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Saskatoon, Regina and other small communities are home to many active Jews and organizations, including B’nai Brith and Hadassah-WIZO, as well as a robust Holocaust education program

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Rabbi Avrohom Simmonds of the Chabad Jewish Centre of Regina and his daughter with kosher meat recently brought in from Montreal | Photo supplied

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Canada’s sixth largest province by population, Saskatchewan, is home to a Jewish population of fewer than one thousand, between its two largest cities, Regina and Saskatoon.

Jews began forming farm colonies in the area as far back as 1882, having taken up the government’s offer to break and farm the land. By 1904, one year before Saskatchewan joined Canada as a province, there were enough Jews living in Regina to establish the city’s first Jewish Burial Society. Just one year later, the town’s Jewish residents gathered at the home of community member Jacob Shachter to officially establish a community. It took five more years until they were able to start regular weekly worship services, and by 1912 the growing community formed a committee to establish a permanent synagogue, which is today’s Beth Jacob Synagogue, named after that 1905 meeting at Shachter’s home.

There are only five active synagogues operating in the province, led by four rabbis, each of whom originally hails from a different continent. Beth Jacob Synagogue’s spiritual leader, UK-born Rabbi Jeremy Parnes, has been a resident of Regina for the past 34 years. He was asked over 20 years ago to fill in as a part-time spiritual leader, while the synagogue searched for a full-time rabbi. They never found that rabbi, and his part-time role eventually turned into a full-time role. Parnes was eventually ordained by Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, in Philadelphia. In addition to serving as a place of prayer, Beth Jacob serves as a type of community centre for the city’s 300 Jewish residents, housing an elementary school gym, Hebrew school classrooms and a library.

Around a decade ago, the province experienced an economic boom, which required additional skilled workers. This resulted in laxer provincial immigration requirements, and paved the way for an influx of Russian-Israeli immigrants, many of whom were assisted upon their arrival by the Beth Jacob Synagogue.

As a young married couple, Winnipeg-born Rabbi Avrohom and Detroit-born Shterna Simmonds “wanted to go to a community that needed some extra encouragement and push to continue on a Jewish journey.” When they established Regina’s Chabad Centre in 2013, their family became the city’s only fully Orthodox-observant residents. Simmonds believes that the biggest challenge facing the community is access to a “proper Jewish education,” especially for children in a province with limited Jewish educational facilities.

He fondly recalls that two days before Rosh Hashanah, while they were waiting in Winnipeg for renovations on their new home to be completed, he received a call from a group of Israeli salespeople who did not have a place to go for the holiday. Within two days, the family rushed to Regina and made preparations to host 15 guests.

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Despite belonging to different denominations of Judaism, Parnes and Simmonds collaborate on a regular basis to provide services to Regina’s Jewish residents. Several times a year, Chabad ships in kosher meat from Montreal, and the two rabbis share the responsibility of storing and selling the meat to the community. They also jointly advise local stores on which kosher for Passover products to order.

“Around 40 years ago, a video was made on the Jewish community of Regina. In that video, it became very clear that the belief was that the community would be gone within ten years. If you buy into that, then it becomes your reality. The community has had a much longer life expectancy than people ever imagined,” says Parnes. While still catering for his congregation’s older membership, he has placed a big emphasis on catering to younger families, launching a program that brought two Israeli emissaries to Regina, to engage with younger members of the congregation; the emissaries have subsequently become full-time employees of the congregation.

Rabbi Jeremy Parnes with children at a Hanukkah ceremony at the Community Centre of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Regina in 2015 | Photo supplied

Saskatchewan’s largest city, Saskatoon, is located a three hour drive north of Regina. Its community consists of somewhere between 300 and 500 people, several hundred of whom are members of Congregation Agudas Israel, which is led by Chilean-born Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky. Prior to arriving in Saskatoon, Jodorkovsky completed his Conservative rabbinical studies in Argentina, was ordained in Israel, and served as a congregational rabbi for nine years in Colombia. When he and his wife decided that they wanted to raise their young family in a more stable environment, he interviewed for a rabbinical post at Congregation Agudas Israel. Although they were only given one day to decide whether to accept the position, the family ultimately moved to Saskatoon in 2012.

When Russian-Israeli immigrants began arriving in the city during the boom period, a number of them contacted Rabbi Kats requesting assistance to secure housing. As a result, he helped some of them find apartments in the same building complex as Chabad, temporarily creating the highest concentration of Jewish people in a given area in Saskatoon.

Saskatchewan’s first Chabad rabbi, Raphael Kats, was born in Israel and raised in Toronto. When he and his Cleveland-born wife Sarah were living in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, and began thinking of establishing a Chabad Centre somewhere in the world, he felt the pull to return to his native Canada. “When you grow up on the East Coast, you think of Western Canada as the edge of the universe,” which is precisely what attracted him to Saskatchewan. When Kats discovered that there was no Chabad presence in the province, he and his young family established Chabad of Saskatoon in 2011, which was initially housed in two basement apartments within a complex of six buildings.

 

A Holocaust Educational Program at Congregation Agudas Israel in Saskatoon with Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky (wearing the tallit on the left) | Photo supplied

When the building was eventually sold, Chabad purchased a five-acre plot in a different part of the city. Although sometimes they can only muster up a minyan once a month, Kats and Simmonds work very closely together, and recently collaborated on a Roving Rabbis program, where rabbinical students visited Saskatchewan for the summer, and provided outreach services to Jews living in rural areas, including Estevan, Moose Jaw, and Edenbridge (early on referred to as “Yidden Bridge”, yidden being Yiddish for “Jews”).

With only 1,580 cases of COVID-19 to date in Saskatchewan, a potential positive outcome for the Jewish community of the province is that young Jewish families who would ordinarily feel compelled to live in a big city, might now consider working remotely, and relocating to a quieter, more affordable community. Parnes concludes that while “some people think that Saskatchewan is uninteresting, these days, boring is good! We do not have natural disasters, and have one of the lowest rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country. One does not need to live in big centres anymore to be successful.”

Boston-born Dan Brotman is an American/Israeli/South African entrepreneur, activist and writer currently based in Johannesburg. During his almost decade in South Africa, he co-founded one of the country’s leading global business immersion companies, served as Executive Director of the South Africa-Israel Forum and managed Media & Public Affairs for the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies. He is a regular commentator in the South African media on issues related to the Jewish community and public policy.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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