One of the first Chabad-Lubavitch centers to be established in the coming year might soon be known as a “Little (Jewish) House on the Prairie,” its location so remote that it would take nine hours to cross its region by car.
Nevertheless, Raphael and Sarah Kats are approaching their impending move and establishment of the first-ever Chabad House in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan with excitement. They point out that the Midwestern region has both a lengthy Jewish history and a bright future: Because of its vast natural resources, it’s the fastest growing province in Canada.
“We’re looking forward to our move very much and are very grateful to be given this responsibility and opportunity,” says Sarah Kats, who will soon travel with her young family to the region – her first trip there ever. “We want to serve every Jew, no matter who or where.”
The Katses and their three small sons will set up shop in Saskatoon, the province’s university and business center of 220,000 residents. They’ll also serve the capital of Regina, home to 200,000 people, and smaller towns throughout Saskatchewan. Each of the cities house close to 1,000 affiliated Jewish residents. Some estimates claim between 4,000 and 5,000 Jews live in the province.
“We’re going to be so far from home and from larger Jewish communities,” says Kats, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. “But it’s so worth it to be able to express our infinite love for every Jew.”
Kats says that she’ll concentrate on organizing Shabbat meals, classes, women’s groups and mommy-and-me sessions in Saskatoon, as well as home schooling her children. Her husband will shuttle back and forth between locations to give classes and run holiday programs, and build on contacts he made with locals as a visiting rabbi this fall. Together, they’ll also cater to students at the University of Saskatchewan.
Rabbi Raphael Kats, who will soon open the first Chabad House in Saskatchewan, helps a student don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin.
Future plans include opening a preschool and summer and winter camps.
During his trip several months ago, Kats discovered that Saskatchewan was once home to more than six towns with sizeable Jewish populations. (The nearest Chabad House is more than five hours away in Edmonton, Alberta.) He stopped in the town of Estevan to visit its own remaining Jew, an 89-year-old woman.
According to the rabbi, the province’s Jewish history dates back more than 100 years. When Jews began leaving Russia en masse in the late 19th century, many emigrated to Canada’s prairieland, drawn by the freedom to practice their religion and the opportunity to farm. One town, which once had three synagogues, bears the name Hirsch, and another – Edenbridge – originally was known as Yiddenbrik, a Yiddish phrase meaning “Jewish bridge.” Each community has since dwindled, says Kats, but there’s still plenty of Jews throughout the area.
Climate wise, Saskatchewan is one of the coldest places on earth. Winter temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero are not uncommon.
“Saskatchewan is a very land-locked place and is very remote Jewishly,” says Kats, who predicts that much of his work will involve meeting with residents individually, because of the distance between communities. “We hope to bring the warmth of Judaism to the cold climates of Saskatchewan, and bring this light to each and every Jew.”