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An unlikely setting for teaching Torah

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Students at the Laurentian Seminary for Jewish Girls in Saint Agathe, Canada, study Torah while living in a picturesque antique mansion in this small French Canadian town.  (Bram Eisenthal)

Students at the Laurentian Seminary for Jewish Girls in Saint Agathe, Canada, study Torah while living in a picturesque antique mansion in this small French Canadian town. (Bram Eisenthal)

SAINTE AGATHE DES MONTS, Quebec (JTA) – The air is crisp and, even in the middle of May, some of the record snowfall that fell this winter still blankets the ground in this town snuggled in the Laurentian Mountains.

Sainte Agathe, an hour’s drive north of Montreal, might seem an unlikely place for young women from around the world to be learning Torah. But that is exactly what is happening.

Many Jewish Montrealers spend weekends here at country places that range from rustic cabins to mansions. It’s a far cry from the 1930s and ’40s, when signs here proclaimed “Private Property: No Jews or Dogs Allowed” and some of the mostly French Canadian residents were prohibited from selling to Jews as a condition in their residential deeds.

Chana Carlebach wasn’t around during that dark period. Born Chana Bernstein, the 41-year-old former resident of the Washington Heights section of Manhattan has been married 21 years to Rabbi Emanuel Carlebach, 45, a first cousin of the late, renowned Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

With their children – five girls and seven boys aged 21 years to nine months – the Carlebachs are spiritual leaders in Sainte Agathe.

He is the rabbi of the House of Israel Congregation, following on the heels of his late father, Rabbi Ephraim Carlebach. She is the founder and director of a unique institution of Jewish learning.

Seminary Beis Moishe Chaim, which opened a year after the Carlebach’s son, Moishe Chaim, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at the age of three months, is celebrating its seventh anniversary this year.

Up to 35 girls – roughly half from France and the rest from Canada, the United States, Israel and elsewhere – come to the teacher’s college to study from October to June. The focus is on Judaic studies as well as disciplines that will enable them to become educators.

“I always felt that Sainte Agathe was the perfect place to have a school,” Carlebach told JTA. “There are no distractions, nothing to do but study and bond.”

Beyond the Hebrew academic and teaching aspects of the program, outreach to the community is a major focus, Carlebach says. She encourages her students to help non-Jewish locals better understand a religion once shunned in these parts.

“The girls spend time in the community getting to know the French-speaking locals, who with increased understanding have taken a real liking to them,” she said.

“Every Friday morning they bake 120 small challah breads and deliver half to the homes of non-Jewish locals – packaged with a newsletter written in French – as a wish for goodwill between neighbors.”

The students, aged 18 to the early 20s, pay an annual tuition of $11,500, but many families provide $15,000 to cover meals and other expenses. Scholarships are available to reduce the costs.

Their dorm is located in a century-old mansion, Rockfield, which once belonged to Quebec’s Labatt family, renowned in the brewery field. Its perch on a hill affords the students a breathtaking view.

First-time student Chaya Mushka Azoulay, 19, came from Lyon, France, on the recommendation of a good friend who had attended the seminary.

“I spent three years in Israel studying and it was a ‘balagan,’ very noisy and busy there,” Azoulay said. “Here it is very peaceful and I can learn about a different culture while studying my own religion.

“It is a very good place to go even deeper into my religion because the surroundings are so beautiful that it’s almost like meditating. The air is so fresh and there are always outdoor activities to enjoy, like great skiing and hiking in nature.”

Mushky Fellig, 18, a graduate of Montreal’s Beit Rivka high school, was eager to follow her two older sisters who attended Beis Moishe Chaim.

Fellig says she loves the warm and caring teachers. The experience, she said, “has greatly enhanced my life as a young Jewish woman because we learn the beauty of Jewish life and how to go about practicing it.”

Carlebach’s latest project will redefine the historic town center. A May 29 fund-raising dinner in Montreal is aiming to raise the money needed to renovate and operate a library and cultural center to be housed in an existing building. The building cost the Carlebachs $300,000, but an additional $3 million is needed.

As for Saint Agathe, the town of 10,000 has never been quite as Jewish.

“The seminary girls bring the atmosphere here to life by living and breathing our heritage,” said Rachel Lonn, a Jewish Montrealer who spends weekends in Sainte Agathe with husband Morley and their four children. “They are shining lights, examples of everything that is good about being Jewish.”

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