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“It’s About The Content You Offer, Not Just The Container.” Winnipeg Synagogue Developing New Programming As It Undergoes First Major Renovation Since The 1970s

In the 1881 Manitoba census, there were thirty-three Jewish families in Manitoba. Facing Russian persecution, a new wave of Jewish refugees began to make their way to Canada. Landing in Montreal, boating across the great lakes, and then taking trains, these migrants made their way to Winnipeg. By June 10, 1882, around three hundred and forty arrived in Manitoba.

Extremely poor and needing ways to feed their family, they would work as labourers, ditch diggers and construction workers. Winnipeggers helped out, donating blankets and mattresses and offering temporary work. These early Jewish migrants were resilient, starting businesses and growing communities. In December 1889, their labours bore fruit with completing their “proper” synagogue Shaarey Zedek, which means the “Gates of Righteousness.” Today,  congregation Shaarey Zedek has seen the construction of three synagogues, and members have had a lasting impact on the prairie province where their forefathers arrived so many years ago.

There’s even more change on the way. The synagogue is undergoing significant renovations, the first since the 1970s, and will be closed for the next year and a half. The renovation includes asbestos abatement and roof redoing, among other quality changes. Most significantly, the renovation will develop new spaces at the synagogue allowing for more use of technology, as many programs are now live-streamed, more spaces that allow natural light, and areas that will allow for the hosting of events. Although the synagogue will be empty for some time, it doesn’t mean members will be idle, says Rena Secter Elbaze, Director of Engagement and Education at Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

“We’re developing the content. It’s not just about the building, and it’s what you put inside. It’s about the content you offer, not just the container. We’re working on solidifying that and engaging people, young adults, teenagers, and seniors.”

Utilizing her background in communications and marketing, taking social science topics and showing how Jewish wisdom informs these topics. One of the recent programs included a five-week crash course on Judaism, including the essential aspects of what makes Judaism different and how it has contributed to society. Later in the year, there are also Hebrew and Jewish History courses. These aren’t only for those who are Jewish but for all those interested in learning more. It’s about building community, friendship, and sharing culture, says Elbaze.   

Over the holidays, a group called “Friends of Israel” travelled around Winnipeg, delivering gift baskets to Jewish households. Elbaze and her family were the recipients of one of those baskets.

“This woman had said she and her husband had seen there was a lot of Anti-Semitism in the media, and she wanted to reach out. They drove around, stopped at the houses with Hanukkah decorations, and she dropped off these packages to show support. I’ll tell you, it made my week.”

Congregation Shaarey Zedek follows that sentiment, providing support and care for individuals and participating in various community initiatives. And they’re always looking for new organizations and initiatives to participate in.

Members of the synagogue are currently being hosted by Temple Shalom and Asper Jewish Community Campus, which is incredibly fortunate, says Elbaze. However, they will be extremely excited to return to their home. The Jewish community also recently celebrated Tu B’Shevat, holding an in-person community Seder, which hasn’t happened for quite some time.

– Ryan Funk, U Multicultural

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