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Last kosher butcher shop in western Canada up for sale

OmnitskysBy MYRON LOVE There was a time – at least within the lifetime of older readers – when there seemed to be a kosher butcher on every corner in the old North End. An exaggeration, maybe, but in the 1930s, there were enough kosher butchers in Winnipeg to form their own shul.
The last kosher butcher in Winnipeg – that would be Omnitsky’s – closed in 2008 and, at about the same time, fresh kosher slaughter also came to end in our region.

Now, Omnitsky Kosher in Vancouver – the offspring of Omnitsky’s in Winnipeg – and the last kosher butcher in western Canada is also facing the prospect that the end is near.

“I love my business and the people I am able to interact with,” says Eppy Rappaport, the long time owner of Omnitsky, “but I am getting tired. I am 65. I would never want to feel that my business is becoming an anchor pulling me down.”

The son of the late Elaine and Rabbi Shalom Rappaport (who is remembered fondly by two or more generations of Rosh Pina Synagogue families) was in Winnipeg the weekend before last for a family simcha and sat down with this reporter to reminisce about growing up in Winnipeg and his career as a kosher butcher, both in Winnipeg and Vancouver.

The Rappaport family arrived in Winnipeg in January of 1967, when Rabbi Shalom Rappaport began his 20-year tenure at the Rosh Pina Synagogue.
“I was ten years old,” Eppy remembers. “We were coming from San Diego. Morley and Shiffie Fenson met us at the airport with parkas, gloves and toques.
“I had been promised that I would have a lot of fun playing in the snow. I was really eager to build my first snowman – but quickly learned that snow in Winnipeg in January was not the right kind of snow for a snowman.”

The third of four siblings, Eppy on arrival was enrolled at Grade 4 at the Talmud Torah on Matheson and continued on to Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate at the same location to graduation in 1975.
Eppy has particularly warm memories growing up with members of the Benarroch family. “My brother, Danny, and I were close to all four of the Benarroch brothers – Yamin, Joseph (Yossi), Michael and Albert,” he recalls. “They all felt like brothers to us.”

“We grew up with the Benarroch kids,” Eppy says of him and his brothers and sister. “Our two families spent a lot of time together because of our shared religious observance. Every Sunday in the spring and summer, the Benarroch clan would spend the day at Birds Hill Provincial Park and we would always be included.

“Generally,” he continues, “I found the Jewish community in Winnipeg to be warm and loving. Even after having been away for 22 years, the social connections I made here remain strong.”
Eppy was studying sociology at university – working on his M.A. at the time – when Bill Omnitsky approached Rabbi Rappaport about wanting to sell his kosher butcher shop. “Dad asked me if I would be interested in going into the business,” Eppy recounts. “I was planning on taking a year off from university in any case and decided to give it a try.
“I never looked back.”

Eppy joined Bill Omnitsky in business in 1973 and bought the store outright in 1983.
“Bill Goldberg was my first customer,” Eppy recalls. “I still have that first dollar from him.”
While the young kosher butcher may have loved Winnipeg, one feature he didn’t like was winter. Thus, in 1995, he turned Omnitsky’s in Winnipeg over to his older brother, Allan, who had previously joined him in business, and moved to Vancouver, where he opened Omnitsky Kosher – the only kosher butcher shop in the city.
(Alan Rappaport subsequently ran into health problems and sold the store. That was in 2002.)
“I was ready for my next challenge,” Eppy says of his decision to open a second Omnitsky in Vancouver. “People in Vancouver were welcoming. Many told me how much they appreciated having access to fresh kosher meat.”

He reports that while Vancouver’s Jewish population is around d 30,000, the religious community, naturally, is much smaller. Nonetheless,” he says, people like quality products. Many of my customers aren’t Jewish. There are a lot of Muslims, for example, who shop at our store.”
In 2015, Eppy relocated – moving Omnitsky Kosher to a larger location in what used to be Kaplan’s Deli, which had closed after 55 years in business. In his new premises, he also opened a deli.

While the government-imposed Covid restrictions of the past two years have been challenging for many small businesses, that has not played a role in Eppy’ s desire to sell.
“Our business actually thrived over the last two years,” he reports.
While he observes that he doesn’t have a time line yet, if he can’t find a buyer – while he says that he doesn’t want to leave his customers in the lurch (that includes some members of our community who have organized to occasionally bring in by truck large orders from the Vancouver butcher shop) – at some point, he will have no choice but to liquidate the business.

While Eppy is contemplating divesting himself from his own business, he is not yet ready to retire completely. “I would like to keep working in the food business in some capacity,” he says. “I may be able to help other businesses from an operational perspective. That I consider my specialty.”
Incidentally, Eppy and his wife, Ellen (the daughter of the late Albert and Sheila Lowe) have two daughters, Aviva and Lauren, who are both pursuing careers in the food sector. Aviva, the proud father reports, is working on a second Master degree at McGill University in the field of dietetics while Lauren works as a senior scientist for Starbucks in Seattle.

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Inaugural Magen David Adom fundraising gala evening  recognizes generous donors Ida and the late Saul Alpern

Ida Alpern

By MYRON LOVE On Tuesday, May 7, the Winnipeg chapter of Canadian Magen David Adom (CMDA) hosted its first ever fundraising gala – billed as “A Night of Appreciation – honouring generous supporters Ida and the late Saul Alpern, as well as recognizing several other individuals who have contributed to the success of the local chapter.
The event helped to raise the profile of MDA in Winnipeg.  In addition to funds raised – going towards the purchase by the Winnipeg chapter of CMDA of an ambulance to be stationed in the northern IsraeI community of  Kiryat Shemona where a MDA ambulance was recently destroyed by a Hezbollah missile, the event also honoured the memory of  the late Yoram (Hamizrachi) East.
Ami Bakerman, the Winnipeg chapter president, reported that, to date, the local group has raised slightly more than $100,000 toward the $140,000 cost of the ambulance.
Over 200 members of the Jewish and Christian communities and other supporters of Israel came out for the evening at Caboto Centre to show their appreciation for the work of the Magen David Adom.
For readers who may be unfamiliar with MDA, the organization doubles as both Israel’s Red Cross and the country’s blood services organization. MC for the evening Kinzey Posen noted that MDA was founded on June 7, 1930 and acquired its first ambulance a year later.  The MDA has over 4,000 staff and has on its roster 26,000 volunteers.  The organization operates over 2,000 ambulances, first responder scooters, helicopters and life-saving boats. 
“It takes 8.2 seconds from the time a MDA dispatcher receives an emergency call to the time that the ambulance reaches the caller,” Posen noted.
The really remarkable fact is that the MDA operates without any financial support from the government of Israel. That is why it is so important that donors such as the Alperns have to step up.
Saul, who passed away in October, 2022, had a particularly strong connection to Israel.  His younger brother, Avrum, also the last surviving family member (the others died in the Holocaust) died fighting for the Jewish homeland in the War of Liberation in 1948.
Alpern published his autobiography – “No One Waiting For me” – in 1961.  Although most Romanian Jews living in Rumania proper were left in place, in 1941 the members of the Alpern family were among the thousands of Jews living in the northern  regions of Bessarabia and northern Bukavina – which had been recently annexed by Rumania – who were deported to neighbouring Transnistria. They were expelled from their homes and forced to walk all the way to Transnistria.   Saul Alpern’s parents and older sister died shortly after their arrival as a result of the hardships of the walk – leaving 12-year-old Saul and younger brother Avrum to fend for themselves.
“No One Waiting for Me” is largely an account of the two brothers’ struggle to survive in a hostile environment and desperate circumstances.\
After the war, while Avrum went to Palestine while Saul found his way to Winnipeg –  where he eventually  met and married Ida (Reiss) and built a successful business as a cattle buyer.
Ida was born in the Jewish farm colony at Edenbridge, Saskatchewan. She was youngest of four children and the own daughter of Ira and Raizel Reiss.  The family moved to Winnipeg around 1950.
In October 2020, Ida and Saul donated $160,000 to the MDA to buy a mobile intensive care unit.  At the time, Saul told The Jewish Post & News that the couple made the donation in memory of his parents and siblings ,who died in the Holocaust.
Saul added that the gift was “an expression of my love for my family and my love for Israel”.
The couple had been donating small amounts to the MDA for years before that.  And, just a few months before Saul’s passing, the couple donated another $170,000 toward the purchase of a second mobile intensive care unit with off-road capabilities.
Speaking on behalf of the family, Ida’s nephew, Cary Reiss, recounted how Sail and Ida met in 1963 and were engaged after just a three-week courtship.  “They were married for almost 60 years,” he noted. “They were a great couple.  They were always there for each other through good times and bad.”
Reiss further noted that he was in Israel last year with his Aunt Ida for the delivery of the second mobile intensive care unit.  He praised the MDA for the great work the organization does in Israel.
He also reminisced about the other focus of the evening, the late Israeli-born Winnipegger, Yoram East, who was a prominent social activist in the wider community.
In Ron East’s description of his father he painted a picture of man who was larger than life – and an individual who overcame early adversity.
Yoram was born in 1932 in Jerusalem to Jewish immigrants from Germany.  He struggled in school due to being dyslexic.  At 16. he dropped out of school and was accepted into the Israel Defense Forces based on false documents.
“In the IDF, he found a home and a purpose,” Ron East recounted. 
He rose through the ranks.  After taking a break from the military to  study art and build a career as a journalist, Yoram rejoined the IDF in the 1970s.  From 1976-82, Colonel Hamizrachi was the IDF liaison with the Christian communities  in southern Lebanon.
“My dad quit the IDF in 1982, when Israel went to war with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ron East recalled. “He strongly opposed the war.”
Hamizrachi moved his family to Winnipeg where he continued to work as a journalist – with regular columns on Israel in The Jewish Post.  He also became a social activist and did a lot of work with Indigenous communities.
“Two First Nations communities made him honorary chiefs,” Ron noted. 
In Winnipeg, he helped found the Manitoba Intercultural Alliance and became the co-director of the Winnipeg-based Counter-Terrorism Centre.
In addition to honouring Ida and Saul Alpert, CMDA also recognized several other individuals who have contributed to the growth of the CMDA chapter in Winnipeg – among them:Ami Ba kerman,  Ron East, donors Bill and Judy Mahon, Barbara Reiss (for organizing the event) and John  Plantz who, along with colleague Roy Hiebert – presented a cheque to the CMDA for $10,000 from the Christian Friends of Israel Ministry.
There was much more to the evening.  Sharon Fraiman, CMDA’s director for Western Canada, called for a moment of silence in memory of the MDA personnel who were murdered in the terrorist attack on Israel on October 7.  She also screened several short videos of the actions of heroic MDA staff and their actions on that horrific day in fighting back as well as rescuing those tthey could.
There were also remarks by Sidney Benizri, CMDA national executive  director, and Wayne Ewasko, PC MLA for Lac du Bonnet and interim Opposition leader.
The evening concluded with a half hour show by New York-based stand-up comic Talia Reiss – who happens to be married to the aforementioned Cary Reiss – riffing on Jewish themes contrasting Reform and Orthodox and Sephardi and Ashkenazi differences, reflecting the different backgrounds that she and her husband have brought to their relationship, as well as commentary on parenthood and schooling.  For good measure, she also threw in  some Winnipeg in-jokes.

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New JCFS program aims to help community members feeling fearful and hurt by the increase in antisemitism.

JCFS clinical supervisor Denise Rubin

By MYRON LOVE The Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on October 7 and ensuing exponential increase in open-antisemitism in what had been, prior to that fateful date, our generally peaceful Jewish communities, has created a great deal of anxiety in Jewish communities throughout the United States and Canada – and our community is no different.
“There is a lot of fear out there,” reports Denise Rubin, a clinical supervisor at Jewish Child and Family Service.  “People are fearful of the future. They are concerned for their safety.  They are hurt that some of their non-Jewish friends don’t understand their feelings of concern, that they are not receiving much support in their schools or workplaces, and in many ways have lost their sense of belonging.”
In order to help traumatized Jewish Winnipeggers, the Jewish Child and Family Service (JCFS) has created a new program that is open to people of all ages.
“We began getting calls to the office almost immediately after the attack” recalls Rubin, who had been in private practice offering psychotherapy counselling for a few years prior to joining the JCFS just over a year ago.  “We created a War Response Committee very soon after.”
Rubin notes that JCFS offers a variety of services for the community, including one-on-one counselling, workshops and even group events to bring the community together.
JCFS brought on a new counsellor, Brooke Zelcer, to take on the role of meeting with individuals for one-on-one counselling sessions to address, work through, and find support during this difficult time. For those who are feeling the effects of this war and the rise in antisemitism, JCFS offers 5 free one-on-one sessions with Brooke and Denise.
“In our one-on-one counselling, we focus on managing clients’ fears and worries, but also address some very real-life issues that many people in our community are facing ” Zelcer points out. As well, she adds, many members of our community have a more direct connection to the horrific events of October 7 in that they knew one or more of those who were murdered or taken hostage.
“If the client and I see that there is a need for further counselling services after the 5 free sessions, we will address that proactively with our counselling department.”
Support, events and workshops are intended to encourage clients to talk through their emotional issues and share their feelings to foster healing safety.
The next Unity in Community event is being held on May 29th, 2024 from 7-8:30PM at the Asper  Jewish Community campus
 To register for this event or if you have been impacted by the conflict in Israel and/or the rise in antisemitism and are in need of a safe space to talk, call 204-560-6736 or email bzelcer@jcfswinnipeg.org

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The Ashkenazie Synagogue is the last of the old North End synagogues still remaining – can it be saved? An imaginary proposal to do just that

artist's rendering of the existing Ashkenazie synagogue with new museum building to be built alongside it

By BERNIE BELLAN Two and a half years ago, in our Dec. 4, 2021 issue, we wrote about a proposal that was developed by the board of the Ashkenazie Synaogogue, Winnipeg’s oldest still-in-use synagogue building, and the last of what once were 18 synagogues dotting Winnipeg’s North End.
In that story we explained that Ashkenazie members were faced with some stark – and very difficult choices. As we wrote back then: “Unable to sustain a regular minyan and with a membership that is a mere fraction of what it once had, the few remaining members of the Ashkenazie are faced with a difficult choice: Either find a new use for the building or close it as a house of worship.”
We also noted that, under the leadership of Dr. Yosel Minuk, the Ashkenazie board had “come up with an imaginative proposal that would see the Ashkenazie retain a core area for services, while reconfiguring the rest of the building into a ‘living’ museum of Winnipeg’s Jewish North End.”
As Dr. Minuk wrote in a letter to us at that time,”the idea has been developed to reconfigure the Ashkenazie into a museum that commemorates all the previous (17) synagogues and at the same time, continue to offer services to its regular attendees, museum visitors and staff.
“Essentially, our ‘vision’ entails the following: the main body of the synagogue would remain intact for daily and/or holiday services. However, the flanking pews would be converted into cubicles that contain narratives, photos and 3 dimensional items recovered from previous synagogues in the area, largely drawing upon collections and exhibits previously displayed by the Jewish Heritage Centre. If the memorabilia exceeds the space available, the flanking pews of the upstairs ladies gallery could be utilized for the same purpose.
“Certain cubicles would also feature former North-Enders who went on to national or international acclaim (ex. Monty Hall, David Steinberg, Sydney Halter, etc.) and computer stations that would enable visitors to look up old relatives and friends who were amongst the first immigrants to the North-End. Similar information would be offered for Jewish owned North-End businesses that helped contribute to the area’s economy.

Proposed kosher café to be built in the new synagogue/museum


“In addition, the Chedar-shaynee (anteroom to the main synagogue) would be repurposed as a small café, gift shop and washrooms. Depending on public feedback, the kosher kitchen and undeveloped downstairs area would be renovated and used for either hosting exhibits/seminars/events/dinners.”

In that article, we also advised readers who were interested in commenting upon the proposal that they could do so by responding to an online survey. (We offered a link to the 8-question survey.)
In our Dec. 18, 2021 issue, Dr. Minuk noted that there had been 20 responses received as a result of the article we had published in the previous issue. He wrote the following:
“I’m pleased that our initiative to reconfigure the Ashkenazie synagogue into both a museum and synagogue has generated so much reader interest as it underscores the importance of what we hope to create: a site that offers visitors a historical account and pays tribute to these synagogues and the individuals who built and supported them.
“We were also very pleased with the feedback we received from readers who completed our on-line questionnaire Of the 20 respondents, 17 rated the initiative 10/10 in terms of being worth pursuing. There was one response in particular that we considered rather compelling: ‘Please do this before we lose our tradition.’ Some also offered memorabilia they had stored while others pledged financial donations, which we are not accepting – at this time. Overall, we were quite encouraged by the responses.”

Now, two and a half years later, that proposal still remains simply that: a proposal.
Dr. Minuk advises that a request to the Jewish Foundation for a grant to conduct a feasibility study of the proposal was turned down, although upon speaking with a member of the Board of the Jewish Foundation, we were told that the Foundation would certainly consider the request again if it were to be submitted a second time, but this time for less money.
In the meantime, upon speaking with Dr. Minuk via a Zoom meeting, we were able to see a very effective PowerPoint presentation he had prepared which fulyl outlined what the proposed reconfiguration of the Ashkenazie Synagogue would look like.
Yet, within that same PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Minuk also addressed head-on the many challenges that would accompany any plan to redevelop the Ashkenazie, including:

  • Engineering
  • Architectural Design
  • Curator
  • Safety
  • Parking
  • Appeal to youth
  • Inclusiveness (appeal to other communities that have strong roots in the North End, including First Nations, Filipino, Ukrainian, and others)
  • Business model (capital and operating costs)

  • I asked Dr. Minuk how much he sees this total project as costing?
    He answered that he thought it would be from $3-5 million.
    I said to him that the proposal reminded me of a story Bob Freedman, former CEO of the Jewish Federation, had told me years ago about how the federal government came to provide $3 million toward the construction of the Asper Campus.
    The very powerful federal minister from Manitoba in what was then the federal Liberal government under Prime Minister Jean Chretien was Lloyd Axworthy. When Freedman (accompanied by Marjorie Blankstein and Sheldon Berney) finally managed to corral Axworthy for a meeting (and in Freedman’s recounting of the story, it was when Axworthy was in a room at the Westin Hotel, getting ready to speak at some particular function there – and he met with the trio while he was stripped down to his underwear, putting his tux on – much to Marjorie Blankstein’s chagrin, Freedman said.)
    According to Freedman, Axworthy asked the three of them: “Are you going to have a museum there?”
    “Museum?” replied Freedman. “No, we don’t have plans for a museum.”
    “Well, put a museum in there and we’ll give you $3 million,” said Axworthy.
    And that’s how the federal government came to contribute $3 million toward the building of the Asper Campus.
    Unfortunately, as many readers are now probably aware, once the campus was built, the decision was taken to substantially reduce the amount of space that was to be given to the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada and, rather than build a museum, those glass panels that house some permanent and some temporary exhibits along the corridor between the Berney Theatre and offices in the campus are what we have instead of a full-fledged museum.
    Many of the artifacts that were intended to be part of the JHCWC museum at the campus and which could be put on display in this new Ashkenazie “Musynagogue” (as Dr. Minuk puts it), are being held in storage in the basement of the Asper Campus.
    The point of my writing this is to illustrate how difficult it would be for the Ashkenazie proposal to get off the ground – unless there is federal government funding. (Despite the federal government continuing to run massive deficits, there is nothing governments like more than “shovel-in-the-ground” projects which can prominently display the federal government logo on a sign in front of the project. Also, think of the number of jobs a project like this can generate. It would be a lot cheaper than the billions the federal government has shelled out in recent years for pipelines, auto plants, and lithium battery plants.)
    Also, by including a variety of other ethnic groups in the project, especially First Nations – who have a long and storied connection to the North End, this proposal might just have a chance of succeeding.
    And, with a federal election required to be held no later than 2025, the timing is right to approach federal representatives for support.
    As for those naysayers who would dismiss the proposal outright on the grounds that the Ashkenazie is located in an unsafe area, can you imagine how an idea of this sort might help to revitalize that part of the North End?
    The fact is, however, that right now, it’s Dr. Yosel Minuk who’s carrying the ball on this one pretty much by himself. If he is able at least to obtain the funds to do a feasibility study then he can pursue the idea of the project more fully, but first he has to get past first base.

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