DAVID LAZARUS, Canadian Jewish News
MONTREAL — It was was a memorable day for Moshe Reikhtman, and especially so for the kids of the Chabad Russian Youth Centre.
Children from the Chabad Russian Youth Centre take part in activities at summer camp last year.
Six years after the centre was launched, running mostly out the Reikhtman family’s duplex on Carleton Avenue, the centre found a place to call home last month, at 7370 Cote St. Luc Rd.
“You know, we have been operating for six years, but having your own place makes it real,” said Reikhtman, a soft-spoken, 36-year-old Lubavitcher.
The centre faces some challenges, Reikhtman acknowledged, as it seeks at last to enjoy a sense of permanency and increased productivity in its new headquarters. Besides needing basic furniture, appliances and kid-friendly recreational equipment such as ping-pong and foosball tables, it is trying to meet increasing operational costs, he said.
The centre recently launched a program called Jewish Homework Support Services, which is now seeking volunteer tutors to help Russian Jewish kids improve in their general studies, especially in math, French, English and science.
Reikhtman has been overseeing the centre since September 2002, with the help of his wife, Ayelet, and others, offering Jewish programs for Russian Jewish immigrant children.
The activities include Jewish holiday and study programs, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, and winter and summer day camps for children aged six to 12.
A two-hour study school every Sunday has drawn an average of about 20 kids – “there was just one the first week,” Reikhtman noted – but Jewish holiday activities, at Chanukah or Purim, for example, have regularly seen as many as 120 kids and families come to Reikhtman’s home. The residence often seems close to bursting with the raucous joy of kids having a good time, he said – Reikhtman and his wife have five children themselves.
Reikhtman said that because children who take part in youth centre activities and programs don’t necessarily come from observant families, “we present Judaism in a way that would not cause controversy. A lot of these children go to public schools. What we try to do is emphasize what we have in common, not what is different. That’s the ideal.”
It’s an ideal Reikhtman has nurtured since becoming a member of the Lubavitch community about 15 years ago.
Born in the Crimea region of Ukraine, Reikhtman grew up in a non-practising household. “I wasn’t born observant, but no one was observant there. I knew I was Jewish, but didn’t really know what it meant.”
That would eventually change. He arrived in New York from Ukraine at age 19 to seek a better life, having completed one year of medical school and with a nursing degree and science background, but with virtually no skills in English.
“That was a huge difficulty to overcome,” he said.
Just two months later, he moved to Montreal, where he began to learn English and to study cell biology at McGill University, still planning to enter medical school to complete his medical degree.
Although he was accepted by a medical school in Vermont, Reikhtman gradually became more exposed to his Jewish heritage through Lubavitch acquaintances, and he began to seek answers to some profound cosmic questions. “They were philosophical questions, of right and wrong and other things. I was not really thinking about God.”
In 1993, he was joined in Montreal by his mother, Margarita (his father, Velvl, had died earlier in Ukraine).
Gradually, Reikhtman found answers to his questions, becoming increasingly observant and gradually adopting an Orthodox lifestyle. He attended a yeshiva in Brooklyn, and by 1998, was practising the Lubavitch way of life. He was approached in September 2002 by Rabbi Israel Sirota, who for decades has helped Russian Jewish immigrants at a centre on de Courtrai Street. The rabbi asked him to oversee the activities of Russian Jewish youth.
Now, with the centre established in its own premises, and with help also coming from the nearby Chabad Montreal-West, Reikhtman hopes the centre will receive the additional support it requires from companies and individuals.
“We are planning for a big grand opening on Chanukah,” Reikhtman said.