Reuniting in Winnipeg
Among those at the reunion were, left to right, Helen Pinsky (Vancouver), Barbara Moser (Montreal), Chana Thau (Winnipeg), Avrum Rosner (Montreal), Cecil Rosner (Winnipeg) and Zev Cohen (Israel). (photo from the reunion)
Anyone who went to a Jewish day school in Winnipeg in the 1950s and 1960s was invited to a reunion recently – and 220 former students attended.
The Oct. 6-9 reunion was organized by Avrum Rosner, who now lives in Montreal, Zev Cohen, who now lives in Israel, and Eileen Margulius Curtis and Bert Schaffer, who both still live in Winnipeg.
Rosner started posting high school photos on Facebook. A closed Facebook group followed and then Rosner created a page inviting people to share photos from Winnipeg Jewish schools.
“So, some genius – Zev Cohen – asked on the Facebook group, ‘How about a reunion?’ And he then started laying the groundwork,” said Rosner. “It went viral after that.”
Rosner and his wife, Marnie Frain, both attended the reunion.
“There were many different Jewish schools in Winnipeg in the 1950s and ’60s, of diverse languages, attitudes to religion, attitudes to Israel, left and right,” said Rosner. “And, what was a thriving community, with unique cultural and social institutions, that reached its numerical peak around 1960, has been drastically diminished by emigration ever since.”
The main venue of the October reunion was Holiday Inn West Airport, where some of the out-of-towners stayed. But, on the Sunday, Gray Academy of Jewish Education (GAJE) hosted the reunion. The academy is the entity into which nearly all the Jewish schools have amalgamated.
The first reunion event was a dinner on Friday evening that included speeches. There was a discussion on Saturday; a brunch and greetings by GAJE staff and students, as well as a bus tour and dance party, on Sunday. On Monday, there was a farewell brunch with live entertainment, performing Hebrew, Yiddish and klezmer songs and 1960s/70s rock ’n’ roll.
Participants included students, and a small number of former teachers, from Winnipeg’s Talmud Torah, Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, I.L. Peretz School, Rosh Pina, Herzlia, Ramah, and Sholem Aleichem School.
“For me, the highlights are not hard to identify – renewing half-century-old friendships. For me, and for many, it restored my belief in magic,” said Rosner. “Personally, I think I gained the pure pleasure of reconnection with childhood friends. Also, the confirmation of the importance and ongoing vitality of the social, cultural and ethical values … and principles many of us absorbed – not solely through formal education, but by growing up in a unique-in-many-ways Jewish community in an isolated prairie city. It was what I expected and hoped for, though exponentially better.”
Vancouver reunion attendee Helen Pinsky said, “I watched the whole thing happen on Facebook. And, despite the fact that I’d heard very little from other people who I’d gone to school with, the reunion appealed to me a lot. I made arrangements to see all my cousins in Winnipeg, and booked the trip. I attended with my boyfriend, Yossi Amit, who, at that point, knew none of my Winnipeg relatives and had never been to that city.”
Pinsky and Amit stayed at the reunion’s “official” hotel and, though the schedule for the weekend had looked quite bare, that was a plus for them, as it allowed for personal visits. “In the end, most of my cousins attended the reunion, too,” said Pinsky. “Then, we made plans for spending our free time together. The programs were well-received and gave us all a structure from which to build other plans.”
Pinsky enjoyed many aspects of the weekend, including the talk about the history of Winnipeg Jewry, the music and food at Hops, the band Finjan and reminiscences at brunch. “There were lots of photos, laughter, warmth, memories sharing, good feelings and catching up,” she said.
Helen Nadel also attended the reunion. Nadel met Vancouverite Tevy Goodman in Winnipeg in 1975, and the couple were married at what was then Rosh Pina Synagogue.
“My childhood stories of growing up in North End of Winnipeg have always interested my children,” said Nadel. “I heard about the reunion when I was in Winnipeg in April for a reunion of my high school Grade 12 class [of 1952] who all turn 65 this year. I also knew I’d have a 40th-year medical school reunion this year [Sept. 15-17]. So, I decided that this was the year to make it a trifecta.”
When Nadel and her husband decided that he would accompany her, Nadel invited her daughter, Daniella, along, too.
“For me, it was fun to see the older girls who were my cousins’ age, as I was the tag-along with my cousins when I was at Peretz School,” said Nadel. “After pointing out that I was the little pisher who was with Carol and Sandi, recognition was achieved. Reminiscences were exchanged. It was remarkable that, by the end of the weekend, people no longer looked unfamiliar. I remembered them as they were some 50 years ago.
“My daughter loved seeing me with my grade school mates. She loved hearing the stories and began texting her posse about what fun this was, wondering what they might be doing when they are our age. She particularly loved seeing us reminisce when we stopped at the two schools, Peretz and Talmud Torah. I had goose bumps when a few of us spontaneously started singing the Peretz School anthem a cappella in front of the school, although only one in the group – Pam – really remembered all the words.”
Nadel was taken aback by how close Peretz School and Talmud Torah were to one another. She had remembered them as being very far apart – not only ideologically, but in distance.
“All in all,” she said, the reunion was “a chance to re-form and strengthen our bonds and ties to Winnipeg and the wonderful community we all grew up in.”
For Myron Calof, word of the reunion reached him about a year ago, when his wife, Ros-Lynn Sheps, called him at the office to say that she had just checked their voicemail and there was a message from Bert Schafer.
“Although I had not heard that name for over 50 years, I instantly put the name to a face and called Bert,” said Calof. “After confessing that, as a kid, I had routinely stolen crab apples off his parents’ crab apple tree, Bert told me a Winnipeg Jewish schools reunion was in the works and asked if I’d attend. I didn’t hesitate for a second to say that both my wife and I would be there.”
Calof anticipated that the reunion would be a positive experience, but, he said, “It was far better than that. First, although I don’t know when I’ll see them again, I feel reconnected with old friends. Second, the experience made me realize that my classmates and I played a vital role in continuing and strengthening Jewish education – not just in Winnipeg, but in the many North American, Canadian cities where we eventually settled. We carried with us the spirit, value and importance of a Jewish education which, in the raising of our children and through participation in community endeavours, we’ve helped perpetuate.”
Calof noted the similarities between his early Talmud Torah years – less than 10 years after the founding of the state of Israel and the end of the Holocaust – and the threat the world and world Jewry face today with the rise of nationalism, antisemitism, xenophobia and challenges to liberal democracy. “I hope history is not repeating itself, especially where Jews are concerned,” said Calof. “But, if it does, I hope and I truly think, we and the generations of Jewish students who have followed us will be better prepared to oppose and push back our enemies.”
The best part of the weekend for Calof was Monday morning, when so many former students from different years and schools had the opportunity to express their gratitude to teachers, parents and school founders for helping enrich the lives of thousands of students who attended a place of Jewish learning.
Anyone who attended Jewish school in Winnipeg in the 1950s and 1960s can still add their name to the organizers’ contact list by e-mailing [email protected] and can join the 800 others in the closed Facebook group facebook.com/groups/winnipegjewishschools.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.