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Miracle on Blanshard Street

Alan Rutkowski
December 13, 2017

by Alan Rutkowski

VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA in Canada, has a small Jewish community of around 3,000 and is home to Canada’s oldest continuously existing congregation, Congregation Emanu-El. The building that houses Congregation Emanu-El, which was built in 1863, is also the oldest synagogue building on the west coast of North America. Emanu-El is a Conservative congregation, but Victoria also has a Reform Congregation (“Kolot Mayim”), a Society for Humanistic Judaism, and, it almost goes without saying, Chabad.

When we first moved here nearly nine years ago from Edmonton, Alberta, I was amazed at how lively Victoria’s Jewish community is. Congregation Emanu-El is widely respected for its social work with Victoria’s homeless. Among its community service activities, the synagogue has opened its doors each night during the winter to Victoria’s homeless youth in an Out-of-the-Rain program. Down the street from Emanu-El is a large Baptist church that also ministers to the city’s homeless. From time to time members of the church attend Emanu-El’s services. There doesn’t seem to be any reciprocation.

Congregation Emanu-El’s Rabbi, Harry Brechner, combines a deep knowledge of and commitment to Jewish tradition with progressive positions on political and social issues. “Rabbi Harry,” as he is affectionately known, participates in interfaith dialogues and has established good relations with other faith communities. Rabbi Harry is open and welcoming to gay and transgender congregants, and each year leads Congregation Emanu-El’s delegation in Victoria’s Gay Pride March. Emanu-El also has a rather large number of members who are converts. Once, during a Shabbat service, I counted five former Catholics on the bema at one time. Perhaps in a nod to the converts from Catholicism, during periods of multiple Bar Mitzvah celebrations, Rabbi Harry has jokingly referred to the shul as “Our Lady of Perpetual Simchas.”

During the 2014 Gaza War, a group of Victoria Jews founded If Not Now, When? (not to be confused with IfNotNow), to challenge the mainstream Canadian Jewish community’s full support of all Israeli government actions and to make sure that the Canadian government understands that there are many Jews who do not reflexively endorse these actions. The diversity of Victoria’s small Jewish community is truly amazing.

Soon after moving to Victoria, I noticed that our local supermarket, which is not in a particularly Jewish neighborhood — Victoria doesn’t have any particularly Jewish neighborhoods — boasts a Jewish/Kosher section during Passover and Hanukkah that is well stocked with items appropriate to the holidays. There had been only a single store in Edmonton that carried such items, and it was on Edmonton’s west side, where a majority of that city’s Jews live.

ALL THIS leads me to a story: The first year we lived in Victoria, I was surprised to see that, in addition to cosponsoring a public lighting of a Hanukkah menorah, Congregation Emanu-El organized a nighttime Hanukkah parade of lights that went on for a few blocks, with men, women, and children carrying Star Wars-like lights and singing Hanukkah songs. Edmonton has almost twice as many Jews, but I don’t recall ever seeing a Hanukkah parade of lights there. On the other hand, parades of any kind are hard to hold in Edmonton’s sub-zero winter temperatures. That’s another thing about Victoria — it has Canada’s mildest climate. Hanukkah fell close to Christmas that first year, and the Hanukkah parade of lights contributed nicely to the overall festive atmosphere of the city.

A few days after the Hanukkah parade of lights, I was in one of Victoria’s wonderful consignment stores buying a few items, among them a Hanukkah menorah that I was surprised to find among Christmas ornaments, manger sets, and statues of Santa. I don’t remember ever seeing a Hanukkah menorah in an Edmonton consignment store. The woman at the cash register asked if I had seen the light parade.

“Yes,” I said, “my rabbi organized it.”

She seemed very surprised. “Well isn’t that wonderful,” she said. “Imagine, a rabbi organizing the light parade.” I was taken aback. “Well,” I said, “it is called a festival of lights.” She gave me my change as well as a look of utter amazement. I was slightly puzzled.

Later that night, my wife said, “Damn, we missed it.”

“Missed what?” I asked.

“The light parade.”

“You mean the Hanukkah light parade?”

“No, the Christmas truck light parade. Nearly all the trucks in Victoria get decked out with Christmas lights and drive through the city. It’s supposed to be fantastic. And we’re on the route, but we were out that night. Oh well, next year.”

SUDDENLY I REALIZED why the woman in the consignment store had seemed so surprised. She was talking about the Christmas truck parade of lights, not the Hanukkah parade of lights. I intended to go back and correct what I had said, but when I was in the store a week later, I could no longer remember which woman I had talked to. If I had tried to explain to just anybody that my rabbi hadn’t organized the Christmas truck parade of lights, they would have thought I was deranged.

I could imagine the woman I had unintentionally misinformed bringing up the rabbi and the Christmas truck light parade at a party and sparking the following exchange with a friend:

“You’re not going to believe this, but a local rabbi organizes the Christmas truck light parade.”

“Really? I had no idea. Is it some sort of interfaith thing?”

“I don’t know. It may be that a lot of the truckers are Jewish.”

“I doubt it. Jesus was Jewish. Do Jews celebrate his birthday?”

“But that would just be celebrating Christmas. I’m pretty sure Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.”

“Maybe Jewish truck drivers do.”

“Why would Jewish truck drivers celebrate Christmas? Jesus was a carpenter, not a truck driver.”

“Did anybody notice any Stars of David in the parade? Maybe it’s a combined Christmas/Hanukkah light parade and the organizing is rotated? This year it was the rabbi, and next year it’s a priest.”

“No, there were no Stars of David on the trucks. There were lots of Santas and elves. It was definitely just a Christmas light parade. Jews don’t believe in Santa Claus, do they?”

“They might, just for the kids.”

“I’ve heard some Jews have a Christmas tree, but they call it a Hanukkah bush. I saw it in a movie.”

“Well, I think it’s very nice that a rabbi organized the Christmas truck parade. It’s a good will gesture.”

THAT WAS nine years ago. I’m sure the story of the rabbi who organizes the Christmas truck light parade has since made the rounds many times, and by now a fair segment of Victoria’s population is convinced that the annual Christmas truck light parade is entirely the work of a local rabbi. Someday there might even be a movie about it: Miracle on Blanshard Street.

Alan Rutkowski lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is a founding member of the Canadian Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? His views do not represent an official position of that group.