The life of a small-town Jew – how families maintain their traditions

Chabad Rabbi Raphael Kats, his wife Sarah and their children in Saskatoon

Every Friday morning, Benjamin Goldstein gets up in time to start making the challah, a job he feels connects him to his grandparents’ shtetl, although his wife reminds him that they didn’t have the luxury of using a bread machine.

If Goldstein didn’t bake the challah and order grape juice by the case from Montreal, his family Shabbat dinners would be lacking. For this family doctor in tiny Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, there is no popping by the bakery on the way home from work.

Four hundred kilometres away, in Thunder Bay, Ont., Susan Goldberg is also braiding challah. She says that if she still lived in Toronto, she would stop by the Harbord Bakery and pick up a loaf. But in Thunder Bay, on the shores of Lake Superior, that is simply a fantasy.

“You have to think a little bit more about what it means to be Jewish here,” says Goldberg, a freelance writer who has lived in Thunder Bay for 14 years. “You can’t be Jewish by osmosis, which is what I probably would have done in Toronto.”

Goldstein, who moved from Montreal to Sioux Lookout two years ago with his wife and young son to practice rural medicine, has had a similar experience.

“Living in Montreal, we didn’t always do Kiddush because it was so easily available. Now everything involves a lot more deliberate planning,” he says. “Living remotely forces us to connect more with our Jewish values and to teach other people about them.”
It’s a lifestyle that’s unfamiliar to most of this country’s Jews. About 80 per cent of Canada’s nearly 400,000 Jewish people live in just three cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, according to the 2011 census.

But for Jews who live in communities where there are barely enough people to make a minyan, no full-time rabbi and sometimes no synagogue, maintaining their ties to Judaism requires ingenuity, planning and a do-it-yourself attitude.
It might mean ordering your matzah from Amazon many months before Passover; taking a boat to get to the shul where your bar mitzvah is held, as Winston Macgregor did many years ago, when his family travelled from rural Prince Edward Island to Moncton; or learning Hebrew prayers with a rabbi over Skype, the way a 12-year-old girl in Whitehorse did last year.

Chanukah candle lighting ceremony in Saskatchewan

One of the first lessons of living in a small community with no “professional Jews” nearby is that even those who would have sat on the sidelines need to pitch in.

“If people don’t participate, there remains zippo,” says Steven Finkleman, vice-president of the Okanagan Jewish Community in Kelowna, B.C. “In a big city, you go for High Holidays, or you go to the occasional Shabbat, but you’re not organizing it. You go, you don’t want to go, it still takes place. Whereas here, if everyone says, ‘I’m not going to go,’ there remains zero.”

In Kelowna, as in many other smaller communities, volunteer parents teach in the Sunday school and lay people run services and a communal Passover seder. A rabbi comes and holds services about four times a year.

Finkleman, a retired pediatrician, home-schooled his son for his Jewish education. “Not only did he learn, but I learned a hell of a lot about Judaism from these children’s books,” he says.
Finding volunteers isn’t always easy. Many of those who have moved to Kelowna are not religious to begin with and a significant number of the 60-or-so families affiliated with the Okanagan Jewish Community are in interfaith marriages, Finkleman says. And in the winter, synagogue life competes with the ski hill.

“The issue is getting those members to attend and support the community by their involvement, or by their contributions of time and effort, and that’s been difficult,” he says.

In communities with just one synagogue, if that, the luxury of finding a shul that fits your religious views and political outlook remains just that – a luxury.

“We actually had a discussion about this as part of High Holidays, where some people are very Zionist and some people are very not Zionist and some people want to be more religious and keep kosher and most people don’t, but there’s room for all of it,” says Goldberg about the Thunder Bay community.

“In Toronto, we would all find our respective synagogues, where everyone just went, or we wouldn’t find a synagogue at all and we would only be with the people that were like us, and here we can’t do that.”

Steven Finkleman, centre, and dancers celebrate at the Okanagan Jewish Community Centre’s 25th anniversary in Kelowna, B.C.

Goldberg, the mother of two sons, arrived in Thunder Bay around the same time as a few other young families, many of whom were interfaith couples, as well as a handful of Russian-Israeli families.
“All of a sudden there were all these little kids running around,” she says.

The synagogue had few members, so the newcomers decided to revive the Sunday school and organize social activities, as well as holiday celebrations.

Having one synagogue means people may be nudged out of their comfort zones, but the community is thriving and tolerant, she says.

On Prince Edward Island, where there is no synagogue, the same principle holds true. There are about 100 Jewish families on the Island, says Winston Macgregor, president of the P.E.I. Jewish Community.

High Holiday services are held in members’ homes and led by laypeople who are comfortable with Hebrew.
“We have our own prayer schedule. It’s certainly not Orthodox, it’s partly Conservative,” says Macgregor. “We combine our own thing to make it work for us and people like it very much.”
In very small communities, it may be Jewish culture – and, of course, good food – that unites them.

“you can’t be Jewish by osmosis, which is what i probably would have done in Toronto”

Susan Goldberg, Thunder Bay, Ont.

In Whitehorse, where there are about 35 Jews, one-third of whom are Israelis, the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon brings people together, says president Rick Karp.

Karp, who is also the president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, came with his late wife, Joy, to the Yukon about 30 years ago to open up the city’s first McDonald’s.

The cultural society organized a multimedia exhibit about Jewish involvement in the Gold Rush that is currently travelling around North America. And about 20 years ago, the group restored and rededicated a Jewish cemetery in Dawson City, Yukon, that was established in 1902, but had fallen into disrepair.

The community’s Jews get together for a communal Passover seder and a Yom Kippur breaking of the fast, but not for services. Karp also organizes receptions for visiting Jewish scholars, which happens more frequently than one might expect.

From left, Benjamin, Tal and Eytan Goldstein celebrate Tu b’Shevat in Sioux Lookout, Ont.

This month, an expert in ancient languages from Hebrew University of Jerusalem -who has been working with First Nations communities in the Yukon is coming to town. A psychiatrist who has a son working in Whitehorse and who will be consulting with the local government is also expected. Karp will be arranging parties for both guests.

Living in Whitehorse, there is “a wonderful sense of community,” Karp says. “If there’s a problem, people rally behind you.”
But it’s a hard place to be Jewish, he says. In a community without regular religious services, Karp says that he is resigned to saying Kaddish for his late wife by himself, without a minyan.

It is this isolation that is most challenging in smaller communities.
Goldstein and his family travel to Montreal or Israel, where they have family, when they feel the need to celebrate the holidays with others.

They have also introduced their non-Jewish neighbours to Jewish traditions. Earlier this month, they hosted a Tu b’Shevat seder for the few Jews in town and some of their non-Jewish friends. For Hanukkah, Goldstein built a massive hanukkiah out of ice blocks, which he made by freezing water in empty milk cartons.

Most of the town’s 5,000 residents came by to admire his creation and ask about it, he says. “People here are very interested in other cultures.”


Goldstein is now planning for his family’s next Jewish event: the birth of another son, which will mean that they will be in need of a mohel.

Coincidentally, his neighbour’s father, who is a mohel, may be visiting at the right time. Failing that, he will study the ritual aspects himself while a local surgeon does the circumcision, or arrange for a mohel to fly in from Winnipeg.

Arranging a bris in Sioux Lookout may be challenging, but Goldstein says he is determined that “we’re going to get it done in eight days.”

For Orthodox families, the sense of isolation can be especially acute. Chabad Rabbi Raphael Kats and his wife have lived in Saskatoon for six years. There are about 500 Jews and two Conservative synagogues in the area, but his is the only Orthodox family.

His six children, aged two to 10, study Hebrew and Jewish subjects online with other Chabad children in remote communities and receive their secular education at home, as well. They have friends in Saskatoon, but it’s not easy, Rabbi Kats says.
“It’s definitely a challenge for my kids to be in a place where there are not many observant Jews,” he says.

Whenever they can, they visit their far-flung families, the Jewish community in Edmonton and another Chabad family in Regina, which is two-and-a-half hours away.
The family has become accustomed to ordering meat and dairy from Montreal and Toronto in bulk every few months. Rabbi Kats relishes the small city life and its lack of traffic. “I don’t feel like we’re missing anything. We have everything we need here,” he says.

Originally from Toronto, Rabbi Kats says he was always intrigued by Saskatchewan, although he admits that most Toronto Jews tend to think it’s “the edge of the universe.”

The only thing they are lacking is a regular minyan and a mikveh. The nearest mikveh is in Edmonton, five-and-a-half-hours away. Rabbi Kats recently purchased a property and is now starting a fundraising campaign to build a Jewish centre and a mikveh.
He holds services every Shabbat. “We shoot to get a minyan once a month. We’re usually successful,” he says.

His oldest son’s bar mitzvah will almost certainly be the first for the Saskatoon Chabad. But despite the challenges, and the loneliness, Rabbi Kats says he and his family are in Saskatoon to stay.

“You really see the impact you’re making on the community,” he says. “In a larger community, there’s so many other rabbis and synagogues. Here, when you touch souls, it really moves you. That is the most rewarding thing.”