Funky Jews drawn to Canadian region


NELSON, British Columbia, Sept. 9 (JTA) — In the interior of British Columbia, nestled amid the Selkirk Mountains and straddling Kootenay Lake, lies one of North America’s most charming and picturesque towns — and one of its more offbeat Jewish communities.

Nelson is the type of place where strangers exchange pleasantries on the street. Populated by an eclectic mix of ex-hippies, mystics, bohemians, rainbow children, artists, ski bums, Doukhobors — a persecuted sect of Russian Pacifists who settled in the nearby Slocan Valley a century ago — and just ordinary folks, Nelson and the surrounding Kootenays area of British Columbia have become home to an unusual collection of Jews drawn from across North America.

Nelson Becker, an ex-New Yorker who publishes The Express, a community newspaper, has brought Jewish musical groups like Toronto’s Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band to perform at Nelson’s Capitol Theatre. Isaac Romano, formerly of Seattle, has helped organize and lead community events, including a ceremony of tashlich — casting away sins — by the sparkling waters of Kootenay Lake last Rosh Hashanah.

There’s also a sizeable contingent of Jewish Californians living in the Kootenays. Many came to settle in Nelson and the Slocan Valley in the 1960s to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.

Musician David Feldman, a native of Berkeley, Calif., performed in a Victoria klezmer band. In Nelson, he formed a short-lived klezmer band called The Klezmaniacs.

The group disbanded after one successful gig when two of its members had to return to England because their visas expired. Feldman hopes they’ll return to Nelson so “they can continue to expose people to Jewish culture in Nelson.”

Photographer Fred Rosenberg, of Redondo Beach, Calif., made his way to Nelson because of a romantic involvement, and then “fell in love with the town.” Rosenberg’s exhibits have been displayed in California, Vancouver, Australia and most recently as part of Nelson’s annual summer art walk exhibit.

Like the majority of Jewish residents in the Kootenays, Rosenberg is secular. He became involved with the Kootenay Jewish Community Association — the only Jewish organization in the region — because he “felt a kinship with other Jews and enjoyed the camaraderie.”

The association, led by Jeff Shecter of Montreal, serves as the focal point for Jewish life in the region. It meets once a month for Shabbat potluck dinners in members’ homes overlooking the mountains and Kootenay Lake. It also meets for holidays and provides members of the Kootenay Jewish community with the opportunity to meet, socialize and share a Jewish cultural experience.

Rosenberg’s ex-wife Lilli, a former resident of Toronto who is one of the principal organizers of the association, has held Passover seders and Shabbat dinners at her communal home on the north shore of Kootenay Lake.

She recently brought Vancouver Rabbi Hillel Goelman to the Kootenays to officiate at her son Isaac’s bar mitzvah, marking one of the few times a rabbi has come to the area. Like many Kootenay residents, Lilli Rosenberg has an artistic side and plays percussion with Mushana Marimba, a local group that celebrates the music of Zimbabwe.

Another member of the Kootenay Jewish community is Joseph Mark Cohen.

Cohen is a kabbalistic astrologer and author from Niagara Falls, Ontario, who leads kabbalah retreats at a geodesic home in the woods north of Nelson, located on 22 acres of land featuring a waterfall, contemplative creek and mystical garden. His land houses the Tree of Life School of Kabbalistic Astrology and Healing.

Cohen also leads guided tours to sacred sites across the world and hopes that his new home in the woods will serve as a center for Jewish meditation in the region.

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