Hebrew school in Okanagan
Left to right, reciting the Four Questions at the Okanagan Jewish community’s Passover celebration: Adarah Challmie, Ben Levitan, Jordan Spevakow, David Spevakow, Samara Levitan, and Kate Spevakow. (photo by Misty Smith)
Kelowna’s Jewish community may be small, but it’s poised for growth. The latest development: an expansion of its Hebrew school’s curriculum.
Led by the family of David and Natalie Spevakow, who moved to Kelowna from Calgary some 13 years ago, Hebrew classes were first provided last year. Now, more Jewish content will be added to the lessons, as well.
At the moment, the Spevakows are spearheading this task. Parents lead classes every Monday after school, with kindergarten to Grade 3 first, followed by grades 4-to-7. The parents rotate each week, teaching the kids about Jewish traditions and the Hebrew language, prayers and blessings. Currently, there are 14 students in total (two of whom are Spevakows).
“Trying to have a Jewish life in a small community can be a challenge,” said Natalie Spevakow. “I would say our congregation at the Okanagan Jewish Community Centre is about 100 members, but only 25 to 30 are active members.
“We have a visiting rabbi who comes once a month, Rabbi [Shaul] Osadchey from Beth Tzedec congregation in Calgary. We set this up to bridge the gap with our communities, and that’s been wonderful. With us having young families, we’ve all decided that it’s important that we get together, and we wanted to build a Jewish community for ourselves and our kids.”
The Spevakows are looking to hire a part-time teacher to start in September and work through June. They are searching for a creative, energetic person knowledgeable in Hebrew and the Jewish traditions to teach children ages 4 to 14. The position involves two hours of teaching a week, plus preparation time, and the teaching material is provided. In addition to an hourly wage, the teacher would receive a free annual family membership to the Okanagan JCC. (Interested readers should call Anne at the OJCC, 250-862-2305.)
“All of our parents just want our kids to be with other Jewish children and get a sense of what it is to be Jewish,” said Spevakow.
“We also try to get together with our Hebrew school every few months for a potluck,” she added. “When we have the visiting rabbi come, we do a potluck with the rabbi and do services with our children and our families as well. We make that a time to get together and bring the community together.”
As of now, all the children involved in the school are Canadian-born, but there are Israeli-born children who will be joining classes when they come of age. The class curriculum is a combination of programs that the Spevakows sourced online with guidance from Osadchey. Parents are encouraged to take material home to practise during the week.
“The learning works better if they do take stuff home,” said Natalie Spevakow. “I know, for the little guys, they’re just learning the Hebrew letters and can repeat the words they learned…. We try to make it hands-on and more fun for them.”
Looking ahead, Spevakow feels that the Jewish community is growing, anticipating that one day it will be big enough to warrant more frequent visits from Osadchey.
“But, right now, with our smaller numbers, it’s very difficult for us to finance having a rabbi here all the time,” she said. “As is, we’re making it work, getting our kids educated and getting the resources we can.”
The older students are learning to lead Friday night services, with the goal of having them lead a service by May 2017, and then again, have them lead a service with Osadchey.
“We’re not on our own, trying to make things up on our own,” she said. “It’s just a matter of people making time for their kids, so the program works. I think all the parents recognize they want this for our kids and are willing to put in their time.
“We used to do it on weekends, but, with so many of us really big into skiing, it wasn’t working out. So, weekdays are definitely working better for us.”
They also recognize there may be some older members of the community who may be interested in helping with classes, so they hope to bridge the gap and find ways to bring them in, too.
“There’s something to be said about a small community, in that you really get to know all your members,” said Spevakow. “They truly do become an extension of your family. You realize that anything you’d like to see happen, things that, in a larger community you might have taken for granted because it’s available, in a small community may not exist yet…. Connecting on a deeper level with the people in our community, figuring out the assets that each can bring to the table, has really benefited our community. Knowing everyone’s faces really helps.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.