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 Civkin is 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.