By Menachem Posner / The Jewish Voice
While most couples establishing Chabad on Campus centers are not much older than the students they serve, Rabbi Shlomo and Matti Banon of Montreal, QC, and their nine children just completed their first year working with the Jewish student body at Université de Montreal (UdeM) and say that they all have been enriched by the experience.
“Due to the meteoric rise of anti-Semitism in France, there has been an increase of enrollment among French-Jewish students who want to live and study in peace,” explains the rabbi. “Since UdeM is a French university and Montreal is a bilingual city, many of them are attracted here.”
While the Chabad center may be new, the Banons’ connection to the university is not. “My mother worked in the lab of UdeM for 35 years, so I would run in the halls after school while she set up dissection specimens; I knew how to use a microscope when I was 4,” recalls the rabbi.
When he was 14, young Shlomo met Rabbi Naftoli Perlstein, who was then establishing himself as a Chabad emissary serving youth in Montreal. “He took me to the Rebbe on Shabbatons, and inspired me to adopt a Chassidic outlook and lifestyle.”
Eventually, Shlomo went on to study economics at UdeM before transferring to the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J.
After a brief trip to Morocco, where he served as a Chabad emissary, Shlomo was introduced to Matti Ifergan; they married in 1996. Like Shlomo, Matti had become attracted to Jewish observance as a teen, transferred from public school to Beth Rivkah high school and had just graduated from Seminary Chaya Mushka in Montreal.
After a stint in Morristown while Shlomo furthered his studies, the two were recruited to return home, where they established an educational program at the Chai Center, a Chabad center for youth that Perlstein had co-founded with Rabbi Yossi Kessler.
Over the years, the Banons remained on staff at the Chai Center in a number of positions and even established Kollel Beth Yossef, a daily learning program, in 2006.
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Late last fall, after returning from the International Conference of Chabad Lubavitch Emissaries […] Shlomo realized that there was a niche waiting for him and his wife to fill: fostering Jewish life at his old alma mater.
“For years, there were just a few hundred local Jewish commuter students,” he explains, “mostly from Sephardic French-speaking homes and very involved in their communities. Over the years, there has been a sporadic Chabad presence, and the Rebbe even encouraged Mr. Audi Gozlan to give classes on campus while he studied law there, but there was nothing permanent. But with the situation in France, we realized that there must be thousands of French Jewish kids at UdeM, far from home and tradition for the first time.”
After doing some research, the Banons discovered that their hunch proved correct. They estimate that as many as 1,000 Jewish students attend UdeM, although following habits learned in France, many of them try hard to blend in and not draw attention to themselves.
One of the first students they met was Kensy Benhamou, who had come to UdeM from her native French island of Guadeloupe in 2012 to study international law. “Shlomo messaged me that he was founding a Chabad on campus, and invited me and my cousin to Shabbat at his house,” she recalls.
“For me—and for many of the other students—the Banons’ home became our home away from home. It totally changed my experience here,” says Kensy. “It is hard to be away from family, but we all know that we can go to the Banons’ house at any time.
“For many of the students,” she continues, “it is very important that they feel accepted by the Banons, regardless of how much Judaism they keep in their personal lives. They know that they are welcomed as fellow Jews with outstretched arms.”
She adds that the Banon children are also a big attraction. “They are so cute,” she enthuses, “and it is so much fun to speak to them, and they’re always asking us if we need anything and if we are comfortable.”
Matti Banon says that some of her children know French from school and others do not, but having the students around has helped them all sharpen their language skills, and communicating in a mixture of English and French always brings out lots of laughs.
She also jokes that the students do not let her husband eat during Shabbat meals: “All they want to hear is more Torah thoughts and more stories for hours at a time.”
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Rabbi Banon says many of the French students have to work hard to repress habits created by hiding their identity in France. “At first, I thought it was strange that the students I met would call, text and use ‘WhatsApp,’ but no one ever publically ‘Liked’ my Facebook posts or wrote on my wall, but then I realized that they were just scared to identify as Jewish.”
“There was one fellow who was walking with me from my home to the synagogue,” he recalls, “and suddenly I saw that he removed his kipah, explaining that it is not safe to wear one in the street. I told him, ‘First of all, you are with me, so everyone knows you are Jewish; and second of all, you are in Montreal, not Paris.’ He looked at me, a big smile broke out on his face, and he put it back on his head. He was so relieved.”
“The students often hang out at our place on Shabbat afternoons, and they see the kids come and go as they visit friends, and they tell us, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are that your kids can walk on the streets alone; you can’t do that in France anymore.’ ”
Over the past year, the Banons have built ties with dozens of students like Kensy and look forward to connecting with even more people in their first full year on campus.
Their efforts were rewarded just before Passover when they were recognized by the university as an officially accredited student group. That allows them to hold events on campus and request the use of school space for classes, services and holiday events.
Their next goal is to raise funds for a permanent location near campus—a 40-minute walk from their home—so that they will be able to hold Shabbat and holiday services, and offer students a place to meet, grab a bite to eat and just be themselves during the course of their studies.
Looking forward to this coming year, Kensy says she is excited to return to Montreal and continue where she left off. As for the Banons, they expect that the events of the summer—where Jews were literally attacked on the streets and in synagogues in France—will drive even more French students to Montreal.
And they are ready to welcome them “home.”