Steven Finkleman, vice-president of the Okanagan Jewish Community, takes a moment to enjoy some Israeli dancing. (photo by Misty Challmie)
When the founders of Kelowna’s fledgling Jewish community decided to open a building, they couldn’t call it a synagogue.
The B.C. government of the day would contribute a third of the construction costs toward a community centre but nothing if it were a church or synagogue. So, a small group of dedicated volunteers named it the Okanagan Jewish Community Centre and got the funding.
The building – also known as Beth Shalom Synagogue – features a sanctuary alongside a large kitchen, library and daycare. Twenty-five years after its dedication in the heart of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, a dozen original members and 50 supporters celebrated the milestone with Israeli dancing, humour and heartwarming stories.
Steven Finkleman, who led the event, reminisced about how a few retired couples kept the Jewish religion “alive in these boonies” by getting together at various houses. Members gathered regularly for services at a church after they formalized their community at an inaugural meeting in 1983.
“We met at St. Michael’s Anglican Church. For us, it was St. Moishe’s,” said Finkleman, who grew up in Winnipeg. “The question wasn’t, ‘Do we need a building?’ It was, ‘If someone dies, where do we put them?’ So a cemetery was most important.”
As more Jews moved into the Okanagan, momentum grew. Then-newcomer Mel Kotler, a businessman from Montreal who ran the Western division of Fabric-land, helped launch the community’s first cemetery drive. The committee bought pews, bimah artifacts and an ark from a synagogue that closed in Moose Jaw, Sask. Members contracted Emil Klein, a retired rabbi living in nearby Winfield, to lead services in houses and at St. Moishe’s.
Soon, they picked out a burial site overlooking a lake north of Kelowna, making it the only Jewish cemetery between Metro Vancouver and Calgary. After shifting the focus to establishing a centre, lawyer Robert Levin met with developers of a new subdivision in Kelowna’s North Glenmore area to negotiate a location. They agreed the Jewish community would put in a daycare to serve the neighbourhood as part of the deal.
Plans were drawn up for a $400,000 building, and a successful fundraising dinner followed. Once built, two former members of the Moose Jaw synagogue helped carry in two Torahs for the dedication in October 1992. More than 300 people attended the ceremony, which included a six-foot challah. Among the dignitaries were British Columbia’s former premier, Dave Barrett, member of the Legislative Assembly Cliff Serwa and B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Wilson.
Today, about 60 families – with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform backgrounds – support the centre. Visiting rabbis and cantors lead services, and children learn about Judaism at Hebrew school. Rabbi Shaul Osadchey and Cantor Russ Jayne of Calgary’s Beth Tzedec Congregation currently travel to Kelowna four times a year for Jewish holidays.
“They have the skill set we don’t have,” said Okanagan Jewish Community president Mondy Challmie. “When people have questions of a religious nature that we’re unable to answer, we encourage them to email or call Rabbi Osadchey.”
To celebrate the 25th anniversary, Cantor Russ sang a Hebrew-English version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Israeli dancers – who have practised every week for 14 years at the centre – performed. Member of Parliament Stephen Fuhr and Kelowna Councilor Mohini Singh gave speeches. And everyone shared a nosh, a slideshow and plenty of laughs.
As the party wound down and people folded up the chairs, Finkleman reflected on the biggest challenge for this tight-knit but tiny congregation.
“Generating interest, support and commitment in a small community – distant from a major Jewish centre – was difficult. It still is a challenge, but, when the building opened, it served as a focal point for recent arrivals in the Okanagan. We were very honoured to have some of the original members present. We miss those who are no longer with us.”
For more information, visit ojcc.ca.
Don Plant is a retired journalist and member of the Okanagan Jewish Community in Kelowna. He’s now studying archeology and helped excavate an Early Bronze Age site in Israel last summer.