Air Transat brings the Israel experience a lot closer

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Celebrating Air Transat service to Tel Aviv with Robert Presser, Glenn J. Nashen and Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman

A whole lot of Quebecers are about to get an incredible experience travelling directly to Israel aboard Air Transat. The Montreal-based airline kicked off its Trudeau to Ben Gurion non-stop service as a sort of birthday bash, marking its 30 years in business and highlighting Montreal’s 375th anniversary. 150 years of Canadian federation, as well as 100 years of Federation CJA.

The event took place in the ultra-modern Montreal Science Centre at the Old Port. There was an interesting mix of politicos, business leaders, young entrepreneurs and community who’s who. English, French and Hebrew-speaking, Kosher or not, young and less young, the audience reflected the multicultural, hip crowd of would-be travelers that Air Transat is targeting.

Airline prez Jean-Marc Eustache, lead off the formalities by saying that they weren’t looking to become mere transporters. The airline’s strategy is to build travel experiences with local partners in Israel to offer excursions, lodging and tours to meet the needs of Quebec couples, families and singles alike. And, publicity will soon begin to promote Montreal and Quebec as a hot tourist destination for Israelis.

Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman was beaming with excitement at the prospect of tens of thousands of Quebecers seeking a taste of Israel. Whether it’s for the food, the wine or the music, for exploring or for religious travel, Israel has it all, said the coolest diplomat Israel has sent to Montreal in modern times. The Israeli Consul for Tourism, Uri Steinberg, said that the relationship between Israel and Air Transat would flourish, like a romance, as they become closer and closer, falling in love with one another. Quebecers will love Israel, he said.

Glenn J. Nashen, Sandy Sparkman and Robert Presser at the Air Transat kickoff of bi-weekly direct service between Montreal to Tel Aviv

Montreal City Councillor and Executive Committee member Lionel Perez said that Montrealers will benefit from being five or six hours closer thanks to the direct flights and that Israelis will come in large numbers to enjoy Montreal’s flair, sites and culture. And we have great religious sites to share with them such as the St. Joseph’s Oratory, the Notre Dame Cathedral and eventually a downtown Expos stadium!

The Transat folks created a true Israeli atmosphere, raffling off two free flights for two to Israel, serving spicy, tasty hors d’ouevres and five kinds of humus provided by Alan Serour of Beso Catering. A 5-piece orchestra belted out Klezmer tunes and Israeli wine flowed freely.

Glenn J. Nashen and CSUQ President Henri Elbaz discussing their next trip to Israel aboard Air Transat

It was great to see my old JGH boss Henri Elbaz and his physician wife Dr. Sandy, CIJA chief Eta Yudin, Senator Marc Gold, Hamsptead Mayor Bill Steinberg and his wife Doris, Outremont City Councillor Mindy Pollak, Israel Day Rally impresario Amos Sochaczevski, Israeli commuter-in-chief Dado Ben Brit, community activists Sandy Sparkman and Robert Presser and former news anchor Pascale Dery. CSL Insurance and Travel Professional Ruth Cohen will be plugging Air Transat service from her Cavendish Mall headquarters,

Good luck to Air Transat in finally bringing back direct service to Ben Gurion airport after a decades long gap. Here’s to falling in love with Israel!

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Shalom Cuba: a smaller, thriving Jewish community

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When you think of Cuba you probably envision beautiful sandy beaches, royal palm trees, Latin rhythm and jazz, rum, cigars, Fidel, communism, old cars and so on. And you’d be right. But would you imagine a small, but thriving Jewish community that once numbered close to 20,000 members, five synagogues, Rabbis and kosher food flown in from Mexico or South America?
This is the short story of my family’s visit to Jewish Cuba a few weeks ago.
Many Jews arrived in Cuba with Christopher Columbus in 1492 and Jewish presence has remained there ever since.
In my post-university years, following Leadership Development training at the Canadian Jewish Congress, I was actively involved in heading up the local committee first for Jews in Arab Lands, and subsequently the Cuban Jewry Relief Committee. This latter group always left me with the desire to visit this intriguing, and somewhat mysterious, community. So my trip to Cuba was essentially a decades long mission on my bucket list sandwiched in between six days at a lovely resort.
As happenstance would have it, while walking through Old Havana, we passed by the old Orthodox Shul. Squished between nondescript, run down buildings, gated and locked, one could easily pass right by, none the smarter. But being the curious types we wanted to know as much as possible about anything and everything that had a hint of Jewishness. We had questions and and we wanted answers.
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Inscription adorning the Sinagoga Ortodoxa Adath Israel in Old Havana (Feb. 2017)

Although the Synagoga Ortodoxa Adath Israel was locked up, an old man wearing a very noticeable Magen David (Star of David) stood outside, answering questions for any curious tourists passing by. For Montrealers, it was like standing in front of Zaida’s or even great-grandfather’s shul on the Main, St. Lawrence Boulevard.
There we met two Jewish Cuban expats, who introduced themselves as ‘Jewbans’. Visiting from Orlando, Florida, on a Family Reunification visa, they were most excited to visit the synagogues of their grandparents and their grave sites in the Jewish cemetery. Their Cuban Jewish patriarchs went back seven generations.
The ‘Jewbans’ told us that their uncle and father had been Bar Mitzvahed in the synagogue we stood in front of, and the one we were about to visit.
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The Nashen Family visiting Temple Beth Shalom, the Grand Synagogue of Cuba (Feb. 2017)

Temple Beth Shalom is also known as the Gran Sinagoga de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, located in the posh neighbourhood of Vedado. Beth Shalom Synagogue, known by Jewish Cubans as the ‘Patronato‘, is Cuba’s major Jewish community centre.
Designed by famed architect Aquiles Capablanca and founded in 1953, the Gran Sinagoga maintains its striking facade with the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel and a modernist arch rising to the heavens. In recent years, the Patronato has become a crossroads for Jews from all over the world.
In the absence of any antisemitism in Cuba, the doors were wide open and we walked in freely without any questions by anyone. What a great feeling.
Workers were busy renovating the bima (the podium from which the Torah is read) and other areas of the sanctuary. The Shul used to be Orthodox but in recent years became Conservative.
Ernesto Hernandez Miyares approached us and offered to show us a round and answer any questions. Ernesto is the hi-tech expert and secretary of the Shul and didn’t hesitate to proudly show off his unique and lively centre.
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Nearby the Orthodox Synagogue in Old Havana we stumbled upon this gated, closed parkette with a large, brass Menorah. There was no sign or description anywhere? Do you know the story behind this? If so, please leave a comment.

Ernesto is the son of Jewish emigres from Turkey. His wife comes from generations of Russian Jewish lineage. Their 18 year old son was to be making Aliyah in a matter of days. The couple hope to visit him on their first visit to Israel next year. Coincidentally, their son will go to Beer Sheva, Jewish Montreal’s twin city.
In 1959, there were more than 15,000 Jews in Cuba, Ernesto explained. Now, 800 remain in Havana alone, 1500 in all of Cuba.
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The Jewish Federation of Cuba

The Patronato houses the Jewish library, and regular festivals in their communal hall downstairs. Upstairs, they house a small pharmacy for community members and a room outfitted by ORT.  Shabbat services are held every week.
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Cuban Jewish Community President Adela Dworin with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following the funeral of Fidel Castro, Nov. 2016. This photo hangs in the Patronato in Havana. (Glenn J. Nashen, Feb. 2017)

Wonderful photos of celebration and VIP visits decorate a wall. There, one particular shot jumped out at me. It was a portrait of our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau alongside the Cuban Jewish community president, Adela Dworin.
Ernesto, and Vice-President David Prinstein recounted how Trudeau made a special visit to the Jewish community during last year’s visit for the funeral of Fidel Castro. I didn’t recall any publicity around such a meeting and took some pride in learning about this.
We thanked our hosts for this special visit and received a nice souvenir for my son, a bracelet displaying “Shalom Cuba”. How fitting.
We were invited to come back and visit again, Next time with Justin Trudeau.
Shalom from Cuba!

Which century is Cuba in?

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LOOKING FOR AN EXPERIENCE
I took my family on a vacation to Cuba two weeks ago. Looking for more than just the pool and beach I wanted the kids to have a higher level experience, something educational and memorable. Experiential. My solution?  A side trip to Havana.
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Classic 1950s American cars are everywhere in Cuba

Barely two hours from the paradise of Varadero, a trip to Havana is a trip back through time. Locked in the 20th century, the capital city of Cuba is a glimpse into the grandeur and opulence of its rich colonial past. The vibrancy of its heyday in the 1920s through the 1950s is everywhere, from the impressive architecture to the grand American classic automobiles. Latin rhythms waft from balconies and at touristy street corner bodegas. You can feel the wealth of culture and society of a bygone era.
Close your eyes and imagine the rich and famous strolling down the narrow streets during the Jazz Age , Ernest Hemingway at his favourite watering hole, the Bodeguita del Medio in the ’30s, Fidel Castro addressing his people in the ’50s, and Russian everywhere in the ’60s.
With the blink of an eye you switch back and forth between the centuries: 2017 Havana is a juxtaposition between dilapidated buildings and broken cobblestone roads mixed with charming cafes and floral displays on decorated balconies. The Old City is slowly being restored with private funding inching its way into the Communist economy and significant UNESCO investment in buildings rich in heritage and history.
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Streets in Old Havana are narrow with very few cars. Life flows out into the street with local smells and sounds – a photographer’s paradise, as it was for me.

WHERE ARE THE AMERICANS?
Tourists abound from Europe, South America, Russia and mostly Canada. Nary an American is to be found with the 55 year old US embargo still in place restricting US travel (save for those who qualify for a visa based upon family reunification, non-governmental work or religious travel).
Surprisingly, tourism is only the second largest source of revenue for the tiny island nation. The first industry is actually exportation of trained workers. Doctors, engineers and a host of professionals are permitted to leave for up to 8 years and to earn real world wages while sending back sizable amounts as tax to the government.
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Old Havana’s public spaces are wide open and generally car free. Many surrounding buildings offer impressive architectural facades, extraordinary balconies and beautiful colours.

Until recently doctors earned a paltry $30 per month, but with changes in the economic grip of Castro’s regime this amount has gone up tenfold now enabling the professionals to bring in an incredible $300 each month. Of course, those working abroad can earn many times more, and they do.
EQUAL AND RESPECTFUL
While 10% of Cubans are black, owing to the slave labour imported centuries earlier from Africa, 65% are white descendants of Europeans who arrived with Christopher Columbus in 1492. What’s more 1% are Chinese and the remaining 24% are mixed. Amazingly, there is no racial divide on the island. All Cubans are considered equal and respect one other. Perhaps this stems from the symbols emblematic in their flag, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, a civic philosophy borrowed from the French.
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I love to capture the expressions of the locals when I travel. Some will extend an arm and ask for a handout. Kids are inquisitive and engaging and generally will smile as did this beautiful little Havana resident.

TRYING TO GET AHEAD
Our guide Luis, 50 years old, was a teacher and voracious learner. While guiding several days each week in impeccable English and German, he supplements his earnings by privately teaching the English language to locals. He describes his fourth language, Italian, as a little rusty. Not being connected to the Internet his studying comes from books that he is able to come by locally. Luis has never driven a car and has no permit to do so, similar to most Cubans. Owning a car is cost prohibitive for most here.
Our guide Luis (right) and driver Julien (left) were outstanding. You can find them for your next side trip from Varadero to Havana at Cuban Trip Compass, the top rated tour company on TripAdvisor.

Our guide Luis (right) and driver Julien (left) were outstanding. You can find them for your next side trip from Varadero to Havana at Cuban Trip Compass, the top rated tour company on TripAdvisor.

The whole system works very slowly. No one goes hungry (anymore). Luis recounted how he and his wife would share a hard-boiled egg for lunch every day in the mid 90s when lengthy power outages were the norm. But, everyone has a home (even the homeless are housed in yesteryear’s mansions) and the government provides monthly rations of sugar, flour, soap, tooth paste, chicken and so on but North American standards are light years away despite its distance of barely 90 miles to the Florida keys.

LOOK AT THOSE CARS
Speaking of cars, the island is known worldwide for its pristine typical 1950s American classics. Anywhere you turn you’re guaranteed to see a brightly painted, shiny chrome vehicle with whitewall tires reminiscent of the Hollywood set of Happy Days. These beauties have been maintained for more than half a century and now sport modern horn sounds, LED lights and are used as taxis, rental cars or private vehicles.
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The yellow iconic Coco taxis, essentially motorbike with a rickshaw seat for two, are everywhere, however the US State department warns these are dangerous vehicles, prone to accident.
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Coco taxis are popular with the tourists but may not be as safe as you think

Smoking was everywhere! Yuck. There are no smoke-free zones. I thought we left these behind in the 20th century, but not in Cuba. There is smoking in restaurants, in stores, in the airport, in and around hotels. Everywhere. Between the cigarettes and famous Cuban cigars it’s no wonder that lung cancer is prevalent among Cubans.
LOOKING AHEAD
It was fascinating to learn how locals live and go about their lives through the eyes of Luis and his hopes and aspirations for his 19 year old  daughter now studying tourism at Matanzas University. He expressed concern about the work ethic of the next generation entering the labour market. He was hopeful that his daughter would have a better life and have more opportunity and experiences.  Seems like Cuban parents have very similar concerns to Canadian parents.
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Old Havana is a mix of bright colours of renovated buildings next to dilapidated ones. Amazingly this old cars has stood the test of time (and dodged a few falling bricks).

A SYSTEM WE’RE NOT USED TO
Everything, almost, is government-owned and controlled. While Luis carefully describes this setup as socialism rather than communism the omnipotence of the Castro regime is everywhere. And Soviet influences are fading very slowly, even 27 years after the fall of USSR.
Nonetheless, Luis is a very happy person and he describes Cubans, in general, as having a high degree of happiness. It would also seem that most Cubans have never left their country, internet is not widely available and news outlets and television programming are state controlled. Censorship is the norm.
Hotels chains are owned 51% by the government and the buildings will revert to full government ownership after a number of years. Hotel staff are employed by the state. It would seem that there is no incentive for improvement or quality. This helped us to understand why we had to call and visit the front desk multiple times to resolve basic requests such as to receive extra towels or to fix an air conditioning problem.
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Beautiful balconies on every street. Imagine how many different people opened these shutters through the centuries to look out upon those scurrying about below?

To be sure, hotel staff are very obliging and friendly. Many were outgoing and remembered our names and our nationality. However, lagging basic renovations, be it for plumbing, electrical or other issues, would wait for another day. Sadly, this malaise would turn an otherwise 5-star modern and luxurious Iberostar resort into a 3.5 star under-achiever. Don’t get me wrong, I’d stay here again and again. And I’ll definitely be back for a visit. The people are friendly, happy and engaging.
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Content, proud and secure, at home, in Old Havana

TWO HOURS IN A ’53 CHEVY
For 50 Cuban tourist dollars (CUC) our driver, Unido, was happy to tour us around Varadero city in a ’53 Chevy, taking us to see the two “shopping malls”, the Dupont mansion overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and the biggest of several flea markets, on 15th street at the corner of Main Street. There are 64 streets intersecting Main Street in the town centre which only runs two or three blocks wide on the 22 kilometre peninsula beach resort.
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My next post on Cuba will feature our visit to the Jewish community.

Ernest Hemingway’s regular hangout

I spotted this photo of our PM, Jean Chretien, with Fidel Castro, hanging in the bar at the Hotel Nacional in Havana

 

Music everywhere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mission to Morocco: a trip back in time – Perspectives, by Deborah Corber

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Deborah Corber is the CEO of Federation CJA. In this dispatch she drafts an excellent piece on the evolution of the Montreal Jewish Community into a pluralistic, multicultural yet diverse group that has come together to form a cohesive, modern and progressive community. A wonderful read. Kol Hakavod Deborah.

Every spring my husband, Maurice, and I have the same disagreement: how to choose and organize the colours of our garden flowers. Maurice argues that the more colours the better, while I insist that we need to keep warm and cool colours separate. I now believe that we can put the dispute to bed.

We just came back from an extraordinary trip to Morocco, home of Maurice’s birth. This was my first trip and Maurice’s first visit back since he left, over 50 years ago. As we drove out of the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakesh I was struck by the profusion of bougainvillea falling gently across the retaining walls along the road. And there it was: bunches of bright colours, warm and cool, all mixed together, and utterly breathtaking.

In that moment, I understood that Maurice’s floral preferences were a natural result of having grown up in this environment of bold and exotic colours embedded in the landscape, and all these many years later, embedded in his unconscious memory.

Our trip was a unique tapestry of personal return and communal journey, covering vast geographic territory from the rugged terrain of southern Morocco (which we travelled privately), to the major cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh (as part of Federation CJA’s Mission to Morocco).

We learned about the rich and extraordinary history of Moroccan Jewry – a history that spans thousands of years. About the important and profound contributions of Moroccan rabbis, scholars and philosophers (including Maimonides, the “Rambam”) to our Jewish heritage.

We listened to young children in Neve Shalom Day School recite portions of Megillat Esther by heart, and could only marvel at the skill and enthusiasm of these 6-year olds. We visited cemeteries restored thanks to the dedication of Jewish leadership and support of the Moroccan Government, and lovingly maintained by Berber and Arab caretakers, elderly people who remember the Jews with fondness and respect.

We walked the narrow alleys of the Mellah (Jewish Quarters), most now emptied of Jews, but filled with ancient synagogues and other remnants of the vibrant Jewish life that once pulsated through these streets. We visited the tomb of Solica Hatchuel, a young Jewish martyr, who chose death (she was dragged by a horse through the streets of Fez in 1834) over a forced marriage and conversion to Islam.

We reveled in Moroccan crafts, admiring the workmanship of their rugs, mosaic, bronze, leather and fabrics as we travelled (and shopped) in the medinas (old cities) of Marrakesh and Fez. We delighted at the Jewish artifacts on display throughout the regions of the Atlas Mountains, where Berbers and Jews lived peacefully together for centuries and where our Berber guide said, wistfully, that the departure of the Jews represented the greatest loss that Morocco had ever known.

We were hosted by the Jewish leadership of Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh, and while their hospitality was great, the bleak reality of a dying Jewish community in Morocco was unmistakable.

And what about our financial obligations as part of the Jewish people? Some folks remember when Federation CJA allocations were evenly split between local needs and supporting Israel. Today, that breakdown is roughly 87% local and 13% Israel & Overseas. Some argue that this split is appropriate, given Israel’s relative economic strength today, and growing needs at home. But there is no right or wrong answer here: only trends in the Jewish world and judgments about what is most fitting today.

The history of Jewish life in Morocco is complex and mixed. Although over two thousand years of Judaism are woven into the very fabric of Moroccan culture, those years were not without their challenges for Morocco’s Jews. There appear to have been instances of pogroms during that period, and it is believed that at least 500 Jews lost their lives during the Shoah, which absolutely did reach Morocco in the form of concentration camps courtesy of Vichy France. And while King Mohammed V has been honoured for having protected the Jews from even worse destruction, that legacy is not entirely without controversy.

The Jews who still live there speak of Morocco as a model of Jewish-Muslim co-existence. And yet, Jacky Sebag, the brilliant rabbi who runs the Neve Shalom school confessed that the parents of his students don’t want their children learning Arabic, which is the official language of Morocco. Quite a stark contrast with many anglophone Jewish parents here in Montreal, who, like myself, want their children to master French so that they will be able to thrive in Quebec.

That said, I am neither a historian nor a political scientist. But I do know something about the Jewish community of Montreal. I know that we have been immeasurably enriched by the thousands of Moroccan Jews who emigrated here in the 60s, 70s and 80s. That they brought with them a depth of Jewish knowledge and tradition that has made an indelible mark on the Montreal Jewish community, and of which we can all be proud. That Montreal Jewry is stronger and more vibrant because of them.

This year, I intend to fill the garden with as many bright colours as I can find, hoping to recreate just a little of the splendour that I found in Morocco for our home here in Montreal. Perhaps our garden will become my own personal metaphor for the magnificent diversity of the Jewish people.

Tourism Minister will contemplate promoting Quebec to English-speaking community

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Quebec Minister of Tourism Pascal Bérubé

Quebec Minister of Tourism Pascal Bérubé

Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with Quebec Minister of Tourism, Pascal Bérubé.

This 37 year-old cabinet member (the second youngest in cabinet) is not your average PQ MNA.  He is personable, articulate in French and English and down-to-earth.  He is also a good friend to the Jewish community and has visited Israel and has even introduced Israeli culture and society to his constituents in the Gaspé.

Bérubé is also no stranger to Cote Saint-Luc having lived on Old Orchard Ave in NDG.

I suggested to the minister that he consider Montreal’s English-speaking community as a target audience for a “Travel in Quebec” campaign.  So few west-end anglos have visited the many extraordinary regions of Quebec, yet are fluent in the towns, shops and restaurants of neighbouring Vermont, Upstate New York and Ontario.

Informally polling my friends, I wasn’t surprised that none were familiar with the Gaspé, North Shore, Saguenay and most other regions beyond the ski centres and popular lakes of the Laurentians and to a lesser extent the Eastern Townships and Quebec City.

I find Quebec to be a fascinating and extraordinary province, having traveled to every province and much of our own.  The Magdelene Islands is breathtaking, the scenic vistas across the Charlevoix is amazing, the North Shore is remote and isolated while the locals are so friendly.  The Gaspé is a very worthy destination (I traveled there overnight by train once) and the Pontiac in the Outaouais is friendly and great for biking along the mighty Ottawa River.

There are so many wonderful opportunities that I’ve personally enjoyed in cycling, photographing and eating my way across the province I call “notre home”.  From St. Louis de Haha to St. Leonard d’Aston, Entry Island to Chisasibi, the people and places in our very own province are magnifique.

I asked the minister to consider targeting a travel publicity campaign to the huge number of English-speaking Montrealers who have yet to visit the sights within our province.  He found the idea to be of interest and committed to giving it consideration.

I also took the occasion to tell Minster Bérubé that Bill 14 is causing the English-speaking community, and bilingual municipalities in particular, an enormous amount of frustration, discomfort and anxiety.  I urged him to think about what he is trying to accomplish with respect to promoting the French language and to do so in a constructive, positive and inviting manner.  Cote Saint-Luc, and many other cities and towns with bilingual status are strongly opposing this mean-spirited draft law, I said to the minister, and surely it is the job of the government to unite all Quebecers around a common idea rather than continuing to divide them, and even punish some, as is the case with this bill.

Overall, I found Pascal Bérubé to be a fine gentleman, someone really willing to hear the other side.  I could see him rising in the ranks as he gains in experience.

Read more: Canadian Jewish News 2011-06-23 Bérubé

VIA Rail strike a big hassle

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Open Letter to VIA Rail:

I was one of thousands of travellers who was greatly inconvenienced this past weekend when two of my bookings were cancelled due to the VIA Rail strike. Like so many others I had to make last-minute, alternative travel plans. I wasted much of my time and this created a great deal of stress to my travel companion and to me. VIA’s answer to this mess was to announce a 60% Off sale for all travellers, not just those who were abruptly dumped from their bookings. What’s worse is that VIA only offered a 3 days window to make these new bookings, right in the middle of Quebec holidays when so many are away and unavailable to take them up on the offer.

Even worse, VIA’s 1-888 number has been constantly busy and their website crashes, unable to handle the load of new bookings.

VIA should get its customer service on the right track, distinguish between those whose bookings they cancelled from those who are getting in on a good deal and offer a reasonable timeframe for these new bookings, say 30 days.

Published in Letters, Montreal Gazette