In countries like Canada where it’s easy to practise a religion, it’s easy not to practise, too.
That’s the kind of trend Perla Zaltzman is trying to overcome with Niagara’s Jewish population by opening the Aleph Champ Hebrew school on Queen Street.
“Aleph is the first letter of the alphabet. Champ is for ‘champion,’ because we want children to be Aleph champions,” said Zaltzman.
Zaltzman and her husband, Rabbi Zalman Zaltzman, are instructors at the new school that teaches the Hebrew language and Jewish traditions and customs to Jewish children between the ages of four and 13 years.
Students meet every Sunday morning for classes. It’s helpful for Jewish children to take a break from their public school classes and spend time with kids their age who share the same heritage, Zaltzman said.
“What makes them love Judaism, it’s not because the parents want them to go there, it’s because they want to go there,” she said.
“We want them to have a passion for their Judaism.”
The school uses a colourcoded curriculum that follows the kind of grading students of the Japanese martial art karate follow. They start with the ‘white belt,’ which involves learning the Hebrew alphabet.
“They have the brown belt when they are completely fluent in reading and writing,” Zaltzman said. “It’s fun learning.”
The school emphasizes arts and crafts, outings and music so students don’t spend their days in desks in front of a chalkboard.
Because students are encouraged to learn at their own pace, some might take three years to progress through classes and others could do it in three months, Zaltzman said.
They opened the school in September, in an empty office above the Royal Bank.
The school has 13 students now, but it is growing. Zaltzman said she expects another two students to register soon. Niagara has a much smaller Jewish population than bigger cities like Toronto, but Hebrew schools there sometimes find it hard to attract more than 10 students.
Aleph Champ celebrates its official opening Sunday morning with a ribbon-cutting.
The school is open to any Jewish children, regardless of the level of observance their family follows, Zaltzman said. It’s a branch of Chabad Niagara, the organization Rabbi Zaltzman runs to meet the material and spiritual needs of Niagara’s Jewish population.
Jews have survived thousands of years of persecution because they have treasured their religion, culture and traditions when they have come under attack throughout the world.
“We have stood strong with the Torah. Living in Canada, it is so easy. There’s respect for religion. Sometimes when you’re comfortable in a country, you forget a little.”
Zaltzman grew up in France, where it was a little harder to practise her faith. That tends to strengthen people’s resolve to preserve traditions, she said.
Because it’s “easier” being Jewish in Canada, it’s easy to lose touch with the teachings, language and traditions.
“When you don’t have to strive for it, that’s when it’s easy to forget it.”