I could hear the screech of packing tape being stretched across cardboard boxes and the thud, thud of its ends being slapped down by eager hands. Speaking by phone to Rabbi Chanan Chernitsky at his apartment in Montreal, a mountain of cargo seemed to grow in the background. He and his wife, Tuba, were preparing to send it all to their new home and the home of the world’s newest Chabad House: St. John’s, Newfoundland. Their dishes, books, strollers, menorah, Shabbat candlesticks, and other home and Jewish necessities would soon begin a 1,500-mile journey to a remote Canadian island—and so would the Chernitskys and their three young children.
The oldest of the Chernitsky children: Menachem Mendel
Writers tasked with reporting on the Chabad shlichus juggernaut have shown a weakness for frontier language, eager to write of uncharted territory and the intrepid young couples who bring the wisdom and practice of Torah to Jewish locals and travelers in remote areas. If there ever was a place deserving of the frontier label, it is Newfoundland.
It is here, on this island in the Atlantic Ocean that only joined Canada in 1949, that the romantic writer may truly offer his tributes to the wide expanses untouched by man and the thrill of being on the edge of civilization.
But what the 27-year-old rabbi and his 26-year-old wife see in Newfoundland and its Jewish population is what truly drove the frontiersmen of old: the untapped potential and untold promise. There has not been an Orthodox Jewish presence in Newfoundland for decades, and to the Chernitskys, it is fertile land to till (agriculture metaphors—growth, fruits, seeds—are the next best option after frontier ones).
The uniqueness of Newfoundland’s Jewish community is a reflection of the province, which also includes mainland Labrador to the northwest, as a whole. Prior to joining Canada, Newfoundland was an English colony for centuries; the native-born tend to have English, Irish or Scottish ancestry. Its time zone is half-an-hour off from any other time zone in North America. It also stands apart geographically from much of Canada—a rugged territory of roughly 150,000 square miles with a little more than 500,000 people just 1,300 miles from Greenland. Triangular in shape, the rocky island blocks the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, creating the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, the world’s largest estuary.
The rabbi with his son, whose first haircut, a public event, is planned for March 5.
Making the Place Home
The Chernitskys first visited St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, in February 2016. The first Jews to ever visit came a bit before that: The earliest recorded Jewish presence in the province is from 1770, when English Jews started making their way across the pond. Simon Solomon—possessed of a name so Jewish-British that it is obvious he was among their numbers—was the first postmaster of Newfoundland, arriving there in 1792. The Jewish community grew in dribs and drabs, numbering about 100 families in the 1950s. Today, perhaps 500 Jews reside in Newfoundland.
On that trip a year ago, the native Canadian couple (both from Winnipeg) threw a Tu B’Shevat party and set to work meeting the locals. They came back again from Purim to Passover, when they held seders in conjunction with the community leadership. During that month-long stay, the Chernitskys distributed handmade shmurah matzah, conducted a children’s program, chatted with residents and began to feel that this place might just become their home.
The rabbi reads the Megillah last year during Purim.
“We enjoyed our visits, but still weren’t sure what we’d do,” relates the rabbi. “We returned to Montreal and within a couple of weeks made our decision: We would move to Newfoundland.”
Theirs was not the only Chabad foray there; rabbinical students sent by Lubavitch headquarters in New York had for years come periodically to the province, slowly cultivating contacts and relationships on which the Chernitskys could now draw. Other visiting bochurim from Canada have helped serve local Jewish needs, building a foundation for a permanent presence.
Tuba Chernitsky watches ships by the port.
The rabbi is under no disillusionment about what Jewish living in Newfoundland will be like. There is no Jewish day school, no kosher dairy, and they are a three-hour plane ride from Montreal and its Jewish hub. But he is not deterred. He has all but convinced the local supermarket to stock kosher chicken, has found kosher bagels in the local Costco and has already discovered a circle of Jewish students at the nearby Memorial University of Newfoundland.
The St. John’s port is a transportation gateway and business hub in Atlantic Canada.
As for all the other parts of Jewish life—well, that’s why the Chernitskys are there.
“We have plans. We’ll start slowly and carefully, but there’s a lot of things we want to do,” says the rabbi before rattling off a list of initiatives he had in the pipeline.
They aim to start a Sunday-morning tefillin and breakfast club, offer a range of Torah classes and establish a full Jewish presence at the university, in addition to holding Jewish holiday programs and celebrations. Their very first event, scheduled for March 5, comes just three weeks after their arrival. Their oldest child and son, Menachem Mendel, will have his upsherin (his first haircut at the age of 3) in his new home—the first such event on the island in about 40 years. A Purim party will be held a week later.
Chernitsky describes the harsh winds that rage in from the Atlantic and whip through St. John’s, the foggiest city in Canada—some reports say in the world. Newfoundland may indeed be a cold place, but the Chernitskys are determined to stoke its Jewish flame (fire metaphors are a favorite, too).
The historic and colorful Water Street in St. John’s (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The island of Newfoundland is the easternmost part of North America.
Two of the couple’s three young children, feeling the whip of those winds.
Houses in the town of Paradise, part of the St. John’s metropolitan area
A view of the ocean from the top of Signal Hill
Watching a ferry in the foggiest city in Canada
King’s Cove Head Lighthouse in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The temperature is in the mid-80s right now in New Caledonia. The sun beckons, the sea sparkles, and the Jewish community . . . well, it’s small.
Chabad comes to the Mexico resort city, bringing Torah study, kosher food and even weddings.