Congregation Beth Hamidrash is celebrating its 50th year with a gala dinner to raise funds to better serve the congregation’s increasing number of young families. (photo from Beth Hamidrash)
“I want this to go on and on,” Albert Melul told the Independent about Congregation Beth Hamidrash. The longtime member said, “We have something precious. I don’t want it to be lost.”
Beth Hamidrash celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a gala dinner March 31. Melul, who hails originally from Tangier, Morocco, has been involved with the congregation from the beginning. In the early 1960s, when he worked as program director at the Vancouver Jewish Community Centre, he was approached by some other members of the Sephardi community, who were looking for a space at the JCC for services. Melul helped the fledgling congregation get started.
In recent years, the synagogue has seen an increase in the number of young families attending services, with an average of 25 children present on Shabbat. In September 2018, the congregation hired Shira Puterman to lead their children and youth programming. The upcoming 50th jubilee celebration will raise money for the building of an expanded multi-purpose room to better serve these, and other, families.
The fundraising dinner, which will offer a door prize of two tickets to Israel, will include the induction of Beth Hamidrash’s new spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Gabay, by the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Gabay, who most recently worked as a high school teacher in the Sephardi community of Gibraltar, came into his position in the community following the departure of Rabbi Ilan Acoca last year. (See jewishindependent.ca/looking-to-the-future.)
“This is a huge honour and privilege. Frankly, to have such a distinguished personality visit us is incredible,” Gabay told the Independent.
Induction is common in the United Kingdom but may not be familiar to Canadians. “It’s when a senior rabbi officially welcomes a newer rabbi into a leadership position,” said Gabay. “The joke around the synagogue is that I’m going to be knighted.”
Mirvis, formerly the chief rabbi of Ireland, is known for his close connection to the British Royal Family – he took Prince Charles on a trip to Israel last year – as well as for his interfaith work, and he has a reputation for moderation and diplomacy. When a scandal broke out in the United Kingdom last year after an Orthodox day school censored all mention of homosexual victims of the Holocaust in its textbooks, Mirvis supported an initiative to introduce LGBTQ+ education into Jewish schools in the United Kingdom. In 2012, he appointed Lauren Levin as Britain’s first Orthodox female halachic (Jewish law) adviser at Finchley Synagogue in London.
In addition to Mirvis, several prominent local politicians are expected to be in attendance at the 50th jubilee, including Janet Austin, the lieutenant governor of British Columbia.
Beth Hamidrash is Vancouver’s only Sephardi synagogue, keeping alive the Jewish traditions of the Sephardim, the Jewish community whose roots go back to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. The Sephardim (from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sefarad) immigrated to North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and other parts of Europe, where they sustained their unique liturgies, customs and musical culture for centuries. Beth Hamidrash carries on these traditions, passing them onto each new generation.
The first meeting of the Sephardi community of Greater Vancouver was held in the late 1960s, followed by the first organized Sephardi prayer service. In 1973, the Sephardic Congregation was incorporated as a society in British Columbia, with the goal of establishing a synagogue. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, High Holiday services were held in the kindergarten classroom of the previous building of the JCC at 41st Avenue and Oak Street, and in the Vancouver Talmud Torah gymnasium. During the 1970s, the congregation began holding regular services at 3231 Heather St., in what was then a dilapidated former synagogue, which the congregation renovated and made into the beautiful congregational space there today.
The synagogue website notes that Beth Hamidrash congregants hail from Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Israel, India, France, China, Japan, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Russia, and many other parts of Canada and the world.
“What we have here is very special,” said Melul. “When you walk in the door here, you are a somebody. Our community is very warm, and we share each other’s sorrows and joys. When you visit this shul, someone will welcome you, someone will give you a siddur, someone will tell you when is Kiddish, someone will want to get to know you.”
“I landed in a spectacular community,” added Gabay. “The people are so kind and generous and forthcoming – they want to grow and they want to do. I really feel blessed to be here.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.