Left to right at Chabad of Vancouver Island’s 20th anniversary gala last November: Rabbi Meir Kaplan; Iddo Moed, Israel’s ambassador to Canada; Dr. Elior Kinarthy and Leah Kinarthy, founders of Kineret Tamim Academy of Victoria; and Rebbetzin Chani Kaplan. (photo from Chabad of Vancouver Island)
Chabad of Vancouver Island, led by Rabbi Meir and Rebbetzin Chani Kaplan, ended last year by marking a few milestones. The centre celebrated its 20th anniversary in November with a gala that included many dignitaries from across North America, including the Israeli ambassador to Canada. The centre – which is officially called the Verrier Family Chabad Centre for Jewish Life and Learning – marked eight years since the opening of its own building, which was the first new synagogue built on Vancouver Island in more than 150 years. And, Dec. 22-23, the centre hosted Cantor Yaacov Orzech and the Kol Simcha Singers for a community Shabbaton in solidarity with Israel, marking the first time a choir has ever sung at the Chabad synagogue.
My own connection with the Kaplans and Chabad of Victoria began several years ago, when the Kaplans hosted me at their home for Rosh Hashanah. At the time, services were being conducted in the annex of a nearby school. I was impressed at the dedication of the members of the synagogue in their little makeshift shul and even more impressed when I learned that a new Chabad Centre would be built.
At the 20th anniversary event, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend, a future milestone was announced – the establishment of a new Jewish elementary school in Victoria. Kineret Tamim Academy will be the first new Jewish day school on the island in 160 years. It will be part of the Tamim Academies network, which operates 15 schools across North America, including locations in Toronto, Portland, New York and Miami. Opening in September, it will complement the existing CTots Childhood Education Centre at the Chabad Centre, which has a preschool and kindergarten.
A spontaneous day trip to Victoria several months ago led to the December milestone at Chabad of Vancouver Island. I called Rabbi Kaplan from the ferry, and he told me to drop by the synagogue and say hello. When I arrived, the rabbi gave me a tour of the two-storey building which houses the kindergarten, a mikvah, offices, a meeting/study room, a Judaica store and a social hall. The building was light and spacious, and the acoustics were impeccable. I mentioned to Rabbi Kaplan that the Kol Simcha Singers, with whom I sing, would appreciate the great sound in the shul. He was intrigued and suggested that perhaps the shul could host an evening for the choir. On a subsequent visit, I brought Cantor Orzech and, after that meeting with Rabbi Kaplan, the stage was set for the community Shabbaton.
The choir – which includes Matanya Orzech, Sydney Goldberg, Maurice Moses, Hirschel Wasserman, Geoffrey Goldman, Edward Lewin, Terry Barnett and me – made our way from Vancouver to Victoria to lead the Friday night and Shabbat morning services. We were joined for this special occasion by a Kol Simcha singer who grew up in Victoria, as well as a chorister who is originally from Manchester but is now a resident of Qualicum Beach. As we crowded around Cantor Orzech on the bima to chant, in harmony, ancient Shabbat melodies, the shul’s acoustics enhanced our voices and made for a heavenly sound. After services, we enjoyed a Shabbat dinner made by Chef Menajem. We ate downstairs in the bright and cheery social hall, which features paintings from local artists. It was a joyous evening, with Rabbi Kaplan leading some spirited singing interspersed with inspiring words of Torah.
Shabbat morning was more of the same, with the choir singing, under the cantor’s direction, songs to honour Shabbat and Israel. During the service, Rabbi Kaplan acknowledged several members of the congregation who have family members serving in the Israel Defence Forces. At lunch afterwards, the choir sang Shehecheyanu, a prayer that commemorates a milestone, because singing at the centre was a new experience for both the choir and Chabad of Vancouver Island.
At the lunch, Rabbi Kaplan shared that one of our choir members, Terry Barnett, was born in Victoria and had lived there until the 1980s. After the meal, I took a walk with Terry along Cook Road to Dallas Road for a view of the ocean and the Olympic Mountains. For Terry, it was nostalgic being back in Victoria. For me, it was a pleasure to be in the city, too – I had almost moved there several years ago. Terry and I got back to synagogue just in time for ma’ariv, the evening service, and then most of the choir returned to Vancouver.
I stayed over a few extra days and, on Sunday morning, attended services and watched a video of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), who stressed the need for education in a Jewish community. There were several new programs announced for 2024, including a six-week series entitled Advice for Life, which offers the Rebbe’s guidance for leading a more purposeful life. Registration for the series, which is also held at other Chabad centres, can be made via chabadvi.org or myjli.com. The new program complements the Shabbat and Sunday morning services, weekly classes and adult education and holiday celebrations that the centre offers throughout the year.
Later that Sunday, I took a walk to some familiar places in Victoria and checked out the Fernwood General Store, which is in the neighbourhood I would have moved to. It’s a small grocery store that used to be owned by South African Jews and that still features a kosher section, with kosher chicken, blintzes, bourekas, gefilte fish, tuna, matzah and grape juice, among other things.
My visit to the island for the December Shabbaton reminded me of how much Jewish Victoria has to offer and brought back memories of another milestone I had the privilege of witnessing, the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Conservative Congregation Temple Emanu-El, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Canada. Hopefully, I will be able to return to Victoria again to celebrate and perhaps write about another Jewish milestone in British Columbia’s beautiful capital city.
David J. Litvak is a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster, “accidental publicist,” and “accidental mashgiach” at Louis Brier Home and Hospital. His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.