Winnipeg’s Jews try to turn tide

Brian Borzykowski, 22, co-hosts ´The Jewish Hour´ on Winnipeg radio. (Andrew Muchin)

Brian Borzykowski, 22, co-hosts ´The Jewish Hour´ on Winnipeg radio. (Andrew Muchin)

WINNIPEG, Manitoba, July 10 (JTA) — Gerry Koffman left a great job in Ottawa, Canada’s rapidly expanding capital, to come home to Winnipeg, Manitoba’s remote and slowly shrinking seat of provincial government. Shelley Faintuch made a similar move from hip, growing Vancouver. Wayne Nemy met his future wife, like him a native Winnipegger, in cosmopolitan Toronto. The Nemys lived in Florida before returning to their birthplace. Gustavo Rymberg left his native Buenos Aires with his wife and two children to relocate to Winnipeg. The reason, they all say, is that Winnipeg “is a nice place to raise a family” and offers a Jewish community that’s welcoming, well-organized and surprisingly cultured. Yet the city is not retaining its Jews. At its peak in 1961, Winnipeg’s Jewish community of 19,376 was Canada’s third largest. Today the community is the country’s eighth largest, with approximately 14,000 Jews. Jewish leaders here recognize that unless they reverse the trend of young Jews leaving for Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, this community — rich in Jewish arts, enthusiastic about Jewish education and bold enough to build a showpiece Jewish community campus — will wither. “Funding, attendance, memberships, donors, ticket buyers, share of government funds and an active corps of volunteers are all necessary to sustain the richness and vibrancy of our community,” declares the strategic plan for GrowWinnipeg. That’s the federation’s program to recruit new families, retain resident Jews, invite back former residents and foster community spirit and connection. But, the plan notes, “These all depend on having the population numbers to sustain them.” Approved last October, GrowWinnipeg emphasizes the recruitment of Jews from countries in distress, particularly Argentina. Working with local and provincial governments, which seek to bolster Winnipeg’s general population, the federation first looked south six years ago. Rymberg recalls the first time a Winnipeg federation president visited Argentina looking for possible immigrants, in 1996. Rymberg was worried about a weakening economy and his family’s safety. After an exploratory visit, the Rymbergs became the first Argentine family to relocate to Winnipeg. Today Rymberg works as a graphic designer for the federation, and his wife is an interior designer. The children attend Jewish day school. And the Rymbergs host some of the 18 to 20 Argentine families that make exploratory visits each month. In 2001, a Jewish delegation traveled from Winnipeg to Buenos Aires to interview 50 families interested in moving to Winnipeg and to hold group meetings with another 75, reports Faye Rosenberg-Cohen, the federation’s planning director. Two dozen Argentine Jewish families have moved to Winnipeg since 1997. “They tell us we talk about the weather too much,” says Rosenberg-Cohen, referring to Manitoba’s frigid winters and dense summer mosquito clouds. GrowWinnipeg’s goal is a Jewish population of 18,000 by 2010, a 22 percent increase. The federation chose the figure for its “mystical quality,” Rosenberg-Cohen explains — 18 represents life in Jewish numerology — and by factoring in some rather optimistic projections: reducing out-migration to 50 per year, eventually increasing Jewish immigration to 600 a year and attracting 75 ex-Winnipeggers home each year. The recruiting, marketing and community-building initiative is projected to cost the equivalent of $109,000 the first year and about $156,000 for each of the following two years. The federation expects to augment its $78,000 annual allocation with government funds and foundation grants. All financial numbers given in this story are in U.S. dollars. Winnipeg’s 670,000 residents live in something of a biosphere — self-contained, remote, but healthy. The city is an eight-hour drive from the nearest metropolis of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and a two-day drive from Canada’s cultural center, Toronto. So Winnipeggers have made the best of their isolation: The city is home to two major universities, a network of parks and historical sites, 36 museums, an opera company, symphony orchestra, regional theater company, the world-renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet and a summer full of festivals. The Jewish community participates in Winnipeg cultural activities, but its central address is the Asper Jewish Community Campus, a five-year-old architectural marvel that links four landmark buildings via a modern glass mall. The mall, known as “Main Street,”stretches from the 205-seat Berney Theatre, past the Marion and Ed Vickar Jewish Museum of Western Canada and Holocaust Education Centre and the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, past a kosher restaurant and gym, to the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, which features an elementary school and high school. Upstairs are the offices of the Jewish Children’s and Family Services and the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg/Combined Jewish Appeal. Six days a week, four generations of Jews mingle in this $18 million, 21st-century incarnation of Winnipeg’s old “Nord Side.” There, from 1900 to 1950, thousands of immigrants lived in unassuming homes, operated small shops and built little Orthodox synagogues and a slew of day schools, ranging from secular Yiddish to Orthodox. Jewish culture always has been strong in Winnipeg, which was known in its heyday as the “Jerusalem of the North.” Community members operated a Yiddish theater in the Nord Side from 1907-42, hosting touring troupes. Three local Jewish troupes presented plays in English or Yiddish in the 1920s and 1930s. The tradition continues with the 15-year-old Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, which produces four plays annually with professional actors, many from Winnipeg. The theater presents at least one new play each year “about the Jewish experience, often from the Canadian perspective,” artistic director Kayla Gordon says. The troupe sells 6,000 to 8,000 tickets in a typical year. The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble, another independent troupe, has been performing Israeli dance and Jewish music for four decades throughout Canada. “The Jewish Hour,” a Sunday show on AM radio, plays Jewish music and discusses local events in English and Yiddish. Though synagogue affiliation in Winnipeg tends toward the Orthodox, the largest of the city’s nine synagogues is the Conservative Congregation Shaarey Zedek, and the 100-family Temple Shalom retains the classical Reform approach of emphasizing social justice over ritual. A secular Jewish community harks back to nearly a century ago, when five radical Jewish schools were operating in the Nord Side, local Jewish historian Abe Arnold says. About 25 households of older folks belong to the United Jewish People’s Order, a local branch of the International Jewish Workers Order. The leftist fraternal group sponsors lectures and discussions. For 30-40 younger families, the Sholem Aleichem Community, a humanistic group that grew out of the radical Sholem Aleichem School, holds Sunday school and gatherings around holidays and Shabbat. With so much happening, then, why are Jews leaving for other Canadian cities? Some of the youth just need to see the world. Brian Borzykowski, 22, and his brother David, 19, are lifelong Winnipeggers who have immersed themselves in local Jewish life. Brian Borzykowski co-hosts “The Jewish Hour” and contributes articles to the Canadian Jewish News. David heads a Zionist program for children and is a leader of the Jewish Students Association at the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg. Like their friend Rachel Person, 19, the young men are uncertain about settling in their hometown. The Winnipeg Jewish community is “suffocating when you’re young, but maybe when you’re older it’s all right,” Brian Borzykowski says. “It’s a good place to grow up. But there comes a point you have to get away from it, because you’re too close.” The three friends feel stifled socially. They know most Jewish Winnipeggers their age through the day schools, the two local Jewish camps and Winnipeg Beach, an enclave of summer homes mainly populated by Winnipeg Jews. Meeting new Jewish singles “is hard,” Brian says. “For the most part, people who are away meet someone. For the most part, everybody leaves at some point.” Take Gerry Koffman, Shelley Faintuch and Wayne Nemy. Koffman was directing the Jewish Federation of Ottawa when he accepted an offer to head Financial Resource Development for the Winnipeg federation. Faintuch left a university lecturing job in Vancouver for what she considers a more affordable, friendly community in which to raise her son, Ze’ev. She subsequently was hired as the federation’s director of community relations. Nemy left Winnipeg at age 22 and lived in Toronto, Europe and the United States before returning with his wife to raise a family. He makes an argument for GrowWinnipeg’s potential success in appealing to expatriate Winnipeggers. “I think you have to go away to appreciate it,” he says. Winnipeg’s appeal is “more than family,” he explains on a recent Sunday afternoon at the Asper Campus. “It’s just the community. I stand here and every second person I know and say hello to.”

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