By BERNIE BELLAN
Not too long ago, if someone was planning a Jewish wedding, it was taken for granted that the food served would be kosher. Not only that, if it was a Jewish wedding then the likelihood was that it was going to be held in a synagogue.
Then, as couples began to ask for something different - something that would set them apart from the norm, more and more Jewish weddings began to be held in hotels, then even more recently theme weddings required something even more innovative, and lately destination weddings in some exotic locale have become de rigeur for many couples. Similarly, bar or bat mitzvahs in Winnipeg began to take place outside the traditional synagogue setting.
But, as the demand to hold something different – something that would set a simcha apart from anyone else’s began to take sway, something else began to give – and that was the insistence on having a kosher dinner as part of that event.
We’ve been marking the decline of kosher observance in Winnipeg for some time now. Unlike other Canadian cities with even smaller Jewish populations, Winnipeg no longer has even one kosher butcher shop. And, as the price of kosher meat has skyrocketed, having a kosher wedding has become costly to the point where it is the rare wedding these days where one can expect to be served kosher food.
Of course, combined with the drop-off in kosher observance, there has also been a decline in the number of Jewish weddings altogether. These days, if there is a wedding involving someone of the Jewish faith, the odds are 50-50 that the spouse will be non-Jewish.
What got me to thinking about the drastic changes that we’ve seen over the years in both the style and number of Jewish weddings and, to a lesser extent, the number of bar/bar mitzvahs in Winnipeg was a conversation I had not too long ago with the general manager of the Fairmont Hotel, Drew Fisher.
Drew had invited me to lunch to ask what I thought about the possibility of the Fairmont dropping its kosher kitchen. I asked him how many Jewish weddings the Fairmont had hosted last year?
The answer I received was “one”. Now, there are a multitude of factors that go into deciding where to hold a wedding, but let’s be clear about one fact: The Fairmont Hotel was the only hotel left in Winnipeg that offered a full kosher kitchen. (Other venues, as I found out during the course of my gathering information for this article, had the ability to “kasher” a kitchen in a relatively short period of time, if need be, but only the Fairmont had a complete kosher menu available for wedding parties.)
So, I thought, as I discussed the situation with Drew, if the demand isn’t there, how on earth can the Fairmont continue to maintain a separate kosher kitchen? I said to him that the demographics all pointed to an even lesser demand for kosher in the coming years.
Thus, when I contacted Drew again recently to ask him in which direction the Fairmont had decided to go, I wasn’t surprised to read his response: “Bernie, since we met, the Fairmont Winnipeg has moved forward with the decision to close our Kosher Kitchen, and instead offer Kosher style menus. As you can appreciate, this has been an incredibly difficult decision for us, and was not made lightly. We truly value the long standing partnership we have had with Winnipeg’s Jewish Community in providing Kosher events, and do not wish for our decision to have a negative effect on this relationship. As discussed, the capital investment required to bring our Kosher facility up to an acceptable standard is excessive, and unfortunately, with the steady decline in Kosher events being booked, this hinders our ability to generate the necessary funds to offset this significant capital investment. That being said, we are presently working on enhancing and elevating our Kosher style menus with the goal of continuing to showcase our exquisite food and beverage offering to our valued guests at future Jewish Community events.”
For a while there were two major hotels with kosher kitchens in Winnipeg. In addition to the Fairmont, there was also the Fort Garry, which had opened a kosher kitchen to great fanfare in 2000. For a time the Fort Garry enjoyed remarkable success as the “go to” venue for kosher weddings, if they weren’t being held in a synagogue.
According to Cheryl Morgan, Catering & Event Coordinator at the Fort Garry, while there has been a decline in the number of Jewish weddings there since the decision was made to close the kosher kitchen, “we still did about 12 weddings last year where at least one of the bride or groom was Jewish.” (Cheryl’s qualification that only “one of the bride or groom” in 12 weddings at that hotel may have been Jewish speaks volumes about the norms that now prevail within our Jewish community.)
In my conversation with Cheryl I wondered whether the Fort Garry had played host to any bar or bat mitzvahs in recent years. (There was a time when it was a popular location for Havdallah ceremonies for children who were of bar or bat mitzvah age and occasional full bar or bat mitzvahs.)
While the Fort Garry played host to “five bar or bat mitzvah parties” last year, Cheryl told me, the last bar mitzvah ceremony itself was held in May 2016.
Further, when I mentioned to Cheryl that I was aware of other venues that were willing to have a kitchen kashered if asked and wondered whether the same might be done at the Fort Garry, she replied that when “asked whether they could have the old kosher kitchen koshered for an event, the hotel’s owners weren’t interested.”
The same, however, is not the case at other venues in Winnipeg, where managers are more than willing to accommodate kosher events in certain circumstances.
The Winnipeg Convention Centre, for instance, has the ability to do a kosher event, if need be. For instance, it played host to the Jewish Foundation’s Women’s Endowment Luncheon last year (and will do so again this year).
David Chizda, Director, Sales & Business Development for the Convention Centre, told me that, while the Convention Centre did used to have a kosher kitchen, it no longer does.
However, one of the two kitchens the Centre now has can be kashered for events such as the JFM Women’s Luncheon, Chizda explained. Even when the previous kosher kitchen was closed permanently, he said, the set of kosher dishes that kitchen had was kept on hand, precisely to be made available for such events as the JFM luncheon.
Chizda also noted that the Centre plays host to between six-twelve bar/bat mitzvah parties a year, with the new addition on the south side of York and its beautiful ball room proving especially popular. Those parties though, have all served “kosher style” food, he noted.
One break from the tradition of previous years at the Convention Centre occurred though in 2015 when the Y Sports Dinner elected to serve non-kosher meals for the first time. Although it was a combination of circumstances that led to the dinner’s planners taking that decision – including the rapidly rising cost of serving a kosher meal to over 1400 attendees, there has been little negative reaction to the change.
Anyone wishing to have a kosher meal at the dinner can elect to be served one. The fact though that the largest annual event held by any Jewish organization in Winnipeg is no longer a kosher one says a lot about the changing nature of our community.
While the Convention Centre has been able not only to retain the Y Sports Dinner as a huge event and to attract new business such as the Jewish Foundation Women’s Luncheon by offering kosher meals when needed, other venues have also found that being flexible has helped them capture an increasing share of Jewish life cycle events.
Among these, one of the most successful has been The Gates on Roblin.
According to General Manager Ray Louie, the last fully kosher event at The Gates was “a dinner for the Gray Academy (in 2015). Here, we had the building and kitchen cleansed and blessed. Then we let it sit a full day before preparing and serving completely kosher food on new dishes. That was in 2015. We have not had a request since.”
Yet, despite being able to provide kosher functions if asked, Ray says that there just hasn’t been the demand from Jewish families: “We had about half a dozen Jewish weddings in 2016 and we have one on Sunday this week. These are the large ones only - not too many smaller Jewish functions. As for bar and bat mitzvahs, we get about a dozen a year. With respect to kosher, we have not been asked to make the venue kosher for any of these - just provide a few meals to those that are strictly observant. We also do about a dozen Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinners every year plus many smaller Shabbat dinners preceding special events throughout the year. Again, none have asked to have the venue made kosher.”
Over at the Viscount Gort, which has made its ability to offer kosher food a major component of its advertising in this paper, there has been a marked increase in various Jewish events there, says Chris Dubberley, General Manager of the hotel.
“We do 10-20 events each year,” he said, including “bar/bat mitzvah parties, Seder meals, etc.”
Like other venues, the Viscount Gort does not have “designated kosher facilities,” Dubberley noted, “but we do make arrangements for guests asking for kosher functions.”
One venue that has hosted a couple of major Jewish events and would be glad to host more is the Club Regent Event Centre. Two years ago two Jewish organizations held major galas there: The Jewish National Fund had its Negev Gala, and the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble had its 50th anniversary concert. Both events were catered by Desserts Plus - which is set to reopen at its new location sometime soon.
According to Lisa Reiss of Desserts Plus, they have provided kosher catering at a wide array of venues in Winnipeg. In recent years another kosher caterer, Bermax Caffé and Catering, has also provided kosher catering at a number of outside venues.
The newest player on the market - and one that's proven extremely popular both for weddings and bar/bat mitzvah parties has been the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. According to Bruce Garvey, Special Events and Facility Rentals Manager at the museum, the CMHR has hosted more than 10 bar or bat mitzvah parties.
"Families like the ceremony to take place in the Garden of Contemplation then move guests down to the Bonnie and John Buhler Hall," Bruce said.
As far as Jewish weddings go, there have already been 10-12 Jewish weddings at the CMHR, according to Bruce. One of them was a "blended wedding", he noted.
Like so many other venues mentioned in this article, the CMHR is also quite wiling to accommodate kosher needs. "Our catering company Era Bistro, is happy to bring in Kosher Meals upon request," Bruce explains.
If you’ve read this far you’re probably wondering why I haven’t even mentioned the most likely places where you’d expect to find kosher food for a Jewish event: the synagogues.
The reason that I’ve saved the synagogues for last is that what’s been happening with our synagogues is reflective of a much wider pressure to change with the times. It’s not only the diminished demand for kosher venues for simchas that has affected our synagogues, it’s been a general disaffection on the part of so many Jews toward attending synagogue in general that has put several of them in difficult circumstances.
I communicated with representatives of three different synagogues: The Shaarey Zedek, Etz Chayim, and Adas Yeshurun-Herzlia; along with Rabbi Shmuly Altein of the Chabad Lubavitch. What I found was not unexpected and totally consistent with what I had been hearing from hotels and event centres: There are far fewer Jewish weddings being held in synagogues than used to be the case in years past and, when it comes to holding a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, or even a funeral, Jews here don’t want to have to join a synagogue in order to hold a life cycle event there.
As such, some synagogues, especially the Shaarey Zedek, have been taking great pains to try and accommodate the different requests being made of them.
Ian Staniloff, Executive Director of the Shaarey Zedek, told me a fascinating story that illustrates just how much synagogues might have to bend in order to keep up with the changing times.
It was a few years ago, Ian said, when a member of the Shaarey Zedek congregation approached him with an unheard of request: A family member was going to be buried at the Rosh Pina Cemetery, but this Shaarey Zedek member wanted the service to be held at the Shaarey Zedek, not at the Etz Chayim (which would have been the only acceptable alternative to that point).
In years past, Ian continued, such a request would have been turned down, but in this case it turned into a paradigm shifting moment for Ian and he acceded to that member’s request. That radical departure from past practice also led Ian to the realization that insisting on families joining the Shaarey Zedek if they wanted to hold a bar or bat mitzvah there was also going to have to be discarded.
As a result, several families that are new to Winnipeg have been holding bar mitzvahs at the Shaarey Zedek without actually having joined the synagogue as members. (There’s a financial aspect to this too, as joining a synagogue is something that very few of the Russian-Israeli families who have moved here have been choosing to do, since synagogues in Israel do not charge fees – never mind that most Jews in Russia grew up without much connection to Judaism period.) At the same time though, Ian suggested that bringing those families into the fold by allowing them to hold bar or bat mitzvahs at the Shaarey Zedek is absolutely in keeping with the synagogue’s mission.
In terms of actual numbers, Ian said that the Shaarey Zedek hosted over 20 bar or bat mitzvahs in the past year, and 12 weddings.
What does this have to do with kosher food and families choosing to hold their weddings or other simchas outside the ambit of a synagogue, you might ask?
Just as the Shaarey Zedek has been attempting to keep up with the wishes of its congregants to modernize services and open itself up to new ways of thinking, it also has to modernize its physical facilities, Ian Staniloff conceded.
“Our auditorium is definitely a drawback”, when it comes to attracting weddings, Ian admitted. Modernizing the aged auditorium is very high on the agenda of the synagogue board, he suggested, and a renovation of the one very outdated part of what still remains a beautiful building will begin within the very near future, Ian predicted.
At the same time though, with soon-to-be-Rabbi Matthew Leibl attracting new congregants and energizing existing ones, there has been an “uptick” in bar and bat mitzvah bookings at the Shaarey Zedek, Ian noted, with some bookings having been made as far ahead as 2019 and 2020.
While pressure to modernize has resulted in many major changes at the Shaarey Zedek, the other Conservative synagogue in Winnipeg, the Etz Chayim, has been more resistant to change.
I asked Jonathan Buchwald, Executive Director of Etz Chayim, whether that synagogue would consider letting a non-member family hold a bar or bat mitzvah there.
Jonathan replied that “Currently we still require membership for Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Our Board is always discussing current trends and looking for creative solutions within the parameters of conservative Judaism to accommodate any family wishing to have a simcha at Etz Chayim.”
The fact is, however, that the Etz Chayim is woefully underused in comparison with years past. I asked how many weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs the synagogue typically plays host to these days.
Jonathan answered “We’ve been averaging about 10-12 Bars/Bats per year and 2 -3 weddings per year.”
Given the relative underutilization of such a huge building, therefore, I subsequently asked Jonathan whether the synagogue “would consider catering an outside event at another venue if it were asked” in order to make better use of its admirable catering department?
Jonathan’s reply was that “If the event were under the auspices of the synagogue we would consider doing outside catering as long as it met with our current standards of Kashrut.”
The Adas Yeshurun-Herzlia synagogue is another venue that has a thoroughly modern kosher kitchen and that is capable of hosting far more functions than it presently does. According to Faith Kaplan of the synagogue, in response to a question from me how many simchas are typically held there, “Ardith (Henoch)’s was the last wedding we hosted. There are 2 or 3 bar mitzvahs a year, plus the odd celebratory luncheon or dinner.”
As I mentioned, I also spoke with Rabbi Shmuly Altein, who is with the Chabad Lubavitch here. According to Rabbi Altein, the Chabad here had approximately “20 bar mitzvahs in the past year, mostly for newcomers” to Winnipeg. As is the case with many events held at the Chabad Lubavitch, there is usually no cost involved for the family of the bar mitzvah.
In the final analysis, the dearth of kosher venues – outside of the synagogues, has not served as a deterrent for families looking to hold a major Jewish simcha. Various facilities have made it known that they are capable of accommodating requests to provide kosher food, but the one facility that attempted to separate itself from the others by operating a year-round kosher kitchen, the Fairmont, found that there was almost no demand for that service.
Once one of the lynchpins of Jewish identity, kashrut evidently has fallen so far down the list of priorities for most Jews in Winnipeg that not a single hotel or event centre operates a kosher kitchen any more.
And, while it’s still possible to hold a kosher event outside of a synagogue in Winnipeg, there just isn’t much of a demand for kosher food for any event, aside from the several Jewish organizations that still have to abide by an insistence on serving kosher food at any event they host.
Finally, the one synagogue that seems to have been able to re-establish its place as a popular venue for bar or bar mitzvahs – the Shaarey Zedek, has also opened itself up to non-member for those events. No doubt traditionalists must be anguished over the changes that have taken place in our community, but one thing is certain for Winnipeg’s Jewish community, if the lessons learned here are to have any impact at all: Adapt or die.