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Gavriel Lakser with his sons


Gavriel Lakser's children with the Jerusalem skyline in the background


Gavriel Lakser's wfe Hodaya with their two sons

 
Myles Shane Interviews former Winnipeger Rabbi Gavriel Lakser

by Myles Shane, posted here Nov 13,2023

[This article first appeared in Senior Scope on Oct 27, 2023, and is being repinted here with  permission. It has been edited slightly for brevity]

"We only learned the full extent of the tragedy after Shabbat that evening. It was excruciating to hear the details. The fact that women, children, and even babies had perished was a stark and painful reminder of the Holocaust, where innocent Jewish lives were abruptly extinguished." Gavriel Lakser, a former Winnipeger and now a rabbi living in Israel was horrified by Hamas’s attack on Oct 7  on the Jewish homeland. "For many, the Holocaust may seem like ancient history, distant black and white images from a bygone era, but this was a stark reminder that such atrocities could happen today, and there are individuals who desire it."

 

Winnipeg - 1980

Gavriel, a product of the 1980s, hails from Winnipeg's North End. "I grew up on McAdam Ave in the North End, just a stone's throw from Main Street," he fondly recollected. "The 80s marked my formative years, and I enjoyed a wonderful childhood. Whether it was engaging in street hockey, football, baseball, and basketball matches with my siblings and neighborhood friends, heading to Grand Beach or the Oasis during the summer, or constructing snow forts and skating at the nearby rink on Saturday nights after watching the Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada during the frigid winter months, every day felt like a fantastic adventure!"

 

The North End

During his youth Gavriel attended Talmud Torah, a Hebrew parochial school in the area, up to the third grade. Later, his parents transferred him to Torah Academy in River Heights, believing it would provide a better religious education. He returned to Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate (the high school attached to Talmud Torah) in the middle of the seventh grade and stayed there until grade 11.  Living in the North End during this time period and walking to and from a Jewish school daily, meant Gavriel and his brothers were forced to encounter antisemitism many times over the years.

 

A Terrorist Organization

Regarding the Hamas attack, Gavriel mentioned that most Israelis were not surprised by the attempt, considering the historical context. What was surprising was the success of the attack. He emphasized that Hamas, in his view, has always been an organization with malevolent intentions towards the Jewish people, seeing this war as not solely about territory but wiping the Jewish population off the map, as the Nazi's attempted during the holocaust. "The mood in Israel is tense as the country prepares for a possible ground incursion into Gaza, amid concerns about regional implications and possible escalations."

 

The University of Winnipeg Collegiate

I met Gavriel in my late teens. I remember his mother happened to be my grade seven Hebrew teacher at Jefferson Junior High. My mom also did some volunteer work with her. Gavriel along with my friends Shawn and Or were always dropping by my house. They loved to play basketball on our twelve foot net which hung off the sundeck. For my dad, having the boys come over took him back to his glory days- he was a former high school all-star basketball player (at West Kildonan) himself. Actually the University of North Dakota asked him to try out back in the 1950’s but he decided to study at the University of Manitoba and become a doctor. The five of us would play on the driveway non stop for hours. In many ways Gavriel became part of our extended family and a true friend. He completed his grade 12 at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate and recalled one of his most memorable experiences at U of W was his involvement in the varsity basketball team. While he didn't hold the status of a star player, he played a pivotal role as the team's point guard, with a particular strength in defense.

 

Yeshiva University - New York

In 1996 Gavriel attended Yeshiva University in New York. It was there he managed to secure a spot on the basketball team as a walk-on player, which he considered a high point in his athletic endeavors.

York University, Toronto

After spending two years at Yeshiva University, he transitioned to York University in Toronto to pursue a teaching degree. However, after the second year, he realized that the program wasn't the right fit for him. At this juncture, he made the decision to return to Israel, where he had previously spent two years studying in a Yeshiva during the mid-90s. Once in Israel he resumed his studies.

 

Good Versus Evil

Gavriel highlights an interesting aspect of the current war, noting that it presents a unique and clear choice for people in the West to take sides. He emphasized that while past arguments often revolved around concerns about Israel causing harm to innocent Palestinian civilians, the brutal nature of Hamas' attack makes this situation different. He contends that anyone opposing Israel in this context is essentially supporting terrorism, as some anti-Israel rallies openly advocate for Israel's destruction and the harm to Jewish individuals. As a result, the war has transformed into a clash between good and evil from his perspective.

 

Rabbi Lakser

Returning to Israel was a straightforward decision for Gavriel. Even before he set foot in Israel, he held a deep fascination with the concept of a Jewish state where he wouldn't be a minority. Ultimately, his choice to make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel) was rooted in his unwavering belief that Israel is the rightful homeland of the Jewish people. During his time in the Yeshiva, Gabriel decided to pursue a career as a rabbi.

 

Chicago

Following five additional years of dedicated study in the Yeshiva, Gavriel earned his rabbinic ordination. Subsequently, he embarked on a one year journey as an assistant rabbi in Chicago, where a significant chapter in his life unfolded. It was during this time that he met his future wife through an online dating platform.

Gavriel had a specific condition when considering marriage, which was that his wife must agree to the prospect of eventually relocating to Israel. Four years later, they fulfilled that commitment. He admires his wife greatly for embracing this decision. She had recently converted to Judaism, and adjusting to a religious Jewish life was already a substantial transformation. Now, he was asking her to join him in the Middle East, a region fraught with adversaries intent on the destruction of Israel.

 

Air Raid Sirens

 

"The reaction of children to these frightening experiences is very much dependent on how the parents react." Gavriel explained. "My wife and I were very calm when the air raid siren went off and we almost casually made our way downstairs (we live in an apartment building) to the bomb shelter in the basement. We heard 5 or 6 more sirens that day. ??We all saw the missiles flying overhead, as well as the Iron Dome defense missiles destroying them. Our kids actually thought it was kind of cool seeing the display.”

 

The Accident

The couple's initial year in Israel proved to be a challenging period. Tragedy struck the day after their arrival when Gavriel's brother lost his life in a boating accident. During the previous Shabbat, they had all been together at his brother's home in New York before embarking on their journey to Israel. Gavriel temporarily left his wife and their one-year-old daughter to attend his brother's funeral in New York.

 

The Stock Boy

Upon returning to Israel, Gavriel commenced a year-long quest to find work in the field of Jewish education. However, due to the difficulties he encountered, he had to settle for various odd jobs, including working as a stock boy in a shoe store and selling electronic cigarettes. As the year drew to a close and with no promising job prospects on the horizon, he began contemplating a return to North America.

During this important juncture, an opportunity arose through a family friend, offering him a teaching position at a Jewish day school in Toronto. Simultaneously, he was actively interviewing for a job as a recruiter in Israel. On the very day he was planning to accept the position in Toronto, he was presented with the job offer in Israel. This fortuitous turn of events solidified their decision to remain in Israel. Most recently, he has been working as a conference coordinator for National Conservatism conferences held in America and Europe.

 

The Massacre & The Wedding

Gavriel admitted to experiencing great anger upon hearing about the massacre. "I can't deny that there was a strong urge for revenge, a desire to see the terrorists punished and to instill fear in their hearts."

 

He went on to describe the numerous funerals held across the country, even within their local community. Among these somber events, one particularly touching moment unfolded when a soldier, who had been called up to serve in Gaza following the tragic incident, was granted a brief release from military duty to attend his own wedding. Given that many of the soldier's friends were currently serving in the army and unable to be present at the wedding, his family extended an open invitation to anyone who could join the celebration and support the groom on his special day.

 

Gavriel attended this heartfelt gathering, accompanied by his son, and they witnessed a diverse group of individuals from various religious backgrounds in the Jewish community. These individuals offered their congratulations, warm embraces, and heartfelt blessings, expressing their hopes for the groom's safe return from his military service. In a poignant moment, Gavriel shared an emotional embrace with the young soldier, sealing the occasion with a kiss on the cheek.

 

Never Again, Is Now

He also noted the significant unity that had emerged among the Jewish people in Israel in response to the attack. Even ultra-Orthodox Jews, typically exempt from military service and historically anti-Zionist, had enlisted in the army to combat the terrorists. He mentioned that the attack had sadly been the catalyst for such unity, bringing together even those who had opposing views.

Gavriel concluded by highlighting the ever present threat of terrorism and war in Israel, which meant that one could never feel entirely secure. However, he emphasized the importance of the country as a Jewish homeland, where the safety and protection of Jewish life are paramount. 

 

 
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