From generation to generation: A Peretz Centre reunion attendee pauses to send a text while walking through an exhibit of archival photos. (photo from Peretz Centre)
On June 20, Vancouver’s Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture held its first-ever reunion of alumni.
The enthusiastic crowd at the reunion, which took place in the Ben Chud Auditorium of the institute’s home on Ash Street, included those who had attended at each of the centre’s locations over the years. When it was founded in 1945, the Peretz Centre offered preschool and after-school classes in Yiddish and Yiddishkeit in the basement of the old Jewish Community Centre at Oak and 11th Avenue, but soon the members purchased a house on Broadway near Alder (now the site of a liquor store and a high-rise). It operated there for 15 years, and it had more than 100 students when it moved to its current location.
The Peretz Centre is dedicated to non-political, secular Jewish and progressive education. Speaking at an open mic, alumni, many now seniors, shared stories dating back to the early days. They recalled a warm sense of community and an education that lived up to the centre’s progressive ideals, including the principle of tikkun olam, the duty to work with others to heal the world. The reunion also provided an opportunity for many to thank the activists who established the centre and for years have dedicated themselves to sustaining it. Some of those first-generation leaders were able to attend the reunion, including Seemah and Harold Berson, Galya Chud, Arlene Jackson and Claire Osipov. Some alumni traveled from out of town to attend, from Winnipeg, Calgary and Denver.
Among the attendees were graduates from the Peretz’s secular B’nai Mitzvah Program, which continues to be one of the centre’s most important offerings. The program approaches Jewish identity through a range of topics, including genealogy and family history, Jewish history and culture, ethics, traditions, Yiddish and Hebrew language studies and more. Avrom Osipov, a Peretznik who in the mid-1960s was the first to complete a Peretz bar mitzvah, spoke at the open mic about the controversy the program caused at the time. The idea of a secular bar or bat mitzvah was new and challenging, he said, even attracting some attention from the local news media.
Reunion attendees enjoyed a display of archival photos from the old days, and Peretz graduates provided much of the entertainment, including emcee and magician Steven Kaplan (aka “the Maestro of Magic”), saxophonist Saul Berson and singers Lisa Osipov-Milton and Sheryl Rae. Pianists Nick Apivor and Wendy Bross Stuart accompanied. The reunion wrapped up with a rousing singing of the old Peretz Shule Hymn, the chorus of which is, “Yud Lamed Peretz a likhtiker kval / tsint unzer hartz on fun dor tsu dor / di tsukunft fun folk balaykht un bashtralt / es vinkt shoyn di nayer kayor” (“This school, our shule, may it blossom and grow / It was built with great effort and love / To teach all the youth who are placed in our care / About ethics and justice for all.”
Paul Headrick is a Vancouver novelist and short story writer. He attended classes at the Peretz Centre in the early 1960s.