Ilana Abrams

My Story...

I was born in the small city of Zanesville, Ohio, in 1976 where there wasn't much of a Jewish community. Today, my heart and soul feel deeply rooted in Winnipeg and in my Jewish life here.

I am the youngest child of Mike and Reeva Abrams (née Shell). We lived in Zanesville while my Dad worked as a psychology professor at Ohio University. I have some vague memories of our life in Zanesville — a big backyard, a long driveway, a great screened porch, and sharing a bedroom with my sister Allyson. (On a recent visit to our old house, my brother Aaron said the driveway wasn't quite as long as any of us remembered.)

My Dad passed away in 2013. He was the son of Irving and Sylvia (née Shidlowsky). My Zaida Irving was born in western Russia; my Baba Sylvia was born in eastern Poland. Irving arrived in Philadelphia in 1904 and Sylvia put down roots in Toronto some time after World War I. My grandparents met in Toronto and later settled in Detroit and then Chicago, where my Dad was raised. I never knew my Zaida Irving and am proud to be named for him. My Baba Sylvia died when I was 12 after several years of illness.

My Mom was born and raised in Winnipeg. Her parents were Hy and Kay Shell (née Doner). My Zaida Hy came from Russia in the mid-1920s after a harrowing escape. His family hid in the woods for two weeks before ultimately reaching Romania where they boarded a cattle boat. On the way to Halifax, they switched ships mid-ocean three times by walking across planks. My Baba's early years were far less harrowing as she was born in Winnipeg where she and Hy spent their married life.

When I was five, My Dad's work took the family from Zanesville to nearby Dayton. I enjoyed my visits to Beth Abraham synagogue (where I always got a chocolate bar), going to programs at the Jewish Community Centre, and even night school where I learned my Judaics. We travelled together to Toronto and Gimli in the summers to visit my beloved Baba and Zaida, as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins. Life in Dayton started beautifully, but it was in Dayton where my parents' marriage ended.

Suddenly, my Mom was a single mom. While I started grade one, she went back to university and earned a degree in computer science. After she graduated in 1988, we moved to Winnipeg, living first on Mathias St. and then on Yale Ave. My Dad stayed in the States and remarried June McCullough.

I started attending Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate when we arrived, and had my Bat Mitzvah at the Rosh Pina the following year. I fondly remember when my sweet Auntie Carole (z'l) told me after my Bat Mitzvah that I should be a cantor. I was active for a while in BBYO, and spent my summers with family in Gimli and working at Winnipeg Beach Day Camp.

After graduating from JWC, I went to the University of Manitoba and earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree. A short time later, I started volunteering in Gray Academy's Junior Kindergarten, and decided to get my Bachelor of Education degree. I worked as a substitute teacher and then decided to accept a one-year term position in programming at Congregation Shaarey Zedek followed by another term, also in programming, at the Rady JCC. I did not deliberately choose Jewish communal work for my career, but I have fallen in love with it. Since 2010, I have served as the General Manager of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

Throughout the years, I have been touched by Jewish music, too, and I have sung in the Rosh Pina and Shaarey Zedek choirs. I have also taught Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons to kids in the community. Music is an interest shared by many in my family and I became quite comfortable with the violin, piano, and clarinet. Today, though, I have traded in my musical instruments for a pair of sneakers as running has become my favourite pastime.

While in university, I started dating Steven Hyman. He went to my shul, rode the same bus as me to U of M, and finally, with the urging of a friend, I called him to go out. (He didn't call me back, so I had to try again. He claims that he never got the first message.) On our first date we talked about weddings and children. Granted, it was other people's weddings and other people's children we were talking about, but it was clear that we shared similar values. We were married three years later in 2003. Our children, Adam and Danielle, were born in 2008 and 2011 respectively.

Steven and I are happy and proud to have Judaism as an anchor in our lives. We attend services at Congregation Etz Chayim regularly, Adam goes to BB Camp, I still volunteer at Gray Academy, Steven's Jewish community service resume is a mile long, and both kids are students at Gray Academy. It is joyful for me to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays with Steven, our kids, and our extended families. My mother encouraged us, showed us, and gave us opportunities to be Jewish and lead Jewish lives. I'm now carrying that on with my children. As a Mom, I care deeply about instilling Jewish values and demonstrating Jewish living through home rituals. I want Adam and Danielle to have a good basis of Jewish knowledge and practice from which they will choose their paths in life.

In our family, tzedaka and volunteerism are key demonstrations of Jewish living, and that is what is motivating our participation in the Endowment Book of Life. As a Jewish communal professional, I have a front row seat to the impact that the Jewish Foundation has. And as a parent, I value the investments the Foundation makes in the future of our community. The success of our community means the world to me.