By: Ashira Weiss
Soft spoken and eloquent, with quintessential Canadian politeness, Sam Virine is a skilled communicator. At the Jewish elementary school he attended, he became President of the Student Council and a master on the Debate Team.
Calgary’s relatively small Jewish community boasts both a Conservative and Orthodox Jewish elementary school but no Jewish High School. So when Sam graduated elementary school, he began to attend public high school. At first, it was overwhelming going from a small school of a hundred Jewish kids to a high school teeming with fifteen hundred kids, only tens of whom were Jewish. But Sam quickly discovered opportunity within the challenge. The freshman set up meetings with the school principals and administrators and received permission to set up a sukkah just off site. Every school day of Sukkot, Sam stood in the Sukkah, offering Jewish kids a chance to shake the lulav and etrog. He also spent hours talking to non-Jewish kids who stopped by, educating them and answering their questions about Judaism, the holidays and Israel.
After the Sukkot success, Sam began to think about how he could help the teens he had met at the sukkah maintain an ongoing connection with their Judaism. He wanted his peers to have at least some Jewish involvement. “I thought it was too bad that they had nothing Jewish going on in their lives,” Sam says. He himself had just begun to wear a kipa full time and would spend the remainder of his high school career with his Kipa and Tzitzit proudly displayed.
Then he heard of JText, a program that sends out weekly Jewish trivia questions via text message to local teens, offering prizes for correct responses. Sam cold-called members of the local Jewish community and soon raised enough money to bring the program to Calgary and sponsor the weekly awards. JText in Calgary now has one hundred teens engaging weekly.
Since then, Sam has continued to bring educational and entertaining Jewish programming to his fellow teens. When COVID brought in-person events to a halt, Sam put together music videos and Zoom events to keep his teen community connected. As the school year ended last year, he fundraised, packed and delivered gift packages to all the graduating Jewish Seniors. Then, with the High Holidays approaching, Sam created a power-point presentation which he presented to some donors who gave him more funding than he asked for to bring holiday packages, Mitzvah opportunities and virtual celebrations to Calgary teens.
His activities drew attention, and in 2019 Sam was asked to address the International CTeen Shabbaton on the topic of fostering Jewish identity in a Public school setting.
The freedom to proudly engage with his Judaism is not something Sam takes for granted. His parents, who emigrated from Moscow in 1995 with his older brother were reminded of their Judaism every day of their childhood by the antisemitic incidents they would experience, both via Government policy and at the hands of their classmates and neighbors. Sam was born a few years after their arrival in Calgary. His parents did all they could to involve their boys in Jewish communal life, giving them the opportunity to learn about their heritage in a way they themselves had been denied.
When Sam graduates this Spring, he will pursue a degree in Business and Computer Sciences at university in Ontario. He plans to continue using his voice to bring education about Judaism and Israel to Jews and non-Jews on the college campus.