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Covid-19 poses obstacles for programming, but Chabad and JCC continue to serve Kelowna and area

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Rabbi Shmuel Hecht hosted 100 community members for an "Under the Sea" Purim celebration, one of the ways Hecht and his wife Fraidy bring Judaism “to the people” of the BC Interior | Photo supplied

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The Jewish community of the Okanagan Valley, located by the basin of Okanagan Lake in Kelowna, British Columbia, did not formally come into being until the early-1980s. By the time that Dr. Steven Finkleman moved from Montreal to Kelowna in 1982, there were only twelve or so Jewish residents in the city, who occasionally met in each other’s homes for religious services. One of the twelve residents was a retired rabbi, Rabbi Emil Klein, who eventually arranged for the small group to hold religious services and festivals in the hall at St. Michael’s Cathedral, which they jokingly nicknamed “St. Moishe’s”.

The following year, the small informal group of Jewish residents formally registered as a society, and thus Okanagan Jewish Community (OJC) was officially born. Over the following decades, several hundred new Jewish residents began relocating to the region seeking a somewhat warmer Canadian winter and a more relaxed lifestyle.

The first piece of infrastructure that the newly established Jewish community built was a cemetery. The Okanagan Jewish Community Centre (OJCC) was built in 1992, thanks to a substantial provincial grant, and inaugurated with a six foot challah. In addition to a library, kitchen and daycare, the OJCC houses the Beth Shalom Congregation, which until the arrival of Chabad in 2011, served as the Okanagan Valley’s sole permanent Jewish congregation.

Although OJC has never had a full-time resident rabbi, services are led by lay leaders and visiting Reform and Conservative rabbis. Prior to COVID-19, the OJC had close to 65-member units, who attended Shabbat and High Holiday services, Passover seders, Chanukah parties and other events in large numbers.

The OJC also facilitates a conversion class for 11 students, which is led by three rabbis via Zoom under the auspices of the Conservative movement. Because it had not previously offered adult education programs, the OJC has welcomed its Jewish members wishing to learn more about Judaism to join the conversion classes in order to learn from the content.

Although small in size, the OJC participates in city-wide civic initiatives, including Kelowna multicultural events, interfaith activities with the Kelowna Islamic Centre, contribution to the city’s Tzedakah projects, involvement in anti-racism community projects and donations to the city’s homeless population.

As the world grapples with this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the OJC continues to explore alternative ways of keeping their community engaged.

While online Passover seders and Shabbat services were initially well attended, Finkleman has observed a drop in online participation at community events. “People are Zoomed out”, he concedes. “We have not opened our building, as it is a challenge to do services when we cannot provide food.” He believes that the decrease in participation might be largely attributed to people’s mental health when coping with so much stress, loneliness and uncertainty.

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Although the Jewish community only formally registered in the 1980s, Jewish observance had been promoted in the region since the 1970s, thanks to Vancouver-based Chabad Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg and his team of traveling rabbis. Today, the Okanagan Valley’s only full-time resident rabbi and rebbetzin are Chicago-born Shmuel Hecht and his Detroit-born wife Fraidy.

In search of a community in which they could establish a Chabad House, “we used to spend dinnertime going through lists of cities around America where there are more than 1,500 Jews, starting from letter A”, recalls Hecht. Although they were initially considering Mobile, Alabama, someone by chance mentioned, “I’ll tell you of a place where no one is willing to go”, and proceeded to tell them about the Okanagan Valley.

The Hechts were up for the challenge, knowing that there was a growing demand for a full-time Chabad presence in the region. In 2011, they established the only Jewish centre for hundreds kilometers in all directions, serving over 300 Jews living in Kelowna and dozens of smaller communities in the Okanagan Valley.

Consecration of the Okanagan Jewish Cemetary Gate of Peace Cemetery by Rabbi Emil Klein (z"l) in the late 1980s | Supplied

In addition to establishing a thriving permanent Chabad community in Kelowna, with many Jewish adult education opportunities, children’s programming, social services, and Holiday and community events, the couple decided that they need to do even more in order to connect and include every single Jew within their reach. Whether in Kelowna or further afield, Hecht and his wife bring Judaism “to the people”, delivering holiday packages and Jewish educational materials door-to-door. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, when in-person Passover seders were no longer possible, the couple delivered matzah and Haggadot to 200 homes in the area.

Hecht’s new Mobile Chabad House was delivered just two months ago, and travels over the region visiting Jewish residents in over 30 remote communities. The synagogue on wheels includes a café, kosher meat for sale, Holy Arc and Judaica shop; he even recently conducted the Mobile Chabad House’s first bar-mitzvah.

The Jews of the Okanagan Valley have demonstrated innovative new ways of keeping Judaism alive in a small community located in a remote region, ranging from traveling rabbis to Zoom conversion classes to a synagogue on wheels. Post-pandemic, Jewish communities like those of the Okanagan Valley are only poised to grow as more Canadians opt to leave big cities and choose nature, affordability and space over urban hustle and bustle.

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.

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