Thursday 28 February 2013

Montreal area Chabad chapters capture Purim spirit

Here is a report I received from Rabbi Leibel Fine on some Purim celebrations in town. I first met Leibel when he wa s just a little boy; his father Rabbi Ronnie Fine and mother Simcha would invite my friends and I to their home and the Chabad Lubavitch Organization headquarters on different occasions.

Teenage volunteers pack mishloach manot packages for Chabad of the
South Shore in advance of the community's Purim Celebration on Sunday,
Feb. 24.

Chabad officials attribute record participation in dozens of events sponsored by its centres in Montreal to one-on-one outreach of its affiliates.

Renzo Paredes was driving with a friend this past Sunday afternoon, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, when a group of bearded young men dressed as clowns knocked on his window. Boisterously wishing him a “happy Purim,” they handed him a traditional Purim food package, known as mishloach manot, containing a bottle of grape-juice, some Purim pastries called hamantashen, and a note from the Chabad-affiliated Montreal Torah Center.
“I was very surprised to see something like that. It felt good. It felt very good to know that they want to share Purim with everybody,” said Paredes, a resident of Cote des Neiges.
Paredes’ experience is no exception.

According to Rabbi Berel Mockin, head of the Chabad Lubavitch Youth Organization and its affiliated Chabad Houses, these interactions are the key to Chabad’s outreach model. He cites internal numbers of over 7,000 participants in close to 30 large-scale Purim celebrations held all about Montreal this year. “We have big parties, Megilla readings, and programs in the established centres. They have been steadily growing for years. But the real surprise this year is the sheer numbers that are coming out of our smaller centres serving less-established communities. Places like Saint Lazare, Sherbrooke, Mount Tremblant, Brossard, Nuns’ Island and Old Montreal, where there was virtually nothing Jewish just a few years ago, now have regular programming and participation on par with the larger centres.”
Rabbi Nissi and Chanie Gansbourg pose with Josh sillver and Patrick
Chay Elfassy, who helped promote and plan their Purim Celebration for
350 young people in Old Montreal.

Rabbi Leibel Fine of Dollard Chabad, who held five Megilla readings during the holiday, attributes this success to one-on-one interactions. “We do not just put an ad in the paper and wait for people to come.," he says. "Virtually every person who participates in our events was a guest in our home at one time or another. For us, the Shabbat table is our most important way to connect.”

Rabbi Nachum Labkowski, spiritual leader of Chabad of S. Lazare, concurs. “People are moving into town all the time, and many of them miss the sense of community that they had on the Island [of Montreal]. We make sure to have families over at our house every Shabbat, and they feel connected. In fact, now I am beginning to hear that some of our Shabbat guests are inviting guests of their own, and that is very gratifying for us.”

Labkowski estimates that most of the nearly-100 people who attended his circus-themed Purim carnival - which featured crafts, balloon-making, face-painting, and food - knew about it via word of mouth. “Some came from the ads we put in the papers, but face-to-face invitations were certainly what brought them through the doors.”

Rabbi Nissi Gansbourg of Chabad of Old Montreal, which serves the eclectic urbane community centered around the Old Port, says that personal invites and social media was what brought over 350 people to his Sunday afternoon event, featuring cocktails, an open bar, and a DJ, along with the traditional Purim rituals, in the Royal Bank building. “We had a committee of 8 organizers, dubbed the MTL Jew Crew, and they did a fantastic job at bringing people in.”

Rabbi Shmuli Weiss of Chabad at McGill says that a similar mix of social media and word of mouth brought over 600 people through the doors of the iconic Chabad House on Peel Street. Members of the Chabad student board called their friends and made sure that they knew that they were invited guests at Chabad’s Purim Around the World celebration, and those friends brought even more friends.

The MADA Community Centre, Chabad’s humanitarian arm, reported an overflow crowd of over 900 people, including MADA aid recipiants as well as volunteers, filling two halls in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Miriam Sebbag, event coordinator at Mada, says that they made sure to tell people well in advance about the parties. “We encouraged our volunteers to spread the word among the people they help and to tell them that they would be there as well. That way, it was really a community-wide celebration where everyone felt welcome and included.”

Perhaps the strength of one-on-one interaction was most evident in Lasalle, where Rabbi and Mrs. Chaim and Chanie Brand had just founded their Chabad centre last December.
Held in a rented hall, their Purim celebration was their first event, and they spared no effort to ensure that everyone would feel welcomed. The Brands went door-to-door with mishloach manot gifts to personally invite everyone they knew to their celebration. With over 80 attendees, Chaim Brand was quite satisfied with the turnout.

“They knew that we really wanted them to come, and they came with their friends.”

When asked about what his next event would be, Brand was thoughtful. “We would really like to get a permanent building for our community centre, but for now I will be distributing matzahs for Passover.”


Tuesday 26 February 2013

Purim brings out true Quebec Language Cop

At a young adult Purim party in Old Montreal last week, bilingual Côte Saint-Luc resident, Leslie Perez, sparked some humor as she disguised herself in an overzealous S.W.A.T. Quebec Language Police Purim costume. 

“It is ridiculous to see how our provincial government is prioritizing invasive language ethics especially considering there are more urgent matters to be tackled in our province,” comments Perez of last week’s OQLF (Officequébécois de la langue française) reactions over the use of the word "pasta" in a menu.

Leslie Perez in action. Take that Pauline!!

Sunday 24 February 2013

An Insider's Briefing with the man behind "the MK"

A few weeks ago I got a call from Larry Rosenthal, a community activist for the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, B’nai BrithCanada, The Young Israel of Chomedey Congregation and The Montreal Torah Centre.

“Have you ever met Rabbi Saul Emanuel?”  he asked about the man who heads the JCC and Canada’s Kosher Certifier, otherwise known as the “MK.”

 I had interviewed Rabbi Emanuel on a number of occasions, but never sat down with him before.

Larry was anxious to give the JCC, a.k.a. the  Vaad Ha’ir, some exposure. 

I suggested to Larry that he try to organize an Insider’s Briefing with Rabbi Emanuel and some of the local Jewish media. The idea was sold and on February 19 a number of us gathered quite appropriately at one of the city’s most popular kosher restaurants, Ernie and Ellie at Decarie Square where owners Roman Kreyzerman and Rabbi Israel Sirota not only sat with us, but took part in the dialogue.

Roman Kreyzerman, Rabbi  SaulEmanuel, Rabbi Sirota and Larry Rosenthal.

Rabbi Emanuel, a charismatic native of South Africa, has headed the JCC/Vaad Ha’ir of Montreal for 14 years. He told us how companies from across the country continue to source out MK Kosher certification. “We make running a kosher business easy, keeping all kosher data on a private database called Digital Kosher,” he explains. “This is an automated system for managing ingredients lists, updating to the latest kosher certificates, and ensuring that certified kosher products contain only kosher ingredients.

Last year the Canadian government entered into a partnership,   making an investment of   $763,650 in support of the Vaad’s efforts to strengthen food safety for kosher certified foods. “If one of our inspectors is going to visit a company and so is the government then we have some overlap,” reasons Rabbi Emanuel.  “This experience has gone very very well. The grant ends in April, at which time we will share our findings. The support we received from Agriculture and Agri-foods Canada allowed us to work with our partners across Canada to extend the benefits of the expertise in food quality and safety that exists in the kosher inspection network and to reinforce trust among consumers in Canadian food products. This project complemented the work of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which already applies the strictest standards to our food supply, and will give Canadians even more reason for confidence in the safety and healthfulness of the food on their tables.”

As Rabbi Emanuel pointed out,  in the public’s mind, “kosher” tends to be associated with the Jewish people and the dietary rules governing the practice of our religion – most importantly, knowing what ingredients are in the food you eat and knowing how it has been prepared.  “But the appeal of kosher for modern consumers is much broader, extending, for example, to vegetarians and to individuals who have allergies or are lactose intolerant,” he explained.  “In fact, kosher is attractive to anyone who wants assurance that the food they are eating is safe, due to the vigorous maintenance and ongoing inspection of plants bearing kosher certification.”

Rabbi Emanuel said he wanted to clear up the common myth that the kosher certifier is responsible for the high price of kosher beef and meat. “It is a terrible misconception,” he said. “Our books are open. The cost of beef and meat in Canada is prohibitive.”

Kreyzerman agreed that it is not the Vaad which sets the prices. “It’s our suppliers,” he said.

Rosenthal shared a story about how dedicated an individual Rabbi Emanuel is. Having become aware of an elderly woman who could not access any kosher food at the Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur de Montréal in Cartierville, Rosenthal called Rabbi Emanuel.  After having no luck with the dieticians,  the rabbi reached the hospital ombudsman who promised to get back to him with an answer …in 45 days. “Ombudsman,”the rabbi responded, “she might not be alive in 45 days.” Taking the matter into his own hands, the rabbi accessed a dietician he knew at St. Mary’s Hospital who was able to help resolve the situation.

“What percentage of the  Montreal Jewish community keeps kosher?” he was asked.

While the rabbi said he could not give precise figures, noting he would love to see a formal study done on the topic, he estimated that as much as 25 percent are kosher in the strictest sense.

On vegetables, the rabbi said that many  in use today are likely to be infested by insects and/or worms. These pests are usually difficult to detect because they are often the same colour as the vegetable and/or they are extremely small - barely visible to the naked human eye. They can be as small as the period-dot at the end of a sentence. Due to this serious problem and the great effort required to check them properly, only certain vegetables are permitted for use in MK establishments. Others have restrictions and can only be used after the vigorous cleaning and checking procedures set forth below:

The  JCC has been in the business of kosher certification since 1922.   For more information about the Vaad, log on to