Saskatchewan suddenly sprouts rabbis

Rabbi Kats and his wife, Sarah...just one of new rabbis in Saskatchewan

WINNIPEG — Two years ago, Saskatchewan was a wasteland for Jews seeking the services of rabbis, but that’s no longer the case. The province’s Jewish communities – largely in Saskatoon and Regina – now have three rabbis and a fourth on the way.

The first to arrive on the scene was Chabad Rabbi Raphael Kats – who established Saskatchewan’s first Chabad presence in Saskatoon in June 2011. “The community has been fantastic, wonderful,” said Rabbi Kats, who also serves Regina’s Jewish community. “People have been extremely generous.”

Rabbi Kats said he and his wife, Sarah, have been hosting holiday gatherings and offering classes. “We launched summer camps in Saskatoon and Regina last year,” he added.

Rabbi Kats estimates that Saskatoon has an affiliated Jewish community of about 200 families. There are two congregations – Congregation Agudas Israel, a Conservative shul, and Congregation Shir Chadash. The latter is a smaller group that broke away from the former about a dozen years ago.

“We are also seeing more and more Jews attending our programs who are not affiliated with the community,” Rabbi Kats said.

He added that there are plans to have a full-time Chabad rabbi setup in Regina in the next few months.

For the past several years, Saskatoon’s Agudas Israel had been led by Cantor Neil Schwartz. Last year, rather than renewing Schwartz’s contract, the congregation recruited South American Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky. He and his wife, Rosy, and children, Amiel, 8, and Yoel, 5, arrived in Saskatoon last August.

Rabbi Jodorkovsky received his smichah in 2002 from the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary of the Conservative Movement, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Buenos Aires branch. He has a BA in the management of non-profit organizations and studied for an MA in Jewish education, and he participated in the seniors educators program at the Melton Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Santiago native said that he heard the calling to the rabbinate when he was a teenager. “I come from a traditional family. We were always involved with our synagogue,” he said. “My father was executive director for 30 years and I was a youth leader. I was also close to our rabbi.”

After receiving his smichah, Rabbi Jodorkovsky took a position in Medellin, Colombia. He spent two years there and another seven leading a congregation in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city. Bogota has a Jewish community of about 4,000, he said.

Despite reports in the media about Colombia and its ongoing guerilla war (which seems to be coming to an end) and drug gangs, Rabbi Jodorkovsky describes Colombia as a great country. “In the city, you didn’t see any sign of the wars,” he said. “Delinquency was a problem, but it’s the same everywhere in South America.”

Rabbi Jodorkovsky said he and his wife decided to come to Canada – and Saskatoon – because they were looking for a better quality of life for their children. “We really like Canada,” he said. “And a rabbi in a small shul can have an impact on everybody in the community.”

He said that Agudas Israel has a membership of about 100 families, but added that Saskatoon is growing fast. “The city’s population is expected to double within 10 years,” Rabbi Jodorkovsky said. “We expect that the Jewish population will also increase, and we are seeing that happening already. The university also attracts Jewish students from elsewhere.”

Although Rabbi Jeremy Parnes has been the rabbi at Regina’s Beth Jacob Synagogue for just little more than a year, his connection with the congregation goes back nearly 30 years.

Rabbi Parnes, 61, hails from London, England. He was raised in an Orthodox home, sang in a synagogue choir and attended a Jewish boarding school. He came to Canada 35 years ago with the company he was working for. He lived first in Toronto, then six years in London, Ont. He was transferred to Regina 28 years ago and left the company soon after. He has been involved in a number of different business ventures over the years.

Fourteen years ago, Rabbi Parnes found himself in the position of acting prayer leader at Beth Jacob in Regina after the rabbi moved to New York. “We struck a search committee to recruit a new rabbi,” he said. “The board asked me to lead services on a half-time basis until they could find a new rabbi. After a couple of years, they stopped looking.”

While his position was initially half time, it soon morphed into a full-time job. “I had learned to lead services from the previous rabbi and I learned to read the Haftorah,” Rabbi Parnes said. “I am still learning to read Torah.”

Seeking guidance in his role as lay leader, he turned to Rabbi Alan Green, the spiritual leader of the Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Winnipeg. Rabbi Green encouraged him to study for the rabbinate. Following Rabbi Green’s suggestion, he looked into the Jewish Renewal movement, which was co-founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and which Rabbi Green is part of.

“I went to a retreat and found myself feeling right at home,” Rabbi Parnes recalls. “I joined the ordination program.”

 That was eight years ago.

He said the Renewal ordination program consists of the study of Talmud, Torah, Agudah, history and elements of Kabbalah. “I found it all amazing and enlightening,” he said. “I was exposed to a deeper level of Torah than I ever experienced before.” 

Rabbi Parnes trained via long distance as well as through regular attendance at retreats such as Smichah Week, which he compared to being in a yeshiva.

 “My community was very supportive,” he said. “One couple in our congregation established a rabbinic endowment fund to help cover the costs of my rabbinic training. It is not an inexpensive process.”

He received his smichah as a rabbi from Jewish Renewal movement in January 2012

“There is still money left in the endowment fund, which is available for others in our congregation who want to study to be able to help lead services,” he said.

Beth Jacob has a membership of 95 families. (Regina also has a Reform Congregation – Temple Beth Tikvah – which was founded in 1990.) Like Rabbi Jodorkovsky, Rabbi Parnes said that his community’s Jewish population is growing, thanks to an influx of Israelis.

“We have a lot going on here at the shul,” he said. “More and more, Beth Jacob is becoming once again the centre for Jewish life in Regina.”