Kelowna’s Jewish community had a close call—but the synagogue wasn’t damaged by wildfires

There were a tense couple of days for the Okanagan Jewish Community (OJC) after its synagogue was suddenly declared within the evacuation zone on Friday, Aug. 18, as wildfires burned out of control around Kelowna.

On Sunday, Aug. 20, past-president Steven Finkleman was on the scene trying to persuade police to let him enter Beth Shalom Congregation to retrieve its two Torah scrolls, emphasizing to them the spiritual value of these religious texts.

But the law enforcement officers would not let him through even though the building is only about 100 yards from the edge of the evacuation zone. Finkleman decided not to argue with the directive, given the magnitude of the crisis.

Meanwhile, the congregation’s nervousness has eased considerably with the receding of the fire’s front line overnight from Saturday to Sunday, Finkleman told The CJN. “The risk (to the sifrei Torah) is extremely low at this point,” he said on Sunday afternoon.

“Our secretary who lives fairly close (to the synagogue) said it was the first night she didn’t see any fire nearby,” Finkleman added.

Finkleman is aware of two couples who are congregation members who had to evacuate their homes in West Kelowna, the town of about 33,000 adjacent to Kelowna itself (population about 150,000), where the fire started on Thursday.

They are safe, he said, and have accommodation with family or friends in Kelowna, and their houses are undamaged. Finkleman has no confirmed information of any member’s home being hit by the blaze.

At the outset of the inferno, Beth Shalom sent out a bulletin to its approximately 85 members offering assistance to any who needed it. By Sunday, 10,700 area residents remained under an evacuation order, and another 9,500 were put on alert to be prepared to leave at any time.

“We had a good response to our request for accommodation. Eight or 10 members offered to put people up in their homes, but no one has contacted us (saying they need a place to go),” he said.

The Chabad Centre in Kelowna also sprang into action. Rabbi Shmuly Hecht said some evacuees are being sheltered and fed at its centre, and several families offered to take others in.

As soon as the crisis arose, he and his wife Fraidy began calling “round the clock” to everyone in their community to see if they were all right and urging any who could to help those in need. The couple is there to offer practical and moral support to anyone who wants it, he said.

On Sunday morning,  B.C. Wildfire Service and local fire department officials said at a news conference that conditions had been favourable the previous night to combat the fire, which covered about 11,000 hectares, due to calm winds and cooler temperatures. Almost 500 firefighters from around the province were on the ground, they reported.

Finkleman, a Winnipeg native and retired pediatrician who has lived in Kelowna for 40 years, said from his south-facing home he never saw any flames, just heavy smoke that blankets a wide area, including Summerland, about one hour south where this reporter is located.

He thinks this conflagration is worse than the one that devastated Kelowna exactly 20 years ago. “That was huge but it was in one area south of the city…This started on the west side and went across the lake (to the main city.)”

On Sunday, the congregation was making plans to organize a collection of food, clothing or whatever is needed for evacuees staying in the main shelter the city has set up in an arena.

Finkleman said Beth Shalom has received numerous emails of concern and offers of support from Jewish communities across Canada, which it appreciates, but at the moment there is nothing it needs from the outside.

“There was even a woman, a stranger, in West Vancouver who offered a room in her place to us,” he said.

Founded in 1980, the congregation built its synagogue more than 35 years ago at 102 Snowsell St. N. The congregation is not affiliated with any denomination, and describes itself as pluralistic. A lot of emphasis is put on cultural and educational activities, said Finkleman, chair of programming and membership.

Beth Shalom currently has no clergy since not renewing the contract of Rabbi Tom Samuels, a Toronto native, who served the congregation for two years. He was the congregation’s first full-time spiritual leader.

Finkleman said the congregation has decided not to engage another permanent rabbi for the next couple of years, only partly for financial reasons. Instead, it will be engaging a visiting rabbi or cantor for monthly Shabbatons.

The first visiting rabbi, who came Aug. 11-13, was Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Israel. The next is Rabbi Russell Jayne of Congregation Beth Tzedec in Calgary scheduled for Sept. 1-2.

Although more than two years of COVID restrictions negatively affected Beth Shalom, which like other synagogues tried to keep members engaged remotely through Zoom, the membership numbers have actually grown slightly from pre-pandemic times, said Finkleman.

In addition to Kelowna, members come from throughout the Okanagan, from Vernon in the north to Osoyoos at the U.S. border.

The congregation is anticipating even greater expansion in the years ahead as Kelowna and the entire Okanagan’s population booms. The previous decade’s Canadian census identified about 2,000 Jews in the area, half living in Kelowna. Finkleman thinks the latest 2021 data will show the number has increased considerably.