The Kamloops kibbutz

The city's Jewish community is growing

Kamloops has no synagogue and no rabbi. But as the city has grown, so, too, has the Jewish community.

Professors at Thompson Rivers University, doctors, lawyers and people from a range of other professions found each other in Kamloops and formed a society to celebrate their religion about seven years ago.

The group has had a low profile, but as more prominent people get involved, knowledge of the society is also growing.

Last summer, Heidi Coleman moved here from Montreal to take the helm of the Royal Inland Hospital Foundation. Hint: she previously worked at the Jewish General Hospital Foundation.

She's now been drafted to the presidency of the Kamloops Jewish Society, a group that has roughly 50 to 60 members but which is growing as more Jews who thought they were the only ones in town find out there is a society here.

Most of the members get together for a few religious holidays every year. Their next big gathering will be for a Passover Seder feast on March 26.

Coleman said by far, most of the Jews in Kamloops have come from other communities and so they bring with them a diverse range of outlooks and approaches.

They recognize their religion is their common ground.

"The community here has no building or rabbi, but if we need one we will get one. It's so grassroots. You can get more involved here than in an established place," she said.

Some of the members have been raised Jewish, some have discovered their roots later in life.

One of the latter is Dan, a 74-year-old man who lives in a small community outside of Kamloops.

"Dan" is not his real name. His family is still not entirely comfortable with his growing efforts to rediscover his Jewish roots, so The Daily News agreed not to use his name or photo.

His anonymity doesn't make his story any less compelling.

Between 1938 and 1940, about 10,000 Jewish children and teenagers were separated from their parents and sent out of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to the U.K. and then beyond.

Most never saw their families again.

Dan was three years old when his parents said good-bye to him for the last time in Austria.

He was adopted by a couple in Red Deer, Alta. The husband had two daughters from a previous marriage but he and his second wife had been unable to have kids of their own.

They eventually had another daughter, 11 years after adopting Dan.

He was so weak from malnourishment when he was young that he suffered from rickets. At three years of age, when he should have been running around the small farm he was raised on, his parents pushed him in a pram.

He was so small and sickly in Grade 1, the school nurse sent him home and he returned to the class the next year - still the smallest child in Grade 1 at age seven.

His parents didn't talk to him much about the fact he was Jewish, and certainly didn't want it known in the community..

"My dad said to me 'Dan, you're Jewish. But you don't have to advertise it.'"

And so it wasn't talked about.

"How many kids grow up saying they're German Jews?" he asked rhetorically.

Every night, his dad - a tailor by trade - would walk home, eat dinner, push back his plate when he was finished and read excerpts from the King James Bible's Old Testament out loud.

"He read all these stories and explained and went into great detail with us," he said.

Dan still quotes from those Bible stories. He still has his dad's well-worn Bible.

Decades later, he met another man in the small town where he lives who openly stated he was Jewish. The two of them shared that bond and declared themselves the only Jews in the Central Interior. They celebrated holidays, just the two of them, until his friend moved away.

For a time, Dan sold real estate and he always checked in with his clients after they had moved and settled in.

On a follow-up visit with a Dutch couple he'd sold a house to, he saw they had a big brass menorah. He asked if they were Jewish; they said no.

A few years later, he was feeling pensive about his Jewish roots, so he approached the couple about buying it. He was told it had been in the family for decades.

The woman told him her family had sheltered some Jews during the war. One day, the Jews went out to get food and never returned. Their menorah has been with them, waiting for someone to come back and get it, ever since.

Dan teared up as he told this story.

"She said 'I guess I'll give it to you now. You can claim it.'"

Several years ago, Dan was at the bank and passed by someone who wished him a Merry Christmas. Dan replied, Happy Hanukkah. The person who overheard expressed surprise that he was Jewish, then mentioned there was a small group in Kamloops.

Dan got involved and enjoys the camaraderie of the society. They gather for a few holidays every year.

Coleman said the Seder will include games and activities for the kids so they can learn about Jewish traditions and stories. Sharing a religion, a culture, a history, is important not just for the adults, but especially for children who haven't experienced it and who are far from strong Jewish surroundings.

"It's really important for the children, for the young kids," she said.

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CREATING A NOSH

Oy vey, guess who's coming to dinner?

TRU culinary arts chef instructor Brody White has cooked up his fair share of ethnic and culturally-based dishes.

But next week will be his first Jewish Passover Seder.

White was approached by the Kamloops Jewish Society to provide the food for the feast, and although he's an instructor, he's been the one getting the education.

"I grew up here. I left when I was 18 years old. I realized when I was in Vancouver, I was 23 or 24, I was working with a Jewish guy. I had to think about it and thought I'd never met a Jewish person."

On March 26, he'll meet more than 50 of them, right in his home town.

White said he hasn't finalized the menu yet, but he is planning a dip for the matzo bread, a chicken soup with matzo balls, braised brisket and a Moroccan style chicken dish.

What's definitely off the menu is pork, cream with meat and leavened bread. And because there's no rabbi in Kamloops, the kitchen will not be kosher as it won't be blessed.

A couple of weeks ago, White and his students met with Coleman to talk about what is eaten at a traditional Seder and why.

It's not just about cooking the food, it's about thousands of years of history and ritual that have gone into Passover.

It's probably the most unique meal he's planned, White said.

And he's cooked everything from buffets to the TRU Foundation gala.

"I accepted the event, because it would be a great learning experience and good for everyone to know we can actually accomplish these events," he said.

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