MONTREAL — The once flourishing Jewish community of Sherbrooke is making a modest comeback with the establishment of the Jewish Community Centre of the Eastern Townships.
Isaac Romano at the launch of the Jewish Community Centre of the Eastern Townships
The centre’s founder is a newcomer, Isaac Romano, a Seattle, Wash. native, who moved to Sherbrooke seven months ago.
The area has not had an institutional Jewish presence since the Agudath Achim Synagogue, founded in 1917, ceased functioning in 1983.
Unable to find any organized Jewish activity, Romano tested the waters by holding a Chanukah party with a couple that teaches at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville. About 40 people attended, about evenly divided between Jews and non-Jews.
The centre now has its own rented facilities inside Plymouth-Trinity United Church on Dufferin Street. With a hall seating 100 people and its own kitchen, the centre will hold a potluck seder on the second night of Passover March 30.
The centre also has activity rooms and a stage that will be used for the planned speakers series and musical and theatrical presentations, Romano said.
No religious services are planned at this time, other than occasional Shabbat get-togethers, but Romano said the community will adapt to the wishes of its members. In the meantime, he said he and a few other lay people are capable of leading the seder.
Romano guesses that there may be “a few hundred” Jews living in the Townships, but they are virtually invisible. His impression is that a significant number of them are relatively new.
The organization has been criticized by leaders of Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith Canada for its views on Israel, but Romano said this is not a concern for him as he is dedicated to peace and reaching out to other faiths – not only Christian – including Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, who have a presence in the Townships.
The centre is associated with the Network of Social Progressives, founded in 2005 by California Rabbi Michael Lerner, the often controversial editor of Tikkun magazine and political activist.
“We are a Jewish community centre that places at its ‘centre’ the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, doing work to repair the planet,” he said.
The Chanukah party had an environmental theme, and the March 30 seder will be patterned on the Freedom Seder for the Earth and use an ecologically minded Haggadah, created by the Shalom Center, founded by U.S. Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Romano has issued an invitation to anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, to attend.
In a smaller city like Sherbrooke, where Jews are a very small minority, he said, it is vital for them to co-operate with their neighbours. Besides, he said, the church offered them very good rates. “They have been very, very supportive.”
He hopes to work with all people with a common interest in the environment and in making the world a better place, as well as what he calls “inner healing.”
Romano is a family counsellor by profession, with an expertise in early childhood. One of his ideas is to create a summer program for children of all backgrounds where they can learn an appreciation of cultural diversity and the need to care for the planet.
Romano, 61, lived for 10 years in Nelson, B.C., before coming to Montreal last year to work on a documentary film. He says he fell in love with the Townships during his first visit in 2008, and made up his mind to relocate from the West Coast.
Romano is Sephardi, and grew up in what he described as a “tightly-knit” community in Seattle. His parents were American born but spoke fluent Ladino. His father’s side had a 500-year history in Turkey, and his mother’s an equally long time on the Greek island of Rhodes.
There were Jews in Sherbrooke from at least the 1880s, but the major influx was around World War I, when many arrived from Ostropol, Ukraine. Jews became prominent in the city’s economic life, and the community flourished into the 1950s, before beginning to decline in the ’60s. Few descendants of the old families remain; they are now dispersed throughout North America.
For more information on the centre, phone Romano at 819-812-3118 or e-mail him at email@example.com.