By Jeremy Appel
(AJNews) – Barry Finkelman arrived in Medicine Hat as a young man in 1977.
Raised in Toronto, Finkelman moved to Alberta in 1975 looking for an opportunity to teach, initially settling into a job in Rimbey – a town 62 km northwest of Red Deer – before receiving an offer to work in the central office of the Hat’s public School Division 76.
“It was a great lifestyle,” he says of his decision to stick around the Hat. “It had everything that a small neighbourhood in Toronto would have without all the aggravation.”
By the time he arrived, the small southeastern Alberta city’s Jewish community was already on a “steady decline.”
Finkelman got involved with the now-defunct Sons of Abraham synagogue about a year after moving to the Hat. The conservative congregation hosted High Holiday services and special community events for Hannukah and Passover. The community in the Hat wasn’t the weekly Shabbat services type.
“It was already shrinking. A lot of the young people had left Medicine Hat and the elders were leaving to be with their families elsewhere,” he said, specifically naming Calgary and Edmonton, as well as Vancouver and Winnipeg. “In general, people were looking for opportunity in the latter part of the last century, so people were moving to places where they could have a lifestyle that met their personal needs.”
Finkelman served as Sons of Abraham’s president from 1985 – 1997, which hadn’t had a rabbi since before his time.
“We went through changes trying to keep the community focused (and) vibrant,” he said. “We decided to move to the reform machzor, because it had more English. It met the needs of some of the younger people in the community at the time.”
But by 1997 the board determined that maintaining a congregation wasn’t viable. They sent their torah scrolls to the B’nai Tikvah temple in Calgary and a shul in Palm Springs that had a local connection. FInkelman joined B’nai Tikvah, where he’s gone for holiday services since.
“After the synagogue closed, members of the Jewish community kept in touch with each other, but there were never any organized events,” he said.
But in the past couple years, there’s been an effort to rejuvenate the Hat’s Jewish community among some younger members.
Sarah Tetrault, a 22-year-old who’s lived in the Hat for 20 of them, is in the process of converting to Judaism.
They said they’ve always had a fascination with all things Jewish, particularly the concept of tikuun olam, or repairing the world.
“It just really resonated with me,” says Tetrault. “None of the other religious paths that I explored had felt right. When I started researching it more, and looking into the practises and beliefs more, I realized that it just really lined up with what I believed. I liked the amount of ritual and everything about it.
“It felt like home.”
They began the conversion process in the summer of 2019, taking online classes and getting in touch with a Calgary-based rabbi who prepared Sarah for them.
“I didn’t know there were any Jewish people in Medicine Hat at all,” said Tetrault, who is also a member of the Hat’s LGBTQ community, identifying as bisexual and non-binary. “In Medicine Hat, that’s like being doubly ostracized.”
They say their gender orientation made them feel alienated from organized religion writ large, but found reform Judaism very tolerant of LGBTQ people.
Tetrault found a double sense of community in the Hat that fall, attending a Hannukah party hosted by the Hat’s reinvigorated Jewish community.
“My world’s got a lot bigger,” they observed.
Dina Jubrak was instrumental in bringing together the Hat’s Jewish community, alongside Matthew Gourley, who has since converted to Christianity.
Jubrak, 31, hails from Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement just outside Hebron in the occupied West Bank. But she’s not at all what you think of when you imagine a West Bank settler.
She was born in Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Oblast to a Ukranian Jewish father and Tartarian mother. Both are staunchly secular communists, Jubrak says.
They moved in the early 1990s as part of a post-Communist wave of Russian immigration to Israel. Due to tax incentives that entice newcomers to move to the settlements, the family ended up in Kiryat Arba. Jubrak converted to Judaism in her youth “to join the nation by choosing their religion.”
She was travelling through North America after her military service and ran out of money in the Hat, so she got a job there. The plan was to stay for just a couple of months in 2013, continue her journey down to Mexico and then return to Israel.
“It was just a stop in my adventure, a pause on my way that ended up being a long stop,” Jubrak said.
She teaches Hebrew lessons in the Hat, with most of her students being Christians who want to read the Old Testament in its original language.
“I saw a gap initially within the Jewish community,” Jubrak said. “I was astounded that with 63,000 people, there was no Jewish community, but then I learned there used to be one. So I figured, why the heck not try to find out where the people are and gather them? I wanted to celebrate the Jewish holidays away from home.”
She’s also heavily involved in the downtown Medicine Hat community, working as a volunteer co-ordinator for various not-for-profits in the neighbourhood, such as HIV Community Link and Pop Up Parks. Having served as a commander in the Israeli army, Jubrak says organizing people comes easy to her. “Wrangling people up and asking them to work on a common mission is something that I did in my previous life in a different aspect,” she said.
Compared with Kiryat Arba (pop. 7,323), Medicine Hat is a pretty big city, but they share a mainstream fundamentalist religious culture. When she returns to visit Israel, she spends most of her time in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where her family now resides.
The most major difference, Jubrak says, is not being in a perpetual state of warfare. For all its deep-seated conservatism, southern Alberta is a much more relaxed place to reside, which makes it easier to develop a counterculture and effect progressive change.
“The really big difference is the level of life stresser on average everyday here is lower, because there’s no existential stress of, ‘Will there be a war tonight?’ It frees a lot of mental space to work on those awesome community projects, and to have the time and capacity to analyze and see how you can contribute,” she said.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter.