Members of Lethbridge’s small Jewish community - which once had 64 families, but now has only seven aging couples remaining (l-r): Dan Shapiro, Linda Kohn, Garry Kohn, Sharon Fraiman (Western Canadian representative, Canadian Magen David Adom), David Serkin, Evelyn Hardin Serkin, Joel Bermack, Annette Bermack. (The Bermacks are originally from Winnipeg.)
By REBECA KUROPATWA

When the Lethbridge Hebrew Congregation was inaugurated in 1954, the local Jewish community was a vibrant community made up of 64 families.

 

 

Like many small prairie communities, though, it did not have the kind of draw a big city did on young people. As the years passed, the community dwindled down to a mere seven aging couples.
So, nine years ago, they decided to sell their then-aging synagogue, as they had no use or ability to maintain the needed of such a large building.

In the terms of the sale, the only part of the building they were left with was the shul chapel so they could carry on the minimal services, which they had rent-free for a period of 10 years.

For the last nine years, they were on the lookout for a way to disseminate the profits from the sale in a way that could make the most impact. They were approached by many worthy parties – such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA), and more – with ways to do this, but they could not get their committee to agree on the best dispersal option...until the end of last year.

The committee was at a standstill, until the leader of the group, Garry Kohn, and another member who is a former Winnipegger, Joel Bermack, spent some time in Israel.
“I walked from the Old City down Jaffa Road,” recalled Kohn of the Israel trip.
“I’m walking down there and, all the time we’d been there and when we were off on the weekends, you’d see the little ambi-cycles running all over the place.
“So, I was walking back later in the evening and, all of a sudden, three of these bikes go screaming by me and turn right in front of me to go and help a guy that is in distress. It wasn’t a terror attack or anything, but they were there – boom.
“I got to thinking, I knew about Magan David Adom [MDA]...so, you get on your phone and Google a few things. And Joel Bermack, who was with me, was spending the last four or five days with me in my Airbnb.”

Both Bermack and Kohn agreed that this was something worth looking into. It even fit their need for a capital project, something they could donate money to that would involve a physical piece of equipment that would be used immediately.
“This is something not in the future, not just for students, just for people coming to see birds, or just for people needing to see a dentist...It’s a practical piece of equipment, which is what we said we wanted,” said Kohn.
“We wanted a capital asset that might wear out in 5-10 years. But that, within that span, will help thousands and thousands of people in real need in Israel. So, we brought this idea back to our committee.”

Once Bermack and Kohn brought the idea back to the Lethbridge committee, everybody jumped on board.
“The deal was with our executive committee of seven and it had to be 100 percent,” said Kohn.
“I, being president of the community, had to cast the deciding vote if there was a tie on anything else. But, in this case, if it was, you knew where I was going anyway.
“We decided, as far as the money went, it had to be unanimous. Nobody’s going to be pissed off at anybody else. We didn’t want that. We had about $200,000 for this type of project.”

With the $200,000, they were able to buy an ambulance and two medi-scooters, and all agreed it was wonderful. They also decided to donate $25,000 to the Lone Soldiers Association in Israel and $25,000 to the Or Hadash project in northern Israel.

The Winnipeg connection runs deep in this Lethbridge community, with Kohn having many family connections in Winnipeg including the Eizenstats and Sterns, among others.
Back when it was established, the synagogue was blessed by a Winnipeg Rabbi, Rabbi A. A. Chiel.

“I just think we could have done a lot of things with our money, and I think we picked three very valid projects – one major, two minor,” said Kohn. “And, in my own heart, I’m satisfied that we did the right thing...and I think a lot of others agree too.”