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By BERNIE BELLAN Recently there appeared in the Canadian Jewish News a very interesting opinion piece by Joanne Seiff who, along with her academic husband, Jeffrey Marcus, are relative newcomers to Winnipeg.


Although we receive the Canadian Jewish News in our office, for a while we didn’t receive our regular copies of the paper, including the one that had Joanne’s column in it. (Interestingly, when I phoned the CJN to ask why we had stopped receiving the CJN, which I think has become a terrific paper under its new editor, Yoni Goldstein, I was told that we had a free subscription that had expired. Huh? How can a free subscription expire, I wondered. The person to whom I was speaking wondered that, too and agreed that our paper should never have stopped arriving. You see, we’re not the only ones who commit mistakes. )
But I digress. I was quite impressed with Seiff’s column, which was about what she held is the misguided move to merge the Etz Chayim and Shaarey Zedek congregations. Her perspective as an outsider looking in was quite interesting. Essentially what Seiff was arguing was that the synagogues had been foregoing other means by which to attract new members.
Seiff wrote: “How about focusing on models from elsewhere that work: buildings with classes and activities every day, with services for every age group, (including Shabbat and Jewish preschool options for young families) with affinity groups, chavurot, and committees designed to reach out to everyone? Instead, this community seems to be compounding its past choices. If the present models ofconsolidation haven’t worked, why consolidate further?”

A good part of her piece took issue with the centralization of so much of Jewish life here at the Asper Campus, including Jewish day schools. In some way, Seiff was incorrect in some of the things she wrote, including that the Jewish Federation insisted that all synagogues stop offering afternoon and religious classes once the campus was opened.. In a column written in response, Adam Bronstone, CEO of the Jewish Federation, pointed out some of the misconceptions in Seiff’s piece.
Unfortunately, neither Seiff’s original article nor Bronstone’s response are available on the CJN website. Rather than asking Seiff for permission to reprint her article, I contacted her and asked her whether she would be interested in writing something different for us. I don’t know whether she will do that or not; I rather hope she will because she’s an excellent writer with a very impressive resumé.
What I said to her, however, was that I was particularly interested in reading her take on Winnipeg Jewish life – as someone who is only recently arrived here. During the course of our lengthy phone conversation Seiff made some of the same observations that I have often heard about Winnipeg Jews: that native-born Winnipeg Jews are relatively closed to welcoming newcomers; and that the two major synagogues also don’t do enough to attract new members nor to make them feel welcome.

To be fair, Seiff was a leading member of the “New Shul” – the congregation that followed Rabbi Larry Pinsker when he left the Sharrey Zeded (or should I say: When he was pushed out). Although the New Shul group attempted to carry on for a short while subsequent to Rabbi Pinsker’s departure for Baltimore, it eventually foundered. Still, if there is a lesson to be learned by the New Shul’s experience, it is that creating a new congregation in Winnipeg  - let alone maintaining an existing one, is an economic challenge.

I mentioned to Seiff, during our phone conversation, that I had recently printed a fairly lengthy article about the state of Conservative Judaism in the United States, but that many of the problems facing that movement are similar to our own situation in Canada, including declining and aging memberships.
Just as Seiff argued for a greater “chavurah” within congregations here, the authors of the  report on Conservative Judaism in the U.S. lamented the failure of congregations there to emulate the much more successful Chabad movement in reaching out to new members. Seiff noted in her piece that one of the problems she and her husband encountered in Winnipeg was finding Jewish day care. Her twin boys were “156th” in line to be accepted into the Rady JCC day care, she told me.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the synagogues were to offer a day care program, she wondered. Yah – I’ve wondered about that myself. Why aren’t the Shaarey Zedek and the Etz Chayim in the day care business? Surely they have the facilities to offer day care. But who am I to tell them what to be offering? (Well, I do tend to offer my advice free of charge to a lot of other groups who may not be interested in receiving it – right, National Council of Jewish Women?)

Seiff went on to say that she might like to write a column about other newcomers’ experiences in Winnipeg – who they are, what brought them here, what their impressions are of Winnipeg life, and so on. I sure hope she follows suit.
There are so many very interesting stories of individuals who have immigrated to Winnipeg – and it’s part of our mission here to run stories like that on a regular basis.

It’s for that reason that I decided to write a front-page story about what the Berent family has done in opening a new kosher restaurant here. It takes a certain amount of daring to challenge the generally accepted notion that it’s impossible to run a successful fully kosher restaurant in Winnipeg. While it’s still early days for Bermax Caffé and Bistro, you have to hand it to young Maxim Berent and his parents: Alex and Oxana. They’ve stepped forward to show that kosher food can be quite popular with non-Jews – not because it’s kosher, but because it’s really very good – and highly affordable, in the case of Bermax Café.
In the course of publishing this paper, it’s my good fortune to meet a lot of different people. In fact there are so many interesting stories to tell about so many individuals, it’s hard to decide whom we should write about. Ultimately, it’s quite an arbitrary decision. But, just as I enjoy reading someone like Gerry Posner writing about former Winnipeggers who have “made good”, I wish Gerry were still here writing about people who have stayed in Winnipeg and “made good”. Gerry is such an engaging fellow and has so many acquaintances that he is never short of story idea when it comes to writing about former Winnipeggers. Still, in some ways I find myself thinking that we have to counteract the notion that the most successful Winnipeggers are the ones who chose to leave the city.

And – just to give you an idea how story ideas can drop in your lap in the most unexpected way, here’s one idea that I hope might come to fruition. This past New Year’s Eve I decided to volunteer for Operation Red Nose – the group of volunteers who drive people home in their cars rather than let them get behind the people when they’ve had a few drinks. (My wife was away this New Year’s, in case you’re wondering.)
As luck would have it, I was put into a group with a lovely couple. He drove his car while I would drive someone else’s car or truck, and his wife would navigate for us. During the course of the evening I learned that his father had been a member of the Dutch Resistance, and had been active in saving over 200 Jewish lives. I asked whether I might be able to meet the man’s father who, I was told, is now 92, and in failing health. Unfortunately I was told that the father is extremely reticent to talk about his wartime experiences, not because he doesn’t want to remember them, but because he is so completely modest he doesn’t want any recognition for what he did.
Again, just as I hope Joanne Seiff will write about newcomers to Winnipeg from her perspective, I dearly hope that the Dutch war hero – whose name I don’t know, might allow me to interview him. But – stories come and go. I just wanted to give you a glimpse of how two story ideas germinated in my mind. If you have a great idea for a story, by all means, let me know. That’s what we’re here for.