Thirty years ago this month, when Rabbi Yitzchak and Henia Wineberg arrived in Vancouver, B.C. to establish a Chabad presence, there was little to be said for Jewish growth in Vancouver. Truth be told, says Rabbi Wineberg, there was little to be said for growth in the city at all. A quiet, sleepy city, Vancouver was well known for the hippie types who rambled through and, despite being Canada’s third largest city, seemed remote and unhurried. The Jewish community, a formidable presence in the first half of the century, seemed poised for near-oblivion by the mid 70’s, as the older, more observant members passed on and their children fell prey to rampant assimilation.
But the couple saw the potential in the city, and fell in love with the beautiful mountains that frame it and the Pacific Ocean that runs along the west side. They arrived with one young baby in November 1974 and set about revitalizing the Jewish infrastructure in Vancouver. From various Torah classes and Jewish events grew a synagogue, nursery, summer camp and ultimately a full Jewish center. Hundreds came through in the early years, as Chabad quickly outgrew one rental after another, finally erecting a large building in 1981. A Jewish community formed around the Chabad center, and a large, active network of outreach programs and community services took root.
Inevitably enough, the city grew too. Companies and investors began to realize the potential of the beautiful location and the city enjoyed a tremendous boost after the world fair drew thousands of visitors in 1986, who liked the Vancouver enough to stay. A real estate boom quickly followed and Vancouver was well on its way to becoming the thriving metropolis it is today.
All along, Chabad’s operation continued to expand. “With every year, the community’s needs grow,” says Rabbi Wineberg. Chabad’s open-house Pesach Seders and open-policy summer day camp are two of many long-standing services now celebrating their thirtieth year as a vital part of Vancouver’s Jewish calendar. But expanded adult education and monthly Shabbat singles dinners are recent developments for Chabad, responding to the needs of a rapidly increasingly population of young professionals in the city. A new Chabad center in a now-bustling downtown speaks volumes about a parallel growth for both the general and Jewish community. Three other satellite centers–in White Rock, Richmond and Victoria–opened their doors in recent years to a Jewish population spreading well beyond city limits.
On November 6, nearly thirty years to the day since Chabad’s arrival, some 600 supporters celebrated at the Chai Gala, a formal dinner and fundraiser benefiting Chabad’s work and recognizing its achievements. It’s near-impossible to capture three decades of growth in one evening, says Rabbi Wineberg, but a unique video presentation showing scenes from the early years gave dinner guests–longtime friends of Chabad and newcomers–a taste of how far the community has come. Held at the River Rock Hotel and Resort, one of Vancouver’s newest and finest venues, the dinner emphasized Chabad’s approach to community building: constant growth and an eye on the future. “There is still much more work to do, new areas to reach and so many more people to bring in to the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Wineberg. Howard Blank, an entertainment executive who served as Master of Ceremonies, described his experiences attending Chabad’s Shabbat dinners and community events. “As Vancouver gets bigger, there’s still one place where every Jew can feel like family and be a part of a vibrant community,” he said. Dinner guests enjoyed live and silent auctions for a variety of prizes, first class entertainment by a local comedian and an inspiring address by renowned lecturer Dennis Prager. “Chabad is at the forefront of a worldwide Jewish revival,” he said. “The tremendous growth of Chabad in Vancouver is truly representative of a worldwide phenomenon.”