The Rise of the Peretz Shule:
The Peretz Center, formerly known as the Peretz Shule, was founded in 1945 by an assorted group which included apolitical persons as well as Labour Zionists, Socialists and Communists, that shared a common goal of establishing a school which would provide children with a non-political, secular Jewish and Progressive education. Its first principal was Ben Chud who, in 1945, had just returned from the war and was active in the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO). At the time, there was a small but growing Progressive movement in Vancouver.
The first Vancouver Peretz School was located in the basement of the old Jewish Community Centre on Oak Street and 11th Avenue. There were 15 kindergarten students and 24 children attending afternoon classes. Early teachers included Sara Sarkin, Annie Wyne, Ruth Korn and Ruth Popesky. Then, in 1946, the founders bought a house at 1173 West Broadway where the school was located for 15 years.
Peretz and Zionism:
Throughout its history, the Peretz Centre has endeavoured to maintain its core identity and values of universal social justice, Jewish secularism and the preservation of Yiddish language and culture in the face of a changing society. The creation of the State of Israel, in 1948, had a great effect on the Vancouver Jewish community. Religious organizations became stronger, and synagogues –in addition to offering religious leadership– became cultural, social and educational centres, which increasingly diverged from Peretz’s secular humanist approach.
The Zionist movement, with its promotion of Hebrew to the exclusion of Yiddish, put it at odds with one of the Peretz Centre’s founding goals of preserving Yiddish language and tradition. Despite external pressures, the Peretz Centre has always advocated for an inclusive, open, thoughtful dialogue on the Israel/Palestine issue, striving to promote understanding and peace for all directly involved.
Cold War and Peretzniks:
Historically, the Peretz School had appealed to middle and lower-middle class families, but as the makeup of the population of Vancouver began to change, wealthier families began looking to religious schools for the education of their children. During this period there was movement away from progressive thought.
The Cold War of the 1950’s and the ensuing McCarthy Era also had a significant impact on the Peretz School. Although it had provided a strictly non-political education program, members of the School suffered intimidation, isolation and were threatened with lack of entry into the United States due to its labour movement beginnings. The UJPO was expelled from the Jewish Community Funds and Council and eventually isolated from the Vancouver Jewish community, making the Peretz School guilty by association.
As the Red Scare began to fade, the school began to attract new families and strong ties were re-established with the greater Vancouver Jewish community. In 1961, the Shule and its 110 students moved to its current location, the Peretz Centre, on Ash St.
The Peretz Centre has had a rich and vibrant history, overcoming many obstacles in its effort to maintain its unique role in the Vancouver Jewish community. Offering Family Education and Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs, lecture series, the largest Yiddish library in the province, the Jewish Folk Choir, community Shabbes dinners and Jewish celebrations, Peretz provides a vital service as the only institution in the city to offer a secular progressive Jewish education and community. We are proud to offer a space where views on Jews and Jewish history can be discussed in a candid, respectful, welcoming atmosphere.
The Peretz Centre is grateful to all the members, teachers, staff, donors and volunteers who, over its seven-decade history, have worked tirelessly to ensure its continued service to the Vancouver community.
–Compiled from interviews with senior Peretz members and former Directors