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Rabbi Green

Rabbi Alan green: My Twenty Years In Winnipeg - A Reflection

By Rabbi ALAN GREEN, posted June 15, 2012

When we first arrived in Winnipeg, twenty years ago this August, we had little idea that we’d be spending the next two decades of our lives on the wind-swept plains of Manitoba.  Coming from a city like Los Angeles, we immediately noticed some significant differences: a slower pace of life; a community eager to welcome and embrace us; and also, in complete contrast to life in Los Angeles, a sudden and complete loss of anonymity.  In other words, we felt like we’d finally come home.

Over the past twenty years, that feeling has never left us.  Although we tend to take it for granted here, it’s good to be reminded: Winnipeg is a far better place than what passes for normal in places like Los Angeles.  Winnipeg is, to some extent, a separate reality: a world in which family life still reigns supreme; where grandparents are still venerated; where a person’s reputation still counts for something; and where menschlichkeit is practiced on a daily basis.

Over the last twenty years, my wife and I have stood in awe as our children and their friends have grown from little eight-year olds, into the mature and accomplished adults that they are today.  However, as the book of Ecclesiastes puts it, “One generation goes; and another comes.”  Which is to say: one Winnipeg generation has grown up on our watch; while another generation sadly has passed away. 

I remember with fondness the grand old men of the Beth Israel Minyan—colorful, irreplaceable characters—survivors of the Holocaust—who were the backbone of Jewish practice in the north end of Winnipeg.  It isn’t possible to mention them all in this space.  But I particularly remember, Saul Leszcz, who adapted the high culture of pre-Holocaust Jewish Warsaw to a new life in Canada, with good humor and great generosity of spirit.  I remember Mannis Berliner, whose sharp wit could penetrate to the heart of any issue in a matter of seconds; and I remember Morris Singer, who left his Hasidism behind in Europe, but retained his deep feeling for all things Jewish until the day of his death.

I also recall the great standard-bearers of the Winnipeg Jewish community who unfortunately have fallen in recent years.  As rabbi of Shaarey Zedek, I had the honor of knowing them, to whatever limited extent, in both life and in death.  These were individuals whose outstanding personalities, unique accomplishments, and acts of philanthropy made me happy simply to be a member of our community. 

Again, there are too many of these stalwarts to list in this small space.  But I particularly remember, with both awe and sadness, Izzy Asper--the peerless philanthropist, and fearless defender of the rights of Jews here and abroad; Dave Kaufman, a man whose modesty and integrity were only exceeded by his great generosity; Gerry Gray, who spoke softly but wielded a mighty stick of community leadership; Harold Buchwald, who seemed always to be connected to everyone and everything worthwhile in the city of Winnipeg; Rabbi Louis Berkal--the spirit of Shaarey Zedek for some fifty years--the living, breathing, image of God for three generations of Winnipeg Jews; Philip Weiss, the eloquent voice of Holocaust survivors, who I used to call “the Elie Wiesel of Winnipeg;” Babs Asper, who embodied the Divine Feminine—someone who nurtured all, upheld all, and who was the matriarch of this community; and, Phyllis Shenkarow—so warm and welcoming, and a great source of love, support, and inspiration to so many in this community.  One can legitimately wonder: who will rise to take the place of these great Jewish heroes, in the coming generations?

My wife and I have learned so many lessons over the last twenty years.  As a rabbi, I consider it my duty to promote Jewish tradition as a life-enhancing alternative to today’s secular lifestyle.  However, as a rabbi, I often have been guilty of judging people by the degree to which they have absorbed traditional Jewish practices into their everyday life.  

As the years have flown by—particularly my last twelve years at Shaarey Zedek--it’s become increasingly apparent what a drastic error that has been.  While it is true that great people have frequented the pews of Shaarey Zedek over the years, I have absorbed a humbling lesson: that many of the greatest Jews of Winnipeg rarely saw the inside of a synagogue.

What does this mean?  I’ve thought long and hard about this apparent dilemma.  My conclusion: the qualities of great individuals are gifts from heaven—some of them granted freely, as a kind of grace; and others which are developed by dint of hard work and mental concentration.  God grants these gifts to those who are religiously inclined, as well as to those who are not.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon all of us to recognize, appreciate, and emulate the qualities of greatness: the qualities of love, compassion, keen discernment, economic achievement, and generosity—wherever, and within whomever—they may be found.  God, and the qualities of the Divine cannot be confined to a synagogue, or indeed to any other institution—religious or not.  

Upon completing the construction of the First Temple, King Solomon famously asked, “But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven, and the highest heaven cannot contain You! How much the less so, this house that I have built?”  But this is precisely the point.  The Zohar tells us, “There is no place in which God is not.”  Why should I then be surprised when Divine qualities manifest in a great man, or woman?

 Let us then appreciate Winnipeg’s great good fortune: the many gifted men and women who have built our Jewish community, and who continue to keep it strong.  Let us then pray that as “one generation goes…another comes” to maintain the work of Jewish continuity.  May Jewish life in Winnipeg, and on this continent, continue to expand for many generations into the future.  May this be God’s will—and ours as well.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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