JHSBC Oral History Collection
[Board member, Robert Levin, reminiscences about the formation of the community and the building of the Centre with Jean Gerber.]
RL: I moved to the Okanagan, to the city of Kelowna in July of 1980, and much to my surprise, within a couple of months of moving here, someone let me know that there were other Jews in Kelowna. I had expected there would be maybe 5 or 6 others, but I would probably never find them. But lo and behold, there was a small community already active here consisting of Lil and Lou Feldberg, a fellow by the name of David Singer, a fellow by the name of Sid Freedman, Marcy and Ray Turner, Stephen Finkleman, and there’s Bob and Sumi (?) Bidner, and Max and Anne Bidner, Bob’s parents. By then the Okanagan Jewish community, this was in the fall of 1980, were meeting for high holiday services in the Parish Hall of St. Michael’s Anglican Church, which later became warmly known to us as St. Moishe’s, and was actually where we continued to hold our services, for the most part until building this building about 5 years ago.
One the first events I remember, was being at a picnic in City Park in Kelowna. I’m not sure whether this was the summer of ‘80 or ‘81. It was organized, as I recall, by meeting at the Feldberg residence and then we carried on to City Park, played baseball, and swam and just met each other. We would often met for social occasions at the Feldberg residence; they had a big rec room over the garage or car port if I recall. That was one of the informal places that we would meet.
The community formed itself into an organized society, registered as a society in 1983. I’m one of the signatories to that first constitution, as is either one or both of Lil and Lou, as is Ron Gold, Ray Turner, and the first meeting of the society was - I just looked at the minutes which we have mounted on the wall of the community centre here - May 29, 1983. It was held at the Lodge Motor Inn, which is a motor hotel here. The first elections were held. Tommy Hiller was the first president elected for the Okanagan Jewish community. He was a retired divorce lawyer from LA who had moved here with his wife and was a leader, the first logically to be our leader. David Singer was the elected secretary and his hand written minutes are the minutes we have preserved on the wall. I was elected the treasurer, which I recall was one of the most time-consuming jobs I ever did.
And from there the community just gradually grew and held more and more events. By the time I came here in 1980, those who come here before had already discovered a wonderful rabbi, an orthodox rabbi, a survivor from eastern Europe who had lost family members in the Holocaust, by the name of Emil Klein, who had come to Okanagan thinking he was retiring until the people who had moved here found him in Winfield, and he became voluntarily, always, our rabbi. And we were very fortunate that way.
RK: You said you started to go to the Talmud Torah when you were about five or six. What are your early memories of that school?
BR: First of all, it was an afternoon/evening class. There was no parochial school in those days; it was unheard of. So you went, starting 4 o'clock for an hour, an hour and a half, depending on what grade you were in. And if you were in the senior grade you went from about 7:00 to 8:30. And I went there for many years, and then my parents moved in the 30s to the 800 block West 13th. Fairview was then opening up and many Jewish families moved into Fairview, diluting the East End, which was the original immigrant area. And from there, I went for a year or so to evening class from 7:00 to 8:30 at the old Talmud Torah. And then somewhere around 1931, I believe it was, they built the community centre on 11th and Oak and they started to have classes upstairs in the afternoon, of course, and . . . my class transferred to the . . . community centre, so I finished my schooling there. I carried on until I entered university and then I stopped. My class, which was around 5 or 6 [people], carried on roughly the same way, and then when we entered university we quit because it wasn't feasible. In those days the Talmud Torah was Ivris b'Ivris. The teacher spoke Hebrew and we spoke Hebrew to the teacher. I mean, if we struggled, we struggled, but it wasn't acceptable to have a conversation in English except to rescue the conversation, so to speak. In that way we became somewhat fluent.
RK: Right. Who were the 5 or 6 people in your class?
BR: At that time, at the end, there was Sammy Wolfe, Mitchell Snider, Gertie Zack. I think that's about it. I can't recall any other at the moment, at the final class, because through the years you lost students and then they would move in a couple of students, but was the last one that ended.
RK: It’s interesting that you went until you entered university.
BR: Mind you, I entered university at age 15. I’ll tell you another interesting thing was we had a junior congregation for a number of years at the old Annex on Heatley Avenue and the students carried on the entire congregation themselves, without the assistance of the teachers. In other words, we dovened, there was a chazan, we read [the Torah], we said maftir. I said maftir at the age of ten, because we knew everything. And we used to go every Saturday. There was about three or four of us. We would go to . . . the old synagogue and we would sit in front of the centre bimah and we would go there religiously. And then sometimes they were stuck for a maftir, so somebody would lean over and tap one of us on the shoulder and say, "Zog Maftir" and one of us would come up and we would say maftir. We could read it sight. So it was a nucleus of about three four of us. And then in the afternoon we went to the Rex theatre and watched the cowboy movie for 10¢.
SL: The La Salle was 945 Granville. And I might say that it was the first modern bowling establishment built, not only in Vancouver, but the entire Pacific Coast. And when I say ‘modern,’ it was a departure from the basement bowling alley that a respectable woman, not only wouldn’t venture into, but she wouldn’t be within a half a dozen blocks of it. We took the game and we put it upstairs. We had a dignity to it by making it very attractive with the carpet lounges and one thing and another. And we sold the game to the women and with the result that it went over in a fantastic manner. We couldn’t accommodate the demand for the first couple of years.
SL: A couple of years ago I was approached for material for the Hall of Fame and I referred this party to my nephew to get this picture from the La Salle (CL: This is the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame?). It’s the B.C. Hall of Fame which I was inducted into, just somewhere in February. (CL: February of this year? SL: Yeah. CL: That’s quite an honour). Well, I considered it quite an honour, as I mentioned when I received the award. After reading the citation, you know, which was such a glaring account of my achievements in the bowling game and my contributions to the development of the game that I thanked the donor of the award and said, “For awhile I thought I was listening to my eulogy” [laughs]. I said, “If it was, I’m sure happy I’m around to hear it” [laughs].