Rabbi Chanan Chernitsky has come to Newfoundland with very open eyes.
The 27-year-old Chabad rabbi, originally from Winnipeg and most recently living in Montreal, has moved to the province’s capital city, St. John’s, with his 26-year-old wife, Tuba, and three children, all three years old and under. He is well aware that the community of about 500 Jews has a Conservative synagogue and a small egalitarian congregation, both of which observe religion differently than he does, with his strong Orthodox roots.
Rabbi Chernitsky and his family see the untapped potential and a certain promise in the Jewish people of Canada’s easternmost province, a bit isolated from the rest of the country, and offering little in the way of kosher food and the strict observance demanded by Chabad principles.
“We came here twice in 2016 to be sure this is where we wanted to be,” the rabbi said in a recent telephone conversation. “We were here for Tu b’Shvat 2016, held a community party, and stayed for a week. We were welcomed warmly.”
They returned a few weeks later and stayed for a month, through Purim and Pesach, and again held community events – a party and a seder – that were well-attended. The couple distributed handmade shmurah matzah, conducted a children’s program, chatted with residents and began to feel that this place might just become their home.
They moved east on Feb. 12, knowing there was a great deal they wanted to do, but only so much they would be able to accomplish.
“With three small children, we are very busy, of course, but we’re reaching out to people, calling, emailing, inviting people to our home, delivering homemade challah [by Tuba] and hamantashen [brought from Montreal] to members of the community, and getting a warm reception,” he said. “People have responded enthusiastically, telling us they haven’t seen [home delivery and kosher goods like this] in a very long time.”
Rabbi Chernitsky knows there are many non-affiliated Jews in St. John’s and the surrounding area. He’d like to gather them for classes, fun events such as a challah bake and other activities.
The rabbi wants to offer a range of Torah classes and establish a full Jewish presence at Memorial University, in addition to holding Jewish holiday programs and celebrations.
Their very first event in their new home was March 5, when their oldest child, son Menachem Mendel, had his upsherin (his first haircut at the age of 3). It was the first such event on the island in about 40 years.
“We had about 10 people attend,” said Rabbi Chernitsky. “We haven’t really begun yet, but we’re excited.”
When asked how he’ll measure success, he paused, then said, “Success is one Jew putting a mezuzah on his door, one Jew putting on tfillin, holding one bar mitzvah. Sure, we’d like to have a big story, a big turnout, but we start small and grow.
“The challenge is to meet people, bring Yiddishkeit to them, make sure they have a good experience with Judaism – some have had bad experiences and others very good ones.”
A Purim party took place March 12, and a seder is scheduled for the first night of Pesach “for anyone who wants to be there and celebrate.”
He stressed Chabad doesn’t put labels on people. “We work with everyone. In St. John’s we’ll make programs for both groups that are now established and for anyone else, too.”
How long will he stay? “It’s a Chabad tradition that when you move somewhere, you move there until the Mashiach comes,” said a very content Rabbi Chernitsky.