“This is the answer to my prayers.”
Fred Curtis, a professor and engineer, can’t wait for the new Chabad center to open this summer in Regina, Saskatchewan, where he has lived for 30 years. In fact, he feels he’s waited long enough.
That’s a sentiment Rabbi Avrohom Simmonds — who will lead the new Chabad center together with his wife, Shterna — has noticed in the relatively brief time he’s spent there. Having just completed his fourth trip to the region, he says he’s optimistic about Jewish life in the city, in spite of its veritable isolation.
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“When people hear that we are going to move to Regina for the rest of our lives, they say ‘wow;’ they cannot believe that there are enough Jews to keep us busy. When they look at the map and see that we are 300 miles from Winnipeg — the closest city with a sizeable Jewish population — they really wonder. But when I explain that the region is experiencing tremendous growth, and that the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] inspired us to reach out to each and every Jew, no matter who and no matter where, things make more sense.”
Simmonds says that, as a native of Winnipeg, he is unfazed by the logistical hardships of living in a place where the average temperature is 37°F, and all kosher products must be shipped in from afar.
Over the past few months, the rabbi and his wife have been building relationships with the Jewish population of Regina, the capital city of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Using contact lists supplied by the local community, Rabbi Raphael Kats of Chabad of Saskatoon and others, they have made getting to know people a priority. In fact, Simmonds reports having already reached out to more than 200 families.
Rabbi Avrohom Simmonds delivered matzahs to Anosh Rahimzadeh and other local residents before Passover.
Rabbi Avrohom Altein, head shliach to Manitoba and Saskatchewan, points out that the Simmondses appointment to Regina will form the missing link in the chain of Chabad centers stretching from Nova Scotia in the East to Vancouver in the West.
“Over the decades, we have been sending Roving Rabbis to Regina, but we never had a permanent presence there,” says Altein, speaking of the rabbinical students who are sent around the world by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, under the direction of its vice-chairman, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky.
“It was a challenge to serve the community there,” Altein continues. “Now that the community has grown, there is potential for growth, and we have closed the gap.”
The Simmondses will be the second Chabad couple to live in Saskatchewan, joining Rabbi Raphael and Sarah Kats, who moved to Saskatoon in 2011.
Although they will arrive in early summer, the shluchim, or emissaries, have already brought a number of holiday programs to Regina. On Sukkot, for example, they drove over a sukkah mobile, allowing Regina’s Jews — some who had never seen a sukkah before — to experience the traditional hut in which Jewish people spend the holiday commemorating G-d having sheltered the People of Israel after taking them out of Egypt. It was there that they met an Iranian Jewish couple who were moved to tears at the sight of an authentic sukkah, something that they had not seen since leaving their native country many years earlier.
More recently, the Simmondses made a pre-Passover trip to distribute handmade shmurah matzah — a trip that came to an unexpected ending.
The growing Jewish student population at University of Regina, above, coupled with favorable financial conditions, means that the area is ripe for a full-time Chabad center.
“We had finished meeting everyone on our list, and I had just two matzahs left,” explains the rabbi. “As we were pulling out of town, I got a call from a man who was desperately looking to locate some matzah for the upcoming holiday. He had Googled Chabad, and got in touch with Rabbi Kats, who directed him to call us. I quickly turned around, gave him the matzahs and sped off to Winnipeg in time for Passover.”
Curtis reports that members of the community think they may have located a suitable site for the new center: “We have found a house that can be used a base of operations. It has enough room for Torah classes and a daycare for children.” Located in the south of the city, where the majority of Jews live, it is adjacent to a park, which he envisions as a perfect place for preschoolers to play.
He says he also looks forward to Torah classes and traditional Jewish services, both of which he has missed since his student days at MIT in Boston, where he was a regular participant in many Jewish activities. Curtis also expects Chabad’s presence to build a stronger connection to the Jewish community in Saskatoon with intercommunity programs shared by the two cities, now that both have their own centers led by young Chabad couples.
He feels that the growing Jewish student population at University of Regina, coupled with favorable financial conditions, means that the area is ripe for a full-time Chabad center. “Saskatchewan is a prosperous province. The future is bright. Along with economic growth must come spiritual development and learning.”
Shachaf Tcherni says that Chabad’s presence may bring more Jewish families to the area, and he believes “the more, the merrier. If increased options will grow our community, I am all for it.”
When asked what he looks forward to the most, Curtis replies: “You are going to laugh, but I am really looking forward to praying with tefillin much more often.”