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Despite Deputy Premier’s Assurance To Winnipeg Rabbi, Chanukah Candles Banned From Store Shelves

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Rabbi Avrohom Altein of Chabad was assured by Manitoba Deputy Premier Heather Stefanson that Chanukah candles would be allowed on store shelves - but this week COVID Inspectors ordered grocers to remove them (Photo: Pixabay)

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A senior Rabbi in Winnipeg took the initiative to speak with the Deputy Premier of Manitoba ahead of time, to make sure the Jewish community would have open access to candles for their Chanukah Menorah this year despite pandemic sales restrictions.

“I was so happy, everything was in place. Then I was so shocked,” Rabbi Avrohom Altein told TheJ.ca in an exclusive interview.

That’s because just before Shabbat on Dec. 4, he found out the candles had been pulled from store shelves in the River Heights neighbourhood where the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Learning Centre is located, in the southeast corner of the Tuxedo constituency.

Rabbi Altein explained that a few weeks ago he had heard that under the Public Health Order restricting retail sales, Chanukah candles were to be considered “non-essential.” He spoke about it with the area MLA, Heather Stefanson, who is Minister of Families and Deputy Premier in Brian Pallister’s conservative government.

“She came several times for Chanukah to Chabad, so she knows us,” he said of Stefanson, who has been considered a strong ally of the Jewish community since being first elected in 2003. He said that after providing a brief explanation of the significance of the candles to Jews for their observance of the Festival of Lights, “she said she would take care of it within 24 hours.”

But somewhere between the Minister’s office and the store shelves, that assurance was shunted aside – with no warning to Rabbi Altein or the Jewish community.

The controversy erupted early Friday, when TheJ.ca was alerted about the removal of Chanukah candles from the shelves first at Superstore, in Stefanson’s riding on Grant Avenue about a block from Chabad. The item could be purchased online with curbside pick-up, as a non-essential item. Then about an hour later, word was received they were not available in-store at Sobey’s on Taylor Avenue. TheJ.ca spoke with personnel in both stores this weekend.

Sobey’s was told “by a covid inspector” attending the site to remove the candles. As to why this followed the removal from Superstore, Rabbi Altein had been clued in. “Now, Sobey’s have them pulled, because Superstore complained.”

The Rabbi did not think Stefanson was aware of the ban, and “I don’t know who else in the government might be involved.” He concluded Stefanson’s direction was overruled somewhere by a health official, possibly by an unknown health inspector.

Then, after a valid complaint of “what-about-them”, the health inspectors appear to have considered the retailers’ concerns about fair competition more than the concerns of the Jews of Winnipeg about religious liberty.

However, yet another “what-about-them” problem faces the Pallister government. A reader confirmed that Safeway in Tuxedo and the Grant Avenue Co-op also had Hanukkah candles out for sale, leading to them observing, “this seems to be a very arbitrary way of enforcing whatever restriction there is on selling the candles”. 

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As news spread on Facebook, Jewish consumers voiced strong opinions about the judgement of the government in banning Chanukah candles from open access. Designating an article essential to the fulfillment of a religious obligation – celebration of the rededication of the Temple – seems unprecedented.

The colourful twisted candles are designed to last for a minimum of 30 minutes to allow for Torah study, songs of joy, spinning a dreidel and eating fried potatoe latkes. They are so intrinsic to Jewish culture that: “It is obligatory to light candles, and one should even borrow money to fulfill this mitzvah. If a poor person needs money for Chanukah candles the community is obligated to provide for him.”     

Rabbi Altein agreed with comments that curbside-pickup is an unwarranted barrier, especially to seniors and those with financial challenges in the community. “We at Chabad have candles we sell but we don’t have shelving or a store. I didn’t even imagine it would come to that (curbside-only sale), my conversation with her, we spoke about inside the stores, and she said there would be no problem.”

He is hopeful that with the concerns brought to her attention by TheJ.ca, Stefanson could help correct what he hopes was a misunderstanding. “This whole thing is shocking. I think there was some sort of error.”

With nearly 50 years of service to the Jewish community in Winnipeg, Rabbi Avrohom Altein is a respected figure by politicians of all stripes. (Photo: Chabad Winnipeg)

Upon hearing of the ban on Chanukah candles, TheJ.ca contacted three Manitoba MLAs who represent significant Jewish populations, for their comments about the matter.

Stefanson in Tuxedo and Liberal MLA Dr. Jon Gerrard in adjacent River Heights, the traditional South End of Winnipeg, represent about 3500 of the 16,000 Jews in the city. The McPhillips constituency, held by Progressive Conservative MLA Shannon Martin, is so new there are no reliable estimates at hand for the Jewish population there, but his riding does include historically Jewish parts of West Kildonan and Garden City.

Neither Martin or Stefanson had responded to our inquiries by press time. Dr. Gerrard, who is Health Critic for the Liberal Party, told TheJ.ca “I believe that the Chanukah candles should be considered essential.” By the end of Friday he had written to Health Minister Cameron Friesen and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brent Roussin, to advocate for the Jewish community.  

TheJ.ca will continue to voice the concerns of the Jewish community and will publish a follow-up story in our regular Thursday publication.  

Marty Gold is the Editor-in -Chief of TheJ.ca. Known for investigative reporting, he has specialized in covering municipal and provincial politics, and a wide range of sports and entertainment, in newspapers, magazines, online, and on his first love, radio. His business and consulting experience includes live events and sales, workplace safety, documentary productions, PR, and telecommunications in Vancouver, Los Angeles and across Canada, and as a contestant on CBC-TV Dragons Den.

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Happy reading!

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.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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