More than 100 people came out to Burquest Community Association’s Purim carnival this year. (photo from Burquest)
At the end of a short, upward-sloping driveway in Port Coquitlam, what was originally a Jehovah’s Witness centre was converted into a Jewish community centre a couple of decades ago. The community the centre houses, Burquest, has been active since 1973. As the Jewish presence in the Tri-Cities grows, it is playing an increasingly essential role in providing services and connecting Jews to one another and to our culture and traditions.
The Burquest Jewish Community Association is dedicated to the “religious, social, cultural and educational needs of the Jewish population of the Fraser Valley,” with a membership of around 70 families, according to their website. The membership is diverse, with roots in five continents and a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds and interests, ranging in age from infants to grandparents. Yet, two years ago, the community’s future was uncertain – the board was considering continuing under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, until Shoshana Szlachter stepped up to offer new leadership. She became board president just over a year ago.
“We were suffering from an onerous debt, it didn’t look like there was enough membership to keep it going,” Rudy Rozanski, Burquest vice-president, told the Jewish Independent. “A few of us got together, and Shoshana was at the head of that, and we decided that we do believe in the future of Burquest and we decided we did want to re-invigorate it. We had many ideas and they were instituted by Shoshana in a clear and positive way. We transformed it into a centre for Jewish learning, as well as being a community centre.”
Part of Burquest’s new success seems to lie in going back to their origins. “When I first joined Burquest, we were non-denominational, and then went Reform. But that didn’t work out as an experiment,” said Rozanski. “In a sense, we’ve returned to our roots.”
A year into Burquest’s renewal, things are looking up.
“Financially, we’ve come along really well,” said Szlachter. “When I came in, I thought, there’s still some life in this old donkey, let’s give it a kick and see what happens.”
The community reduced the cost of seats for the High Holidays and gave free memberships to those who bought tickets – this tripled membership. The centre has also gotten key grants, including from Federation, the Waldman Foundation and the City of Coquitlam. They have partnered with PJ Library to offer activities for children, as well as expanding their programming overall. For example, Burquest now has a Seniors on the Go program, covering yoga for seniors, mah jongg, art and piano gatherings, and a lunch-and-learn program on Jewish genealogy. There is a women’s class led by Devorah Brody, a teen club, Maccabee Kids (with optional Hebrew lessons) and a parent-and-tot drop-in program called Coffee and Knishes. Cantor Steve Levin leads religious services, and holiday events have been well-attended, with some 100 people joining the Chanukah and Purim celebrations.
“For a small community, our calendar is pretty full,” said Szlachter.
“I really enjoy the wide range of programming that Burquest is now offering,” said Sandra Hochstein, who has been involved with Burquest for 20 years. “When my daughters were young, I participated in all the child-oriented activities and am glad to see they are still there and going strong. Now that I am an empty-nester and newly retired, I love being able to participate in the adult activities, such as lunch-and-learn sessions and Monday morning yoga. I still appreciate the sense of community that I feel when attending Shabbat or High Holiday services.”
Asked about Szlachter’s role in Burquest’s “renewal,” Rozanski said, “Shoshana is an outstanding leader who is genuinely effective and concerned about our community, and her decisions regarding Burquest’s future have been unanimously applauded. Renewal is the right word for what our community is going through.”
More information about Burquest can be found at burquest.org.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.