The Pacific Torah Institute’s Rabbi Noam Abramchik, left, and Rabbi Aaron Kamin. (photo from PTI)
As Vancouver’s only Orthodox yeshivah, Pacific Torah Institute (PTI) holds a unique place in the community. Since the talmudic era, when the rabbis of what is now Iraq gathered to debate Jewish law and texts and created the intense intellectual culture at the heart of traditional Judaism, the house of study (beit midrash) has been at the heart of Orthodox Jewish religious culture. In recognition of this, even non-religious Jews have long prided themselves on the presence of a yeshivah in their community and been willing to materially support it.
Located at 41st Avenue and Oak Street near a cluster of Jewish community organizations and services, PTI teaches traditional Jewish textual learning, including Talmud b’iyyun (with in-depth analytical study) and musar (the practices of ethical self-discipline and character transformation), thus carrying on the centuries-old twin focus of the Lithuanian-style yeshivah. So, when news spread that PTI, which has operated in the community since 2003, was considering relocating to Seattle, ripples of urgent concern spread throughout some quarters of the Jewish community.
A town hall meeting was organized, which took place at Schara Tzedek Synagogue. The discussion elicited strong support, both emotional and financial. Heads of school Rabbi Noam Abramchik and Rabbi Aaron Kamin left the meeting determined to save the yeshivah by attracting more students from beyond the Pacific Northwest, as well as from closer to home.
“There was never a desire to pick up and move,” Abramchik told the Independent. “There were enrolment questions, which coincided with the opening of a similar school in Seattle. Students from Seattle have been a consistent part of our student body, and we were worried – with them staying there and competition from another nearby school, we might not have enough students to be viable.”
Although PTI is affiliated with the Rabbinical Seminary of America, part of the community commonly known as the Chofetz Chaim network, it is an independent yeshivah that relies entirely on direct support from donations and fees. In recent years, enrolment has decreased because of families moving out of Vancouver, creating what Abramchik called “an existential issue” in the yeshivah’s high school program.
Kamin said affordability in Vancouver is a major factor. As well, the community is small, so, when members leave, it has a destabilizing effect. “When some families move,” he said, “you lose critical mass and it gets harder for an Orthodox Jewish community to function and have what everyone needs.”
Both rabbis talked about the opportunities and challenges that come with operating a yeshivah here.
“Vancouver’s strength is its openness,” said Abramchik. “Students here get the benefit of living a Torah lifestyle while interacting with all kinds of people and ideas, being a part of the wider world.”
Yet, the nature of the community also means “we don’t have the strength in numbers, we don’t have as many institutions and services,” said Abramchik.
One common challenge for smaller Orthodox communities is the need for young people to go elsewhere for advanced Torah study or to make a shidduch (marriage match). PTI offers higher level Torah learning until the age of 21 or 22, but those who want to continue their studies will have to move to another city, as will many of those seeking a life mate. Both Abramchik and Kamin have children who have gone to New York to find a shidduch, though some of them would like to eventually return to Vancouver with their families and make a home here.
Both rabbis are deeply embedded in the local Jewish community.
“Fifteen years of being here is fantastic,” said Abramchik. “My children couldn’t have been raised in a healthier, more wholesome environment, with such breadth of experience. As a rabbi who values religion above all else, I couldn’t be prouder of who they are as Jews and people, and directly attribute that to the incredible education they received in Vancouver through Vancouver Hebrew Academy (the Orthodox day school), PTI and Shalhevet (the Orthodox girls high school), as well as the wide range of people they’ve come into contact with, as we have hosted many diverse people at our Shabbat table over the years.”
Asked why they want to stay here, the rabbis were in agreement. “If we were looking to best serve our institution per se, the move to Seattle makes sense,” said Abramchik. “There are 300 Shomer Shabbos [Orthodox observant] families versus probably 60 here. We had a number of supporters saying we should go, but, after giving 10 years to this community, we feel it’s our home … we weren’t ready to leave it if there was any possible way to stay here.”
After the community town hall, the rabbis’ commitment to stay was strengthened, Abramchik said. “Is Vancouver a better city for having this institution or not? We heard a resounding yes, we heard this from people who do not send their children here, never will. We heard this needs to get done, we need to find a way to make this happen.”
“Our first priority is to do what we feel is God’s will,” said Kamin. “We believe this is the best thing for ourselves and our spiritual advancement, we want to do the right thing. The right thing transcends the institution, it transcends our own personalities. It was very much a feeling of this is the right thing to be doing, to make this decision to stay – the right thing for the community and the right thing for the boys now and the future boys.”
For Toviah Salfinger, a student at PTI, the news they are staying is welcome. The yeshivah plays “a huge part in my life,” he said. “It enables me to be able to really grow in terms of religious life. It would be pretty hard to have a solid foundation as a religious Jew without a yeshivah.”
Salfinger sees the challenges of Vancouver as holding a hidden blessing. “The fact that you’re in a community where there isn’t a strong Jewish religious presence, it helps you in a way,” he said, “because it puts the responsibility on you to live up to that, to be an example as religious person.”
Salfinger said he’d like to go on to study at the Rabbinical Seminary of America yeshivah in New York, and maybe become a rabbi who teaches kids. Maybe, he said, if there is an opportunity, he will one day be able to return to Vancouver.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.