Phyllis and Rabbi Wilfred Solomon, centre, with Cantor Murray Nixon and his wife Dorothy, left, and Sharon and Irving Kates, at Beth Israel’s 60th anniversary gala in 1992. (photo from Congregation Beth Israel fonds, JMABC L.22263)
On June 17, Congregation Beth Israel will pay tribute to Rabbi Emeritus Wilfred (Zev) and Phyllis Solomon. The rabbi was spiritual leader of the synagogue from 1964 to 1997. During that time, gala co-chair Marcy Schwartzman told the Independent, he officiated at more than 4,000 lifecycle events, including about 500 brit milot and baby namings, 750 weddings, 800 b’nai mitzvah, 250 conversions, 900 funerals and 900 unveilings.
But the cause for celebration goes beyond numbers, of course.
“Rabbi Zev and Phyllis Solomon were the heart and soul of Congregation Beth Israel for many years,” said board president Helen Pinksy. “Together, they gave our synagogue honour and status as a warm, caring, forward-thinking and progressive community of committed Jews in Vancouver. The role of emeritus for Rabbi Solomon indicates his distinguished service and was not awarded pro forma, but because he, together with his wife, accomplished much and were beloved by the people they served. It is a true pleasure to be honouring him in return with this gala.”
Pinksy and her family have been members of Beth Israel for about 25 years. Upon joining the synagogue, she said, “Almost immediately, I asked Rabbi Solomon to teach me Torah and Haftarah reading, because I wanted to have an adult bat mitzvah. Under his tutelage, it took place. After that, my oldest son Isaac was in Rabbi Solomon’s last bar mitzvah cohort, in 1997.”
Current spiritual leader of Beth Israel, Senior Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, met the Solomons at his installation 13 years ago.
“Rabbi Solomon was beloved because of his warmth, love and concern for the Jewish people, the Vancouver Jewish community and the members of our synagogue,” said Infeld. “He worked extremely hard to bring Torah and love to everyone in his realm. I always hope to emulate his examples.”
Both Infeld and Pinsky attended the Rabbinical Assembly, which took place this year in Montreal May 5-8. Solomon was one of six rabbis honoured by the Conservative movement organization on the first night of the convention.
“Conservative rabbis from across the world were in attendance,” said Infeld. “Unfortunately, Rabbi Solomon and Phyllis were not able to make it because they live in Jerusalem. Rabbi Lionel Moses organized and chaired the ceremony. I spoke about Rabbi Solomon and his wife, Phyllis. Liberal MP Anthony Housefather presented an award that Helen Pinsky received on Rabbi Solomon’s behalf.”
“As soon as I heard about the tribute ceremony for the Solomons, I wanted to be there,” said Pinsky. “It was an extreme honour to accept the certificate of merit and tribute on their behalf. The certificate is signed by Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau, and the prime minister filmed a message of congratulations to the Rabbinical Assembly to welcome us there.
“The greatest thrill,” she said, “was to hear Rabbi Infeld describe the accomplishments and the personal courage and integrity of the Solomons to the assembled rabbis and other guests at the assembly. It was easy for us to decide to attend, because we didn’t want this opportunity to honour the Solomons to go by without proper acknowledgement.”
The Solomons worked for the benefit of the synagogue and the larger community. “They became friends with many of their congregants and the families that made up the synagogue, grew up with the Solomon family,” said Pinsky. “Rabbi Solomon took a leading role in advocating for human rights and protecting human dignity within the Vancouver Jewish community and neither he nor Phyllis hesitated to stand up for what they believed to be fair. He was involved in demanding freedom of Soviet Jews, in the exodus of Ethiopian Jews, and he supported Martin Luther King and other leaders who fought for racial and social equality during the ’60s, ’70s and onwards. The Solomons also aided in the synagogue’s adaptation to include women as equals within the Conservative movement. Their impact was huge.”
The couple made aliyah right after Rabbi Solomon’s retirement in fall 1997, said Pinsky. “They have lived in Jerusalem ever since,” she said. “In around 2006, they attended and Rabbi Solomon officiated at my niece’s bat mitzvah at the Southern Wall, just below the Western Wall, and we socialized all weekend. The Solomons retained a warm and friendly relationship with my extended family, as they did with most of the families in the synagogue. They had known my parents since the ’70s, for example, and were quick to send us kids kind notes of sympathy on the passing of our father and then our mother. I know of many congregants who have lunched with the Solomons each time they visit Jerusalem, and still maintain that special relationship that one can have with ‘my rabbi.’”
“I see them every time that I am in Israel,” said Infeld. “We also talk on the phone and email.”
Infeld is joined in leading the congregation by Assistant Rabbi Adam Stein, Ba’alat Tefillah Debby Fenson and youth director Rabbi David Bluman. The synagogue has more than 640 member families, according to its website.
“Rabbi Solomon and Phyllis gave so much to Beth Israel and the entire Vancouver Jewish community. We are as we are today as a synagogue because of the two of them. They built so much. We should always be grateful to them,” said Infeld. “Our gala will be just one way to continue to show them our gratitude and appreciation.”
For the last while, the gala committee, which Schwartzman co-chairs with Leatt Vinegar, has been asking the community to send in photographs of and stories about the Solomons. These photos will be shared throughout the event in different ways, said Schwartzman.
“It is going to be a lovely evening of celebrating our beloved Rabbi and Mrs. Solomon,” she said, “but it is also a celebration of our congregation and how it touches our lives at those lifecycle pivotal moments.”
In this vein, a new exhibit is being mounted.
“We are excited to officially open the museum cases in the synagogue once again,” said Schwartzman. “Jean Gerber and Lissa Weinberger have been working hard at bringing back these displays. Phyllis Solomon helped develop the original museum in the old building and she has been involved in helping to decide which pieces will be in this new display that officially opens at the gala.
“We will also be naming the street that leads down to our parking lot … and, if technology holds up, we will be trying a live link to the Solomons in Israel.”
A special book of messages is being designed to give to the Solomons as a keepsake, and a digital version will also be created, so that everyone can view it. To contribute to the book, contact Esther Moses-Wood at [email protected].
Proceeds from the gala and book will support the operation of the synagogue. For tickets ($180), call 604-731-4161 by June 1.