Eduardo and Gabrielle Sonnino moved to Vancouver from Brazil three years ago for work, but the most impactful and important thing they have done in Canada has not been in the business world, they say. It’s been spending 120 Monday evenings with a dedicated group of new friends studying the Tanya, the central text of Chabad chassidus, from start to finish.

To recognize the study group’s efforts, Chabad of Downtown in Vancouver will host a celebratory evening on Monday, Dec. 4, where the couple will stand at the podium and emphasize the benefits of Jewish learning. Says Eduardo Sonnino: “We want to inspire people not only to attend the classes, which are pretty amazing, but like us, to be inspired to be better Jews, better people, do more mitzvot and increase in their Yiddishkeit.”

The evening will also celebrate the Tanya’s author, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and Yud Tes Kislev, the 19th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which begins this year on the evening of Dec. 6, and is known as “The New Year of Chassidism.” On that date in 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chassidism known as the Alter Rebbe was freed from prison in Czarist Russia. Events at Chabad centers around the world will mark the day and the milestones in learning.

19 Kislev is the day when the annual learning cycle for the study of Tanya ends and begins anew. A number of online daily study classes for Tanya can be found here.

Rabbi Binyomin Bitton, co-director of the Chabad center, notes that the Tanya answers the fundamental questions Jews ask in terms of their spiritual connections. “The Tanya has revolutionized the way we think about G‑d, the human condition, the world and our place in it,” he says. “It serves as a practical guide to realize our spiritual potential.”

The fact that individuals take two-and-a-half years for the endeavor is always worth a siyum, a celebration, he adds.

The Vancouver program will start with a young girl who is a descendent of the Alter Rebbe playing niggunim of the Alter Rebbe on the harp. “On a night dedicated to the Alter Rebbe, that’s very special,” says Bitton. His opening remarks will focus on the search for greater meaning and knowledge. Speakers will then give the crowd a picture of “Why Tanya?”

The rabbi and his wife, co-director Malky Bitton, expect as many as 75 people from the community to take part in the event, which will be held at the Chabad House, where the classes took place. What he hopes people come away with are the messages of the Tanya itself and the encouragement to perform good deeds.

“It has a ripple effect,” says Bitton. “Other Jews can be inspired to say, ‘I’ll also learn Tanya.’ ”

Rabbi Binyomin Bitton, above, has led the dedicated students who have spent Mondays learning Tanya, the central text of Chabad chassidus. (Photo: Noam Dehan)
Rabbi Binyomin Bitton, above, has led the dedicated students who have spent Mondays learning Tanya, the central text of Chabad chassidus. (Photo: Noam Dehan)

‘Speaks to the Heart and the Head’

Robert Elias says Tanya study helped directly connect him to Judaism. “When we started to learn it, I was waiting for the next class every time,” says Elias, who is originally from Israel. “For me, this process was overwhelming and spurred real change in my life.” Now, he observes Shabbat and keeps kosher.

He will also explain to those gathered how the Tanya has affected his outlook and his work. “I’m the same person, I just learned a few more things,” he says. “I hope that people will see that it actually has a very big impact, a positive impact; it gives a lot of power in overcoming a lot of things.”

Rabbi Binyomin and Malky Bitton (Photo: Noam Dehan)
Rabbi Binyomin and Malky Bitton (Photo: Noam Dehan)

Shirley Hirsch and her husband, Gabriel, had been learning with Rabbi Lipa Dubrawsky, the educational director of Chabad-Lubavitch of British Columbia, Canada, for 15 years until his passing in 2013. His wife, Dena Dubrawsky, urged them to contact Rabbi Bitton, and soon they were taking on Tanya every Monday with Bitton. “There are different levels of observance among the class, but he was able to package [the material] and present it in a way that spoke to each of us,” she says. “The material of the Tanya speaks to the heart and to the head, and makes it easier to lead a life of Torah and mitzvot. You don’t only act Jewish, you feel Jewish.”

Hirsch will also address attendees, homing in on the transformative power of the Tanya, which speaks to people from all walks of life. “There’s something in it for everybody,” she says. “It just makes someone a better human being and a better Jew.”