In unprecedented times, such as with the current COVID-19 pandemic we are all in, finding precedent is one of the most important tasks of a leader in an organization. Ezra Shanken, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, is someone who is all too familiar with this challenge, and in this episode, he sits down with host, Douglas Nelson to talk about how the pandemic has impacted the work of his organization over the last couple of months. Leading the third-largest Jewish community in Canada, anyone could just imagine the hard work it entails to listen to its members and understand their needs and keep the organization afloat. He shares with us what he is doing differently as the CEO, how he is pulling his team together to execute their mission, and how they are overcoming the unique challenges they are currently facing. Follow along in this great discussion to know more about how Ezra is staying on top of this pandemic and move from response to recovery.
Listen to the podcast here:
Jewish Federation Of Greater Vancouver With Ezra Shanken
Our guest on the show is Ezra Shanken. The CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. Welcome, Ezra.
It’s good to be with you.
You have been CEO of the Jewish Federation since 2014. It was new to Vancouver, new to Canada at that time. Before we get into the conversation of how the pandemic has impacted the work of your organization, I’m interested in how the first couple of months went and when you first came to the Jewish Federation here in Vancouver.
As a person coming from the United States, the learning experience of coming into a new country is real. We may have grown up on a healthy diet of Canada is the 51st state of the United States. It’s not true. Canada has a very distinctive culture. Vancouver itself has a distinctive culture. I was coming from the East, from New York City out here to Vancouver. We have the East-West dynamic. I spent a fair bit of time in my twenties working for the Jewish community in Denver, Colorado. I had that feeling of what it was to have a certain Western mentality, but truthfully geographically, Denver is in the center. It’s not a Western state but it does consider itself a Western state.
Coming here for me was a major education. Not just in what it is to help to guide community, which I had been training to do for the previous ten years as I moved up through the ranks in the Jewish Federation system. It’s more about, how it is that I talked to people? What’s the kind of language that I use? How do we address issues? How do we convene people? How do I bring groups together in a way that is complementary to the culture that’s on the ground here? One of the most interesting things about community leadership jobs like mine at the Federation is we have the opportunity to learn about a diverse group of communities and what makes them special. Not the commonality amongst them, but the uniqueness of those communities.
[bctt tweet=”What you attempt to do in moments of uncertainty is the certainty you find is finding that precedent from.” username=””]
I like that distinction. You mentioned coming up in the Jewish Federation System. How did you get into that system and how did you know that you wanted to make this life of service your life’s work?
I’m third generation in Jewish community work. My grandpa is a conservative Rabbi. My father did this work for over a decade, not in Jewish Federation but for a number of other Jewish organizations in New York City. I have followed what I now have discovered is a typical arc of development. I have held leadership positions as a student leader within my university career. As I left my university career, I was much more interested in the larger framework that was happening in politics. I had gotten myself involved in that. I had moved out to Denver and had gotten involved in the political space out there. It was only while I was in graduate school and studying Nonprofit Management that about 2/3s of the way through that I needed a job.
There was something that opened up in the Jewish community and I say every time that I’m out, they pull me back in. The story is told that I walked into the office of the Jewish Federation in Denver, Colorado in a tan leisure suit. It was summer and the person across the table ended up being a boss, a mentor, and a second mother to me. Seeing that I had no family in Denver, she looked across the table and said, “You belong here.” I’ve been lucky to be able to save that to a number of people over my many years of work. I’m in this because people recognized in me the raw materials of being a community guide and leader and helped cultivate that inside of me. Through that journey, I’ve been to three cities. This is my third city and it keeps getting better every day.
It’s good that you’re on the ground for a few years before we hit this pandemic. I would imagine given your role, this is a unique time but a 24/7 demand on your time in lots of ways. How has your organization responded since the pandemic started in earnest?
A lot of this is about finding precedent in unprecedented times. That’s our job as a community convener in a central organization. We have been at this for a long time. We’ve been through a lot of crises. No crisis is the same, but what you attempt to do in these moments of uncertainty is the certainty you find is finding that precedent from before. We don’t understand pandemic and what the net effect may be economically. We do understand 2008. I worked through 2008. I saw the downturn. I saw what happened there. We can take a little bit from there. We understand natural disaster. We understand upheaval and the challenge of that. I worked through Hurricane Sandy in New York.
Some of the same people that worked with me in New York were the team that worked through 9/11 there. We often say at the New York Federation, which is our largest that I came from before this, we were able to be effective on 9/11 because we were there on 9/10. It was the idea that we were there the day before working tirelessly to prepare for uncertainty. When a disaster of proportionality that we had never experienced happened, we were more prepared than most to start to address the needs within our community. We ended up forming one of the key backbones of the social service response to 9/11. It was a success for the Federation.
You mentioned the Federation plays that role of community convener. How has that changed in the pandemic and when people aren’t able to come together and gather as a community? How has that affected your day-to-day work? What are you doing differently as the CEO?
A lot of Zooms and web-based communication. We use some Zoom and Microsoft meeting. Convening hasn’t changed. How we’re convening has changed. The need to convene has been more important now than ever before. The only way that we’re able to effectively lead community or guide community through these times of uncertainty is through an exercise of listening. That’s either convening and listening to our 28 agencies under our umbrella, our overseas partners that are also dealing with this. This is a global pandemic. The thing that’s been unique is everybody is going through the same thing. When we look at how it is that we raised money for recovery and for a crisis, we went to the person who chaired the campaign the last time we had a major emergency raise within the community.
That was connected to something that was happening in Israel. It was about the second Lebanon war and our partnership region is smack dab on the border of Lebanon. The rockets were coming in from Hezbollah and we raised a lot of money in this community for that, but we were fine here. That has changed fundamentally because everybody is going through this. I’m getting calls for assistance from our partnership region in Israel, our partners in far East Russia, which we’ve been working with. It is across the pond in the other direction, and our agencies here. We’re trying to figure out how we can convene and listen to all of these different groups to understand what the need is. We try to get some concrete idea of what the need is, which I was talking to somebody from one of our Jewish day schools.
The reality is we don’t know exactly what the need is, but things have changed. We are doing it more web-based. I’m blown away by the flexibility and adaptability of our community, especially our seniors within our community, to move to different platforms. We’ve helped some of that along by providing equipment and training. We’ve done well in getting people. More people are participating in synagogue now than they probably were before. A lot of our synagogues are saying that this is the best they’ve ever had with people participation. People are jumping on the Zoom and listening to the Rabbi speak.
[bctt tweet=”An organization is only as strong as the cooperation.” username=””]
That sense of needing to connect with others is driving a lot of our behavior, whether in faith communities or outside. That desire to be connected to other people as part of the larger community is an essential part of being human. Having that taken away to some degree has changed people’s willingness to go to synagogue or people’s need to be involved in a lot of things. Was there a moment for you when you realize this was going to be different? As the pandemic started to happen, you heard the news coming from China, what was happening in Europe where you thought, “This is going to be real. This is going to change things for us.”
When we started seeing it start to sweep across, I remember distinctly standing in my kitchen talking to my wife who is the Director of Operations for a Jewish family service. I don’t want it to come off wrong, but the only way I can describe it truthfully, it felt like sitting on the bench in the locker room before a big game. I started to feel that it was going to be game on. It was time to get focused. It was time to understand what needed to be done. We had been there before. I’d seen Sandy roll in. I can tell you stories about the things that we’ve seen and things that we’ve done. Your mind starts to shift a little bit. You start to say, “Let’s start thinking this through. What are our biggest weak points right now? Where do we think we’re going to get hit first? How are we going to start to respond to it?” As somebody who spends their life driven to be in service of others, you start to feel a little bit of twinge of excitement. It’s time to go to work. It’s time to help people.
You’re helping people every day but now, you’re going to be tested to your limits. I was leg-shaking, ready to go, ready to get out there. We saw it start to creep over. I’ll tell people very honestly, I was bearish around shutdown. I was nervous about how it was going to affect the most vulnerable people. We were right for everything that we did. We got to that place and we were ahead of the curve on shutting down. The first thing I started to think about as a community member and a community leader is, how are we going to protect our most vulnerable? What’s the net effect on those people, our seniors, our people who are recidivous in their food needs, who are suffering from mental health issues? The people who are in unstable situations, how are we going to be able to get them through this? What are we prepared to do? That was the thing that we started to think through. We started to scenario plan that through. Our family services and our social service frontline never closed. We were straight through on this. I feel good about that.
In that analogy of being in the locker room before the big game, you’re not just the star player. You’re the coach as the CEO of the organization. How did you pull together your team to get their mindset in the place where they wanted, where you needed it to be in order to execute on your mission?
In some ways, we’re lucky in the Jewish community. I have a crisis team that’s been on for security needs for antisemitism and discrimination, which have bubbled up. We’ve dealt with a lot of instability within that space. My crisis team is on all the time. We have WhatsApp group. We activate the crisis team when things happen like the attack on the synagogue and Halle, Germany. We had to deal with that here in the reverberating effects. Poway, Tree of Life, all of these things that have happened, we’ve worked through a crisis team. This was not revolutionary. This was more evolutionary. We enlarged the crisis team to bring in key players that are not usually around the table. We enlarged the communication loop. We started a string of communication. The first and best thing that you can do in situations like this is you’ve got to get everybody in the loop.
You’ve got to get everybody talking to each other in one communication stream, so that we don’t run into the problem that one person over here is doing one thing, another person over there is doing another thing. We have to start getting together and start moving in unison. We started convening key agency sector groups to understand what we think the net effect would be. We looked at also the effect of the idea that many of the dinners would be canceled. Spring is dinner season here in Vancouver. This is what I tried to explain to people. It’s not a nice night out. This is critical fundraising for organizations that are doing important work that is white. We met with that group early and that informed us. Within six days of closure, we had infused $500,000 out into the community to stabilize.
We did that immediately. My credit goes to our executive committee that formed up very quickly to move aggressively. The other thing that I did moving into this is I happened to be part of a group of CEOs or heads of communities of like size on both sides of the border. We communicate a lot. Murmurings already started on that group about what we’re going to do. There’s a little bit of chatter about this that seems to be coming our direction. Let’s try to figure it out. I was able to learn. We ended up being aggressive on the stabilization money because Colorado got out in front of us a day earlier than us in putting that money out in the field. I said, “You’re right, we’ve got to release.” We released cash into the community quickly to stabilize.
The Federation as you mentioned is the umbrella for 27 social service organizations. You’re getting all of those pieces moving at the same time. When I would imagine it in a regular course, the pieces don’t move at the same pace across 27 different organizations. In a crisis like this, you need to know what to expect from each part of the machine, each part of the Federation. How were you able to keep that communication tight enough to enable that necessary coordination?
It’s very hard. You think about it this way. It’s not just that we have 27, 28 agencies under our umbrella. We have 27, 28 boards. That’s the greatest challenge. Many of these organizations that we are ultimately responsible for helping through this have boards of their own. They have personalities around those tables that feel a certain way from people who are reacting to this as it was unfolding in different ways. Trying to control the pace of shutdown, to try to get unilateral shutdown was a big coup on our part. Most of our agencies shut down together. The community shut down together and very few led out. It wasn’t like, “This one did it and this one did it.” We’re talking about within a 48-hour period, everything got shut down. That was not by accident. That was because we worked with these agencies and with some of their key leadership to impress upon them the need for us to have a unified front on this. They agreed. We are only as strong as the cooperation, the care, and the love that we received from all of our partners out in the field. They’re the real heroes. They’re out there fighting on the front lines every single day.
You sound like the coach of the team with that last answer. It sounds like your team is doing well in the game so far. You mentioned that one of the special parts about the work that you do is realizing that uniqueness of community. I’m curious if there have been any unanticipated challenges that are unique to the Jewish community that this pandemic has brought to the forefront?
[bctt tweet=”What we are going through right now, we are going through together.” username=””]
In most cases, the Jewish community is used to having unique circumstances. When you’re a community that often sits on top of unenviable lists like hate crimes and things like that, you get used to the idea that you’re unique. One of the refreshing things about what happened here is that we’re going through this like everybody else. How we’re reacting might be slightly different. Our ability to react to might be slightly different. It’s important to understand that many of our agencies are serving Jews and non-Jews alike. One of the greatest stories that come out at the beginning of this crisis is as a community, we were doing probably about 400 meals every two weeks. We’re serving about 400 people every two weeks. During this crisis and this new reality, we’re serving about 1,500 people per week and some of those people aren’t Jewish.
One of the great stories that came out is one of the operation centers that are working through Richmond that an amazing Rabbi is doing. He’s bringing kosher food to Muslim families because kosher is halal and are similar to each other. They’re willing to eat kosher and so he didn’t even stop for a second. He didn’t say, “This is only for Jewish people.” He took his kosher meal that he made, he brought it to them and he’s feeding them. That’s something that I’m seeing that’s so inspiring. The recognition around is that what we are going through right now, we are going through together. We are hyper-focused on anti-racism during this time. The call that I had before this show that ran long was talking about work that we need to be doing around anti-racism. Our friends within the Chinese community, our people who are minorities, who are distinguishable by the color of their skin and the challenges that they’re having. We’ve had a renewed emphasis on trying to not allow this moment to give seed ground to the extremists out there who feel that it’s okay to use moments of pandemic to spread hate amongst our communities. We are dealing with that in an acute way.
It’s, “When it rains, it pours” situation. It underlines the importance of vigilance.
Times of instability in any sense often are fertile ground for racism and xenophobia. We saw it at the beginnings of the Holocaust in Germany in the ‘30s. We see it in a lot of places where either economic instability or other instabilities have given the opportunity for behavior that I don’t think we would accept as the behavior that we would like to see here in this province, seeing that emerge. That’s why it’s important. The lieutenant governor has done a good job calling it out. We’re continuing to call it out. We need to do more, but that’s been something that’s very much been on our mind.
It’s unfortunate that that’s necessary. It’s good that you’re there to do that work. I want to pivot in our conversation and talk more about the charitable sector in general. You had an op-ed at The Globe and Mail, which you co-wrote with your colleagues from Toronto and Montreal calling for the federal government to step forward in supporting the charitable sector. We’ve seen the federal government take some steps in that way. What was the response to that op-ed and what led you to getting that message out early on in the pandemic?
I have to credit our government relations crew at the Center For Israel and Jewish Affairs. They have been advising us, me and some of the leaders on what needs to be done. There was a recognition early on that for many of our agencies that are serving the most vulnerable to not just survive, but to thrive within this environment. There needed to be a significant government support. In moments like this, you want to make sure that you’re raising your voice early and often when it comes to government. We work with government a lot. We are well aware of the challenges of the governmental sector. One of those challenges is a firehouse. There’s so much happening in Ottawa. There’s so much happening in Victoria or even municipally here at the City Hall in Vancouver or any of the surrounding communities in British Columbia. You have to be vocal to make sure that if what you need is important, it’s getting to the top of the pile.
The op-ed came out after we had a conversation with Minister Hussen, where we did bring up some of these things along with our partners in Imagine Canada, the United Way, some of the other big conglomerates that are representing multiple charities out there, and some of the foundations across Canada. This was a way of reinforcing that. We don’t shy away from this stuff and we feel a sense of responsibility for the sector as a whole. When we saw an opening to put our voice into it, we represent a multi-hundred million-dollar philanthropic organizational structure here in Canada, a billion-dollar structure continentally. We felt it was important for people to hear from us. We want to do our part to bring this to the forefront that the charitable sector like any other sector in an economy is absolutely critical. One of the responses to that op-ed and others was the $300 million fund that was set up by the government and put through Red Cross Foundations and the United Way sector to get it out to some of the agencies out there that are working on the front lines.
In terms of the sector, we’re preparing to shift or starting to shift from response to recovery. As leader of a significant organization and plugged in to what’s happening across the country, what do you see is the biggest concern for the sector as we try to turn that switch and move from our immediate response to recovery and whatever the new normal looks like?
There are 2 or 3 things that I’m thinking about right now vis-a-vis the sector. One is resource generation. Are we doing enough to encourage people to be charitable in this moment of uncertainty? Are we educating them enough? Is there enough collective narrative that we’re putting out in the field for people to be responsive to the idea that in times of great uncertainty, there are also times of immense need and there are also times when you can have an incredible impact on people’s lives. If you’re able to help, we need you to help more now than ever before. Not just help a little bit and go back home. We need you to leave it all out on the field for us to be able to make it through that. Resource generation and how government and the collective sector can be working together to get the word out about the need to give is important to me.
The second thing that I’ve thought about around the sector vis-a-vis this pandemic is the reality that many of our smaller agencies and organizations are under tremendous stress. Some of them may not make it through this. The real question at the end of the day, and this is something that my friend, Michael McKnight at the United Way here in Vancouver, and I was talking about. He brought up an excellent point. We have to ensure that the places that were being covered by organizations and the needs are responded to. We don’t exactly know what the landscape is going to look like, but we have to have a commitment to the fact that these distinct needs will be cared for by whomever is out there and strongest to care for those. In these times of uncertainty, instead of focusing on that one individual organization or this little one or that one over there or this one over there or are we going to save this, are we going to save that? The conversation we need to be having are, what are the core needs that we are facing as a society that the charitable sector can be effective in addressing? How do we address those in the most efficient and effective way?
That’s something that I’m very much thinking about. The last thing that I’m thinking about is how is it that we can use this moment of recovery to ensure that the charitable sector receives the same attention and the same position as any other sector of society. That we have an opportunity through recovery to be at the table with our friends in the corporate sector who have been so generous to us, with our friends in the government sector who have also been incredible partners and also generous. We can come to the table as an equal partner in recovery. It’s not just as people or organizations or a sector that addresses needs that are not addressed by anybody else, but also as an employment sector. We are employing a lot of people within the charitable sector. We want to make sure that many of those people continue to be able to do the important work that’s going to make our society better coming out of pandemic than even it was going into.
[bctt tweet=”Times of instability, in any sort of sense, often are fertile ground for racism and xenophobia.” username=””]
From the conversations that we get to have here at the Discovery Group, Mike has been on the show as well talking about the dynamic. It’s interesting to me to see within the social profit sector, it’s the leaders of the social service organizations that are the loudest, the most coherent voices for the role of the sector going forward. It’s been impressive to see that in good times or in normal times. It can be difficult for the social service organizations to have that voice and to have that platform. The pandemic has given that platform. It’s inspiring to see how leaders like you and Mike and many others have stepped up to use that platform to call for change and investment where it’s needed. As we come to the end of our conversation, my last question for all the leaders that we get to talk to through this time is, what have you been doing to look after yourself? You’re a servant leader. You’re reaching out. You’re on the phone. You’re making calls at night. What are you doing for yourself? You’ve got a young family at home. How was that going?
That’s probably the hardest part of the job, caring for yourself. Most people get into this work because they put others ahead of themselves. The hard part is creating that care structure for yourself. One of the things that we talked about at the beginning of this pandemic as a staff, as a senior management here with some of our agencies is, how are we caring for our staff from a psychological standpoint? Some of the things that I’ve been doing is every evening without fail after I put my kids to bed, I walk around my neighborhood. I put my earbuds in. I call the community members. I check in on people. I listen to music. I walk for about an hour up the hill and to Queen Elizabeth Park down. These are the moments when I have sometimes the most fruitful conversations with community members, with friends and check in with family. This is my time to do the things that I need to do.
The other thing is tapping into different things like some books. It’s good that you’re doing this show. I recommend this for CEOs and for wannabe CEOs, build a network and always want to reach out to people that check it. Every week, I spend probably 20%, 25% of my time talking to other leaders in the field. I’m checking in with them and understanding where they’re at. How are you handling this? One of the questions that I often ask is, “What are you reading right now? What’s keeping you grounded?” I believe that the only way we get through things like this and thrive through moment like this is when we do it collectively. I’m on the phone. I’m on a video conference with the head of the LA Jewish Federation. He’s got four times the number of agencies that I have. I asked him, “How are you doing it? How are you feeling? How are you caring for your family? What are you reading? What are you thinking about? Have you moved this over there? How are your staff doing? How are you dealing with those kinds of things?” I do that all the time. Everything from spiritual leaders to heads of movements, to heads of BC Business Coalition, the United Way, and my friends at the Vancouver Foundation Family Services.
I’m talking to these people all the time because I want to make sure that we are in sync with what it is that we’re doing. Also, it’s a self-care for me. I need to check with my colleagues and with my peers. I need to say, “Am I missing something here? Are you thinking about something that I’m not thinking about?” I’ll recommend a book that I’m starting that somebody else recommended for me. It’s by a writer named Jonathan Sacks. It’s called The Dignity Of Difference. It’s how to avoid the clash of civilizations. It’s about how we live together in society. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in the Commonwealth. He is an amazing writer. He’s done a wonderful job with this book. Somebody recommended it to me because we were talking about what it is to be in an unstable time. This is a book I would recommend people tapping into during these uncertain times.
I will definitely pick that up and read it. Ezra, thank you so much. That’s great advice to leaders and people who want to be in these senior leadership positions, building a network, staying connected, and staying grounded in the work that you’re doing. I appreciate the perspective and the lessons that you shared. Thank you for being on the show.
It’s my pleasure.
About Ezra Shanken
Ezra S. Shanken is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, where he has had the privilege of leading the third largest Jewish community in Canada since the spring of 2014. During his time in Vancouver, Ezra has tackled issues ranging from a massive community affordability crisis to planning for a doubling of Vancouver’s Jewish senior population by 2030, all while creating strong relationships with donors, agencies, and public officials through the infectious love he brings to the work. Ezra is proud to have launched a community-wide strategic plan for 2020 and to have successfully increased the annual campaign by $1 million over four years, with four record-setting annual campaigns in a row. Ezra is the former Director of Emerging Leaders and Philanthropists (ELP) at UJA Federation of New York. ELP is the Federation system’s largest next generation engagement program, reaching nearly 10,000 young lives annually. Prior to ELP, Ezra spent more than six years with JEWISH Colorado (the Jewish Federation) in multiple roles, including Senior Manager of the Young Adult Department. Ezra is a Co-Founder of E-3 Events, a Denver-based community organization committed to bridging the gap between popular culture and traditional Jewish values, while providing connections and exploring Jewish identity.