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Two years after its last live performance Chai to perform at gala concert June 16

Chai dancers rehearsing
at the St. Norbert ruins,
where they also shot a video

Jewish Foundation to be honoured during concert for the tremendous support it’s given to Jewish organizations during the pandemic
By BERNIE BELLAN  The Chai Folk Ensemble is now in its 58th year of existence. After a more than two year absence from performing live in front of an audience, Chai is set to make its long awaited return to the stage when it will be performing a gala concert at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre on June 16.

We spoke with Chai artistic (and vocal) director David Vamos recently to catch up with what’s been happening with Chai during the most prolonged hiatus that the group has ever taken.
David said that, while the pandemic had taken a toll on almost all artists, especially dance groups, Chai has weathered the storm. One of the reasons, he explained, is the continuity in its leadership. Reeva Nepon has continued as Chai’s administrative director, Jesse Popeseki as music director, while Rachel Cooper, who took over the role of dance director in 2018, also remains in that role.
“Not only is she dance director,” David said, “she does original work for the group.”

David Vamos himself has had a very long run with Chai. Currently a music teacher at Gray Academy (where he’s been for 10 years now, he said), David actually joined Chai in 2002 as a singer. He became vocal director in 2006, assistant artistic director in 2012, music director in 2014, and finally artistic director in 2015.
I mentioned to David that I was going to be running a story in our upcoming issue (which was the March 30 issue) about the Zylberman family, and that I learned from Marta and Mauricio Zylberman that all three of their kids – Ariel, Leandro, and Melina, had been members of Chai. I said that was indicative of the longstanding heritage role that Chai has played within our community.

I asked David when was the last time Chai actually put on a live performance in front of an audience?
“Our last one,” he answered, “was in the fall of 2019, following our tour of Ukraine and Israel – with Rusalka. We did a homecoming concert that fall. We haven’t done a large scale performance since. We were fortunate to perform at the Simkin Centre right before lockdown in 2020.”
David noted, however, that “we recorded an album that spring – in 2020, which was pretty incredible. We finished it the Sunday right before the whole province shut down. Now, after two years, we are finally ready to release it and perform (the music from that album at) the Chai Gala.”

I asked whether “the troupe has been rehearsing throughout the pandemic?”
While dancers have been rehearsing, David explained, singers only started back the first week in April, due to the easy transmissibility of Covid when singing. As well, “the band didn’t really get together other than doing some virtual work,” he added.
Yet, as David put it, “the dancers have shown an incredible amount of tenacity. They have been rehearsing – performing at all sorts of different venues and under different guidelines. It’s been an unbelievable story of adjusting the past two years – being out of our studio for a while, and then the Berney (Theatre),” combined “with different distancing (rules) and different masks.”
Currently, David said, “we have 14 dancers, seven singers and six people in the band.”
Of the dancers, 12 are women and two are men, David said. “Almost all of them came to us during the pandemic,” he added. “A lot of them are from professional backgrounds who were just looking for an opportunity to rehearse and perform again. We’re really fortunate. I know a lot of other groups that were really hard hit, but we’ve stayed at a really respectable number” (of dancers).
Most of Chai’s dancers are either high school or university students, David noted, adding “a lot have come from Gray Academy.”
As for the singers, David said that “all our choral members are coming back – which is amazing.”

Turning to what audience members can expect at the June 16 concert, David said “it will be a dual purpose event. We’ll be releasing our new album that night.” The performance, he added “will be a completed work, from beginning to end.”
“At the same time,” David observed, “we will be honouring the Jewish Foundation for its contributions to the Winnipeg Jewish community – and specifically how it was able to keep so many of our agencies afloat over the last two years.”
One of the projects that Chai was able to undertake during the pandemic – thanks to the Jewish Foundation, “was to film three professional music videos,” David said. One of the videos shot was at the St. Norbert ruins.

I asked David, “Will you be gearing up for Folklorama after the concert or is there anything else you have planned in between? ”It’s seven weeks in between,” he noted. “We’re just going to be turning around and prepping for Folklorama.”

As far as joining Chai goes, David says that Chai holds auditions throughout the year and anyone interested in joining, whether as a dancer, musician, or singer, is asked to check out their website:

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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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