By Judith van Berkom –
CHOICES – an outreach initiative of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s Women’s campaign – is celebrating their 10th anniversary with a special event on November 1.
Their first CHOICES event 10 years ago featured Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam Today: a Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. The campaign has since featured many well-known women, including a former CNN correspondent from Israel, a member of the Israeli defense force, and a Jewish Olympian at the time of the Munich Olympics.
Westboro’s Jackie Barwin is this year’s chair and describes CHOICES as a way to engage people, bring them into the community and stay connected. As their contribution to the annual fundraising campaign, which raises about $4 million each year, women gather to contribute to what Jackie explains are the four Jewish community pillars: supporting Israel, building community, caring for the vulnerable, and Jewish education.
“Funds are used for many of the Jewish agencies in the city – much like the United Way,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you are Orthodox, Reformed or don’t attend a synagogue. It’s not about being affiliated to a structured Jewish religion but about finding a place in the community. We try and make it warm and friendly.”
This year’s anniversary theme – Connecting and Inspiring Women – features guest speaker, Jeannie Smith, the only daughter of Irene Gut OpDyke, a Polish rescuer who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
As a 19-year-old nurse in Poland during World War II, Irene smuggled food into the Polish ghetto before being forced to work for a high-ranking Nazi officer as his housekeeper. She then hid Jews in the basement of his villa. At the end of the war she was wanted by both the Soviets and Germans and had to be smuggled out of the country, eventually finding refuge in the United States.
Her book, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, tells her detailed story and is used in classrooms across the country. The book will be available for purchase at the CHOICES event.
The Israeli Holocaust Commission named Irene one of the Righteous among the Nations, a title given to those who risked their lives by aiding and saving Jews during the Holocaust. She was presented with the Israel Medal of Honour at Jerusalems’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. The Vatican gave her a special commendation and in 2008 and 2009 she received, posthumously, the Commander’s Cross – the Polish medal of honour – and the Courage to Care award by the Anti-Defamation League in Washington DC.
Irene gave speeches about her experiences around the world until she died in 2003 at the age of 85. Jeannie has continued to speak publicly on behalf of her mother. She travels to schools, churches, camps, organizations, fund raising events and clubs throughout the United States, Canada and the UK.
This year’s CHOICES event is sold out, but more information is available at jewishottawa.com/choices.