Ruth Ekstein's Speech


Good evening everyone. I confess that I am feeling emotional standing here in front of you this evening.  I can’t believe I am here.  I have sat in the audience many times for Women’s Installation, and have looked up with admiration and respect for the women who have held this role. They have inspired, motivated and supported me over the years. I wanted to start out by saying thank you to them –and especially to those who put your confidence in me to take this role. I feel the full weight of responsibility of following in all of your footsteps.  I want to say a special thank you to Allison Himel, who made my vice chair year a great experience. Allison, under your watch, Women’s Philanthropy broke $10 million dollars for the first time. Mazeltov to you, and your executive, for a job extremely well done. You have set the bar very high for us this year.

When contemplating what to say this evening, I asked for some advice from people I trust.  Susan Jackson said, this crowd will know about UJA so tell them a little bit about yourself, what brought you here and what your vision is.  My daughter, Lara, said, mom, just keep it short and sweet. I will do my best to make at least one of them happy.

So a bit about me.  I am the daughter of Frank and Anita Ekstein, Holocaust survivors with very different stories.  My father was born in what is now a suburb of Prague, Czechoslovakia.  His family was secular, assimilated and quite well off.   When the Munich Pact was signed in September 1938, my grandfather understood that Jews could no longer live in Europe and he did everything in his power to get his large family out.  Between November 1938 and the summer of 1939, most of his immediate family entered Canada under the now infamous “None is Too Many” policy.  They lost all their wealth and material possessions, land and home, way of life, culture and every family member that was left behind.  They came desperate and impoverished, but they came with their lives. 

My mom was not so fortunate.  Her family was educated and religious, with very modest means.  They lived in what was alternatively Poland or Ukraine, first occupied by the Russians and then the Germans. Her father was used for slave labor and shot when his job was done.  Her mother and other family members were gassed at the death camp, Belzec.  My mother was miraculously rescued by a Polish Catholic man, and taught to be a little Polish Catholic girl. His family kept her “hidden in the open” until the war’s end, when my mom’s aunt Sally, who was saved by Schindler, reclaimed her.

The last words my grandfather said to my mom were, “be good, be independent, and never forget where you came from.” Mom has lived by those words all her life, and so have I.  Knowing where I come from is the cornerstone of my life. 

It has helped me understand how incredibly privileged I am to live in this time and place, where, as Jews, we live in peace, are free to live our lives as Jewishly as we wish, and are able to love and support Israel in any way that we choose.  I know just how extraordinary this is given not only the Holocaust, but our very long history which has had very few, and very short periods of time, where Jews could live without risk of persecution, conversion, expulsion or death. With this incredible privilege, I feel both the responsibility and obligation to speak out in the presence of intolerance, racism or hatred, to strengthen Jewish communities, and to ensure the continued survival of Israel.  My parents showed me how to act on these beliefs. Mom gave her time and energy for decades to most Jewish organizations. She still calls her UJA donors, and continues to be the mainstay of the MOL, having just returned from her 15th trip.  Dad was driven to quietly help others.  He gave as generously as he could, even in the days when they had very little to give. The Jerusalem Talmud says that ”Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvot of the Torah.”  My Dad did not have even one day of Jewish learning, nor could he have read the Torah, but he embodied those valued Jewish practises.

In July 1976, days after the raid on Entebbe, my parents took us to Israel for the very first time. I can still vividly remember the passengers singing and crying on landing, the sun, the beach, the soldiers (I was 16!), Jerusalem, and watching my secular dad put a note in the Kotel. It was love at first sight for all of us. And getting to know Israel switched a paradigm in my mind – I had thought that Israel existed because of the Holocaust.  Now I understood that the Holocaust could never have happened, had Israel existed.  It would be fair to say that between my heritage, my parents’ teachings, and our trip to Israel, my brothers and I were placed on a lifelong path of wanting to do something meaningful in the Jewish community and for Israel.  For me, UJA has turned out to be the perfect fit.

My first involvement began as a child doing the UJA walk 48 years ago. I spent summer days here, either at Centre Camp, or at the JCC outdoor pool. I went to Camp Northland, I volunteered at telethons and then life got busy:  I married Alan and had three children while embarking on a 25 year career as an Occupational Therapist. I specialized in neurology and met many Jewish clients suffering from the same illnesses as everyone else.  The difference was that when they were desperately in need, I knew to call JFCS.  And when my senior patients needed a place to go for socializing and recreation, I sent them to Bernard Betel.  Kosher Meals on Wheels, transportation services, direct financial support - I was slowly coming to understand just how much UJA helped the most vulnerable in our community, and it made me really proud.

Over the next 25 years, my involvement with both UJA and Israel deepened.  About 15 years ago, a UJA mission to Kishinev, Moldova was a real game changer for me.  We met isolated and forgotten Holocaust survivors living in unconscionable circumstances, who would have starved or frozen to death without our dollars. One old woman could not believe that Jews from Toronto cared about her. She said it gave her hope and made me promise that I would not forget her.  To this day, every time I pick up the phone to call a donor, I think of her.  From Moldova we flew to Israel.  Instead of visiting gorgeous tourist spots, we visited impoverished communities, where I learned for the first time about the desperate need in so many places and the incredible work that UJA was doing to help out. Once home, with the mentorship of Dodi Weill, I got involved in Womens’ campaign. I met other great women, who cared as much as I did, and had the opportunity to do a little good. Who knew that this would lead to co-chairing Telethons, the Walk with Israel, the March of the Living and a busy teaching schedule at the Holocaust Education Centre?  The March, as you know, is a marquis program of UJA, but what it really does, is punch you in the stomach, turn you inside out, and help you realign all your priorities.  After 3 trips, this is still best illustrated when I marched between Auschwitz and Birkenau with my daughter and mom.  Looking out at the thousands of young people, mom cried.  She said you need to understand, I wasn’t supposed to be here, neither were you nor all these kids. A week later we marched again in Jerusalem from City Hall to the Kotel, this time singing and dancing.  And two weeks later, we did it again in Toronto, on the UJA Walk with Israel.  The strongest lesson from the March, in this juxtaposition of Poland, Israel and Toronto, is to be an upstander, not a bystander.  Do something, don’t wait or hope that someone else will do it on your behalf.  

Through all these experiences my life has obviously been enriched, but I have also come to understand something very important. YES - UJA supports the most vulnerable, here in Toronto and around the world.  

But perhaps more importantly, it creates the fabric of Jewishness that allows every one of us, regardless of religious affiliation or socioeconomic status, to grow and be strengthened within a vibrant Jewish community.  PJ Library, day schools, camps, JCC’s, the Holocaust Education Centre, MOL, Hillel, Birthright, the UJA walk with Israel, and communal gatherings where we stand in support of Israel, or in mourning for the loss of Jewish lives; these are the strands that weave together Jewish life, and no one does all of these things and more, except UJA.  I always thought I was fortunate to be at the giving end, but I now realize that, like everyone else here, I am also at the receiving end. UJA is for all of us, by us, and that is what makes it truly unique. That is why its has found such a special place in my heart and why it has become a lifetime of involvement for me.

While I started out by saying how fortunate we are to live here and now, I am increasingly concerned that this window of good fortune is starting to close. On the international front, anti-Semitism is not only growing, but is becoming increasingly lethal.  Israel is on the front line against terrorism, and not only in a military sense, but at the UN, the International Criminal Court, in every European country, and on many North American campuses.  Unfortunately, we are now dealing with these threats locally.  This is the time to redouble our efforts, to strengthen our community, and to advocate for all Jews and Israel. Instead of feeling daunted by these challenges, I actually feel invigorated.  I just returned from a truly outstanding UJA Mission to Israel, and though it is clear that Israel is riddled with complicated problems - political, socioeconomic, religious, and educational – the Israeli’s we met astounded us with their passion, creativity and intellect.  They are not daunted, and they are working through the challenges, strong in their own ability, and also in the knowledge that they are not alone.  They know we are with them and they are counting on us. 

Two quick stories to underscore this.  In Sderot, we met residents who told us that we are the only community who has stood by them in good times and bad.  Other communities showed up with speeches and cheques when the rockets were falling, but only Toronto stood firm in the aftermath. We worked very hard to create resiliency in the community and we saw the evidence of this with our own eyes.  Instead of despondent residents trying desperately to sell their worthless homes, we met confident young people actively engaging in their community.  
During last summer’s war they took a leadership role, running all volunteer operations.  We met young families who felt safe to leave their children at
kindergarden due to our new playgrounds, and we saw block after block of new apartment buildings being built, pre-sold.  We saw our UJA dollars strengthening and growing a community before our eyes. The people of Sderot stand on the border of terrorism and live in insane conditions – in case you had not heard, rockets landed nearby yesterday. And yet, they were thanking us, for visiting them and helping them. In Eilot we met a commander in the navy.  It sounds very senior but he was all of about 23 years old.  He told us that today, every Birthright trip has to have soldiers accompany our kids, not just because our kids learn about the realities of being a young adult in Israel, but because the benefit to the soldiers is immeasurable.  They learn that they are NOT alone and that the diaspora community cares deeply.  It was incredible and very humbling to hear this young man thank us.  

I have so many more things I would like to tell you.  About my recent trip to Ethiopia with Micha Feldman, who orchestrated Operation Solomon, and learning about our role in the rescue and ongoing integration of Ethiopians into Israel.  About the present day need to continue with rescue operations; discussions are now being held about the Jews of the Ukraine. But I won’t.  I am quite sure I have exceeded my ‘short and sweet’ time limit.

What I will tell you, is that in Women’s Philanthropy, we know the importance and power of UJA helping people locally, in Israel and overseas.   We understand our history, and our responsibility to act now. Campaign 2016 is starting at zero.  The new goal is to grow our campaign by one third over 5 years.  For Women’s Philanthropy, simple math translates that into raising at least $700,000 dollars of new money, every year, for the next 5 years.  I want to welcome every woman to join us, to use their voice, their passion and their dollars to tackle the serious challenges ahead.  Together with my very talented and committed team, we are planning new strategies to expand our volunteer and donor base, and to raise more money. We have a lot of people depending on us and we simply cannot let them down. 

Lastly, some heartfelt thank yous.  To Mom, and my brothers Rick and Pete. You put me on the right path and are constant sources of wisdom and strength.  To Alan, you share my desire to continue down that path and encourage me every step of the way.  To Cobi, Lara and Yaelle.  You are my primary motivation – I want you to have a strong and healthy Jewish Toronto to raise your kids in, and a vibrant and safe Israel to call home. You are my biggest cheerleaders, and we are so proud that you are already finding your own Jewish voices, giving back by working in the Jewish community, and even, as Cobi did, serving in the IDF.  Dad and I know you will continue the family tradition of caring for the Jewish people. I am grateful for you every day. 

Thank you to my fantastic executive team, and to Rochelle Reichart, for taking on the role of Vice Chair. To Felicia and Shoel, our outstanding campaign chairs. And to all the staff. You work diligently behind the scenes and beyond the call of duty, and without your knowledge and expertise, we could not accomplish anything.  I care passionately about the Jewish people, and I am so grateful to be able to work with all of the volunteers and staff who share my passion and commitment.  You are my Jewish soulmates, and my friends. A huge thank you to all of you.

One final thought.  I was always taught that one person could make a difference, could be that upstander. I have seen the truth of that in the Polish man who rescued my Mom, and in my mom herself, who overcame almost insurmountable odds, and has impacted thousands of students.  We are very fortunate to hear this evening from another, Wendy Eisen.  I am incredibly honored to be Chair of Women’s Philanthropy for Campaign 2016, and promise to do my very best, to make a difference.