By REBECA KUROPATWA Sherry Rollins is the first indigenous chair of the Winnipeg School Division. She is also Jewish.
Rollins was born in Ottawa, ON to a Protestant mother and Catholic father from the famous Huron-Wendat settlement.
How she came to choose Judaism defies all odds.
As it happened, what sparked her interest in the Jewish faith were the writings of Martin Buber (who was born in Vienna in 1878, spent most of his life in Israel, and passed away in 1965).
Rollins began reading Buber’s work as a teen. She developed a strong Zionistic identity, supported by a Jewish uncle.
“Out of each of my father’s six brothers and sisters, several married outside the Catholic faith,” said Rollins. “While some married Protestants, my aunt married a man with a Jewish background.
“This uncle (Martin Harts) and aunt were major influences in my system of belief and my early identification and alignment with the Jewish religion.”
Rollins made her way west at 19 when she transferred from the University of Ottawa to the University of Winnipeg (U of W). While there, she became involved with the U of W students association (UWSA).
There, Rollins met her future husband, Darcy, while fighting over student politics. “I was the lone candidate to break his slate,” she quipped.
After university, Rollins spent a brief stint consulting as a business owner of two companies before establishing a career working in the federal and now provincial civil service.
“I am manager of agency relations for the Department of Families,” said Rollins. “I am also an elected school trustee for the southernmost ward of the Winnipeg School Division (WSD). And, I am the current chair of the oldest and largest school division in Manitoba, the WSD.”
Rollin’s husband, Darcy, is Métis, born and raised in Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba. The couple was married in 2000 and today they have three children: Grace (13), Milli (9), and George (5).
“Judaism is my religion,” said Rollins. “Wendat and Métis are my French Canadian, Catholic culture. My husband is Swampy Cree Métis. My children are Métis. My daughter, Milli, is also Kembatan, originally from Ethiopia.”
After identifying as a Jew for many years, six years ago Rollins decided to undergo the conversion process, which she completed through the Shaarey Zedek.
“I do Judaism [by] celebrating holidays with the community, including the community at Shaarey Zedek synagogue or quietly at home,” said Rollins. “I am most spiritually comfortable outside, near trees and water. And I have a connection to the Canadian Shield that I cannot explain...I need to get back to it often or I get antsy.”
Growing up and identifying as a Jew, Rollins found that most people, although puzzled, were supportive. Here and there, she was given a bit of a hard time by her grandmother about it. So, it did create some challenges, but not to the point of being uncomfortable.
“My mother prefers Christianity or no faith alignments,” said Rollins. “That can sometimes be challenging. But, overwhelmingly, she is the first to show up and support my choices – usually with a Star of David tablecloth, jewellery, or Chanukah sweater.”
Also very close to Rollins’ heart is the desire to assist people not to lose their languages, cultural, and/spiritual connection to the land. Although Objibway and Cree bilingual programs were initiated by the indigenous community decades ago, they have only now finally been implemented in the Winnipeg School Division this year – something which means a great deal to Rollins (and many others).
The same goes for the Hebrew, Ukrainian, and French bilingual programs. “I think this restoration of contemporary, cultural, and linguistic practice is so important and so very interesting for educators and students alike,” said Rollins.
My wish is to continue working on social and economic development issues in partnership with community, grounded and respectful of culture, religious traditions, and perspectives.”
Rollins sits on a Jewish life and community committee at the Rady JCC, where she has found that many of the issues being discussed mirror concerns being talked about among the indigenous community as well as the school division – such as children and newcomers.