Bayit Rabbi Levi Varnai, MLA Jas Johal, Chabad of Richmond Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, Bayit board member Keith Liedtke, Joe Dasilva, Bayit president Michael Sachs, MLA Mike Bernier, MLA Teresa Wat and MLA John Yap. (photo by Lauren Kramer)
On the evening of Oct. 8, the Bayit and Chabad of Richmond hosted a Sukkot carnival called Shakes in the Shack. Scores of Richmond Jewish, and non-Jewish, community members came out and enjoyed the festivities.
The Bayit joined forces with Chabad of Richmond in an emoji-themed Purim celebration held at Richmond’s City Centre Community Centre March 12. Pictured here, left to right, are Chabad of Richmond’s Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, Bayit president Mike Sachs, Yoav Rokach-Penn and the Bayit’s Rabbi Levi Varnai. (photo by Lauren Kramer)
In every community, and ours is no exception, there are folks who frequently capture the spotlight for their work while others quietly get things done behind the scenes, flying below the media radar. In our new Kibitz & Schmooze profile, we’ll try to highlight members of Greater Vancouver’s Jewish community who are doing outstanding, admirable and mention-worthy work out of view of the general public. If you know of profile subjects who fit this description, please email [email protected]
Kids and anxiety go hand-in-hand, but, when kids’ anxiety gets out of control, many parents turn to Annie Simpson.
The 39-year-old Vancouver Talmud Torah mom boasts a PhD in psychology and 10 years’ experience in pediatric psychology. She founded the Cornerstone Child and Family Psychology Clinic in Vancouver in January, where she works with nine other psychologists. But Simpson’s focus is on young patients with anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, selective mutism and depression.
Her interest in selective mutism, an impairment defined as an inability to speak in some social situations despite speaking perfectly fine in others, began six years ago. That’s when Simpson started getting referrals of children with the impairment and wanted to gain a better understanding of how to help them. She traveled to New York to confer with world-renowned expert Dr. Steve Kurtz, helped run one of his camps for selectively mute kids and came back enthusiastic about applying his cognitive behavioural therapy methods in Vancouver.
Within two years, Simpson ran the first camp of her own at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and soon started receiving calls from all over North America, from parents who wanted to enrol their children. Just under one percent of kids have selective mutism.
Simpson’s summer clubs are annual now, and in high demand. “I see a wide variety of impairment, from kids who only speak to one parent to kids who cannot speak at school,” she says. “At the camps, we develop a trusting relationship with the children and then expose them gradually to the feared situation, rewarding their success.”
Camp is Simpson’s favourite week of the year because the progress is so rapid. “The children are improving so quickly and they get so excited about their success,” she says. “With the right supports in place back home, the kids continue to thrive after the camp.”
For parents who don’t seek help for selectively mute kids, Simpson warns that the mutism gets more challenging to treat the older a child gets, and is particularly difficult when kids become teens and have had so many years of not talking.
When she’s not counseling patients, you’ll find this enterprising Vancouverite at B.C. Children’s Hospital, where she’s a staff psychologist in the pediatric OCD Program; at Simon Fraser University, where she’s a clinical associate in the department of psychology; or consulting for AnxietyBC.
MLA George Heyman addresses the crowd at the lighting of the Silber Family Agam Menorah (below) on Dec. 25. (photo by Glenn Berlow)
There were many Chanukah celebrations that took place around the Lower Mainland last month. Here are but a sampling of the events that were held to mark the holiday.
Despite the frigid weather, more than 200 people gathered on Dec. 25 for the annual lighting of Canada’s tallest menorah, the Silber Family Agam Menorah.
The menorah is usually placed outside of Vancouver Art Gallery but, due to construction, it was placed outside of the Vancouver Central Library on West Georgia Street this Chanukah. The program included greetings from MLA George Heyman, Rabbi Avraham Feigelstock, Herb Silber and Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg. B.C. Premier Christy Clark sent her greetings to be read at the event as well.
– Lubavitch BC
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On Dec. 25, the third Iron Chef Chanukah took place, hosted once again by the Centre for Judaism of the Lower Fraser Valley.
“Rabbi and Simie Schtroks really know how to throw a party!” said chef Marat Dreyshner. “This was my third Iron Chef Chanukah competition and it gets better each year. Young and old joined together for an evening of lights, song, great food and amazing fun.”
“It was an evening that warmed my Yiddishe kishke,” one of the guests commented, echoing the sentiments of many.
After the competition, guests sat and shmoozed with Rabbi Falik and Rebbetzin Simie Schtroks into the night. A first-time attendee was overheard saying, “I am so glad that I came. This place really feels like one warm family. It really lifted my spirits.”
– Centre for Judaism
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On Dec. 26, the third night of Chanukah was marked in the plaza of Richmond Public Library and Cultural Centre with a celebration that included the lighting of a 25-foot steel menorah designed by the late Arthur Erickson and fabricated by Ebco Industries Ltd.
MLA Teresa Wat was in attendance and addressed the more than 300 people who braved the difficult weather conditions to come out for the community event, which also featured kids entertainment and Chanukah treats.
Some of the companies and organizations involved were the Bayit synagogue (Rabbi Levi Varnai and president Michael Sachs), Chabad of Richmond, the City of Richmond, Richmond Public Library and Cultural Centre, and Helmet and Hugo Eppich from Ebco Group of Companies. Joe Dasilva was a main organizer.
– The Bayit
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Approximately 120 people attended the annual Centre for Judaism’s public menorah lighting at the Semiahmoo Shopping Centre on Dec. 29.
MLA Marvin Hunt, White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin and councilors Dave Woods, Helen Fathers, Mike Starchuk and Rudy Storteboom joined the celebration and brought greetings from their cities and from the government of British Columbia. Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg, director of Lubavitch BC, and his wife, Rebbetzin Henia Wineberg, also joined the Centre for Judaism’s Rabbi Falik and Rebbetzin Simie Schtroks for the evening.
Although MP Dianne Watts was sick with the flu, she made sure to call Simie Schtroks prior to the event. She also sent a letter of greetings on behalf of the Government of Canada. In the letter, she stated her support for the Jewish people and the state of Israel, especially at this time.
Jason Aginsky was awarded the Centre for Judaism’s Lamplighter Award. Aginsky was the second-youngest participant in the B.C. Ride to Conquer Cancer in August 2016, when he rode the 250 kilometres from Surrey to Seattle over two days. He raised more than $4,000 for the cause.
Cantor Yaakov Orzech lit the menorah and sang Chanukah songs. Musical entertainment, including “The Baal Shem’s Niggun,” was provided by violinist Robert Rozek, one of his students, Rebecca Bukhman, and her mother, musician Rada Bukhman. The talented young harpist Adina Ragetli also entertained the audience with Jewish songs.
Not to be forgotten was a quick game of Let’s Make a Chanukah Deal, as well as doughnuts, chocolate gelt and dreidel glasses.
Michael Sachs, left, and Rabbi Levi Varnai of the Bayit. (photo from Michael Sachs)
The Bayit, a small shul in Richmond, is seeing a resurgence. The increase in attendance and birth of new programming seems to be due to the growth of young Jewish families. Rabbi Levi Varnai, who took his post at the Bayit in July of this year, said their Shabbat morning services are busy and full, and a recent dinner welcomed 80 people to the shul, which only has 42 chairs.
Though Varnai is himself a Chabad rabbi, the shul is not affiliated with any denomination and stresses its inclusivity.
“There is a huge movement of young families into Richmond,” Varnai told the Independent. “We are not here to compete with the existing shuls, which are doing a great job. We are here to make a place for young families who haven’t yet found their place in the Richmond Jewish community.”
Varnai was born in Vancouver, but his family made aliyah in 2000. After yeshivah, he was drafted into the Israel Defence Forces and became an army chaplain, since he had semichah (ordination). In 2011, he married his wife Rivky, the daughter of Rabbi Shaul and Chaya Brocha Leiter, who run Ascent, a hostel in Tzfat known for its classes on Jewish mysticism. The couple moved to Vancouver in 2013 and have three children: Mendel, Shmuli and Chaya.
Children are a very important part of their vision for the synagogue. They have Shabbat programs for kids and are planning an afterschool program which will be a club featuring a number of fun, hands-on activities, like baking and arts and crafts, imbued with Jewish culture. The shul is currently preparing for Rosh Hashanah and, on Sept. 18, gathered to decorate family honey jars. “We aim to make this place a dynamic centre for young families and, so far, there is a lot of energy and interest,” said Varnai.
According to its website, the Bayit has the only kosher mikvah in Richmond.
Michael Sachs is the current president of the synagogue. He and his family moved to Richmond in January 2015, priced out of the Vancouver market, and has since been instrumental in the Bayit’s rebirth.
“My favorite thing is probably our Carlebach-style Friday night services,” said Sachs. “One thing that I really love is the difference we are making in people’s lives, either with help finding housing or support during hard times … we are there, with our local Jewish partners, for the Richmond community.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.