Talmud Torah blends many Jewish traditions

Ninety-nine years ago, Edmonton’s small Jewish community pooled its resources and opened a little school in the basement of the Beth Israel Synagogue on 96th Street.

Talmud Torah, as it has always been called, moved to North Glenora in 1952 as a private institution.

For those who study the Edmonton public school board’s innovative decentralized approach to management, 1977 was a crucial year. Talmud Torah entered the public system, demonstrating to other potential operators of private schools that excellence, and culture-specific instruction, was possible in the public system.

The Jewish population grew again and, after another gigantic fundraising drive, Talmud Torah opened in its new location in the west end, on 172nd Street south of the Whitemud freeway -near the current Beth Israel Synagogue.

Parents, alumni and children in pink lion of Judah T-shirts gathered on the school grounds Sunday afternoon for kosher hotdogs, potato chips and coleslaw, hockey and soccer challenges, tug-of-war and an adorable, synchronized dance performance of the hymn, Hine ma tov.

“The first thing I heard about Edmonton is the excellent public education system,” said Eytan Wine, a pediatric gastroenterologist from Jerusalem who was recently lured here by the University of Alberta. Wine stood near the playground in shorts, a T-shirt and a pair of sunglasses. Behind him, kids shouted, sprinted and tossed Frisbees.

Wine has connections to Western Canada, with relatives in Vancouver and, it turns out, a cousin in Edmonton: the lawyer and community leader Marshall Shoctor. But, he admits, the U of A was competing with a lot of other research universities for his skills.

“When I came for the interviews, we visited the school. Talmud Torah made it an easy choice to come to Edmonton.”

Alberta has always had a small but active Jewish community since 1893, when Abraham and Rebecca Cristall became the first Jewish settlers in Edmonton. Jews in this part of the world experienced racism just as they have elsewhere. In 1980, the Beth Shalom synagogue was burned in an attack. But in recent history the city has been an overwhelmingly welcoming place, full of opportunity.

“That’s part of the challenge,” said Andy Feher, a past-president of the school’s board. On Sunday, he wore an adult-sized version of the Talmud Torah shirt.

“Edmonton is a liberal, open, economically advanced place. Throughout history, European countries have had these various restrictions. There are no restrictions at all here. But, with that, with the ease of assimilation and the opportunity to succeed, you have to work a lot harder to maintain your culture and traditions, a sense of texture.”

The awkward story of immigration and integration is a Canadian obsession, a dominant theme in our literature.

Talmud Torah is the oldest continually operating Jewish day school in Western Canada for many reasons, but the Edmonton version of immigration and integration has peculiarities. We tend to be aggressive about freeing ourselves of tradition. If parents and community leaders hadn’t worked hard to keep the school alive, it might have closed long ago.

Sunday’s barbecue was stage one in a year-long push to reconnect with alumni, to celebrate the school’s achievements and prepare for a big party next year.

Today, most Jewish immigrants come from Israel, Russia, South Africa and Latin America. Traditions vary greatly among these communities.

For those who grew up in the Soviet Union, for example, being visibly Jewish wasn’t always held in high regard. In Israel, a largely secular culture, “You go out for a coffee and you’re Jewish,” said Feher.

Whereas in South Africa, Jews tend to be rather observant, defined by difference; life is structured around the temple.

In Edmonton, Talmud Torah blends all of these traditions into one dynamic community.

David Weisz, who grew up in Edmonton and attended Talmud Torah in the Glenora location, is now the president of the board. As parents, students and alumni arrived for the barbecue, he shook their hands and greeted them in Hebrew. He’s keen to maintain Talmud Torah’s tradition of authenticity, at a time when it’s so much easier to blend into the shopping and entertainment-focused soup of North American culture.

“Our fundraising focus, for the anniversary year, will be to increase and enhance the early education and kindergarten aspect of the school,” said Weisz, as we walked toward the barbecue area. He named a few illustrious alumni who just might be receiving letters from the school’s high-powered yet comical fundraising committee.

Ben and Ella Palter are twin Grade 2 students at Talmud Torah whose parents are recent arrivals from Toronto. Over their hotdogs, they spoke glowingly of the school. Ella’s favourite class is Hebrew.

She said the Hebrew teacher -another Talmud Torah alumnus -is hilarious.

“It’s a long way from the way I remember Hebrew classes,” said Jay Palter, Ella and Ben’s father, who had attended a regular public school in Ontario and took Hebrew on the weekends. He said he never imagined putting his kids in a Jewish school, but saw it as a way to meet people in a new city.

A year later, Palter, a social media consultant, is heavily involved in Talmud Torah and in its anniversary celebrations, compiling stories and historical images on www.tt100.ca, an attractive website.

This is a feature of Edmonton’s Jewish community and of the city itself: Congratulations, stranger, sorry about the weather. You’re one of us now! Settle in, come for dinner and understand we’ll never let you leave.

Originally published here: https://www.edmontonjournal.com/life/Talmud+Torah+blends+many+Jewish+traditions/


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