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.
CP: Now what activities did you participate in as a child?
RW: Well, I liked swimming, I liked riding my bike. When it came to sports at Kitsilano High I was in the semi-finals in the running broad jump, in four different items, so very active physically.
CP: Yes, I can see that.
RW: Certainly when it came to university because we lived on Cornwall Street near the pool and didn’t have a, I didn’t have a car, in order to get to university I had to hike from the beach right up to Broadway everyday and back again.
CP: That’s a hike up that hill [laughs].
RW: A lot of physical activity there, I can tell you.
RW: And later on I joined a carpool and it was better.
CP: Well, you’ve answered several of the questions I was going to ask you.
RW: As far as Jewish items are concerned I was active in Young Judaea at the time. I think I was president at the time. And participated in a lot of activities. Oh, I used to like tennis particularly. I played a lot of tennis in Kitsilano beach…
CP: Yes, of course.
RW: And at English Bay too.
RM: I was very much involved with the start of the Richmond Delta Jewish Community Association, back in the 1970s, I’m really going back here but…
BG That’s okay.
RM: It was, I think it was about 1970, a group of us that lived in Richmond, we had, we met at the home of the Rabbi, I’ve forgotten the name of, at the time and we decided that we wanted to have a school, a Jewish school set up in Richmond. And what came of that meeting was the formation of the Richmond Delta Jewish Community Association. We had a meeting, trying to get all the Jewish people together, at the Jewish Community Centre, I can’t give you the exact date but different people took on positions, my former husband became ways and means, I was nominated and I was, accepted, the position, of becoming the first education chairman for which was then Richmond Jewish, which then became, okay well I’m messing up here.
But we had many meetings at different people’s homes, I can’t tell you how many meetings were held at our home and how many cakes I baked for different functions. We realized that we needed a Jewish school and we realized that we needed different places for our High Holidays, for, you know the High Holidays, and various other events. So, I was education chairman, so I had a committee made up of many teachers. [Laughs] And as I said before, thank goodness I didn’t become a teacher, but my committee were mainly teachers. So, we managed to find, a space in a church in Richmond and we decided that we were going to rent that space, and I said, it wasn’t what was important, because people challenged us, “How could we have a Jewish school in a church?” And I responded, because the price was right [laughs]. But what I said was, it didn’t matter about the external walls, it was what we created within those walls.
RM: So we managed to have a nursery school, a kindergarten, and an after school day school, two days a week. The third day was held in my former husband’s and my home, on a Sunday. So, that, I, I think I spent four or five years in that position and we managed to really get things off the ground in those early years. We rented different spots in different hotels for High Holiday services, it was a fun type of thing, we were actually creating something from nothing, at all our meetings, so we would plan different events…We were trying to, besides the school, we were trying to get youth organizations going, we would meet with, “Oh, you have nothing for my children.” And then we’d go back to people and it was “Oh well, you didn’t have something before so you know, my kid’s became involved, it’s too late for them to be involved.” That type of person, of course, really expected everything to be handed to them. And they weren’t prepared to, to help out. But that was also a very exciting time. It was, we were building something from nothing. It created a wonderful sense of community. And we, you know I hired David Ruben to become our senior teacher, to be our Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah teacher, and we had other teachers, certainly nursery school, kindergarten, all of course with Jewish content. So this certainly was a great boost, for me. It was a confidence builder, getting the school off the ground, no one expected us to get the school going, you know, there were different things we had to speak to, we had to speak to the fire department, and this department and that department. At the time we didn’t get much money from Federation, so everything was just, but it was an exciting time and certainly a confidence builder.
MF: Max, when you were growing up in Vancouver in this area what kind of activities did you get involved in? Were you active in sports?
MP: Yes, quite a bit. Swimming quite a bit in summertime and then springtime we used to do quite a bit of hiking.
MF: There was a Jewish athletic club at one time which I’m not familiar with. Do you remember who was the president or who was involved?
MP: We didn’t have such…We had a group called the Jewish Athletic Club and we had a basketball team and we formed a basketball team that joined the church league. And we used to practice in the Japanese gym on Powell, on Jackson and Powell Street, on Jackson, it was near Powell.
MF: Jackson Avenue. How many teams were in this league?
MP: Well, there was at least six or eight teams in the league, oh yes.
MF: It was a popular thing, so it was kind of an ethnic thing. There was a Japanese team, and a Jewish team…
MP: No, there was nothing about no Japanese team. But it was Jewish only…but there was different kinds of churches [had] teams.
MF: Included in that group.
MF: And there was a popular thing for young people in those days to go to Bowen Island?
MP: In the summertime B’nai B’rith used to put on picnics and of course other societies used to put on…and that was the popular thing to take a boat to Bowen Island for a good outing for the day.
ID: How long were you are Gordon House, Albert?
AM: I was there about four or five years and then I stayed with the neighbourhood house as a director of another house. Yeah, in 71, 73, I became the director…
AM: Kitsilano House.
ID: And was that an umbrella organization of…
AM: Yeah, Gordon House has four or five neighbourhoods around the city.
ID: Gordon House was one of them, or?
AM: Gordon House was one of them, everybody was in an area, and in every area they had their own peculiarities. Like when I was working at Kitsilano it was also at the time of the hippies. So because I spoke French and many hippies came from Quebec, so the City of Vancouver asked me, no that was during Gordon House years, asked me to go to the YWJ where they created as place for the hippies because they didn’t want them to be all over town. So they had them in a place and there was a couple of social workers and myself who were kind of the supervisors to try to make sure they don’t go into mischief. So every time I went home I had to change all my clothes of the smell of tobacco, drugs, and all that every night it was a difficult thing but, I also learned how to do other things. When I was working with the hippies except explaining to them the idea of Canada values, laws, and things like, because they would come to me saying, “Albert, why does the narcotic policeman run after me? I was just making a living.” To them selling drugs is just making a living, you know they say, “Albert, why don’t you talk to the Narcs? Tell them to leave me alone.” So I had to explain the two worlds. But then long, long ago in the ‘60s there was a bit of a riot in the West End, and of course the city wanted to know why were many hippies and that on the rampage. So I went and interview many of them and I found out that one of the major complaints was that there was not dental health. You know, many of them were in pain and there was no way you know, at that time St. Paul had once a week somebody who would came for emergency, but that’s all. So, I decided to do something about it, I went to Gordon House, my supervisor was a strong lady, you know, no it was another supervisors, if you can do something, so I went to some kind of get together of dentists and I invited myself in the cocktail lounge and that and I convinced few dentists if can give some time to help these people of that. Anyway I found one who was a bit of an idealist who organized with me, but we didn’t have a place. So I used the Gordon House kitchen to have our first, I remember having a flashlight and that and a dentist. Anyway, after a little while the word went around, and I got second hand dentist chair, tools ,and that I had 10 or 12 dentist, and every Wednesday night all the hippies, all the people who could not have a dentist, they would come to Gordon House to have dental care, no questions asked. I have an article about it, you can have see it. But that was one of the things, you know, I always, when I saw a need I said let’s do something about it.
ID: Now I want to talk about your marriage. You said you met Anne. What
was Anne’s maiden name?
AM: It was Anne Ruth Heller.
ID: And can you describe your wedding?
AM: Oh! My wedding. Another story. You’re getting a lot of stories today. Nobody got, nobody got these stories.
ID: I want them.
AM: Anyway, when I was going to get married, of course I never did things the proper way. I just went to one dinner and gave her a, went to the father and said I want to marry your daughter and...
ID: Oh, you asked permission?
AM: Yea, but the way I asked it you know, I like it is a fait de compli so, you know and things like that and I always. Anne was coaching a little baseball team of young girls and I went to the young girls even before I got married and I said, I’m going to marry your coach and things like that. So the girls said, “By the way you know Albert is going to marry you.” So....
ID: That’s before you asked her?
AM: Yeah, before you know things like that. So things were always done in a different way, unorthodox way. Then when come to the wedding, I wanted to have is Sephardic and Ashkenazi, so we had to, you know this idea of compromises, so we did it in a small town called Brantford, which is about...
ID: Brantford, Ontario.
AM: Ontario, which is about and an hour and a half two hours from Toronto.
ID: Why in Brantford?
AM: Because this is what she was grew up and all her family, I didn’t have family, so it was normal to do it where all her family was and that, but I wanted part of it to be Sephardic. So what I did was, I asked my people to come to Brantford so we had a bus and cars coming. And I had a choir coming in the Sephardic way, you know, to say some of the blessings in Sephardic. So we had it half and half. Melodies Sephardic and that. But one of the most problem was that the rabbi was his first wedding, he was a young fellow, his first wedding and then he was all nervous. So here I am running my wedding and coaching the rabbi telling him, “This is what you do next,” and, “Calm down.” You know, [laughs], “You’re doing fine.” Meanwhile I’m getting married and that. And then at the end of the marriage, the second day, the mother says, I hope the guy finishes…the city, he had the rabbi registration, but the Ontario one, “I hope he…” and that. So I went to the mother and said jokingly, “Oh, if I don’t have the license I don’t…” So the mother panicked it was just a joke, and I said, “No worry the wedding is legal.” So, what happened is Anne was still working, so the way the honeymoon was is after two day after the day of the marriage she went to work and I will wait for her every day for her in Toronto. We had a hotel and then I came back to Vancouver, watch her finish her school month, she had one more month, and then she joined me in Vancouver, and…
ID: The rest is history.
AM: The rest is history.
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.