of potential sources of large contributions was the fundraising drive for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. While that project did lead to the largest-ever private fundraising campaign in Canadian history, there can be no doubt that it also had the effect of making it more difficult for other organizations that were also interested in mounting capital campaigns.
Has it also had on effect on the Combined Jewish Appeal campaign this past year? We haven’t seen a final figure published for how much the CJA campaign ended up bringing in, but reports have it that the campaign fell short of its goal. To be fair, the two previous years, during which Gail Asper served as chair of the campaign, were undoubtedly an anomaly, as the campaign achieved record totals both years. There is only one Gail Asper around and her fundraising capabilities are legendary.
In the end the members of Herzlia were able to come up with a plan that allowed them to move forward with a very well-thought-out renovation plan that will certainly see their building transformed into a beautiful edifice. I am told though, that there is still a need for financial help to see the project completed without seeing the congregation having, once again, to borrow a substantial amount – something that was the case in the past. It seems that it was but a short time ago when the members of the Herzlia were able to say that they had paid off the debt that had been hanging over the synagogue for past remedial construction projects.
At times, we are told, this paper has served a useful role in summoning aid from individuals for particular projects. Let’s hope that can be the case once again.
Speaking of capital campaigns, during the course of researching the Herzlia story, I had occasion to speak with Robyn Avery, Executive Director of the Aleph Bet Daycare. As it turns out, that institution is also about to embark upon a major expansion – something, Robyn told me, that will cost approximately $3.5 million.
During the course of my conversation with Robyn, I suggested to her that Aleph Bet doesn’t have many Jewish children in its daycare any more. Robyn contradicted me, explaining that there’s been a recent surge in Jewish children coming into the daycare, and that these kids are the offspring of recent Russian-Israeli immigrants to the city. Many of the parents, she told me though, are intermarried, but they like the idea of their children being exposed to a Jewish environment.
This whole issue of who the recent immigrants to Winnipeg are is one that continues to fascinate me. In fact this paper has had stories about a fair number of new immigrants over the years. Yet, the fact is that, in terms of engagement, it’s been a tough slog integrating many of them into the larger community.
One of the more interesting phenomena that I’ve observed though is how successful the Chabad Lubavitch movement has been in attracting new immigrants to their programs. While a cynic might say that it’s because those programs are free for the newcomers, there is no doubt that Israeli newcomers often feel at home in the Jewish Learning Centre.
And, while the Jewish Federation does allocate a fair bit of its resources to Jewish “engagement”, we probably won’t know for years to come whether those newcomers are actually “engaged” within the community.
Thus, I want to end this issue’s “Short Takes” with this question: If various institutions are spending a fair bit of money on newcomers to the community, yet the commitment that those newcomers are prepared to make to our Jewish community is quite tenuous, wouldn’t we be better served by concentrating resources on individuals who have been longtime members of the community? In this respect, I can’t help but think – again, of the members of Gwen Secter Centre – who are about to lose their home, and of other seniors in the community.
When, for instance, are we going to see the Simkin Centre embark on what was supposed to be a third capital campaign – this one to create an assisted living facility adjoining the existing seniors’ centre? At least the members of the Herzlia congregation showed that, despite an ongoing series of setbacks, they were determined to achieve a long-delayed goal. This community needs another Jewish daycare in the south end (beyond the one that is going to be built on Grosvenor); it needs to keep the Gwen Secter Centre in a decent home; and it needs to provide an assisted living facility next to the Simkin Centre. Perhaps these are pipe dreams, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.