Alberta’s ‘Shtetl’

10/10/2011 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

Edmonton, Alberta — At a Friday night Shabbat dinner, one of the guests at the table lovingly refers to “our shtetl Edmonton.”

It’s a sign of the strong sense of community that Jews feel in this northern Alberta city on the western Canadian prairie.

Though numbering only about 5,000, the community’s relatively small size masks an underlying communal strength.

“What happens in the smaller centers,” says Russ Joseph, chief executive officer of the Edmonton Jewish Federation, “is that Jews tend to come together with other Jews for the most part.”

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And Karen Leibovici, an Edmonton city council member and incoming president of the Canadian Association of Municipalities, notes that, because so many of Edmonton’s Jews have migrated from other cities, they become an extended family.

“We become each other’s family in a lot of respects,” says Leibovici, who recently saw her son off on the Israel Birthright program.

A Jewish visitor appreciates this special side of Edmonton while enjoying everything else the city has to offer — from a flourishing art scene and festivals galore, to sophisticated cuisine and more shopping than you could ever imagine.

To quote Stephen Mandel, Edmonton’s third-term mayor and past president of the Jewish federation, “I think culturally and economically there are few places that can match the opportunities that exist in our city.”

From a Jewish perspective, Edmonton supports a mix of institutions, from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues to a kollel, and ORT and Hadassah chapters.

It boasts two Jewish day schools, the Talmud Torah School (pluralistic) and the Menorah Academy (Orthodox).

For many visitors, a “must-see” before anything else is the West Edmonton Mall, North America’s largest shopping and entertainment center, a truly amazing place, which also includes the Fantasyland Hotel.

The mall was the brainchild of the Ghermezian brothers, members of a prominent Edmonton Jewish family that was at one time involved in the Persian rug business in Montreal.

With over 800 stores, it really does embody the motto, “shop till you drop.”

But there are other inviting attractions at the mall, like the world’s largest indoor lake (including a replica of Christopher Columbus’s ship, the Santa Maria); Galaxyland, the world’s largest, 400,000-square-feet, indoor amusement park, including the Mindbender, the world’s largest indoor triple-loop roller coaster; an NHL-sized ice rink; a gaming casino; a trained seal act; and, to my mind, the top feature — the world’s largest indoor wave pool, complete with monster water slides, bungee cord jumping, beach chairs and a tiki-style bar.

Indeed, taking a break from shopping, my wife and I changed into swim suits in a dressing room and then waded into the water, where adults and children were frolicking with large, blue inner tubes.

The mall’s themed shopping streets — Bourbon Street, Chinatown and Europa Boulevard — add a nice touch.

For lunch, we enjoyed tasty salmon and rice at Café Levi, a kosher dairy place on Europa Boulevard. (The restaurant is closed on Shabbat).

As a city, Edmonton enjoys a prized location in the picturesque North Saskatchewan River Valley, and urban parkland 22 times larger than New York City’s Central Park, with miles of multi-use trails for walking, cross-country skiing and cycling.

The river valley, which was visible from our room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, was also the site of Edmonton’s annual Folk Music Festival this summer, where thousands gathered on the grassy, sloping hills of Gallagher Park to enjoy musical greats like the multi-talented Andrew Bird, West Africa’s Angelique Kidjo (in whose melodies we could hear traces of the Caribbean) and the Preservation Jazz Band.

And who can forget Grammy Award-winning Lyle Lovett, or Edmonton’s own k.d. lang, who closed the show?

With all the fun, one tends to build up an appetite, so a good bet is d’Lish Urban Kitchen & Wine Bar, an intimate place near the art galleries around 124th Street.

Here we sampled the “Have Faith” menu, a “surprise,” five-course vegetarian affair prepared by executive chef Jason Durling. There were dishes like mellow sweet potato soup, zucchini canalone stuffed with mushrooms, red peppers and onions and green zucchini squash filled with quinoa pear-and-apricot puree.

Edmonton is a city of colorful neighborhoods, like Old Strathcona, where a unique place to eat is the Dadeo Diner & Bar on 82nd (Whyte) Avenue.

The restaurant’s vinyl booths and mini-juke boxes reminded me of places I used to frequent years ago when I was much younger. Old Strathcona is also where you’ll also find Edmonton’s great farmers’ market, held every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in an old building on 83rd Avenue.

Another highlight of any visit to Edmonton is its flourishing art world. “My Banff,” large photographs by Sarah Fuller of some of the “ordinary” people of Banff, was featured at the Art Gallery of Alberta, a modernistic building with striking angular windows and bold steel at Sir Winston Churchill Square.

Meanwhile, Edmonton’s Muttart Conservatory showcased a subtropical jungle, a dry desert, a temperate forest and a lovely floral paradise in the four, large, pyramid-shaped permanent structures that make up the site.

For more man-made history, there’s Fort Edmonton Park, a 158-acre living museum and old fur trading post on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River.

Here you can drop into scenes depicting some of Edmonton’s key periods — a fur-trading fort at the end of the 18th Century, and streets from 1885, 1905 and the 1920s.

From the park entrance, a vintage Canadian Northern steam train takes you the short distance to the fort, where actors are dressed in period costumes.

While urban Edmonton has much to offer, the city sits on the edge of nature in all its glory, so we escaped to the world of camping…and herds of bison at Elk Island National Park, about an hour away by car.

At the park visitor center, a friendly group of seniors from the Rocky Mountain Seniors Ski Club was getting ready for a bike ride.

After some friendly banter with them, we joined Evelyn Henke of the park staff on a tour with close encounters — from the safety of our car, of course — of park bison.

Along the way, we stopped by a park lake and also peeked in at an intriguing campsite with Indian tee-pee lodging.  

The huge indoor wave pool at the West Edmonton Mall.


As a former resident of Edmonton, I continued to be impressed with the vibrancy and commitment of Edmonton's Jewish community. Each Jew regards themselves as personally involved in the continuity of the Jewish people. A large percentage of children attend Jewish day school. Training of bar and bar mitzvah students exceeds what you would find in many communities. Although often these stories about Jews in remote areas are seen as novelty articles, Jews living in larger communities in the United States have much to learn from the sense of personal responsibility demontrated by communities such as Edmonton.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman
Congregaton Tifereth Israel
Glen Cove, NY

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