Rabbi Raphael Kats visited Saskatoon in 2010 as a rabbinical student in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, but he had a feeling that he’d be back, family in tow.
Kats, his wife Sarah and their three sons moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Saskatoon one month ago with the mission to open Saskatchewan’s first Chabad (pronounced haBAD) house, a sort of Jewish community outreach centre. Establishing a Chabad house is an important mission for any young rabbi.
“When we got married we knew we’d be opening a Chabad house somewhere in the world,” Kats said on Sunday at his home.
The Kats home also doubles as the Chabad house. Kats got permission from his landlord to knock down a wall between two units in a City Park apartment complex, and now the apartment is an open space furnished with cozy meeting spaces and a bookshelf lined with Jewish and Chabad literature.
Chabad is a worldwide movement, one of the largest within Judaism, that balances the spiritualism of Kabbalism with the intellectual pursuit of faith. The Chabad houses – located in thousands of cities across the world – are integral to the movement because they serve as educational centres meant to help Jews, secular or not, reconnect with their faith, Kats said.
“The mission of Chabad is to reach to every Jewish person, regardless of knowledge, background, affiliation or observance and to make Judaism more accessible,” Kats said. “If Jews are to take their Jewishness to the next generation, Judaism can’t be a burden. It has to be fun, exciting, relevant and meaningful.”
The couple, co-directors of the Chabad house, will offer education, holiday and social services to Saskatoon’s small Jewish community. Kats will offer one-on-one or group sessions on topics such as Kabbalah, Jewish history and Hebrew reading and writing, while Sarah will offer kosher cooking classes and classes for new mothers. Both will be involved in marriage counselling and hospital and care home visits.
While one doesn’t have to be a strict follower of Judaism to participate in Chabad activities, many in the movement are considered orthodox. Kats, 30, prefers the term “classical Jews.” He wears a dark suit and fedora in accordance with his faith, and Sarah, 26, wears clothes that cover her knees and collarbone.
“We observe Judaism the way it’s been done for thousands of years,” Kats said, adding that his family might stand out in Saskatchewan. “Chabad is renowned for non-judgmental acceptance of everyone, but Jews in particular. In Chabad, you’re just Jewish. Labels are for shirts, not people.”
The exposure to something new is at the core of Chabad’s mission. Kats stressed that his house, the Saskatchewan Jewish Discovery Centre, is inclusive to people of all, or no, faiths.
“The biggest enemy we have is ignorance,” he said. “Education is the weapon we have to disrupt that ignorance.”
Kats met Sarah while in rabbinical school in New York. Kats was born in Israel but immigrated to Toronto while still a child. Moving to Saskatoon is a Canadian homecoming for the young rabbi.
The couple describe their move to Saskatoon as intimidating, but they have the “success stories of 3,000 Chabad houses” behind them so they know they’ll find a community that’s willing to accept them as much as they’re willing to accept everyone.