JG: So tell me how we came to have a Reform congregation in Vancouver.
JB: Well, we were sitting having dinner one night with my father and mother. And we said, “Well we really have to send these kids to religious school but we don’t want to send them to Schara Tzedeck because it’s Orthodox and we’re not and the Beth Israel is too big and too expensive. There should be another choice in Reform congregation.” So my father said, “Why don’t you start one?” Well, so Leon put an ad in the Jewish Western Bulletin: “Anyone interested in starting a Reform congregation please call Leon Berlow.” At the same time the Union of American Hebrew Congregations felt that this was a site quite ripe for a new Reform congregation. And so they scheduled their regional conference up here unbeknownst to us until we received a, we saw in the Jewish Western Bulletin some publicity. So we contacted them and we said, “Listen, we’re interested in getting this thing going. Do you want to meet with us?” So we went to the weekend and we met a few people.
And the other people who were involved right at the beginning were Peter and Cornelia Oberlander, and Hal and Leonor Etkin, and Harold and Marge Lando. Those were the three people who, Marge Lando had come from a Reform background in Seattle so she knew what she was talking about and I think the Oberlanders too. But most of us who started came from Orthodox backgrounds that just didn’t suit us anymore. And we started to talk to people in Seattle and they promised us to send a rabbi once a month so we could have services. We would have to pay for housing them in a hotel and feed them and they would send them free. They would give us prayer books, I mean they were old but it didn’t matter. They would also start us out with some school books because the school was incredibly important to us. We started the school in Marge Lando’s basement. Peter Oberlander taught, I can’t remember who else taught at that time. We started our services at the centre with our Torah, my great grandfather brought a Torah from Russia and it had been sitting under the bed actually for most of the time. And so we took out the Torah and I’m not sure where we got an arc, somebody lent us an arc. And we said we would start to have services at the Jewish Community Centre.
JG: Is this the one on 41st or the old one? Let’s see, they moved up to 41st in ‘60-something.
JB: Oh no, this was at the new one.
JG: So it was around the 60s, something.
JB: Yep, ‘65, ‘70, ‘67, something like that.
IN: So as it turns out, I’m the president of Har El and have been for about six months. And it’s fun. The problems are quite different. It’s a small congregation.
BB: Is it a younger congregation?
IN: It’s a younger congregation. It’s a small congregation. Only about 270 families as opposed to well, when I was president, probably over 800 at Beth Israel.
BB: Can they afford to sustain the synagogue?
IN: It’s very, very difficult. That’s the big problem. You know, Har El really needs at least 100 more members. We could, with 100 more members, we could service those members with the same staff, that is to say the same expense, and still have that extra revenue of another 100 members. And that would put us at a much firmer financial footing. But, you know, it’s hard to do. It’s the North Shore and…
BB: Well, the population is small to draw on.
IN: Population is smaller although we feel, certainly from census figures that there are a lot more Jews on the North Shore than are immediately obvious and…
BB: Do they wish to become involved though?
IN: Ah, well, that’s the question, that’s the question. We have to find them and we have to not only find them but we have to figure out what is going to draw them in. It can’t be the traditional stuff that a synagogue always does, you know, the services, all of that stuff. That they can get anywhere, you know, they can come into town if they want that, they can go to Beth Israel, they can go to any other place, they can go to Chabad. But we have to figure out what is unique about the North Shore Jews that will draw them in as a kind of a community centre or a centre of the North Shore Jewish community that Har El could become.
BB: That’s a whole different paradigm.
IN: Yeah, it’s different. I mean, it’s still a synagogue and there’s a school of course. What draws a lot of people in is, of course, the school, the North Shore Hebrew School which for people with young children that’s why they join. They can get the kids an education. But we want to go beyond that. We want to see if in fact there are people in the West End, younger people in the West End, who, it’s not that far away, you know, crossing over the bridge. It’s not so terrible. You know, they’re probably about half way between Beth Israel and Har El anyways if you’re down in the West End. So…
BB: How do you reach out? What are the strategies for reaching out?
IN: Well, that’s what we’re trying to figure out, that’s what we’re trying to figure out. We have a strategic plan task force in place now at Har El. We’re trying to come up with strategies to reach out, first out of all, to find out what our present members want out of Har El; second, what potential, new member might want from Har El; third, how we can provide those particular services, and needs, and wants within the financial parameters that we are able to afford.
BS: Describe your religious affiliation.
BS: Do you consider yourself a religious man?
FS: No I, I don’t consider myself religious, although I am observant. We are members of Or Shalom a, what is considered a Jewish Renewal community, where, I, it’s, yeah pretty well. Or Shalom, Jewish Renewal, which in this case it means a way of, to my understanding at least, at least this is what I find, a way of combining the spirit, the enthusiasm that, that we found in the Orthodox synagogue, that kind of close knit, ‘haimishness,’ the homeliness of the people along with a, with an understanding of what is happening with a more egalitarian, broad minded, acceptance of change as an important part of our lives and incorporating that into the life of our religious community. I, Or Shalom to me has always been more community, than rather an institution of religion and which is, and I think most people who attend feel the same thing.
ID: Now I’d like to move into your, you are a member of Beth Hamidrash and
I’d like to know how you got involved. I know you’re a regular attender of services.
AM: Well, Beth Hamidrash again is one of the projects in with I am the
founding director of the society, but the whole thing started again like many other things. There was a teacher at Talmud Torah who wanted to do something Sephardic. I forgot his name, he is a Rabbi now in California, and he came to me and says, Albert, you know for the same reason, we should have something Sephardic here and all that. So, anyway we got our first services in my house and in other houses in the beginning there were a few of us. Then, because I was involved with the Centre and other things like that, our first Yom Kipper, Rosh Hashanah, I rented the nursery at the JCC to have our first services. Then of course other people took the mantle and things like that and then there was a group of Ashkenazi which they were passing away and they gave us their synagogue for one dollar. This is one of the, we started our first [society], we started our first constitution which I signed. And after the thing again like everything else once it’s going, then other people took the mantle. I only came and worked for the board always when I see something is not working a little bit, I get involved, when it’s working, I get out. So at the present time you know, a few years I was on the board, now I am not. There are better people now.
ID: So, there was a small number of Sephardic Jews when you first came here.
AM: Oh, there were many Sephardic Jews when I came here, and then little by
little they more and more came, but then because Vancouver is very expensive we have many Sephardic Jews in Richmond, in Coquitlam, in other places. But there is a community, Sephardic, but not all of them…Beth Hamidrash needs more members, it’s a small community keeping an ideal and were struggling with the budgets and all that, but we still are the only western Sephardic voice.
ID: When you say western, you mean like west…
AM: From Ottawa, from Toronto, Montreal to here.
AM: Yeah, so…
ID: So, where…I know there are Sephardic Jews in Edmonton
AM: Oh there are…Yeah, but...
ID: But they don’t, there’s not…
AM: But they don’t have like an identity like a Sephardic synagogue organization and things like that.
ID: So who were...
AM: So, so my involvement lately with that is to bring back the history and the folk lore. So I have been giving a lot of workshops on the history, Ladino music and customs. It’s one of the new hobbies, after I retired, I needed a hobby and I decided to get to know more about my culture. And then I begun to sharing it with other by giving workshops in Ladino, in Sephardic, music and singing.
ID: So who are the movers and shakers now in the Sephardic…
AM: Oh, now they have a third generation. A young group, very, yeah, is very good because now we have got people who have grown up with the synagogue for a long time, and the problem with our synagogue like many other people is that we have a small base, you know, like 50, 60 paid members. And to keep a building and a rabbi and all that, so half of our time is the struggle to raise money, and half of our time is like that. But we try to keep as much as we can the customs and that from the Sephardic thing.
CP: Harry, at one time you told me that your sister Chava’s husband, Abrasha Wosk, was instrumental in starting the first Jewish burial chapel. Tell me about that would you?
CP: He had something to do with it didn’t he?
HN: No, my brother-in-law, Abrasha Wosk was the first one to buy an old store on Broadway East to make a Jewish chapel. Before that we had to…depend on the Christian chapel at 11th and Granville.
CP: Oh yes.
HN: I forgot the name of it. We had a lot of difficulties and sometimes we couldn’t get the chapel in Vancouver, and we had to go to Westminster to perform, to get our services.
CP: Oh, I remember that, my aunt was buried from Roselawn, I think it was, in New Westminster. So?
HN: So, due to that, so he went to bought the building on Broadway and we used it for some time until a chance came. A Christian chapel was available on Broadway, which was not to be sold, they wouldn’t sell it to a Christian.
CP: This was Broadway and Alma, was it?
HN: Broadway and Alma. So, Abrasha bought it at a bargain price at $25,000. He paid his own deposit on it and then he called on the community to complete the deal.
CP: He took it upon himself to buy it knowing that there was a need for it and hoping that the community would...
HN: Well, the chapel was worth at least $100,000.
CP: Really, yeah.
HN: Beautiful chapel. He could have made a profit, he was offered a profit but he refused it. He says he’s working for the community and that was his contribution.
AJ: We had a, we had a synagogue. My grandmother brought a sacred Torah over from Russia with her. And they built a synagogue around the Torah. And we were the only synagogue between us and Regina which was 72 miles away. And people from the, people from the de Hirsh colony came to our synagogue, people in the surrounding towns. There were towns all over, 8, 10, 12 miles apart from each other and many of those people came to our town on the High Holidays. We had the synagogue, we had a rabbi who also acted as a mohel [person in charge of conducting circumcisions], he acted as the…
LR: Shochet [kosher butcher].
AJ: Shochet. He did everything.
LR: Wow. So growing up, I mean, your parents must have been fairly religious to have maintained…
AJ: Yes they were, yes they were.
LR: …everything while they were in such a small town in Canada.
AJ: Yes, that’s right. It was very important to them.
LR: And do they come from an Orthodox background then?
LR: And your father did he have any Jewish education back in the Ukraine, cheder [Jewish elementary school education], or yeshiva [Jewish higher education] or…
AJ: Well he had a Bar Mitzvah, he could read, he could doven [pray], he was certainly at home in a synagogue.
LR: Yeah, and he could read Hebrew.
LR: And spoke Yiddish I’m sure.
LR: Any other languages?
AJ: He spoke Yiddish and Russian.
LR: And Russian. And your mother…
AJ: And of course they learned to speak English, the same thing.
LR: The same thing. And was it difficult to keep kosher I’m guessing probably in such a small town?
AJ: No, well we had this [rabbi].
LR: Right, right and he was local, he lived right in the actual town?
AJ: He lived right in our town.
LR: Oh, that’s wonderful.
AJ: He was supported by the small Jewish community.
LR: Right, right, and so how many people in terms of numbers in the Jewish community were there?
AJ: We were about 12 families that lived in the town.
Interviewer: Marvin Weintraub & Cyril E. Leonoff
MW: Yes, well I remember very vividly your first visit to Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi, when you came up from Spokane for the interview, for the position, I didn’t know that you were interested in [working in] Seattle also at the time. I’m glad we didn’t know, otherwise you would have gotten a much better deal with us! Can you recollect, now you didn’t come until the fall, I think August ?
PS: In August, yes.
MW: Of that year, and by the time you both came I had the honour of being the first to welcome you, I was president of the Congregation at that time.
WS: Yes that’s right. To us you were the image of the Congregation.
MW: Oh yes.
PS: You succeeded Albert Koch right?
MW: Albert Koch was the president prior to me.
PS: When we were hired.
WS: That image hasn’t suffered at all.
MW: Thank you. Can you recollect any of your impressions of our Congregation and of our Jewish community at that time when you first joined us?
WS: Well not only I recollect my own impressions but all of the echoes in the community of what Beth Israel was to various people. And one of the things that at first shocked me was to know that there were many, many people who referred to our, to Beth Israel as the Reform Congregation.
MW: Really? I hadn’t heard that.
WS: I assumed that this was out of a lack of knowledge as to the difference between reform and conservative, but I think it was not entirely that, I think there was the impression that by contrast to Schara Tzedeck…
PS: Which by the way, apart from Beth Hamidrash which was very small, were the only synagogues in town. Beth Israel, Schara Tzedeck and the small Beth Hamidrash.
WS: The two synagogues, that’s right, people found it easy to sort of make things black and white. There’s so many grey areas in both congregations…
MW: This upset you, did it?
WS: At first. Not to the point where I felt crestfallen or anything like that but I felt that we’d have to do some image building here, and it wasn’t only for the purpose of giving the impression of being just as frum or Orthodox as you, but I intended to make the impression and the reality that conservative Judaism was not only just as authentic but just as intensive in many ways, not in only one direction, and could be more meaningful if it reached out to the community. So my…
MW: So this became your [deliberate] program as a result of that.
WS: My task was to see if we could approximate that goal.
MS: Yeah, I think it started off…you see my dad was never very religious growing up. He was the only boy after four older sisters and he was like the Messiah and so, but he was kind of a bad boy, not like a bad, bad boy but like a jazz guy and out late. And he moved here from Winnipeg and he never was interested in his Judaism and ironically you know, he met my mom who was also a jazz aficionado, like a blonde haired non-Jewish girl who liked jazz and that’s how they met. And then obviously they got serious but he knew that, “Okay, now if I’m going to get married I’d better, she’d better convert,” and my mom was actually very open to it because her parents, my grandparents, were very open, amazing people. So she already actually had an affinity for Judaism and what it stood for. So of course she was the boss, my mom, and she created the Jewish house even though my dad would be like, “Are you kidding me, we’re going to keep kosher.” But of course along the way they got more and more involved and more and more religious. I remember when we joined Beth Israel synagogue, I was probably in Grade 1, and in those days new members got to sit on the bimah [a raised platform in a synagogue] and my dad and I got to sit on the bimah and it was actually one of the most memorable moment of my Jewish life is being so proud to sit in this beautiful and sitting on the bimah.
So anyways the first involvement I think my parents had in the Jewish community was probably through the synagogue and they got involved. At one time my dad was president of the Men’s Club, my mom was president of the Sisterhood and I was president of USY [United Synagogue Youth, and then my dad went onto the board of the synagogue and he was involved in JNF [Jewish National Fund] and did a lot of work for the Jewish Family Service Agency. He started the Jewish Film Festival, that was one of his big things, when he was president of the Jewish Festival of the Arts he got the Jewish Film Festival off the ground. So he was very interested in cultural arts and my mom was very involved with the Sisterhood, Women’s League on the regional level and she went to Sisterhood conventions and was very involved in Hadassah. Until the day she died she was doing the books for her Hadassah chapter.