Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Engagement specialist seeks to reconnect Jews with their faith

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Rosh Hashanah arrives early this year. That means Rena Elbaze, the Winnipeg Jewish community's Jewish Engagement Specialist, will be setting up her holiday display at The Forks Market by the end of August.

This display will feature general information about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and specific information about synagogue services that will be taking place across the city during the holiday. Elbaze also will be handing out samples of gourmet honey to those who stop by her display to chat.

Honey is one of the foods traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah, which falls this year on Sept. 5. The honey represents the hope for sweetness and blessings in the coming year.

This kind of holiday outreach is integral to Elbaze's mission to help connect unaffiliated Jews living in Winnipeg with their community, culture and faith.

"My role involves reaching the less affiliated where they are and creating entry points into the community and to Jewish life in general," Elbaze explains.

Elbaze grew up in Winnipeg and was heavily involved in the organized Jewish community, especially through her synagogue and its youth groups. When she moved back to Winnipeg with her young family after living in France for 20 years, she was surprised to find these synagogue youth groups were long gone.

The disappearance of these groups seemed to reflect a decline in overall affiliation among members of a community that once had been a vibrant centre of Jewish life.

This decreased affiliation, she discovered, was due to a number of factors. One of these was a significant increase in intermarriage among Jewish community members.

"In Winnipeg, these families currently make up 75 per cent of the marriages in our community," Elbaze says.

In the past, she adds, there were few attempts to embrace these families and help make them feel connected to the Jewish community. But that is now changing.

"My goal is to make these families feel welcome in the community and engage them in a way that is meaningful to them," Elbaze says.

She aims to accomplish this primarily through an initiative called Big Tent Judaism.

Big Tent Judaism is a North American movement designed to increase community affiliation among marginalized, indifferent, unconnected and intermarried Jews. Its approach to Jewish community life mimics the approach taken by biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah. According to the collection of Jewish oral law known as the Mishnah, Abraham and Sarah kept their tent open on all four sides to ensure visitors arriving from any direction would feel welcomed.

A major aspect of Big Tent Judaism, Elbaze explains, involves hosting Jewish community awareness events and meeting unaffiliated Jews at public spaces. These low-barrier spaces include community centres, grocery stores and places like The Forks.

"The goal is to start a conversation and be inviting to those who might not know how or where to connect," she says.

Often that one conversation is enough to encourage the unaffiliated to explore the Jewish community a little further. Once they venture to do that, they are usually pleasantly surprised to find myriad opportunities, organizations and institutions ready to welcome them with open arms.

schisvin@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 D15

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Updated on Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 10:01 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

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