Kamloops JCC organizes activities for community

Kamloops kids decorate masks for Purim.
Kamloops kids decorate masks for Purim

Kamloops, a town of about 90,000 people in the arid interior of British Columbia, boasts a first-class hospital, a university, dozens of churches, but no synagogue or rabbi, despite the presence of probably hundreds of Jews in the region. Seven years ago, about 50 local Jewish families joined together to form the Jewish Community Centre of Kamloops.

The JCCK has no bricks-and-mortar headquarters, but it has plenty of enthusiasm. Its president is Heidi Coleman, a fundraising professional who arrived from Montreal three years ago when she accepted a professional posting as CEO of the Royal Inland Hospital Foundation. When JCCK members found that she has a strong Jewish background and could read Hebrew, they asked her to become president.

Jews in large cities may find it difficult to imagine living without the Jewish infrastructure we usually take for granted. But in Kamloops, those who want a kosher brisket may have to drive to Kelowna or Vancouver, two and four hours away, respectively.

The Target store in Kamloops used to sell dreidels at Chanukah, but it closed, so there’s no local supplier for dreidels – nor for menorahs, Shabbat candles, Hebrew books or other necessities and accoutrements of Jewish life. People travel frequently to Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Israel, and bring back supplies. Kosher wine, however, may be ordered locally at British Columbia Liquor Commission outlets.

The Jewish community arranges Friday night dinners, Shabbatons and communal holiday meals in people’s homes. “For the High Holidays, we just did a nice Rosh Hashanah dinner at a couple’s house,” Coleman said. “The focus is very much on the kids. The parents want their children to learn about and understand what the holidays are about, and why we blow the shofar and dip the honey.

“On Yom Kippur, people were on their own. We didn’t have a formal break of the fast. People who wanted to go to synagogue drove to Kelowna.”

On Sukkot, the Jewish families organized a meal in a sukkah on a farm – “definitely different, but great.” Last Passover, they made a seder in a restaurant that brought in matzah. In years past, various people have shared in the cooking. “One guy wanted to do a Passover seder on campus with his friends, so I lent him some Haggadot.”

A former director of UJA in Ottawa and a more recent fundraiser for a Montreal hospital, Coleman said that the Royal Inland Hospital has attracted a number of Jewish doctors from Toronto and Vancouver, and Thompson River University has likewise attracted a range of academics from various cities.

“Kamloops is just a small town with no traffic. A lot of people come here to get away from the rush of the big city, the housing prices and the traffic.”

The JCCK executive meets monthly to plan cultural events such as Jewish-themed lectures and movie screenings. They’re no less active when it comes to tzedakah and tikkun olam. Recently, the Jewish community began fundraising with other groups to support two families of Syrian refugees at a cost of $15,000 per family. They’re due to arrive within four to six months.

Coleman hasn’t encountered any local anti-Semitism, but says there is an anti-Israel campaign emanating from the large Arab contingent at the university. “UIA Canada has brought in good lecturers, and the lectures are well attended. Pro and anti people go and ask questions. Overall, I find there’s a great love of Israel here. You do see some anti-Israel expression on campus, but nothing strong and nothing that permeates the city.”

As JCCK president, she has been asked to lecture on “Judaism 101” to a seniors group later this year. She’s also assisting a Catholic church group to plan an interfaith trip to Israel. “We’re much more visible in the community in the past three years, so I’ve been told,” she said.