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Full Interview with Dr. Rena Secter Elbaze, Named New Executive Director of Congregation Shaarey Zedek — Has Long History with the Synagogue

by Rhonda Spivak, Sept 7, 2023


Dr. Rena Secter Elbaze, has recently been named Executive Director of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. She and her family have a long history with the synagogue. As she notes, “My family joined Congregation Shaarey Zedek so that I could have my bat mitzvah there circa 1973-74. Prior to that we went to the Rosh Pina Synagogue. My paternal grandparents played a large role in founding the Rosh Pina and my father was the first bar mitzvah that was celebrated there.

“My mother was on the Board of Directors of Shaarey Zedek, and my parents were involved in the House and Building Committee. My mother chaired the committee for over 15 years during which time they played a major role in any renovations that took place including the Chapel. My father designed the beautiful Chanukiah which sits on the entrance of the synagogue.”

When asked what her fondest or most prominent childhood memories of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue are, Rena replies, “When I was in grade four, Rabbi Berkal came to my class at Ramah Hebrew School to teach us the tefillah and invited us to join the junior choir. From that time forward I went every single Saturday with all my friends to lead the Shacharit service, participate in the junior congregation and of course partake in the copious bar mitzvah kiddish. I remember the first day I arrived, they sent all the kids up to the bimah and told us to sing. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do but the words came out of my mouth. I guess I had learned them without even realizing!”

She adds, “I used to babysit for Rabbi Appel’s children. I was best friends with Rabbi Wernick’s kids and still am to this day. I cannot forget how our rabbis, their spouses, and our youth directors such as Phil Guberman went above and beyond to support us as adolescents with all our questions and crazy projects. The sky was the limit and they helped us dream big. Many of us went on to assume important roles the Jewish world here and elsewhere but we all feel a deep connection to our youth at Shaarey Zedek.”

Rena remembers being involved in the synagogue as a teen. “I have wonderful memories growing up at the synagogue. I was involved in Kadima and USY and was president of each of those organisations. We got to travel all over the Midwest and meet kids from different cities. It was amazing exposure and a wonderful way to build friendships that I have to this day. I was also in the intermediate and senior choirs under the direction of Archie Stone, Rashi Swartz, and Sheila Roitenberg. Later I worked for the synagogue as a youth leader and continued to be involved until I moved away for school. Even when I came back to visit, I was invited to be involved in some way by leading a service or delivering a D’var Torah. The synagogue always supported me providing scholarships to go to camp Ramah in California and to study in Israel through a USY year abroad.”

The synagogue is an important pillar of our community, Rena emphasizes, “The synagogue is of course a place of worship to connect to our spirituality. It is a place to celebrate life cycle events and our holidays. It is also a place for us to explore our identities and to connect to our very relevant yet ancient past. It is a safe space, a welcoming space and provides an anchor in the crazy world in which we live. It provides an intergenerational connection and at the same time, is a home to many newcomers who are looking to be part of something they can call home.”

When asked about her goals in her new position, Rena replies “I hope to be able to lead our staff and lay leadership through this transition so that we can continue to thrive as a congregation. I would like to inspire, through my leadership a sense of Jewish pride so that we may rightfully take our place within our own community and the general community as a source of inspiration and an example of menchlochkite.”

Rena has a doctorate in Communications and Information Sciences from the University of Nice in France. Prior to that she received a Master’s degree from the same university and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Manitoba in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies as well as French and Spanish. “I studied for a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and for a month at the University of Salamanca in Spain,” she says.

She reports that the synagogue has recently been engaging with young adults by Shabbat dinners at people's homes. As she says, “Before the pandemic, we had a vibrant young adult group. We were able to keep it alive during the pandemic through some online programming and now that things have opened up, since the Fall 2022, we have had monthly gatherings. What the young adults wanted was an opportunity to connect to each other, to have a safe space to explore their Jewish identity and make new friends. One of the things that struck me was that they really want to have an opportunity to learn more about their Jewish heritage and celebrate the Jewish holidays. We have had home hosted, Shabbat dinners, Havdallah parties and holiday programming. I have hosted some of these events as have Deb and Lewis Stern. The young adults also have had the opportunity to host. Often the programming is among the young adults, but they also come out to general adult programming including a dinner that we had for Sukkot, a post Passover party called Mimouna and more recently, the Jewish celebration of love, Tu B’Av. To further encourage young adult participation and future membership, we are offering free seats for the High Holy Days this year.”

Rena emphasizes that High Holy Day registration for the Congregation is going very well. “We already have close to 577 people signed up for in-person services and another 150 for the family service (SOLD OUT!). There are also 212 people who will watch online either because of mobility issues or because they live out of town. The board of directors really got behind the concept of offering free tickets to our membership as a tangible symbol of their commitment to our congregation’s future and the importance of bringing community back. We wanted to show our members that we are grateful for their patience during the pandemic and the renovation process. Non-members are also welcome to join us either through purchasing their tickets or donating their time to volunteer. Young adults, newcomers to our community are welcome to join us and be a part of our community. We are thrilled to have Rabbi Green with us from Rosh Hashanah to the end of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Mass will be able to participate both in the main service and concentrate on the family service with the help of young adult Noah Trachtenberg. Our service will be greatly enhanced by the Quartet and a twenty-person Ruach Folk choir led by Mal Magorel.

“We are sure that all of these elements will inspire a dynamic, spiritual experience to bring in the new year and a new era for our congregation.”

Regarding the major renovations, the synagogue is undergoing, Rena notes that “The renovations are going according to schedule with the asbestos abatement behind us and the renovation of the roof and HVAC systems complete. We are now able to concentrate on upgrading the interior, bringing light into the traditional space, and rejuvenating the sanctuary and social hall to their former glory. Special attention is being paid to audiovisual requirements and enhancing security systems to give our congregation peace of mind.

“I am fortunate to walk through the space on a regular basis watching the progress with excitement and anticipation of our reopening. We're not yet sure of the exact opening date but hope to be in the building for the High Holy Days 2024.”

When asked about the private daycare the synagogue is planning, Rena replies, "We are currently working on the infrastructures for a private daycare that will be directly connected to our congregation. We will be able to provide content and infuse it with Jewish values. We have a committee of professionals who are helping to develop the framework in the hopes of opening in the fall of 2024."

Rena started working as Director of Engagement and Education in the Fall of 2016, and has learned a lot about the type of programming people are interested in. “I realized that adults enjoy coming out to learn about Judaism and there are different levels of learning that appeal to the diverse demographic groups within our synagogue. We have courses running from basic Judaism, which appeals to a wide audience all the way through Melton Adult Learning connected to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. People enjoy the online format but like to come out in person for special programs like the Tu B’Shevat Seder that we held this year at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. We have found that partnering with other community organizations on some of these special programs gives us a larger pool of people to draw from and helps build bridges in our community.”


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.