(lubavitch.com) As some 55,000 fans participated in the opening of Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics last Friday night, thousands of Jewish Olympic guests were warmed by the lights of the Shabbat candles.
Chabad of British Columbia hosted festive Shabbat meals at its five locations and in a temporary site in Whistler. The dinners kicked off Chabad’s own Olympian challenge, to welcome and serve the estimated 20,000 Jewish visitors.
Rabbi Binyomin Bitton directs Chabad of downtown Vancouver, a community of young professionals. His Chabad center is centrally located to accommodate for this crowd that “lives, works, and parties here.” It is also smack-dab in the middle of Vancouver’s Olympic Village.
As the only Jewish show downtown, Bitton has transformed his ground floor storefront into a Jewish Pavilion. The site serves as an information kiosk for all things Jewish, a place to grab a kosher bite, and a welcoming hub amid the tumult that will continue through the end of the month. Several rabbinic students, from places as distant as the athletes themselves, are on hand to greet and study with visitors.
Bitton is reaching out to locals as well. Many offices and schools are closed for the Games, and Bitton says it’s an opportunity to acquaint local people as yet unfamiliar, with Chabad’s work in this 30,000-member Jewish community. Residents had another treat as Chasidic performer Mattisyahu celebrated Shabbat with them. The singer is in town for performances at both Olympic villages.
Vancouver residents have been counting down the days to the Olympic start, and at Chabad headquarters north of the city, preparations began six months ago. “We are pulling out all the stops,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Wineberg, Chabad’s director here since 1974. “Our job as shluchim is not to be involved with the Olympics, as per the Rebbe’s instructions, but to serve all Jewish visitors.”
While most of the ceremonies convene downtown, the ski, snowboard, and mountain sports take place at Whistler Mountain, 70 miles away. To care for the Jewish athletes and tourists stationed in this winter wonderland, Chabad has established a provisional center minutes from the mountain. In a donated house, (valued at $2,000 per day) three youthful rabbis, including Moshe Frank of New York, are on hand to accommodate all their needs. He and his colleagues host daily Torah classes, Friday night dinners, and “everything else a Chabad house offers.”
The athletes will pack their bags and start heading out of town following the closing ceremonies on February 28th. But the party will just begin for the Jewish visitors. That Sunday is Purim and each of the Chabad centers will host spectacular Purim celebration for their communities and tourists. Megillah readings will be offered all day long, and roaming rabbis will liven up the city in true Purim spirit.
In the meantime, concierges at every hotel in the Olympic range are prepared with relevant information provided by Chabad for Jewish guests. Individual centers have been fielding calls and emails from hundreds of incoming tourists. People want to know where to buy kosher food (Chabad is catering meals), Shabbat and weekday prayer schedules, and even accommodations.
And they are also phoning to express their gratitude. Wineberg has received many calls from people who want to “get a sense of what Judaism is available locally” and to say, “thanks for always being there.”