He definitely gets around a lot.
You can find investor/entrepreneur Marc Belzberg, in his large kippah and sandy-colored beard, hosting 300 people at a Haifa hotel. They are all men, women and children whose families have been struck by terror, and Belzberg and his Belgian-born wife, Chantal, are there as the founders of the OneFamily Fund, a fund that provides help to these suffering families.
On another day you’ll find him working behind the scenes with major Israeli politicians or with the movers and shakers behind them. Or you’ll find him with a couple of brilliant young post-army guys, as he advises an Israeli start-up.
None of this has caused Belzberg to forget his family priorities. This interview was squeezed in between eating Friday morning breakfast with his wife and picking up one of his six kids from a Jerusalem pre-school. Could any of this have been predicted by those who tried to tame a wild Canadian teenager thirty years ago?
Born in 1954 in Edmonton, Alberta, home at that time to a Jewish community of only 5,000, Belzberg was one of four children whose strongly Zionist, well-to-do parents belonged to the Conservative and Orthodox synagogues. They actually attended synagogue only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but, he says, “They worked on behalf of the UJA, the Federation and Israel. My grandparents came over from Poland in the early 1900s. My grandmother kept kosher but my grandfather went to work on Shabbat. My parents were raised with very little Jewish education.”
Belzberg attended a secular Jewish day school—“very Israeli and non-religious” —through the sixth grade and then moved to another non-Orthodox afternoon school for two evenings a week “until I got kicked out for fooling around,” he says. “I even got the strap a couple of times.”
His first move into Jewish “activism”—in a manner of speaking—came when the Belzbergs moved to Vancouver as Marc was about to enter high school. He spent grade nine as the social director of USY, organizing parties. For grade ten, he says, “My parents decided to send me to Rocky Mountain Boarding School, a rough and tough school for boys in Alberta,” thinking perhaps that would straighten him out. But he had other plans.
Belzberg had heard about a youth village in Israel called Hadassim. It was far away from the scrutiny of his parents or Survivor-mentality educators. Together with some friends from Edmonton and Calgary, he joined a group of twenty-five kids across Canada who were going there for their sophomore year.
The other students in Hadassim were a far cry from the Canadian bunch. “They were mostly Russians or kids from broken homes,” he recalls. “That was a crazy year. The principal was an older man, German and not religious. They taught us nothing about Shabbat. We used to hitchhike to the beach in Netanya on Shabbat. We were a wild bunch. One girl got pregnant. One guy tried to commit suicide. The principal sent all of us to group therapy once a week.
“By the end of the year they were happy to see us go home. They thought we [the Canadians] were ruining the Israelis.” On Christmas Eve in Hadassim, the Canadian teenagers got homesick. “There were no songs, no snow, no Macy’s windows. So we put a Christmas tree in my room and we went out on the lawn and sang Christmas carols.”
While Belzberg and his friends were wreaking havoc in Hadassim, a young rabbi had come to Vancouver. Rabbi Marvin Hier had brought Baltimore-born Rabbi Pinchas (“Pinky”) Bak out west to be the principal of the day school after the non-Jewish principal left. He succeeded in changing the nature of the school and its curricula; perhaps even more important, he started a local NCSY chapter.
While Belzberg’s friends went straight home after their year in Israel, he spent a month in Europe with his parents. “I came back to Vancouver in August. On Saturday, I called my old friends who had led a crazy life with me in Israel that year but their mothers—one after the other—answered the phone and said my friends wouldn’t talk on the phone on ‘Shabbat.’ I didn’t know what was happening. I had never even heard of such a thing!
“Then they told me about Pinky Bak. I resisted for a couple of weeks. They said he was running a minyan every morning for high school kids. Finally I decided to go along. One of my friends had to come over the night before to teach me how to put on the tefillin I had received for my bar mitzvah, but had never worn.
“The minyan was fantastic. It was lively, there was singing . . . . I went back on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and on Shabbat told my mother that I wanted to go to the Orthodox shul. She drove me there. When the services were over and I was about to leave, one of my friends came to get me and said, ‘Come to Pinky Bak’s house for Shabbat lunch.’ But I wasn’t ready for that yet and started home.
“I was two long blocks away already when Pinky came running up to me, panting. ‘Come for lunch,’ he said, and he was a guy you couldn’t say ‘No’ to. I ended up staying there the whole day—lunch, back to shul for Minchah, back to his place for seudah shlishit, back to shul for Ma’ariv, back to Pinky’s for Havdalah.
“I came home that night and announced to my parents, ‘I’m becoming religious.’”
Belzberg became active in NCSY. “I became the ‘social director’ again, but unlike USY, this time it meant social action, and the parties we planned looked different than they did before.” He eventually became chapter president and social action director of the entire region. At the end of the twelfth grade he was named NCSY “Kid of the Year”; under his term as president their chapter was “Chapter of the Year.”
More and more teens in Vancouver were becoming religious. Belzberg relates, “Previously, the only religious guy had been the son of the chazzan of the Conservative synagogue. He kept kosher and he was chapter president of USY. Once we got into religion, however, he became the class ‘goy.’ Today he is my attorney and lives in Israel.”
How did Belzberg’s parents react to his becoming religious? “They went nuts. They said, ‘It’s a phase. It will pass.’
“The first thing my father said was, ‘Okay, then you can give me the keys to the car. You won’t need it. People back in those days only used camels.’ They also said no to the idea of my keeping kosher, insisting, ‘When in our house, you’ll do as we do.’”
So he found himself, in a bizarre reversal of the norm, eating kosher outside and treif at home.
At the end of eleventh grade he went to Israel with fifty other Vancouver kids on a Yeshiva University-organized trip with Rabbi Hier. “On my last day in Israel, I bought one milchig bowl, one fleishig bowl, and a fork for each, and came home with the intention of really keeping kosher.” He got through twelfth grade on cereal.
Then two of his sisters became religious. It was now three kids against the two parents, and the parents finally capitulated. “We had our own food at the table and our dishes in a section of the kitchen.”
Belzberg recalls one of his fondest memories of NCSY. “We heard that the Russian Premier Kosygin was coming to town. One of the kids who worked in a car wash borrowed 100 chains and gave them out to us. We wore them like belts and went down to the beautiful hotel in Vancouver where a state dinner was being held for Kosygin on a Saturday night. We dispersed ourselves throughout the lobby and by the storefronts and nobody noticed anything unusual.
“A few of us passed out menus to the dinner guests, itemizing the dinner of a Russian Jewish prisoner. All the ‘tuxes’ who were walking back and forth saw it and you can imagine it was quite different than the eight-course meal they were being served. Then, at exactly nine pm, one kid blew a shofar and we all formed a large circle in the middle of the lobby and raised the chains above our heads. Pinky made Havdalah and we sang Am Yisrael Chai and chanted, ‘Let my people go!’ It was great!”
Rabbi Hier and the mothers of the newly religious teenagers were interviewed on a radio show about the turn to religion. But there were still problems in town. By the time Belzberg reached twelfth grade, lots of teens—including religious teens—were into drugs. Belzberg describes the battle plan that had been cooked up by Rabbis Bak and Hier.
“They called an emergency meeting of all the kids in shul and once everyone was there they played a taped phone call from Rabbi Jakobovits, the chief rabbi of England, and they read anti-drug responsa written by Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik. Then they asked all the kids to sign a document stating that they would stop taking drugs. The document was to be publicized as a full-page ad in the local Jewish paper.”
Belzberg and seven of his friends were accepted to YU, their school of choice, under Rabbi Bak’s influence. Belzberg began to serve as an NCSY advisor, speaking before groups and spending almost every Shabbat in a different city during his years in college. Later, when Belzberg went into business, he became the lay president of NCSY.
During Belzberg’s second year in YU, there were seven Vancouver boys learning in Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s James Striar School of Jewish Studies class, which was geared for promising students with a minimal Torah background. Rabbi Riskin asked how there happened to be so many students from Vancouver. They told him about Rabbi Bak. “Rabbi Riskin flew out to Vancouver and convinced Pinky to come back to be the principal of the first Ohr Torah high school in New York. I worked as a dorm counselor in the same school.”
The next part of his story doesn’t end happily. “Pinky took the twelfth grade students to Israel. He had each of them placed at an appropriate school and went to visit each one of them. On his return home, he told me how he had looked out over Jerusalem from his room in the Plaza Hotel. ‘I’ve fallen in love with Israel all over again,’ he said. ‘I’ve worked in chinuch all my life. Now I want to return to live in Israel.’
“He came home the day before Purim. We planned on taking the high school kids to dance and sing in the neighborhood. Pinky wanted to visit his parents the very day he returned and asked me to drive him to the train station. He came back the next day and joined us all at Lincoln Square Synagogue for the Megillah reading and Purim seudah.
“I was standing next to him when, in the middle of the festivities, he suffered a brain aneurysm.”
Hundreds of loving students and former NCSY kids turned up for the funeral. At the time, Rabbi Bak’s wife was pregnant with twins.
Years later, Belzberg’s parents have a different take on their son’s turn to Orthodoxy. “Today they’re thrilled. They see the lives my sisters and I lead as a result, especially in the Jewish community. They also see friends we had while growing up who today lead different kinds of lives and they see there is no comparison.
“Had I not discovered NCSY and Pinky Bak, I might be dead—from OD-ing, drunk driving, AIDS, who knows? Instead, my life has meaning. Every day is significant; being Jewish is significant. I wake up in the morning and ask, ‘What do the Jewish people need? What should I do for the Jewish people today?’
“Among the major moments in my life were my involvement with social action and kiruv. I worked for Soviet Jewry and was active in demonstrating and teaching Judaism.
“We should constantly be asking ourselves, ‘What can I contribute to this world that I am passing through?’”
Belzberg, who lives in Jerusalem, invests in Israel’s meteoric high-tech companies. As the founding chairman of Israel’ s MiBereshit organization, he provides educational material to more than 10,000 elementary public school kids in Israel and to IDF commanders, helping them explore their Jewish identities.*
Upon reaching Bat Mitzvah age, the Belzbergs’ daughter, Michal, agreed with her parents that instead of a large party, the money should be used to found a fund that would help families who had been struck by terror. The Belzbergs added to that amount and gave $100,000 to begin the project. That is how the OneFamily Fund was born. Since its inception, OneFamily Fund has helped more than 10,000 victims of terror.
The NCSY boy from Vancouver has, indeed, passed on his sense of tzedakah and involvement in Israel and Am Yisrael to the next generation of Jewish teen activists, both within his family and beyond it.
And these kids aren’t singing Christmas carols.
*Information has been updated since the article first appeared.
Toby Klein Greenwald, a regular contributor to Jewish Action, is a journalist, playwright, poet and teacher. She is the artistic director of Raise Your Spirits Theatre. This article is part of a cover story Jewish Action ran in spring 2002 entitled “NCSY: Leaders Then and Now,” which profiled a number of NCSY leaders who went on to serve as leaders in the broader Jewish community.