Sterna Samama finally has her house back. After years of ceding her living space to Shabbat minyanim, holiday celebrations and classes that brought together the scattered and diverse Jews of Montreal’s South Shore, Chabad now has its own centre there.
Chabad of the South Shore officially opened on the ground floor of a commercial building at 7900 Taschereau Blvd. in Brossard, Que., on Aug. 29, before an overflow crowd of well-wishers.
Rabbi Zalman Samama, who is originally from Strasbourg, France, and his wife Sterna, a Montreal native, moved to the South Shore seven years ago and began operating out of their modest home. It was Chabad’s first permanent presence in the area.
Now with four children, the couple has been dreaming for some time of finding a permanent home for the centre.
“In the past couple of years, the number of activities and attendance significantly rose,” said Sterna Samama. “By having an official place where we can run all our programs, we will be able to better serve the community.”
One year ago, their 24-hour online fundraising campaign surpassed their $60,000 goal, which was enough to rent the space. People then pitched in to renovate the space, which has large room and a smaller one, plus a lobby and office.
Chabad runs programs for all ages, including a Sunday Hebrew school, bar and bat mitzvah classes, a group for teens, adult education programs and communal Shabbat dinners. It also helps those in financial need.
The Samamas reach out to any Jew who lives from the St. Lawrence River to the U.S. border. They have found some who thought they were the only Jews around.
They are Ashkenazim and Sephardim, native born and immigrants, they speak English, French and other languages, and range from secular to traditional. Intermarriage is common.
The couple’s easygoing manner has attracted them. Rabbi Samama has become famous for his breakdancing and figure skating.
Yet living far from the heart of the Jewish community poses challenges, such as having to drive their kids into Montreal every day for school.
Chabad is not the first or only Jewish organization on the South Shore. The South Shore Jewish Community (SSJC) was founded 24 years ago and is still active, under the presidency of Jacques Saada, a former federal cabinet minister and recently elected president of the Communauté Sépharade unifiée du Québec.
The two are not competitors for the allegiance of the small Jewish population, insists SSJC vice-president Harry Bolner, who attended the inauguration with SSJC secretary Rosalie Miller-Hodson.
The SSJC and Chabad have, in fact, been partnering on activities like holiday celebrations and have a number of people in common.
For these High Holidays, they will hold joint Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur services at the Chabad centre, led by Rabbi Samama.
The SSJC, which has about 60 households on its mailing list, will hold an erev Rosh Hashanah service at its centre down the road in La Prairie.
“We try to mix it up, we’re very inclusive and flexible,” said Miller-Hodson, noting that the service will be led by two women, guest Rabbi Elina Bykova and singer Hélène Engel.
The SSJC is more focused on the social and cultural, rather than the religious, aspects of Judaism, although its centre doubles as a synagogue with a bimah, ark and two sifrei Torah. It is not, however, affiliated with any movement.
Bolner said the SSJC intends to move in with Chabad when its lease expires at its current location in a La Prairie shopping centre.
June Wright Laliberté, who has lived on the South Shore since 1952 and was among the early leaders of the SSJC, said she was attracted to Chabad because it is “so warm and accepting. I’m not religious, but I don’t feel uncomfortable at all.…
“The rabbi makes no difference between those who were born Jewish and those who were not. They are such gentle, marvellous people.” Her husband, Michael, a convert, feels right at home, too, she said.
She enjoys the women’s group. Her two daughters are also involved, and four of her grandchildren go to the Hebrew school.
Dina Cohen, who has lived on the South Shore for 27 years, said, “I really feel I am part of a family.”
“Our mission,” said Rabbi Samama, “is not to pray and enjoy ourselves at 7900 Taschereau; our mission is to bring God into the homes of each of you … into the heart of every person.”