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Chabad Lubavitch centre set for River Heights area

Sun Aug 5 2007

Sharon Chisvin


MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
'Chabad Lubavitch’s function is to educate Jewish people about who they are, especially after the Holo­caust,' explains Rabbi Yacov Sim­monds, the young, charismatic associate director of Winnipeg Chabad.
 
A religious movement founded in a small Russian town 250 years ago is about to break ground on a new modern centre in 21st-century Winnipeg. The Chabad Lubavitch Torah Centre is due to open in the River Heights area in late 2008.

Chabad Lubavitch is the largest branch of Hasidic Judaism, the movement of Orthodox Jews that evolved in response to medieval anti-Semitism and a desire among the observant to more fully celebrate the mysticism and beauty of life.

The name Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for the words Chochmah, Binah, and Da'at, translated as wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The word Lubavitch derives from the name of the Russian town of Lyubavichi, where the movement's headquarters were first located.

While there are more than one million Chabad Lubavitchers in the world, and significant numbers in both Toronto and Montreal, Winnipeg's Chabad population numbers only three or four families.

Yet, in spite of its small numbers, Winnipeg Chabad has managed to educate, entertain and inform thousands of Winnipeg Jewish community members, most of whom affiliate with other branches of Judaism.

"Chabad Lubavitch's function is to educate Jewish people about who they are, especially after the Holocaust," explains Rabbi Yacov Simmonds, the young, charismatic associate director of Winnipeg Chabad.

"We fulfil the unadressed needs of the Jewish community, recognize that every Jew is entitled to an equal portion of Judaism, and accept people for who they are."

Chabad Lubavitch arrived in Winnipeg in 1972 in the form of Rabbi Avrohom Altein. With his tall frame, long beard and soft-spoken demeanour, Rabbi Altein has been a commanding presence in the local Jewish community for more than three decades.

A year after his arrival, Altein started a summer day camp that is still in operation today, attracting about 100 campers a season. Shortly afterwards, he oversaw the construction of a Chabad centre and day school in Garden City, in what was then still the heart of the Winnipeg Jewish community.

Rabbi Simmonds returned to his hometown of Winnipeg to assist Rabbi Altein about seven years ago. He has since been joined by his brother-in-law, Rabbi Boruch Heidingsfeld, who is in charge of youth programming.

Chabad Lubavitch offers programming for Jews of all ages. During holidays the centre sponsors community-wide celebrations, and also invites children from different schools to participate in holiday specific workshops such as shofar-making and matza-baking. It facilitates Sabbath retreats for teenagers, an after-school and summer yeshiva program, a seniors' Torah class and a moms and tots program. Chabad's succah mobile and Chanukah mobile make the rounds to hospitals and other public venues during the holidays, while Rabbi Simmonds regularly travels downtown for one-on-one lunchtime Torah sessions with busy professionals.

Outreach has always been an intrinsic aspect of the Chabad Lubavitch movement. There are more than 3,000 Chabad centres, or Chabad houses, around the world, in locales as exotic and distant as Alaska, Tunisia and Turkey. These centres serve the spiritual and educational needs of the local population as well as those passing through, and operate soup kitchens, day cares and drop-in centres depending on the area's needs.

The new 14,000-square-foot centre planned for Winnipeg is designed specifically to fulfil the Winnipeg Jewish community's interests and needs. It will feature rooms for one on one Torah study, a large multipurpose room that will double as a synagogue, lecture and meeting rooms, a kitchen, dining area, library, play area, dormitories for visiting camp counsellors and yeshiva scholars, and two ritual baths, one for men and one for women. It will be built in two phases, exclusively with monies raised in the local community.

"We are constantly adapting to meet the needs of the community and looking for what is best for it," Rabbi Simmonds says. In 1998, when it became clear that much of the Jewish community's population was moving south, away from the North End Chabad centre, the organization opened a satellite centre on Grant Avenue in a small rented space. That space, however, can no longer accommodate the hundreds of Jewish Winnipeggers eager to attend Chabad's many programs, lectures and festival celebrations.

The new centre -- spacious, modern and imbued with the energy of a centuries old philosophy and a devout dedication to the welfare of Jewish people worldwide -- is certain to resolve that situation.

schisvin@hotmail.com





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