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My fruitful trip to Winnipeg

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Etz Chayim Congregation, Winnipeg
Etz Chayim Congregation, Winnipeg

It is November, and I am in Winnipeg, the scholar in residence at Congregation Etz Chaim on Matheson Avenue.

What a delightful week it has been.

A number of months back, Calgary-born Rabbi Larry Lander of Congregation Etz Chaim asked if I would come to spend Shabbat with his congregation. We negotiated the time. The beginning of November would work. I was honoured.

Of course, I was nervous that I would step off the plane into two feet of snow and encounter -40 C weather. That, however, was not the case. As I type this, the weather is 7 C with not a snowflake in sight. My compact Fiat is gripping the road, and I have not spotted a Winnipeg dog wearing full winter regalia.

I have found, however, that Winnipeg Jews are a warm bunch who have extended themselves to me in every way possible. As they say in Yiddish, it’s a mechayeh, in contrast to much of the Toronto Jewish community, which can be unwelcoming and cold in nature. (While a number of shuls there have successfully worked on turning up their warmth, there is still much to be done.)

Upon arrival at my hotel, I discovered a box of pastries, a bag of fresh fruit and bottles of water on my desk, delivered by Lina Streltsov, the very authentic shul program director. The snacks were accompanied by a hand-written welcome note. The front desk hotel staff commented later on Lina’s lovely demeanour. Nice touch!

Rabbi Lander, the president of the shul, the gabbai, the ba’al koreh and the congregation in general have gone out of their way to make me feel at home. At one point, prior to my after-davening workshop, the rabbi stood in the kiddush line and assembled a plate of food for me. In my speech, I mentioned what tremendous character traits this man has.

During my stay, I also discovered a raised consciousness among the Winnipeg Jewish community having to do with aboriginal issues. Winnipeg has the largest aboriginal population in Canada, numbering some 70,000 people. (Its total population is 683,000.)

As you might imagine, there is much greater interaction between the Jewish and aboriginal communities here than there is elsewhere.

After speaking, I was approached by a number of congregants who either told me about their involvement with local aboriginal communities or about their desire to become involved in Ve’ahavta’s Jewish-aboriginal initiatives. It was deeply inspiring to hear this.

I was also very fortunate to run into Phil Fontaine, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations who is also the honorary co-chair of Ve’ahavta’s Jewish-aboriginal initiatives, along with Toronto businessman Larry Tanenbaum and former prime minister Paul Martin.

I told Phil about Ve’ahavta’s recent professional development day for educators in Toronto’s Jewish school system, held at Leo Baeck School and facilitated by aboriginal educators. I let him know the goal of the PD day was to teach the real history of aboriginal peoples in Canada, including residential schools. He was most proud of our community recognizing that the PD day was in response to recommendations coming out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

All in all, my first time in Winnipeg has been most fruitful. My time with the Jewish community has been productive and heimish. While I’m happy I missed the snow and the frigid weather, I could not have asked for a nicer Shabbat and a more embracing community.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Jewish communities across Canada could get to know each other more so we could have some shared goals? We could learn a lot from one another.

I look forward to returning to this town and possibly working together on a tikkun olam program.