Thunder Bay·Audio

Hanukkah in 'Jewish Thunder Bay': Northwestern Ontario community celebrates culture, faith

Hanukkah ends at sundown Monday. But in Thunder Bay, where the latest census data suggests Jewish people account for only 0.001 per cent of the northwestern Ontario city's population, the eight-day celebration represents another important opportunity to gather as a community.

Being Jewish in small city gives opportunity 'to think about your place in the world' says synagogue member

Charles Levkoe (left) and Susan Goldberg stand in front of the ark holding the sacred Torahs at the Shaarey Shomayim Congregation synagogue in Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Hanukkah ends at sundown Monday.

The Festival of Lights commemorates the Jewish people's successful rebellion against the Syrians in the Maccabean War, over 2,000 years ago, and is marked by Jewish people all around the world. But in Thunder Bay, where the latest census data suggests there are only 140 Jewish people — that's approximately 0.001 per cent of the northwestern Ontario city's population — the eight-day celebration represents another important opportunity to gather at the Shaarey Shomayim  Congregation.

Having a place to connect with others, a place to come together to share Jewish food, culture and tradition, is vital, said synagogue member Charles Levkoe, who googled "Jewish Thunder Bay" when he learned he was moving to the city, two years ago.

"Judaism is fundamentally a community-based religion, it's written right into the foundations of rituals and cultures, to even say certain prayers, we have to have 10 adults in the room,- Charles Levkoe, member of Shaarey Shomayim Synagogue

"Judaism is fundamentally a community-based religion, it's written right into the foundations of rituals and cultures, to even say certain prayers, we have to have 10 adults in the room. The things we do as a community demand we have others around, so having the Jewish community here in Thunder Bay, having other parents, having other parents and kids is really what makes this real for us."

Susan Goldberg said if she was living in a bigger city, she might not even belong to a synagogue, "because I would have so many more opportunities to be Jewish by osmosis," but in Thunder Bay she finds herself going to the synagogue, just in case "I'm the tenth person."

The building's importance is less about its physical structure, with its warm wooden interior, glowing stained glass windows and colourful tapestries adorning the ark where the sacred Torahs are kept, than what it symbolizes, said Goldberg.

'The place that symbolizes the heart of this community'

When members of the synagogue decided to hold a vigil for the 11 people killed in the shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Goldberg said some wondered if the memorial event should be held in a more public place.

"I felt, and I think other people felt really strongly 'no, it has to be at the synagogue. It has to be the place that symbolizes the heart of this community'," she said.

The Jewish community in Thunder Bay is vibrant, but the two admit its small size creates challenges. For instance, the synagogue survives financially due to a childcare centre which operates from the basement.

The stained glass windows at Shaarey Shomayim Congregation synagogue shine in the late afternoon sun in Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

As well, Levkoe noted that the vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting looked not only at discrimination against Jewish people, but prejudice in general, including the racism and discrimination faced by Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.

"It helps us identify, hopefully, as being part of the solution to something. So being a minority in the city opens our eyes to a different perspective, unlike being in a big city , where there are lots of people like us."

However, both Levkoe and Goldberg believe being Jewish in Thunder Bay has more benefits than drawbacks.

The front of the Shaarey Shomayim Congregation in Thunder Bay, Ont., boasts two large menorahs, while behind the tapestry is the ark holding the sacred Torahs. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

"It's much more participatory. It makes me think a lot more, it makes me a lot more aware of who I am and my culture," said Goldberg, who noted that through her affiliation with the synagogue she has forged relationships with leaders from a variety of groups across the city.

"After the Pittsburgh shooting, I was on the phone with the imam from the mosque, trading notes on how to handle security. These are things I just wouldn't do in a big city. So you do, you do get a lot more opportunity I guess to interact with other people, to think about your place in the world."

You can hear the full interview with Goldberg and Levkoe on CBC's Superior Morning  here.

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