Yaniv and Sapir Atiya never thought they’d settle in Regina, Saskatchewan.
The couple came from Israel in 2016 via the Jewish Agency for Israel as shlichim—emissaries who go to various communities around the globe to provide a connection to Israel.
But when their shlichim work came to an end, they accepted a full-time one year contract to continue their work for the Jewish community in Regina. A few years have passed and the Atiya’s are still in Regina, now they call the city home.
Coming from Israel, the differences between Regina and their homeland is stark. The weather is vastly different, access to kosher food is not widely available, and there are only around 80 Jewish families in the city, a far cry from the millions in Israel.
When Sapir and Yaniv joined the community, they wanted to enhance the programming for the Jews in Regina and sustain and develop the current work being done by various members of the community. They decided to develop the Herman Jewish Community Centre (HJCC) to bring more cultural Jewish offerings.
Both Sapir and Yaniv are fundraising directors of the HJCC, with Sapir also acting as education director and Yaniv acting as program director.
“In Israel we took it [Jewish life] for granted, every aspect of what Jewish life is, from speaking Hebrew, to gathering a minyan, to kosher food, to holidays, everything,” Yaniv recalled. “Here, you have to work very hard if you want certain things. It’s easier in places like Toronto or New York, but in Regina it’s very different because the numbers are significantly smaller.”
According to the Jewish Virtual Library (JVL), Saskatchewan’s first Jewish resident was Max Goldstein, a Russian-born tailor who opened a store in Fort Qu’Appelle in 1877.
Regina had nine Jews in 1891, with the numbers increasing to 130 residents by 1911. Two years later the members of the community erected a synagogue and in 1914 a building was rented to serve as a Talmud Torah. In 1951, the Beth Jacob Congregation built a new synagogue with an annex added four years later to house the school and the community centre under one roof. At its most populous in 1931 there were just over 1,000 Jews. By 1951 the number had fallen to 740 and the 2001 census documented 720 Jews in the city.
The JVL said that because of the relatively high rate of interfaith marriages, some members of the community took the initiative to build a burial ground where Jewish and non-Jewish partners could lie next to each other, separated by a fence deemed halachically acceptable. It opened in the summer of 2005.
“When there were over a thousand Jews it was easier to maintain Jewish life, but over time people moved more out east and west, so there had to be innovative ways to attract a young generation of Jews to make them want to be [part] of this community,” Yaniv explained.
Because the couple are both musicians, they began Musical Kabbalat Shabbat, and started a youth group for young adults and teenagers to meet once a month or every other month—depending on everyone’s schedules.
“There was incredible work being done before we came,” Sapir emphasized. “We’re just trying to support it and bring whatever we can from our own personal experiences.”
During our conversation Yaniv and Sapir often finished each other’s thoughts or added in more details to the other’s various points; their passion for the community evident in their descriptions of it. While caring for their own children at home, they work vigorously at HJCC which is apparent through the array of programming and offerings at the Jewish centre.
The HJCC offers krav maga lessons, cooking classes, music sessions, game nights, discussions on Israel and other Jewish topics, and are part of the Zikaron Ba’Salon which provides accessible testimonies from Holocaust survivors. The couple also remarked that they have a strong relationship with the Chabad in town, which creates an even richer and inclusive Jewish experience.
“We are grateful to have the ability to maintain Jewish life in a community as small as ours, it’s very special,” Sapir said. Oftentimes, they do the work in tandem with Beth Jacob’s Rabbi, Jeremy Parnes, a central presence in Jewish life. He was certified at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
But Parnes didn’t come to Regina as a rabbi. Born in London, England, Parnes moved to Canada 45 years ago. He lived in Toronto and other parts of Ontario before his work (which was based on community development) assigned him to Calgary, Alberta. However, after the company reported having some “problems” in Saskatchewan, he moved to Regina in 1985 and has stayed ever since.
He joined the Jewish community as an active member and always found everyone to be “friendly and warm.” Which, as Parnes noted, makes all the difference.
The rabbi explained that in Regina, there are only two Jewish communities: one follows reform and the other follows conservative/orthodox.
“There’s more incentive to be engaged if you want the Jewish community to exist, because of this, it’s a much more engaged community than what you would find in a larger urban centre,” Parnes explained, his admiration of the community palpable during our conversation.
He remarked that the city doesn’t have a Jewish Child and Family Services, or a housing option, or specific support for the elderly in the Jewish community, therefore necessitating more volunteerism amongst the Jewish population.
Parnes’s role in joining the community as a rabbi and spiritual leader was gradual. His predecessor left to go back to New York, and while a search for a new rabbi began, Parnes led services with another member from the community. At some point, he was approached and asked by members of the community, “if you made us an offer we’d be really interested.”
“I didn’t think that it was something that I would or should do, but I felt I was obligated to at least help fill the gap on a part-time basis. I didn’t enter this with the idea that it would be long term,” the rabbi explained.
However, it led to a full-time contract, which is when he began studying rabbinics with the ALEPH Ordination Program.
“This job has been extremely fulfilling in all aspects of my life,” Parnes said.
Over time, he has brought the community into the 21st century and balanced the needs of the older generation, who are more comfortable with a traditional environment, and the younger generation, who are looking for something more progressive. “Trying to balance the dynamic between one and the other has been the biggest challenge and finding ways to bring it along without somehow causing a catastrophe or split in the community has been the most rewarding,” he said.
But attracting the younger Jewish community continues to be one of the biggest obstacles they’re facing, which is why the work of Yaniv and Sapir are integral, Parnes stressed. “I have a part to play in that as well and to make that work from a rabbinic perspective. Those are the biggest challenges faced by any community in North America today.”
Another way the rabbi is connecting the Jewish community not only with each other but with other communities in Regina is with interfaith seminars and speaking series.
When we spoke, Parnes said he had just finished the first of three subjects for an interfaith speaker series. The first topic was on generosity and the next two seminars discussed hospitality, and compassion. Parnes along with the local imam and minister lead the discussion, using texts from the Abrahamic religions. A few years ago he also partnered with the Archbishop of Regina to discuss Leonard Cohen’s work, which led to a “packed” seminar.
It’s this interfaith work that Yaniv and Sapir believe to be an important step in reaching even more Jewish people.
Another event that typically brings many people together is Hanukkah. This year, the Atiya’s still haven’t decided if the celebration will be in person or held virtually, but the annual candle lighting will take place, and typically draws a large crowd to mark the occasion. Before the pandemic, they had an Israeli musician on tour stop by for the celebrations, which was “unforgettable.”
Whether meeting in-person or over Zoom, Yaniv said most importantly, the small community feels like family. “Sometimes people get along, and sometimes they don’t, but in the end that’s your only Jewish connection. It feels like you’re home and in the right company.”
Sapir added that if there are more relationships formed and nurtured, the success of bringing together the community will be greater
“Our mission here is so clear. We want to make sure that Jewish life is sustainable and that we can provide services, classes, holidays, interfaith and multifaith programming. . . there’s a lot more weight on our shoulders. But, the Jewish community has been here since the 1880s and will continue to be here for hundreds of years to come.”
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.