Almost six decades later, he is still appreciative of that initial welcome and the tremendous respect and honour he has been shown over the years. He is especially touched to be the guest of honour at two back-to-back community events this summer to celebrate his life, his career and his contributions to the city that became his second home.
Rabbi Weizman's road to Winnipeg was long and arduous. He was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1922, the youngest son among six children in a Chasidic family that revelled in a vibrant and joyous Jewish life. He was an intelligent and inquisitive child, and by a young age had already gained a reputation as a dynamic storyteller and a gifted Torah scholar.
Life changed for Weizman and his family with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 and the capture of Lodz two days later. Together with thousands of Jews from surrounding areas, the 200,000 Jewish residents of Lodz were herded into a hastily built ghetto to endure immeasurable suffering, humiliation, disease, starvation, torture and brutality.
Thousands met their death within the ghetto walls. Thousands more were deported to forced labour and extermination camps. By the end of the war Peretz Weizman's extended family of 80 had been devastated. He was the only survivor.
His faith, however, had remained intact.
"It doesn't work to give up on God and to rely on people," he explains. "The culprit was people. If I gave up on God, what was left? I am not alone if I have God."
It was this unwavering faith, combined with nostalgia for the rich spiritual life in which he had been raised, that led Weizman to pursue rabbinical studies after the war. He was ordained as a rabbi while living in Israel and shortly afterwards met Rabbi Milton Aron, a relative on his wife's side who was working at the time in Winnipeg. Convinced that Weizman and Winnipeg would make an ideal match, Aron encouraged Weizman to join him back in Canada.
"I was received with open arms," Weizman recalls. "I found the community very warm and inviting and very hard working and down to earth."
Initially Weizman worked as a Hebrew teacher and shochet, a kosher ritual slaughterer. In 1959 he was asked to assume the pulpit at the newly constructed B'nay Abraham Synagogue on Enniskillen Avenue at Aikins Street in West Kildonan. He eagerly accepted.
Weizman remained at the B'nay Abraham Synagogue for 38 years, building it into a strong and influential community institution. During his tenure there he composed and delivered countless sermons, officiated at hundreds of weddings and funerals, prepared dozens of boys for their bar mitzvahs, educated both Jews and non-Jews about the Holocaust, and proudly oversaw the installation of a memorial to the six million in the synagogue's foyer. He also was instrumental in maintaining kosher standards for the community.
"Rabbi Weizman has been a pillar of strong, charismatic leadership in our community for 58 years," says Laurie Mainster, co-chair of the tribute events in the rabbi's honour. "From the pulpit of B'nay Abraham Synagogue, he touched the lives of thousands with his warmth, wisdom and wit."
Weizman retired from the synagogue in 1997 as it was on the verge of shuttering its doors and amalgamating with other North End congregations. Since then, he has divided his time between Winnipeg and Toronto, where he is still regularly called upon to lead synagogue services and provide Torah commentary. Later this summer he will move to Toronto permanently to be closer to his daughter and grandchildren, and to continue writing his memoirs.
The celebrations in his honour -- a Sabbath service on the morning of Aug. 22 and a tribute dinner on the evening of Aug. 23, both at the Congregation Etz Chayim where Weizman is Rabbi Emeritus -- will provide an opportunity for Winnipeg Jews to say thank you and bid farewell to a man who has been a pillar of their community for almost 60 years. Proceeds from the dinner will be used to create a Holocaust Education Trust Fund in Weizman's name. This trust fund will support the establishment and maintenance of the Holocaust Education Display Showcase at the Asper Jewish Community Campus.
"As a shochet, a teacher, a pulpit rabbi, a Rabbi Emeritus and most recently an author, Rabbi Weizman has been driven by his love of people and by his desire to make Judaism meaningful and accessible for all," says Mainster.
"Despite the tragedies his family suffered during the Holocaust, he approached life with gentle optimism and a positive outlook. He has been a true inspiration."