Everyone could use some insight on how to confront life’s challenges. That’s why Chabad Richmond is offering a three-part online Zoom program called Inlook Outlook: Guidance from the Rebbe for Confronting Life’s Challenges on Wednesdays, Oct.13, 20 and 27, 7:30-8:30 p.m.
“This program focuses on the timely and relevant reflections and sage advice written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, throughout his lifetime, to those seeking his counsel,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, director of Chabad Richmond. “What’s fascinating is that the Rebbe’s insights and perspectives are still applicable today. The Rebbe drew from his profound grasp of Torah wisdom, and combined it with a nuanced sensitivity to each individual’s unique circumstances.”
The three-part program is “a shared dialogue around navigating change and managing stress, while defining and staying true to one’s purpose,” said Baitelman. “The Rebbe reminds us that whatever life challenges we face, we are always given the inner spiritual resources to overcome them.”
The Rebbe believed that how you think about any situation determines how you feel about it.
“By reflecting on practical advice penned to individuals during critical life-junctures, this program provides perspectives on life that begin from the inside out, starting from the soul and one’s destiny on earth. The Rebbe helped people find opportunity where others saw adversity,” added Baitelman.
Sign-in information for the program will be provided at the time of registration. Cost is $54 per person. To register, call 604-277-6427 or visit chabadrichmond.com/inlookoutlook.
Zoom presentations became a regular affair at Beth Israel during the pandemic. Inset: JFS director of programs and community partnerships Cindy McMillan provides an overview of the new Jewish Food Bank. (screenshot from BI & JFS)
As Vancouver-area synagogues cautiously edge their way toward reinstituting in-person religious services, many rabbis are doing a rethink about the impact that the past 17 months of closure has had on their congregations.
Finding a way to maintain a community connection for thousands of Jewish families became an imperative for all of the synagogues early on in the pandemic. Not surprisingly, for many, the answer became cutting-edge technology. But careful brainstorming and halachic deliberations remained at the heart of how each congregation addressed these urgent needs.
“We immediately realized that services per se were not going to work over electronic medium,” Congregation Schara Tzedeck’s Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt told the Independent.
He said Orthodox rabbis across the world were already discussing halachah (Jewish law) in light of the pandemic when the province of British Columbia announced the shutdown in March of last year. “We realized that we weren’t going to offer any services,” he said. “We can’t have a minyan online.”
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t offer support. Schara Tzedeck’s answer to that need was only one of many innovative approaches that would come up. For example, to help congregants who had lost family members, the Orthodox shul devised a new ritual, as the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish requires a minyan (10 men or 10 men and women, depending on the level of orthodoxy, gathered together in one physical location).
“What we did is immediately [start a Zoom] study session in lieu of Kaddish. [The Mourner’s] Kaddish is based on this idea of doing a mitzvah act, which is meritorious for the sake of your loved one, so we substituted the study of Torah for the saying of Kaddish,” he explained.
For many other communities, such as the Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Israel, the deliberations over how to apply halachah in unique moments such as these were just as intense. For these instances, said BI’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, rabbis saw another imperative.
“This is what is called she’at had’chak, or a time of pressure,” Infeld said. “It’s a special time, it’s a unique time, and so we adapted to the time period.”
The concept allows a reliance on less authoritative opinions in urgent situations. So, for example, with respect to reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, Infeld said, “We felt that, especially in this time period, people would need that emotional connection, or would need that emotional comfort of saying Mourner’s Kaddish when they were in mourning, and so we have not considered this [internet gathering to be] a minyan, except for Mourner’s Kaddish,” Infeld said. He noted that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which reviews halachic decisions for the Conservative movement, has adopted the same position.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay, who leads the Orthodox Sephardi synagogue Congregation Beth Hamidrash, said that although his congregation would not hold Mourner’s Kaddish online, venues like Zoom played a vital role in allowing the congregation to meet during shivah, the first seven days of mourning. Like a traditional shivah, which takes place in the mourner’s home, often with a small number of visitors, an online shivah gave community members a chance to attend and extend support as well.
“That was actually an especially meaningful [opportunity],” Gabay said. “The mourners, one after another, told me that, first of all, you don’t often get the opportunity to have so many people in the room, all together, listening.”
For members of the Bayit Orthodox congregation in Richmond, an online shivah meant family on the other side of the country could attend as well. “What was most interesting, of course, was the people from all across the world,” remarked Rabbi Levi Varnai. “You can have people who are family, friends, cousins, from many places in the world, potentially.”
Vancouver’s Reform Congregation Temple Sholom also came to value the potential of blending online media with traditional venues. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz said the congregation had been streaming its services and classes as much as a decade before the pandemic arrived. But lifecycle events, he said, demanded a more personal approach, one that would still allow families to actually participate in reading from the Torah scroll, while not violating the restrictions on large public attendance.
“The big change is that we brought Torah to everybody’s home,” he said. Literally. Moskovitz or his associate, Rabbi Carey Brown, would deliver the scroll in a large, specially fitted container, along with a prayer book, instructions and other necessary accoutrements.
“We had a document camera so, when we streamed, you could look down on the Torah as it was being read on screen. Those were very special moments on a front porch when I would deliver Torah, socially distanced with a mask on, early on in the pandemic,” he said. “I had a mask and I had rubber gloves and they had a mask, and you put something down and you walked away. We got a little more comfortable with service transmission later on.”
Switching to online media also has broadened the opportunities for classes and social connections. Infeld said Beth Israel moved quickly to develop a roster of classes as soon as it knew that there would be a shutdown.
“We realized right away that we can’t shut down. We may need to close the physical building, but the congregation isn’t the building. The congregation is the soul [of Beth Israel]. We exist with or without the building,” he said. “And we realized that for us to make it through this time period in a strong way, and to emerge even stronger from it, we would have to increase our programming.”
He said the synagogue’s weekly Zoom and Learn program has been among its most popular, hosting experts from around the world and garnering up to 100 or more viewers each event. The synagogue also hosts a mussar (Jewish ethics) class that is regularly attended. “We never had a daily study session,” Infeld said. “Now we [do].”
For Chabad centres in the Vancouver area, virtual programming has been a cornerstone of success for years and they have expanded their reach, even during the pandemic. “We have had more classes and more lectures than ever before, with greater attendance,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, who runs Chabad Richmond.
Zoom and other online mediums mean that the centres don’t have to fly in presenters if they want to offer an event. Like other synagogues, Chabad Richmond can now connect their audiences directly with experts from anywhere in the world.
“We can’t go back”
All of the synagogues that were contacted for this story acknowledged that online media services had played an important role in keeping their communities connected. And most felt that they will continue to use virtual meeting spaces and online streaming after the pandemic has ended.
“As our biggest barrier to Friday night participation was the fact that many families were trying to also fit in a Shabbat dinner with small children, the convenience of the Friday livestream is worth including in the future,” said Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who runs the North Shore Conservative synagogue Congregation Har El.
“We’re scoping bids to instal a Zoom room in our classroom space so that we can essentially run a blended environment,” Rosenblatt said. “We anticipate, when restrictions are lifted, some people will still want to participate by Zoom and some people will want to be in person.”
However, some congregations remain undecided as to whether Zoom will remain a constant in their services and programming.
Rabbi Susan Tendler said that the virtual meeting place didn’t necessarily mesh with all aspects of Congregation Beth Tikvah’s Conservative service, such as its tradition of forming small groups (chavurot) during services. “We are talking about what that will look like in the future,” she said, “yet realize that we must keep this door open.”
So is Burquest Jewish Community Association in Coquitlam, which is looking at hybrid services to support those who can’t attend in person. “But these activities will probably not be a major focus for us going forward,” said board member Dov Lank.
For Or Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation, developing ways to bolster classes, meditation retreats and other programs online was encouraging. Rabbi Hannah Dresner acknowledged that, if there were another shutdown, the congregation would be able to “make use of the many innovations we’ve conceived and lean into our mastery of virtual delivery.”
For a number of congregations, virtual services like Zoom appear to offer an answer to an age-old question: how to build a broader Jewish community in a world that remains uncertain at times and often aloof.
The Bayit’s leader, Rabbi Varnai, suggests it’s a matter of perspective. He said finding that answer starts with understanding what a bayit (home) – in this case, a Jewish house of worship – is meant to be.
The Bayit, he said, is “a place for gathering community members and for coming together. The question, how can we still be there for each other, causes us to realize that we can’t go back to as before.” After all, he said, “community service is about caring for each other.”
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Chabad Richmond’s Hebrew school teaches kids to read Hebrew, explore Jewish history, revel in hands-on Jewish living through holiday experiences and traditions, and pray. Plus, students learn a new mitzvah each week.
The Hebrew school – which is for kids in kindergarten through Grade 7 and geared for students not attending Jewish day schools – welcomes all Jewish children who want to join, and enrolment has doubled in the past year. Classes take place on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and no synagogue membership is required. The new school year begins on Sunday, Sept. 12, and registration is now open for the 2021-2022 year.
“For many children, this is their weekly dose of Judaism and we want it to be associated with joy,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, director of Chabad Richmond. “Our goal is that the education we provide will inspire them to bring our traditions into their homes in a practical way. We provide kids with a joyful sense of religious pride, identity and belonging, which is fundamental to spiritual growth and emotional health.”
“We believe that the Hebrew school experience should be fun, inspiring, and something the kids look forward to each week,” said Hebrew school director Chana Gordon. “Our goal is for the children to love learning Torah and be proud of their Jewish heritage. We hope to instil in your child a love of Israel and a desire to live by and celebrate our faith.”
The curriculum aims to give children a broad knowledge of Judaism in a stimulating, fun and challenging environment; an environment that highlights the joys, values and traditions of their Jewish heritage. The curriculum focuses on tzedakah (charity); Hebrew; Jewish history, holidays and values; arts and crafts; and Israel.
Students’ parents attest to the impact it’s had on their children. One mom, Deborah Butterman, said: “My son really enjoyed every aspect of the Aleph Champ [Hebrew learning] program at Hebrew school. It made him very positive and he’s having a lot of fun, and meeting a lot of other people in the Jewish community that we never had a chance to connect with before. It has motivated him to be proud of his Jewish heritage. He learned how to read from a siddur already. He’s learning about praying and how to do many things for the holidays…. It’s an exciting part of his week, every week.”
Another Hebrew school mother said, “The teachers at Chabad Hebrew school have worked hard to create a wonderful learning environment. They have encouraged my children to learn at their own level, and made them feel comfortable asking pertinent questions regarding Judaism. This positive environment offers convenience of location and a fun social network, in a nurturing environment. The fact that my children are eager to take time away from their weekends to go to Hebrew school each Sunday morning speaks volumes.”
Irina Sanders said about her daughter’s experience: “Rona loves coming to Hebrew school. She learned to read Hebrew, [and] loves participating in different activities and learning more about traditions.”
“It’s not all Torah learning and Hebrew,” noted Baitelman. “It’s also thematic arts and crafts, making holiday decorations, challah baking, singing and interacting with other children. It’s the whole Jewish experience, packaged into an interactive, warm and inspiring environment, led by enthusiastic, devoted teachers.”
Rabbi Manis Friedman is the keynote speaker at Chabad Richmond’s celebration on June 1. (photo from Wikipedia)
On June 1, Chabad Richmond will mark 10 years of the weekly Torah studies class. A special event celebrating the past and launching the future will feature guest speaker Rabbi Manis Friedman, a renowned lecturer, counselor and author of several books and many articles. The topic is The Top 10 Reasons to Study Torah.
Starting in 2011 as a small group that met with Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman to discuss the weekly parashah (Torah portion), this assembly of retirees has grown to more than 20 people weekly.
“While not exclusively the domain of the retired, these weekly morning Torah classes mainly attract seniors,” said Baitelman. “Not only are local Richmond and Vancouver folks attending, but participants from Alberta and Quebec are joining virtually as well. During the pandemic, with more people working from home, we have some younger participants, too. Everyone is welcome.”
When the pandemic struck last year, Baitelman recognized the need for the continuity of Torah studies and immediately started offering classes via Zoom. These weekly classes have provided learning, but, more importantly, inspiration.
Richmond resident and longtime Chabad attendee Grace Jampolsky approached Baitelman back in 2011 and asked if he would offer a weekly Torah class. She gathered a few friends, and so began the 10-year tradition that is now a foundational part of the participants’ lives. The weekly class is a program of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute of Richmond.
Acknowledging Chabad Richmond’s accomplishments to date, Baitelman said, “It’s all about celebrating our past learning and looking forward to growth and continued learning for the future. The continuity of weekly Torah study over 10 years is a real milestone. It represents thousands of hours spent studying the Torah portion of the week together, interactively, as a community of learners.”
As the participants attest, the classes have had a positive impact on expanding their Jewishness.
“If you were to ask me what the goals of the Torah classes are, I’d say it’s two-pronged goal – to increase class attendance and to share a love of Torah with our community,” said Baitelman.
Speaking with a few of the initial attendees, it became apparent that it’s not just the content of the classes that resonates with people, it’s Baitelman’s approach to teaching.
Ralph and Gina Blasbalg are two of the original members and, when asked how the classes have impacted their lives, Ralph Blasbalg said: “It’s always something to look forward to, especially when we’re cocooning during the pandemic. We don’t go out very much because we’re very vulnerable. The Torah lessons, the talks, the spirited wisdom of our rabbi – we are so lucky to have this rabbi in our community. Rabbi Baitelman is such a mensch, he’s just a wonderful human being.”
When asked how it’s enriched their lives, he added: “First of all, the knowledge that we are gaining, the knowledge about Torah, the knowledge about our community and the responsibilities that each one of us has to share and pay forward to the community. And the benefit that it gives to us, meaning that we have a sense of belonging, and we realize how our ancestors lived and how faith supported them through even worse times. We just have a pandemic – they had pogroms and illness and suppression and oppression … and, still, this faith, this Yiddishkeit, the manner of living by the Torah rules – the manual of life – is so important to us, for me, it’s definitely giving me that.”
Former participant Stevie Steiner said: “I was one of the first people in the group … and I attended for several years. I loved that class. It gave my life more meaning and purpose. If I went to the class tired, by the time it was over, I found myself so uplifted, or thoughtful. It made me look at things very differently, and very positively. Rabbi Baitelman always saw the glass half full, rather than half empty. It made quite a difference in my life actually. Rabbi Baitelman is a wonderful man and excellent teacher. He’s got a talent for getting the lesson across. The material was always very relevant. The rabbi was a very positive influence.”
Regular participant Maria Hughes said: “The weekly Torah classes have had a big effect on me. I’m from Russia, where there were no Torah classes, no nothing. I just knew I was Jewish because it was in my past, but I was discriminated against everywhere there. I went to live in Israel, but didn’t go to synagogue because I felt like an outsider and we didn’t know Hebrew. When I came to live in Richmond and started attending Chabad Richmond, I really started learning about Judaism and started feeling more and more proud of being Jewish…. It was like the puzzle came together. I started studying more and loving it. So I started talking to my daughter (who lives in Israel) about it a lot and we had different discussions. She was not religious at all … but, slowly, my daughter started keeping Shabbat and I think my influence was a big part of it. My talking about Judaism had a big effect on her. It affected not just me, but also my daughter and grandchildren. It affected a whole generation.”
Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver; Rabbi Efraim Mintz, executive director of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute; and Sheldon Kuchinsky, board member of Chabad Richmond, will be present to offer greetings at the celebration of the class’s 10 years.
Guest speaker Friedman is the dean of Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies, the world’s first yeshiva exclusively for women. He hosts his own cable TV series, Torah Forum with Manis Friedman, which is syndicated throughout North America.
The event takes place at 7 p.m. on June 1 via Zoom at chabadrichmond.com/celebrate. Register online using the link, or call 604-277-6427. Everyone is welcome.
Shelley Civkinis a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer, including at Chabad Richmond.
Clockwise from the top left: Tanja Demajo, Shelley Karrel, Amanda Haymond Malul and Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman participate in a JACS Vancouver panel discussion Oct. 15.
“When someone comes through the door and says, ‘I’m an addict. I’m a recovering addict,’ do they feel judged or do they feel accepted? Do they feel that we are putting them in a box, giving them a label?” asked Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman in a recent community discussion. “We have to identify the illness, there’s no question about that. But, is that the only way to view a human being? I think to respect every human being for their humanity, that’s what people are really craving – respect and love.”
Baitelman, director of Chabad Richmond, was one of three panelists on the topic Building Safe and Inclusive Spaces for Those Affected by Addiction and Mental Illness. He was joined by Tanja Demajo, chief executive officer of Jewish Family Services (JFS), and Amanda Haymond Malul, a community member in recovery, in the Oct. 15 event presented by Jewish Addiction Community Services (JACS) Vancouver. JACS Vancouver’s Shelley Karrel moderated the conversation.
Haymond Malul would like to see more community discussions on addiction and people being taught acceptance. She spoke of the need to “have support from the religious leaders of the community, from every single agency in the community, to start talking about it – make it acceptable, educate.” (See jewishindependent.ca/help-repair-the-world.)
And we need to ensure that what we are teaching is in line with our actions, said Demajo. “If we talk to children about acceptance, but we don’t actually practise that, that’s creating double standards where we talk about certain things, but that’s not what people experience,” she said. This could be damaging, she said, to people who “really need that support and want to trust.”
We must see each member of the community as a human being, said Baitelman. Love is important, but, he said, “Love is on my terms, respect is on your terms. If I love you, it’s more a reflection of who I am. But, if I respect you, it’s more of a reflection of how I see you, what you are about – and I think that’s really important. Respect the humanity. If you can love them, that’s even greater. But respect is more fundamental.”
When Karrel asked panelists for tangible ways in which people could be more accepting and inclusive, with love and respect, Demajo said agencies are overwhelmed with the number of people needing support. She said it is up to each of us to connect on a personal level with others, accepting that it will take time for them to trust us enough to share.
“You have to build a relationship, and a relationship is not built overnight,” said Demajo. “I had a client who I often think of, a person who spent a number of years [in the] Downtown Eastside being homeless, not having pretty much anything in his life…. He would come to see me … and we would speak about books, because he was a huge reader and I love reading. It took him six months until he really started talking about things that were going on in his life and what he actually needed, and we started working from there. Now, he has a regular life. He has a home. He brought his family back. He is working. So, things are in a place that he wanted … a number of years ago. Recovery is a process of being vulnerable and, so, if social services don’t have the time to invest in people, I think we are setting ourselves up for a really huge failure.”
All panelists agreed that having a drop-in centre with people who understand is absolutely essential and that, while professional support would be ideal, it is not essential. To be kind, respectful and loving, you do not need to be a professional, they said.
While there are recovery clubs in the general community, Haymond Malul said it would be great if there were also one in the Jewish community – “having a safe place for people to come and be able to drop in, and know that this is the Hillel House of Recovery,” she said.
However, having a community place might inhibit some people from coming out, due to fear of being exposed, warned Demajo. “The other piece is that I do feel that what Amanda has done tonight, speaking of her own experience and being in the community, and [talking about] some of the things that were helpful for her, is important to start with; having those opportunities to open up the conversation – not just for me, in a professional role, but from a personal place – because that is where the relationship happens. I do believe that is the core of whatever we come up with – the core is the relationship.”
Each of us is deserving of respect, regardless of our achievements, successes, failures or addictions, stressed Baitelman. “The fact that you were created by G-d makes you worthy of the highest form of respect and no judgment,” he said.
“Why would I not be involved with somebody who’s in recovery?” asked the rabbi. “After all, these people are accountable. They’re working on character development and are improving certain areas of their lives that they have the courage to acknowledge need to be corrected. They’re actively making amends with people around them. They are working on a conscious relationship with G-d rather than on other forms of success that society often judges success by. This is really an achievement.
“How many of us would like to change even one iota of our character, and people in recovery have changed more than one iota. They have made an incredible change, which is so admirable and should command respect. I think that’s part of the attitude that should be helpful in the broader community, and how we act with people, and the stigma.”
Karrel closed the discussion by giving a brief synopsis of JACS and its services. “We are working to diminish the stigma of addiction,” she told the Independent after the event. “Let’s keep this conversation going so we all feel we belong in our community.”
“People tend to read biblical stories like they do mythology,” said Chabad Richmond’s Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, one of the local Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) instructors. “Our course invites participants to look deeper and discover the underlying themes and relevant life lessons these stories were designed to convey.”
Baitelman is talking about a new six-session JLI course called Secrets of the Bible: Iconic Stories, Mystical Meanings and Their Lessons for Life, which starts Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m. The course will be offered both in-person, to a limited audience, at 4775 Blundell Rd., in Richmond (following COVID-19 restrictions), and online via Zoom. All classes – which are one-and-a-half hours long – will be recorded on Zoom and accessible online for six days after each class. For Vancouver Islanders, the course will be presented by Chabad of Nanaimo, 5450 Oceanview Terrace, in Nanaimo, starting Nov. 3, 7 p.m.
The course presents a unique way of reading the stories of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, Noah and the great flood, the lifelong feud between Jacob and Esau, Joseph’s multicoloured coat, the golden calf, and Korah’s rebellion. For each of these stories, three questions will be answered: What is the deeper meaning behind the story? How does it shape the Jewish worldview? What wisdom does it hold for us today?
Throughout the six sessions, Secrets of the Bible explores major life themes, including human subjectivity and bias; the underpinnings of relationships; negotiating spiritual growth with practical impact; why inspiration is fleeting and how to make it last; understanding equality and privilege; and navigating parallel spiritual and material life paths.
Secrets of the Bible is designed to appeal to people at all levels of knowledge, including those without any prior experience or background in Jewish learning. This course is open to the public, and attendees don’t need to be affiliated with a particular synagogue, or other house of worship.
“These biblical stories come alive as their deeper meanings and insights are revealed. They hold the key to life lessons for us all,” said Baitelman. “I encourage you to sign up for this thought-provoking course that’s sure to deepen your understanding of Judaism and enrich your life. You are welcome to try the first class for free with no obligation.”
To register and for more information about the Chabad Richmond course ($95/person or $160/couple), call 604-277-6427 or visit chabadrichmond.com/jli. For the Nanaimo course ($95/person or $152/couple), call 250-797-7877 or visit jewishnanaimo.com/secrets.html.
The 2019 “class photo” of Chabad shluchim who attended the Kinus Hashluchim in New York. Among the 4,000 Chabad emissaries attending were 14 from British Columbia. (photo from Chabad-Lubavitch)
Fourteen B.C. Chabad emissaries (shluchim), including one from Victoria and one from Nanaimo, recently converged on New York City for the annual five-day International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchim), which brings together shluchim from more than 100 countries around the world and other Jewish communal leaders, almost 6,000 people.
The Kinus Hashluchim reflects directly on the influence of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l, leader of the Chabad movement, who, decades ago began sending young Chabad couples to far-flung corners of the world to serve and, in some cases, build Jewish communities. The shluchim, or Rebbe’s Army, now comprises 5,000 Chabad couples worldwide. The newest shluchim just established a Chabad centre in Kigali, Rwanda; one in Myanmar; and one on the Caribbean island of Turks and Caicos.
The November Kinus conference focused on the work that has been accomplished. “It’s an opportunity for shluchim to share the various challenges they encounter and the countless accomplishments they achieve. We get a chance to share ideas, inspiration and guidance not only from the Rebbe’s teachings, but from each other. And these enable us to go home spiritually refreshed and ready to implement new things,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, director of Chabad Richmond. “We definitely gain strength from each other, and our challenge is to celebrate and share Judaism with joy, and to continue optimistically and positively empowering Jews around us.”
During the five-day gathering, the shluchim participated in seminars and workshops on combating antisemitism, inspiring pride in the Jewish people, and much more. They also engaged in study, prayer and celebrations, including a gala dinner. The spiritual high point took place on the Friday, Nov. 22, when shluchim visited the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place. Thousands of emissaries waited in line to deliver handwritten notes and prayers to the grave.
“It’s an opportunity for us to rededicate ourselves to the Rebbe’s spiritual and social vision for the world,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg, director of Chabad Lubavitch of British Columbia. On Shabbat, shluchim and lay leaders spent time learning and praying in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood, which houses the worldwide headquarters of the Chabad Lubavitch movement at 770 Eastern Parkway. They also took part in farbrengens (traditional Chassidic gatherings). On Sunday, the annual “class photo” of more than 4,000 shluchim took place at Chabad headquarters.
The Sunday evening gala, which Baitelman described as “vibrating with uncontainable energy, renewed enthusiasm and an undeniable sense of mission,” was held at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Centre. Emcee for the evening was Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice-chair of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational branch of the Chabad movement. He spoke of the challenges Chabad emissaries encounter in their work, and praised them for their enthusiastic and unflagging commitment to making a difference in the world.
The gala’s keynote address was given by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. He related that he has been Torah study partners with a Chabad rabbi in Woodmere, N.Y., for more than two decades, and said that helped prepare him for his current role as ambassador to Israel.
Many of the gala’s speakers emphasized how shluchim are deeply connected to Jews in every part of the world, and that each individual Jew is important to them. Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, a Chabad emissary from Mill Hill Synagogue in London, England, said: “Ask yourself, where would the world be today without the Rebbe’s vision? Who else goes looking for Jews all around the world, in every corner of the world?… What would have become of [Jews] were it not for the unconditional devotion of every shaliach and shalucha?”
The gala wrapped up with the annual “roll call,” at which Kotlarsky read out the names of the countries that have permanent shluchim. The evening ended with dancing and singing. For those who are interested, the banquet was livestreamed by chabad.org at tinyurl.com/twu2x7z.
In addition to Wineberg and Baitelman, the B.C. contingent of shluchim included Rabbi Avraham Feigelstock (Community Kollel), Rabbi Schneur Wineberg (Chabad East Vancouver), Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld (Lubavitch BC), Rabbi Mendy Feigelstock (Kosher Check), Rabbi Levi Varnai (Chabad Richmond), Rabbi Binyomin Gordon (Kosher Check), Rabbi Falik Shtroks (Chabad White Rock/Surrey), Rabbi Chalom Loeub (Chabad UBC), Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu (Community Kollel), Rabbi Meir Kaplan (Chabad of Vancouver Island), Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov (Chabad Nanaimo) and Rabbi Binyomin Bitton (Chabad of Downtown Vancouver).
Chabad Richmond’s Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, far left, was the only Canadian spiritual leader to participate in first-ever rabbinic seminar on Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, this past July. (photo from Chabad Richmond)
For one week this past July, 15 pulpit rabbis gathered together to take part in the first-ever rabbinic seminar on Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, in Jerusalem.
Yad Vashem is the foremost resource for Shoah educators, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Fourteen rabbis and rebbetzins from North America and one rabbi from Israel, all of whom are engaged in adult education, were invited to participate in the week-long pilot immersion program, which was sponsored by David and Ellie Werber and Martin and Bracha Werber. The diverse group of spiritual leaders spanned the religious spectrum.
Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, director of Chabad Richmond, was the only Canadian rabbi to participate in the seminar, with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver being a partial sponsor of his travels. He described the week of learning at Yad Vashem as “transformational, uncomfortable, overwhelming, extremely challenging, very enlightening and at times very inspiring. It’s going to take awhile to unpack all this information.”
Entitled Teaching the Shoah and Antisemitism: Opportunities, Challenges and Techniques, the seminar consisted of 65 hours of lectures by scholars and experts, plus testimonials from Holocaust survivors. Covering an array of topics, the point of the program was to help rabbis cultivate the skills necessary to create an educational curriculum and content for Holocaust studies in their schools, adult education classes and congregations at home. Yad Vashem’s challenge was to find unique approaches to teaching people about history, theology, antisemitism and Jewish values relating to the Holocaust, as well as to expand the breadth and scope of emissaries who will ensure the continuity of the stories and pass along the lessons learned from the Shoah.
The Yad Vashem seminar incorporated a multidisciplinary approach to Holocaust education and used various methodologies to help participants comprehend the complexity of the Shoah as a whole, never forgetting the personal stories of individuals. The curriculum included studying prewar Jewish life in Europe; the rise of Nazism; life in the ghettos; concentration camps and the attempted “Final Solution”; liberation from concentration camps; survivors returning to life in the “new world”; the ongoing pursuit of Nazi war criminals; the new antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric; physical and spiritual resistance; the role rabbis played during the Shoah; survivor testimony; and theological responses to the Holocaust.
Speakers included international researchers, professors and historians; a world expert on antisemitism; the head of Holocaust studies at Yad Vashem; a Nazi hunter; and several Holocaust survivors, including former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, and Rabbi Judge David Frenkel.
As the survivor population gets smaller, others need to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten. Yad Vashem understands that rabbis have a special role to play in teaching about the rabbinic, theological and spiritual meanings and implications of the Holocaust. For his part, Baitelman will be looking for ways to collaborate with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre to create a curriculum for Jews and non-Jews alike.
“The challenge is how to talk to teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings and 40-somethings about the Holocaust,” said Baitelman. “What should the message be?… We’re a people who have always told stories. Even though we are so many generations removed, in a sense, it is still my story, our story. The message is not only about where we come from, but also about where we are going.” He stressed that, with growing global antisemitism, we need to strengthen the Jewish people worldwide – Jewish education, Jewish values and Torah observance.
“Although we might struggle with faith,” said Baitelman, “we still need to look for G-d amidst the rubble and the hatred. It’s imperative that we find inspiration from those who survived the Holocaust, and find ways to teach tolerance, empathy and understanding.”
Baitelman believes it’s essential to address not only the theological question of “Where was G-d?” during the Holocaust, but also, “Where was man in all of this?”
“If, as a result of the Holocaust, one does not believe in G-d, then we have to believe in humanity,” he said. “The question is: ‘Where was the humanity of the people that perpetrated these crimes?’”
For the rabbi, a meaningful Jewish education involves people living Jewishly. “We need highly educated, well-informed Jewish kids living fully engaged Jewish lives,” he said. “We need children who are living proudly Jewish.”
Baitelman has taught several courses on the Holocaust through the Jewish Learning Institute, and has talked to teachers, school classes and new immigrants about antisemitism and the Holocaust. He said education needs also to address the important question of “Now what? What are we here for?”
Shelley Civkinis a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review, and currently writes a bi-weekly column about retirement for the Richmond News. She is a volunteer with Chabad Richmond.
Starting Nov. 20, Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman of Chabad Richmond will be leading Worrier to Warrior, a new six-session course offered by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), to help people deal with life’s challenges by accepting themselves and finding meaning in adversity.
Participants will examine factors that prevent us from achieving a more positive outlook – guilt, shame and fear of inauthenticity – in light of the notion that a purposeful life provides the key to well-being. Like all JLI programs, this course is designed for people at all levels of knowledge, including those without any prior experience or background in Jewish learning. All JLI courses are open to the public.
“Everyone faces personal challenges in life, whether physical, emotional, professional, familial, social or otherwise,” said Baitelman. “How we deal with these issues is crucial for our ability to achieve lasting satisfaction in life. By finding meaning in personal challenges – that is, seeing them as opportunities – we come to accept ourselves and are emboldened to move forward.”
Worrier to Warrior combines positive psychology with Jewish wisdom to explore questions such as, Is there a meaning to life that makes even our difficulties purposeful? Am I just what happens to me or do I have a deeper core? How can I get off the “hedonism treadmill” and the sense that even life’s successes ring hollow?
“All too often people are thrown off their path in life by hardships that sink them into negative emotions or anxiety,” explained Rabbi Naftali Silberberg of JLI’s Brooklyn headquarters. “In this course, we learn to face our challenges by understanding our lives in a deeper context.”
Prof. Steven M. Southwick, MD, of the department of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine has endorsed this course, saying, “It is well known that positive emotions rest at the heart of overall well-being and happiness, but how to effectively enhance positive emotion remains challenging. Worrier to Warrior approaches this challenge from an insightful perspective grounded in contemporary psychology and Jewish literature.” Worrier to Warrior is accredited in British Columbia for mental health professionals seeking to fulfil their continuing education requirements.
The course starts Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m., at Chabad Richmond. To register and for more information, call 604-277-6427. The cost is $95/person or $160/couple and includes textbook. Classes are 1.5 hours long.
Worrier to Warrior course is also being offered at the Lubavitch Centre (604-266-1313) in Vancouver, beginning Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m., and at Chabad of Nanaimo (250-797-7877), starting Nov. 12, 7 p.m.
Registration for all of these courses is possible at myjli.com.
Want to make a difference in the lives of Israeli teens? Consider joining Israel Connect, a program where local volunteers connect online, one-on-one, via Zoom (a video conferencing app), with Israeli high school students who want to improve their English conversation and reading skills. The program starts at the end of October and is sponsored by Chabad Richmond. It entails a half-hour per week commitment.
“We’re looking for volunteer retirees, seniors or adults with flexible schedules. No previous tutoring experience is necessary and the curriculum is provided,” said Shelley Civkin, local coordinator of the program.
“We’re looking for Jewish adults who are fluent English speakers, have basic computer skills and own a computer with a camera,” said Civkin. Volunteers can do this from home and technical support is available if needed. Time preferences of volunteers will be coordinated beforehand and sessions take place in the morning between 7 and 11 a.m. any day from Sunday to Thursday. Volunteers will be trained in how to download and use Zoom.
“It’s a very meaningful, practical way for community members to support Israel,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman of Chabad Richmond. “You’ll be doing a mitzvah, while investing in Israel and its young people. Plus, good English skills will give them an advantage in accessing post-secondary education and getting better jobs.
“English proficiency is crucial to Israeli students, since it accounts for a third of their entrance exam marks for university,” he added. “Partnering with the Israeli Ministry of Education, the Israel Connect program targets teens from disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Israel. The tutoring sessions are vital to students’ upward mobility in terms of education and jobs, which is why this program is so vital.”
“Most volunteers really enjoy helping their Israeli students and make great connections with them. It often goes beyond simply tutoring the curriculum and turns into friendship and mentorship,” said Civkin. “This kind of one-on-one tutoring makes a significant difference in their lives, both educationally and personally. It’s hard to estimate the impact of this tutoring on Israeli youth, but we know it’s significant. And it’s incredibly satisfying to know that you’re doing something concrete to help Israeli students improve their lives. Several tutors have visited their students on trips to Israel, and keep in touch beyond just the school year. Building relationships is an integral and highly satisfying part of this program.”