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Former Temple Shalom member’s spiritual journey leading to rabbinical career

Rebecca Chess

Rebecca Chess credits their home congregation – Temple Shalom – with starting their Jewish spiritual journey that is leading them to a life as a rabbi.

“I really appreciate that my parents (Jim Chess and Karyn Glass) chose to become members of Temple Shalom,” says Chess who came out as Queer in 2016 and non-binary a couple of years ago. “I had often felt ostracized, that I didn’t fit in. At Temple Shalom, there is a sense that everyone is welcome.”
Chess grew up in River Heights where they were initially a student at Brock Corydon School’s Hebrew Bilingual program. They finished their elementary schooling at Montrose School and attended high school at St. Mary’s Academy.
Chess left Winnipeg in 2013 for university in Toronto. “It was important for me to leave home to grow and learn who I was as a person,” they say. “I really loved being in Toronto. I enjoyed the freedom to explore who I was and what I wanted to be.”
Chess observes that they didn’t try to connect with a Jewish community while in their first two years of study at the University of Toronto. In third year, however, they were attracted to a new Hillel rabbi who helped return them to their personal spiritual quest.
“We began working together to reach out to other Jewish members of the LGBTQ2IA community,” Chess recalls. “We started a discussion group called Rainbow Jews in order to create a supportive Jewish community for us, a community based on Jewish tradition in an effort to heal the sense of alienation. Many of us had experienced a lot of pain growing up in Jewish communities that were not inclusive.
“That experience through Hillel refreshed my love of community.”
While at university, Chess was also involved in the theatre community. Following graduation (with a major in English Literature and minor in Jewish Studies), they chose to pursue a career in film as a producer’s assistant.
“It was grueling work, really stressful,” they recall. “There was a lot of yelling. After nine or ten months, I began questioning if this was what I really wanted to do. About that time, my best friend went into the hospital. While looking around the office, I began to think about my values, what impact I wanted to have in the world and if film could fulfill them
“The next day, I Googled how to become a rabbi.”
They further contacted their Hillel rabbi for direction.
“As I had grown up at Temple Shalom, I decided to seek ordination through the Reform Movement, “ they say.
In 2019 they began their rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus. Chess explains that the path to ordination is a five-year program with the first year spent studying in Israel. They spent last year in Jerusalem.
“I made a pact with myself to go to Israel with an open mind,” Chess says. I found the country to be amazing. The country is beautiful and enriching. I was challenged by the complexity of the society. It was a blessing to be in a place where I could engage in Judaism without having to deal with the conflict of living Jewishly in a non-Jewish society.”
Chess adds that they also often found it trying. “There is also a lot that needs to change,” they comment. “I left Israel with a sense of responsibility for the challenges that need to be addressed.”
This year, Chess was supposed to be beginning their studies state-side at the LA campus. Due to Covid, however, they have been back home in Winnipeg for the past few months and, as with many students, learning online via Zoom.
“The plan is hopefully to be in LA next year,” they note.
One of the requirements of the HUC program is that rabbinical students – beginning in second year – gain first-hand pulpit experience through becoming visiting rabbis for small North American congregations – a program from which Temple Shalom has benefitted when the congregation has been between rabbis.
Chess’s congregation is Shir Ami – with about 60 family units – in Castro Valley, California. “It has been a nice experience serving the congregation online,” they note. “There are also advantages to being in contact this way – rather than just going out to the community one weekend a month. Although the congregation can’t have Torah services, I am just a click away on Zoom for anyone who wants to contact me.
“For example, I have a bat-mitzvah student I am able to work with every second week online.”
Over Yom Tov, Chess assisted Temple Shalom’s Rabbi Allan Finkel and Cantor Len Udow in leading Sukkot services.
“I am surprised at how much I enjoy studying Torah,” they say. “I feel an ancestral connection, that I am part of a long line of students studying Mishna and Talmud.
“I have found my place and am excited about what is still to come.”

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Shaarey Zedek renovation update

Shaarey Zedek renovations are now well underway. Here’s a video posted by Shaarey Zedek about the renovations:

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Winnipeg Council of Rabbis criticizes suggestion that Simkin Centre ought to offer non-kosher meals – as well as kosher meals

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch

We received the following letter from the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis in response to the suggestion that the Simkin Centre ought to offer non-kosher meals (Read story at🙂

Dear Bernie
We read your opinion piece on kashrut at the Simkin Centre with a certain amount of shock, as you advocated that the Simkin Centre not be a kosher facility. After a long discussion we had with food services at Simkin, it is clear that your statements about the quality of food are simply wrong. Residents at Simkin receive meals that are on par with all other similar facilities in Manitoba. The menu includes chicken both dark and white, meats including roast beef, ground meat, and much more. The only item not offered at Simkin that is offered at other similar homes is pork, which we hope you are not advocating for. 

In addition, every major Jewish organization in Winnipeg has a Kashrut policy in place. The reason for this is simple. Kashrut is a Jewish value — and for many, a core Jewish value —  and it is the responsibility of Jewish organizations to uphold Jewish values. How odd is it that Winnipeg’s “Jewish” newspaper would be advocating for treif food, and in your words  will “never give up the fight” to make sure it happens. A Jewish newspaper should be advocating for Jewish values, period. 

Finally, Kashrut allows the Simkin Centre to be an inclusive Jewish institution that accommodates the needs of the entire Jewish community. There are many residents and families that consider kashrut as an integral element in how they express their Judaism. They would have no other place to send their loved ones if the Simkin Centre was not Kosher.

The vast majority of Jews in Winnipeg want to see the Simkin Centre continue to be Kosher, and we hope you will either reconsider your position or not press a minority position onto the majority. We, as the rabbis of the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis, all endorse and fully support this position.

Winnipeg Council of Rabbis

  • Rabbi Yosef Benarroch, Adas Yeshurun Herzlia
  • Rabbi Allan Finkel, Temple Shalom
  • Rabbi Matthew Leibl, Simkin Center
  • Rabbi Anibal Mass, Shaarey Tzedek
  • Rabbi Kliel Rose, Eitz Chayim

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Bernie Bellan asks: If kashrut is so intrinsic to Jewish organizations in Winnipeg, why was the Rady JCC allowed to make its annual sports dinner non-kosher?

Bernie Bellan

Here’s a question for the Council of Rabbis – whose letter tearing a strip off me for daring to question the necessity of serving fully kosher meals to every resident of the Simkin Centre appears on this website: Have you ever considered the total hypocrisy inherent in your insisting that kashrut is vital to the Simkin Centre, while the Rady JCC some years ago abandoned the requisite that its annual sports dinner be kosher?
The sports dinner asks anyone attending whether they’d like a kosher meal (which is what I suggested the Simkin Centre could also do) and, from what I’ve been told, the number of individuals who respond in the affirmative can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
I don’t recall the council of rabbis kicking up a huge fuss over that change. But, to be consistent guys, (and by the way, only one of the five rabbis on that council is actually a subscriber to The Jewish Post, butI’m glad you’re all such vociferous readers), I expect you to demand that the Rady JCC sports dinner revert to being fully kosher.
After all, as Rabbi Benarroch so succinctly puts it in his letter: “Kashrut is a Jewish value — and for many, a core Jewish value —  and it is the responsibility of Jewish organizations to uphold Jewish values.”
I won’t hold my breath waiting for you to publicly demand that the sports dinner revert to being fully kosher. As I recall, the reason that kashrut was abandoned as a prerequisite for the dinner was because of the cost. So, when Simkin Centre CEO Laurie Cerqueti wrote me in an email,  “I know for this year as of the end of October we are over budget on food by $150,000. We must continue to fund any costs on food from our existing annual budget or through fundraised dollars,” I fully expect the council of rabbis – and anyone else who is adamant that the Simkin Centre remain absolutely kosher to join in a campaign to raise that $150,000 so that Simkin can remain kosher without cutting into other areas of operation. How about it, guys?
My point in advocating for Simkin to modify its kashrut policy was to be as realistic as the people behind the sports dinner were in recognizing that the cost of a full adherence to kashrut can be prohibitively expensive. But, the sports dinner still allows anyone who wants a kosher meal to have one. That’s all that I was advocating for the Simkin Centre. So, tell me rabbis: Where do you draw the line from one Jewish institution to another? Or, does the slippery slope that you’re on also have an off ramp that allows you to abandon principles when it’s expedient to do so?

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