Jewish Kamloopsians celebrate winter holidays without a physical gathering space

Ahead of Hanukkah celebrations, Jewish community members are shining a light on cross-cultural connections — even without a synagogue or community centre.
A stock image of a menorah with nine blue candles in the foreground. In the background, four people read together from the Torah.
Ahead of December’s Hanukkah celebrations, leaders in the Kamloops Jewish community are speaking up about a lack of local gathering space and the importance of cultural connection. Photo by RODNAE Productions / Pexels

Heidi Coleman and her family moved to Kamloops (Tk’emlúps) from Montreal 10 years ago, when Coleman accepted a role a the Royal Inland Hospital (RIH) Foundation. At the time, she didn’t know many other Jewish people in the city. 

So when Rosh Hashanah came around that September, she and her son set out to find other community members celebrating the Jewish New Year — by canvassing waterfront parks. 

The religious holiday asks observers to perform a prayer (the Tashlikh) at a natural body of water, so Coleman kept her eyes peeled for groups of people along the shore. Sure enough, she and her son got lucky at the second park they tried.

“There was a group of people, so I knew they had to be Jews,” Coleman recalls, “I introduced myself and said I’d just moved from Montreal. They were so excited.”

Coleman and her son had happened to find members of the Jewish Community Centre of Kamloops (JCCK). JCCK, a local organization connecting the region’s Jewish residents, is a community centre in name only, with no fixed address.

Soon after that first meeting, Coleman was asked to replace the outgoing president. She’s been representing Jewish community members in Kamloops since.

It’s not a very big population to organize. Of the Kamloopsians who responded to the 2021 census distributed by Statistics Canada, less than 0.1 per cent self-identified as belonging to the Jewish faith.

By comparison, 33.6 per cent of respondents identified as Christian and 60.5 per cent said they were not religious.

Despite there not being many Jewish people settled in Kamloops, Coleman says she’s felt incredibly welcomed by the wider community.

“I don’t feel any hatred in Kamloops,” she says. “People are really generous and interested. I’ve been told by some people I’m the first Jewish person they’ve met.”

But Coleman says the small number of Jewish people in Kamloops and the lack of brick-and-mortar gathering spaces for them means it’s harder to find connection, especially during religious holidays like Hanukkah, which falls from Dec. 18 to 26 this year.

Jewish community not visible in Kamloops

Looking at a map or consulting Google search results, it may seem as though Kamloops has no Jewish presence. The city doesn’t have a synagogue, Jewish community centre or any kind of permanent gathering place.

Coleman says this means regular religious services aren’t very feasible, and community members often open their homes for special occasions.

“We don’t have a synagogue, so we don’t do any prayers. If people do, they go to Kelowna,” she says, referencing the Beth Shalom synagogue in Kelowna’s Okanagan Jewish Community Centre. “Here, we get together at people’s houses [for] Rosh Hashanah or Passover.”

The Kamloops Jewish community’s informal structure does mean some details slip through the cracks, Coleman admits.

“Sometimes I don’t even know unless I look at my calendar which day [a smaller holiday] is because I live in a place that doesn’t have such a big community.”

This time of year, especially, shows just how much Christian holidays can take over the region. Coleman admits people in Kamloops she’s spoken with often assume everyone around them celebrates Christmas, even when they know Coleman’s Jewish.

“People will still ask me if I got my Christmas shopping done, and say Merry Christmas. To them, how could you not celebrate Christmas?”

Because her husband isn’t Jewish, Coleman’s children celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. She says the secular spirit of Christmas is something she enjoys taking part in.

“It’s become gift giving, dinners, the tree, stocking stuffers and family,” she explains. “It’s such a beautiful time and beautiful things are done for [vulnerable] people … People are so generous at the [RIH Foundation].”

This year, Kamloops’ Jewish residents plan to gather at a community member’s home midway through Hanukkah for food and celebration. Coleman says organizing these kinds of events keeps everyone connected.

“What I love about Judaism most is community — getting together and making the Challah, marking holidays, the closeness,” she says. “I feel it on my shoulders to keep the community together … It’s a nice thing to bear.”

Young community members light candles on the menorah. Holidays like Hanukkah are often spent together at someone’s home. Photos courtesy of Heidi Coleman.

Jewish students, faculty isolated on TRU campus

Rabbi Marcy Gofsky has been a leader in Thompson Rivers University’s (TRU) multi-faith chaplaincy since 2019, acting as a resource for the school’s students and faculty. 

While she says the university often brings new Jewish community members, both temporary and permanent, to Kamloops, they’re met with very few established resources in the city.

“We had a whole influx of families from the Jewish community from across the country — particularly from Vancouver — come to TRU as educators,” she says. “They’re looking for services, looking for support, and Kamloops does not have a brick-and-mortar anything.”

“We don’t have that local place to meet,” she explains, echoing Coleman’s sentiments. “Hanukkah will be at someone’s house. I taught Hebrew classes in people’s homes or at my dining room table.”

On campus, that lack of space poses issues for community members. 

While 850 colleges and universities worldwide (and seven in B.C.) have student-led organizations sponsored by Hillel, a Jewish campus nonprofit, TRU doesn’t. The school offers a multi-faith chaplaincy and two multi-faith prayer rooms, but nothing specifically for Jewish community members. 

Gofsky also says the multi-faith rooms get booked quickly because multiple student groups have to share the space.

Hanukkah is one of many holidays that leave students feeling isolated away from home and family, she says. 

The 2022 fall exam period ends Dec. 17, the day before Hanukkah begins, but the holiday’s dates change every year and could overlap with an already stressful time on campus. Studying and writing exams during a religious holiday isn’t something students celebrating Christmas have to worry about.

“So much of what students miss is connection,” she says. “Hanukkah is that time when we’re all looking to connect and be together in that little bit of light.”

Gofsky hopes to kindle more of that connection in the new year, she says, by restarting some programs halted by COVID-19. One of them is a series of religious services accompanied by a slideshow presentation to help attendees recite prayers in Hebrew, even if they don’t speak or read it.

“Once we get into the new year, we’re going to have some space in the community and get an opportunity to get some of these [services] offered through student services and the chaplaincy,” she says.

Kamloops’ Jewish community adapts to stay connected

Not having established gathering places or religious leaders in the city means members of the Kamloops Jewish community often have to get creative.

Younger community members, for example, have to contend with learning about Judaism outside of Hebrew school and adapting important celebrations like a bar or bat mitzvah. 

Coleman says her son studied for his bar mitzvah online and had his celebration with family in Toronto. Another local family, she recalls, had to borrow a Torah from the Kelowna synagogue in order to have a bar mitzvah ceremony locally.

When it comes to connecting with other religious community groups, Coleman says other organizations are happy to work and gather together.

“The non-Jewish community has been really receptive,” she says. “There are a lot of people who want to connect with the Jewish community … There’s a feeling of wanting to get close.”

Some of that collaboration includes hosting events alongside the Kamloops United Church and volunteering with organizations like Refugees And Friends Together (RAFT).

Gofsky says different religious organizations across the region, including the Hindu cultural society and Lutheran and United churches, have also made their spaces available for Jewish services and other gatherings. 

But while meeting in those spaces works for some, Gofsky explains other community members feel uncomfortable in a non-Jewish religious space.

Hanukkah brightens community in the face of antisemitism

Apart from some incidents with non-Jewish classmates at a local high school, Coleman says she hasn’t heard of many antisemitic incidents in the region, despite police-reported antisemitic hate crimes increasing by 47 per cent nationally in 2021.

However, she does express concern about instances of antisemitism in popular culture.

“It’s scary. I definitely feel it at times — not scared in Kamloops, but scared about [what’s happening] out there,” Coleman says. 

While Gofsky agrees Kamloops hasn’t seen the influx of antisemitic acts other Canadian cities have, she believes the city’s lack of visible targets has protected its Jewish community in a way.

“We live in a community, the Interior, where there’s not knowledge and understanding of the Jewish traditions and faith. We’re hidden here,” she says.

“There isn’t a place for people to target. And we don’t have the online presence that so many communities do.”

Despite not seeing outright antisemitism, Gofsky says she’s heard from students, faculty and community members who continue to feel an undercurrent of misunderstanding in Kamloops.

“We have to be aware and be vigilant, but on the other hand that shouldn’t be a reason not to go ahead and have spaces and be out there,” she says. “We’ll shine a light on it, that’s the only way to deal with [hate].”

While observing a global rise in antisemitism during holidays like Hanukkah can be especially difficult, Gofsky says the festival is a reminder of what Jewish people have withstood in the past — as well as what community means for Judaism today.

“Hanukkah is a time to enjoy family, friends, songs, food, parties, gifts and games. It’s sharing stories of [our] history,” she says, adding Hanukkah is also a time to recommit to overturning injustice and oppression.

Looking forward, Coleman says she hopes non-Jewish and Jewish community members connect and collaborate in the face of hate.

“The more people you get to know and understand … the less scary they are.”

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