by Irene Shula Banchik
In a few days it’ll be July 1, Canada’s birthday. As an immigrant, I made a big deal of pinning this date in my calendar and participating in as many Canada day events as I can. This year in particular Canada celebrates 150 years and the Calgary Jewish Community Centre rejoiced on June 25 in red and white for the occasion.
In conjunction with other Jewish agencies from the community, we set up a display showcasing the Jewish contribution to building this great country. We had the JCC Community Klezmer Band performing Canadian and Jewish classics and we set up a “Becoming Canadian Café”, four storytelling stations where members of our community related their immigration stories.
These stories were divided in four eras: Agricultural Settlers stories, Urban Settlers and Merchant stories, Post World War II stories and Contemporary immigration stories. And there I was, at that last table telling mine. Care to read on?
At the end of the year 2000, Argentina was living again one of many economic crises that she suffered since the 1930s. This time there was hyperinflation, loss of productivity, unemployment, etc. In order to minimize the damage, the ruling government restricted bank deposits and withdrawals to a maximum of $250 per week, per account, this was known as the “corralito.” This did not go well with the people and the protests started. You can’t see me, but I’m walking among them during the “cacerolazo” (pan banging).
The president and the Minister of Economy had to resign. Argentina had five presidents from Dec. 30, 2001 to Jan. 2, 2002.
During this turmoil that started in early fall 2001, the Jewish community of Winnipeg sent a delegation to Buenos Aires to promote immigration to their city and to help families envision a better future. My then partner, Diego, and I were exiting the offices of the immigration lawyer at 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001—it was 10 a.m. in New York and the South Tower of the World Trade Center was collapsing. With a country in bankruptcy and a world in horror, we decided to search for stability and hope; we believed Canada was able to offer that to us.
Our immigration process took a couple of years until we had all paperwork, medical and finances in place. In order to qualify as a landed immigrant, the Canadian government required that we have a certain amount of money deposited in a Canadian bank account. I’m proud to say that I was one of the first individuals to take their money out of the “corralito” of the bank via a judicial appeal.
Diego arrived in October 2004 with a milk run flight made out of points: Buenos Aires, New York, Chicago, Winnipeg. Work in his field—information technology—didn’t look feasible at that time and he decided to head west, to Vancouver. Money was scarce so he took a Greyhound all across the prairies! With such a long trip, Diego decided to make a stop half way, in Calgary. I emailed a web-based group called “Argentinos en Calgary” and asked if anyone would lend a couch for Diego during his rest stop. Sandra M., one of the members, replied. She was single at that time and I think she wanted to check the guy out, if you know what I mean. … Sandra told her friend Roz O. that she would be hosting a young Argentinean Jewish guy, and Roz, who couldn’t control her Jewish motherly instincts had to meet this guy!
It was love at first sight! Roz and her husband Danny became Diego’s “adopted” parents in Canada. Roz offered Diego her guest room allowing him the peace of mind to start looking for a job. We will be forever grateful to this couple for their hospitality and being our first Canadian friends.
Diego swiftly got a job for IBM in Edmonton and moved out to busy Jasper Ave. For almost a year, Diego would spend many weekends in Calgary, in the company of Roz and Danny. Until one day Roz told Diego that a friend of hers was looking for an IT person to join his start-up in Calgary. Diego had the profile needed for the job and on Sept. 1, 2005, he moved back to Calgary. That same day I was arriving in Canada.
A very conscious decision to build our life in Calgary was to be part of the Jewish community. Lo and behold we rented an apartment two blocks from the Calgary JCC! The JCC gave us a warm welcome by granting us a free membership for a year.
We were starting to call Calgary, home.
There were many people and institutions that helped us settle in, and we gradually embraced the Canadian way of living, eh! First of all we started dressing in layers, we smiled at everyone we saw on the street, and I started volunteering for different organizations. One of those was the Calgary International Film Festival. It was there that I learned about the Walk in Closet at the Making Changes Association, a not-for-profit organization that helps immigrant women (and women in general) dress for success. You can read “My story of giving back” by scrolling to the end.
When I think about Canada, these are the values that resonate with me. I borrowed the Canada 150 logo and made it mine. I hope Mr. Trudeau doesn’t mind.
Three years after arriving in Calgary, I was hired by the Calgary JCC as the youth and young adult coordinator. In 2008, I was promoted to my current position, cultural arts and Israeli programming manager.
And that’s my next story…
I belong here
When you come in to the JCC you are often greeted by your first name. If this doesn’t happen it is because we haven’t had you enough in our centre. We make a point of knowing your name and welcoming you into our home. Yes, home. My home. Sometimes my primary home. I spend many hours in this place.
Home is where your true self blossoms, you have close relationships, you are comfortable with your surroundings, you know your way around.
The JCC is home to me, not only because of all the above, but because I can be creative.
The JCC allows me to dive into this powerful energy of creativity, and when I am in this place, I am the happiest person in the world.
I can create programs, I can create connections with and between people, I can create different atmospheres in our lobby like excitement, anticipation, mystery. Create my favorite verb. Creation. Just like God! Ohhh, don’t get me wrong—let me explain: in the Jewish tradition, it is said that God created men and women last, and then He rested. So humanity has to continue God’s creation. We are co-creators with God, of this world.
My department, Arts & Culture, welcomes people to bring their own talents and share them, and in doing so, we create community. For example, Monique. She loves public speaking, and because she shared with me her passion, we created a public speaking course. People would be able to better themselves, discover hidden abilities, network with people, reflect and re-create themselves.
I love to brainstorm ideas and projects with people. Like with Mijael, a chef from Israel. His passion is to make exotic gourmet jams. Yes, jams, spreads. We brainstormed together, got our creative juices flowing, and we created a “JCC jamming session,” a Middle Eastern flavour jam tasting and open mic evening, rock’n roll style!
I am very lucky. Not many places allow you to have the complete creative freedom that I experience here. This freedom does come with a responsibility and a mission: to be the hub of the Jewish experience in the community. Rabbi Soloveitchik, an American Orthodox Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher, said: “Every Jew should be at the entrance of his tent.” That means being welcoming to our tradition, and at the same time being engaged with the world and contributing to mankind.
This is what the JCC means to me, and this is why I like our tag so much: You belong here. You can be yourself here. I belong here.
Note that I am wearing the same T-shirt I wear for Canada Day. You make the connection?
My story of giving back
I arrived Sept. 1, 2005. It was a breezy and cold afternoon, though the sun was shining! Way to go Calgary! My wardrobe was ok, but I kept hearing this “dress in layers” motto that I had never heard before.
One of my new Canadian friends recommended I go “find layers” (those words again!) at the Walk-In Closet. When I got there, it was heaven on earth for a fashionista like me! Not only for the clothing options I had for my upcoming job interviews, but for the warmth and love that the volunteers treated me with. The connection we made was instant and I couldn’t wait to have my second appointment! They definitely showed me how “finding layers” worked: first a cami, then a top, on top a cardigan, then a coat, and last a scarf and a hat!
The experience was so fulfilling that I wanted to give back. I wanted other newcomers like me to have the fun, the respect and the empowerment this agency instills in its clients, to dive into creating a better life for themselves. So, 11 years ago, I decided that I wanted to volunteer for this organization.
For the past five years I’ve been a team leader one Saturday each month. Altogether, the experience of giving my time and energy to this organization has contributed to making me a better person and very proud of becoming a Canadian citizen. I am grateful to live in a country that offers so many opportunities for people to become their best.
Shula Banchik is the arts and culture manager at the Calgary JCC in Alberta, Canada, where she designs, produces and delivers an array of unique programs and events that celebrates Jewish life and culture among the Jewish community and the community at large. When she is not preparing the next community event, you can find her at her volunteering jobs, riding her bike, learning about permaculture and advocating for a sustainable world, as tikkun olam (Hebrew for repairing the world) ranks highly in her personal values and professional vision.