Saturday, / July 13, 2024
Home / news

On Vancouver Island, a Jewish Community Blossoms

Chabad of Vancouver Island, led by Rabbi Meir and Chani Kaplan, has grown to include a thriving preschool, day camp, and synagogue. The Chabad Family Shul is bustling every day, with classes for young and old, minyanim, and events. From nearby, the sounds of children singing as they learn the Aleph-Beit in the CTots Childhood Education preschool can be heard.

But it wasn’t always that way.

When the Kaplans first moved to Victoria, on Vancouver Island, B.C., Canada in the autumn of 2003, they didn’t know anyone. Vancouver Island wasn’t especially amenable, at first, to this new rabbi and rebbetzin who were moving to an island that had last seen a synagogue built in the 1850s.

“Most people said, ‘we don’t need another rabbi,’” Rabbi Meir Kaplan said. “People were not too enthusiastic about Chabad coming to town.”

The Kaplan Family

But as they met more and more people, the Kaplans’ warmth, optimism, and genuine care were apparent, and their events grew in popularity among many of the locals.

One of the first families the Kaplans met were Dr. Elior and Leah Kinarthy and their children. “We met the Kaplans 20 years ago when they first arrived in Victoria and slowly became more involved in the Chabad community,” Leah Kinarthy told Lubavitch International. “Little by little, we were drawn in to the wonderful holiday programs and women’s events.”

The first thing the Kaplans opened was a preschool. It started off humble indeed: several kids would be dropped off twice a week at the Kaplans’ small home, where the basement pulled double duty as a classroom for the nascent Chabad center. Despite the humble surroundings, parents gravitated towards this warm and genuine couple, and slowly, enrollment grew.

The Island’s First Jewish Preschool

“In the summer of 2006, we had a group of some 15 families who wanted to send their children to the preschool full time, but we couldn’t find a space that would be satisfactory to meet local licensing criteria without renovations,” Kaplan described. And of course, “We had no budget for anything.”

They finally secured the use of an annex of a local public school building, a small space with two rooms that nevertheless would drastically increase their capacity to serve the community. For Chani Kaplan, it was a significant transition, but one with tremendous benefits. 

Vancouver CTots Graduation

“It was a very big step for us, going from a small in-home program where I taught a few times a week in our basement—which had to be cleaned and set up each time—to becoming an official licensed center, having to hire licensed staff, furnishing a full classroom, getting parents on board, curriculum planning, registration etc,” Chani Kaplan told Lubavitch International. “But it really put us on the map in Victoria for those looking for a Jewish preschool program, as it was the only one on the island.”

With a center outside their home, Chabad quickly became a more recognized presence locally. Families became interested in joining the preschool and the shul, and the community slowly grew. But then the Kaplans were informed by the administration of the school they were renting from that they would soon have to move out.

Creating a Permanent Home for Chabad on Vancouver Island

In 2013, the Kaplans convened a building committee with the goal of finding a permanent home for Chabad. The fledgling community that had begun in a basement was thinking big, and they were doing it because they had grown exponentially.

Iris Colyn has watched as the community has grown. Colyn, who works in an executive position in British Columbia Public Service, had checked out the local options for Jewish community after moving to Vancouver Island from South Africa some 15 years ago. When she first met the Kaplans, they had just moved the school out of their basement. Despite the humble surroundings, “As soon as I met Rabbi Meir and Chanie, I knew that was my home.”

And she wanted to find a new home for her home. So Iris joined the building committee.

Vancouver Chabad Centre

“I’ve been on many different committees to help; I have joined many initiatives over the years,” Colyn said. “It’s an important aspect of my life; it’s a spiritual home for me and the rest of the community.”

In 2014, the right property came up. Abutting busy Quadra street a few blocks from the harbour in central Victoria and situated across the street from a large park, the site was zoned to allow the construction of a commercial building. In 2015, the cornerstone was laid, and on the 20th of Av — August 24, 2016, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky — Chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch and Machne Israel — joined the Kaplans and hundreds of community members for the grand opening of the Lionel and Margot Schneider Family Shul, the first synagogue to be built on Vancouver Island in 150 years.

The windows of the eastern wall of the sanctuary, which faces Quadra Street with its abundant traffic, form the shape of the seven-branched menorah, and the locals have noticed. 

In 2017, the Victoria Real Estate Board awarded a certificate of Excellence in Design to the center. Many people have connected with Chabad simply because they were driving or walking by, saw the striking menorah, and were inspired to connect with their Judaism.

One such individual was Steve Diner.

Vancouver Lag Baomer BBQ in Playground

He had met Rabbi Kaplan a number of times around town, but hadn’t connected with the local Jewish community. Living with emotional challenges, he’d participated in the Jewish community life of his native Winnipeg via Zoom, but knew precious few individuals in Victoria. But one day recently, that changed.

“I got it into my head that I wanted a new kippah, so I figured I’d go see the rabbi in his new place that he built,” Diner told Lubavitch International. Kaplan warmly greeted Diner, welcomed him in, and set him up with the new kippah he had sought. But it didn’t stop there. “He says, ‘Come into the sanctuary, we’ll put tefillin on!’ Well I don’t know how, but he tied the tefillin on me.” Then Kaplan said the sentence that would change Steve Diner’s life: 

“Why don’t you come on Saturday for Shabbat—you’ll be with Jewish people.”

Steve did just that, and he loved it so much that he never stopped going.

“I went from being a Jew who doesn’t wear a kippah to wearing my kippah every day. I read the siddur every day. I learned how to tie tefillin,” DIner said. “I spend most of my time in shul, I’m the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave.”

“I have no other social outlets, no other friends; only my friends from shul. We are very tight-knit and it keeps growing,” Diner said. “Rabbi Kaplan has absolutely changed my life. The impact has been the Rebbe’s vision, where shluchim can change a person’s whole way of thinking and approach to life.” 

Vancouver Gala Dr Elior and Leah Kinarthy

“I’ve never felt such love like that from him before.”

The center includes a synagogue, social hall, and the Ctots Childhood Education Centre—a full-time childcare program for children ages 0-5. “We opened two classrooms, an infant toddler room and a preschool room with a total of 20 children, and thank G-d it has been growing since,” Chani Kaplan said. 

In 2021, Chabad opened an expansion—a second preschool classroom next door, to accommodate the growing need of the center. In September of 2023, Chabad doubled the amount of spaces in their expansion and now have close to 40 children attending Ctots each day. They built a unique playing area, dubbed Adventure Park, in the yards of the Chabad house and adjacent buildings. “Today Ctots is a community of its own, and parents feel like they have a place to come and connect,” Chani Kaplan said.

In 2023, the Kaplans began hearing from parents and grandparents who wanted a place to send their children once they had graduated preschool. The Kinarthys, who by now had a 20-year relationship with the Kaplans, were one of the first.

“With my grandson enrolled in the CTots—the fabulous, incredible preschool at Chabad—we started dreaming of starting a Jewish Day School,” Leah Kinarthy said. “My husband, as a psychologist and child development expert, saw the excellence of the preschool and daycare programs. That’s when we approached Rabbi Meir and Chani Kaplan with our dream of starting a Jewish Day School for Kindergarten and elementary school students.”

Vancouver Wine and Cheese and Tamim Academy

On 14 Kislev 5784 — November 26, 2023 — at the gala banquet celebrating Chabad of Vancouver Island’s 20th anniversary, Iris Colyn stood before the community and proudly announced that the growth would continue. The preschool that her grandchildren attend would now be joined by a state-of-the-art Jewish day school.

The Kineret Tamim Academy — a branch of the Tamim network of Jewish day schools — will be opening for the 2024-2025 school year. Chabad just finalized the purchase of yet another property adjacent to Adventure Park and the Chabad house, and following renovations, this will be the first home of the elementary school. 

“We are now starting the next stage of Chabad Vancouver Island by building a Jewish day school in Victoria, and it feels like a dream coming true,” Chani Kaplan said. “Even though—with the Rebbe’s blessings—we have seen tremendous growth over the years in many areas and have a beautiful and growing community, this will completely change the face of Jewish life on the island and I feel lucky and humbled to be witnessing this miracle.”

Twenty years in, Chabad on Vancouver Island has grown from a basement to a beautiful center serving thousands of Jewish people — and they’re only getting started. 

Vancouver CTots Shabbat Pic Taken Before Sunset

“I’ve seen over the years that even people who were completely unaffiliated started coming to different Chabad happenings—holidays, events for children, and classes,” Colyn said. “The community has grown so much because all these people have found a community in which they can feel at home.”

As for the Kinarthys, their connection with the Chabad community has blossomed. 

“Our connection to Chabad means everything to us,” Leah Kinarthy said. “My daughter and I do activities together and we go to Shabbat services as often as we can. My grandson is thriving in the Chabad preschool. Chabad brings us all together as a family and we are all excited for the future for our grandson and for our community. It is incredible to have the first Jewish Day School opening in our city in 150 years!”

“We are so grateful to Rabbi Meir and Chani for helping to create a warm and welcoming community for us and for every Jew who comes to Vancouver Island.”

Vancouver CTots Graduation With Rabbi and Mrs. Kaplan
Vancouver Jewish Women Unite
Comment 4
  • Amber CJ

    I love it here❣️

  • Amber CJ

    I love it here!

  • Barbara Kowall

    Thank you for a most beautiful and interesting article! So inspiring! Bravo for all that Chabad gives to the community!
    From the time my brother, Steven Diner, had that chance meeting while buying a kippah, I’ve said it it’s been a win-win situation!!

  • Karen Rivkah Levin

    I think that it’s fair to state that Rabbi and Chani Kaplan and their beautiful children, serve as the greatest source of inspiration for the Jewish community of Victoria, BC. They have brought so much to this community and still, their contributions are continuing to bloom in significant ways.

    Soon we will have a Jewish Day School in Victoria, thanks to the foresight and efforts of the Kaplans. There is nothing better for Jewish children than to have the opportunity to attend a Jewish Day School. This is particularly true in a city like Victoria, that has a small Jewish presence.

    We are all blessed in so many ways by having the Kaplan family in Victoria. Thank you for highlighting them in the Chabad International magazine.


Related Articles
Northernmost Chabad to Open in Fairbanks, Alaska
Rabbi Heshy and Chani Wolf will be launching Chabad’s northernmost outpost in Fairbanks, just 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s heartland. The…
Chabad Scales Steep Slope in Steamboat Springs
Rabbi Isaac and Chaya Abelsky recently founded Chabad in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains in northwestern Colorado, the town is famous for…
Ep. 45: Creating Jewish Ambassadors in the KKK’s Backyard
The 45th episode in its series about the personal struggles and achievements of Chabad representatives
Ep. 44: The Black Fedora in the Cowboy State
The 44th episode in its series about the personal struggles and achievements of Chabad representatives
Find Your Local Chabad Center