Laura Rosenberg and Andy Muchin co-founded the Victoria Jewish Culture Project with Farley Cates. Here, the two participate in the group’s 2021 Passover seder (screenshot)
In late 2019 and early 2020, before the pandemic struck and lockdowns took effect, a group of friends in Victoria gathered to talk about forming a cultural group – a havurah, or casual and friendly meeting place for people to discuss art and social events through a Jewish lens.
As COVID hit, with everyone at home and in-person meetings impossible, the group, which had called itself the Victoria Jewish Culture Project, held its first gatherings over Zoom. These days, the VJCP, under the leadership of members Laura Rosenberg, Andy Muchin and Farley Cates, still meets weekly and for Jewish holidays over Zoom.
“As a result of what at that time felt like an interim, for-the-moment format, we started having a variety of events on Zoom, including holiday celebrations and commemorations, as well as a weekly discussion group,” said Rosenberg. “I am shocked to note that here we are almost four years in.”
The discussion group at first would meet to go over the Torah portion of the week. Once the biblical cycle was complete, the group shifted to different social and cultural topics from week to week. While most of the VJCP attendees are based in Victoria, they have active members elsewhere. Because their meetings are held on Zoom, geography does not pose a barrier.
“We have an active Zoomer from Salt Spring Island every Saturday,” said Muchin. “For some of our holiday events, we have people pop in from various places – relatives of friends, friends of friends, even my sons played roles in our Zoom Purim spiels, from different American cities.”
“VJCP is basically a group of people who generally view things from a secular humanist perspective. The biggest thing we are offering right now is the opportunity for some discussion among people of different backgrounds,” said Cates. “We want to look at things critically and think things through.”
Rosenberg said, while she was excited about a weekly discussion group four years ago, she never anticipated it would end up becoming such an important venue for the exchange of ideas and a catalyst for many of the other events the group has organized. Holiday celebrations have included a drag Purim spiel, co-sponsored with the Klezbians band and an outdoor Tashlikh ceremony at Esquimalt Gorge Park.
“It has been a generative force and this, I think, is something which will continue to be a core activity for this group, and [it will] continue to generate ideas and thoughts that can bring a number of different activity spin-offs,” Cates said.
“I would go so far to call the Saturday morning a ritual we have developed for ourselves. It is really a part of my Saturdays. There’s always a critical mass of people,” said Muchin. “It is a great ongoing connection for us in addition to being a wonderful way to explore issues.”
“What we are trying to do,” explained Cates, “is reflect on what the Jewish community is faced with, as well as what other communities are faced with, and what the world is faced with generally.”
Since the events of Oct. 7, the members of VJCP have expressed gratitude for having a “safe haven” in which civil and open discussion can take place.
“We have a forum where we can discuss these things that were obviously deeply painful and could have been very divisive, but we could discuss them in a respectful manner – even when, as individuals, we did not always agree,” Rosenberg said.
Aside from the VJCP, Rosenberg, Muchin and Cates have been engaged in various aspects of Jewish cultural life and beyond for a long time. Rosenberg plays concertina for the Victoria-based, all-female klezmer ensemble Kvell’s Angels. She is also the newly appointed director of Klezcadia, a klezmer music and Yiddish culture festival run through Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El. The festival will have its inaugural season in June 2024.
For the past 13 years, Muchin has been the host and producer of Sounds Jewish, a weekly radio show that airs on Mississippi Public Broadcasting and is distributed on PRX, a web-based radio platform. As well, he is active with the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival (VIJFF) and has written for several Jewish publications.
Cates has been co-director of the VIJFF for four seasons. Outside the Jewish community, his “pet project” is Theatre Inconnu, the longest-surviving alternative theatre company on the island, where he serves on the board. Furthermore, he is involved in various cultural activities in the Victoria area, such as a performing arts centre on the West Shore and the Arts & Culture Colwood Society.
The VJCP says the group is open to new members and welcomes suggestions for activities or programs others are interested in pursuing. They are holding a Hanukkah party over Zoom on Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. For more information about the event and/or the VJCP, write to [email protected].
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.