Or Shalom is hosting one of the leading innovators in the field of Jewish meditation next weekend – Rabbi Jeff Roth of the Awakened Heart Project will lead a half-day retreat at the synagogue on Dec. 4.
Roth, who has been practising and teaching meditation for decades, teaches his own synthesis of Eastern techniques with a Jewish heart, which he calls Jewish mindfulness meditation.
“I was already a rabbi when I started studying Asian meditation,” he explained. “Everything I learned, I learned through a Jewish lens. I never took on a practice without altering it slightly.”
When asked if anyone has objected to his synthesis of Jewish spirituality with Asian contemplative techniques, the rabbi said, “What I integrate is the truth of the nature of mind and no one has any objection to that. I ask questions like, What is the influence of conceptual thinking on the mind? What are the effects of different thoughts?”
Roth teaches a type of meditation that involves experiencing the mind and body with a healing, nonjudgmental awareness. It is rooted in the mindfulness movement first brought to North America in the 1970s, which has steadily grown in popularity, even finding a significant place in new medical treatments and corporate environments. And Jews have played a large role in the movement, demonstrated by leading teachers like Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others.
Drawn to the mystical teachings of Judaism as a young rabbi, Roth said they remained “intellectual” for him until he began practising meditation. “In the quiet, in the silence, I became a mystic,” he said. “It became a direct experiential realization.”
Among his students now are many rabbis. “I teach rabbis they need to come to the silence, the witnessing, to have a deeper spiritual experience,” said Roth, referring to the practice of “just witnessing” that characterizes mindfulness meditation. By just witnessing thoughts, feelings and sensations, say its exponents, mindfulness meditation calms the body and mind and allows deeper, non-conceptual awareness of experience. “From a Jewish perspective, ‘just witnessing’ is not enough, however,” he said. “You need to be the compassionate witness.”
Roth said he draws his central inspirations from the teachings of the Chassidic masters, especially the Baal Shem Tov – Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760, founder of the Chassidic movement.
“The Baal Shem Tov said ‘everything is God and nothing but God,’” Roth explained. “The whole thing to do is to align ourselves with the truth of being, which in the Torah is expressed as ‘ein od milvado’ (‘there is nothing else besides God’).”
A turning point in Roth’s development came in 1981 when he received teachings from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, which became the scaffolding of his theology of contemplation.
“Reb Zalman taught me about the four worlds, or levels of manifestation, that occur within the Holy One of Being,” said Roth. The contemplation of how the four levels of manifestation happen in our minds and bodies can guide our mindful exploration of experience, he said. “The four worlds have become a central metaphor in my teaching. I have been working out that teaching for the last 35 years.”
Roth’s latest iteration of that “working out” can be seen in his recent book, Me, Myself and God: A Jewish Theology of Mindfulness (Jewish Lights, 2016), from which he will be presenting practices and Torah teachings at the Dec. 4 session.
“We’re trying to understand the fundamental forces that alienate us in our experience of life, in order that we might live more from a place of awakened heart, which is connected to all experience and allows us to manifest with more love and compassion in our daily lives,” said Roth. “I want to emphasize that acting with love and compassion – that’s where we’re going with the whole thing.”
For more information on the retreat, which will take place from 2:30-5:45 p.m., and be followed by a potluck meal, visit orshalom.ca.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Rabbinic Pastor Simcha Raphael will be a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Or Shalom for a Shabbaton Nov. 25-26. (photo from Simcha Raphael)
Later this month, Congregation Or Shalom is hosting a Shabbaton featuring Rabbinic Pastor Simcha Raphael, a bereavement counselor and expert in Jewish beliefs and sacred practices around death and the afterlife.
Founding director of Da’at Institute for Death Awareness, Advocacy and Training, Raphael also has a psychology practice specializing in grief counseling and bereavement support, and is an adjunct assistant professor in the Jewish studies department of Temple University in Philadelphia. While in Vancouver, he will participate in various educational activities at Or Shalom, sharing observations from his decades-long study of related Jewish wisdom and customs.
Raphael’s interest in the afterlife began in personal experience. When he was 4 years old, his Bubby Mina died. As was common for children at the time, he did not attend the funeral or shivah, but he was told that she had “gone to heaven.” In his young mind, this meant she was still alive and accessible and, for years afterward, he found comfort in talking to her.
Years later, when the rabbi was 22, a good friend died in a car accident. Heartbroken, Raphael found that he had a continued sense of his friend’s presence. This experience, together with his childhood memories of talking to his grandmother, came together as both a question and an inspiration. Raphael was already studying psychology and world religions – he turned his focus on what Judaism says about the afterlife.
Then, as now, many Jews and non-Jews wrongly believed that Judaism does not have anything to say about the afterlife. But, as Raphael investigated the textual tradition, he found that the Torah, Talmud, kabbalistic writings and Jewish folklore all painted a very different picture.
“In the world of the Chassidim, the world of the Ashkenazi shtetl, there was no question about the reality of the spiritual realms and their interaction with this world,” Raphael told the Independent.
As many Jews eagerly embraced modernity, these traditions were suppressed or forgotten. With the encouragement of his mentor, Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, Raphael undertook to unveil these traditions for modern Jewry. In his now-classic Jewish Views of the Afterlife, published in 1994, Raphael provided a comprehensive discussion on these issues for a popular audience. A 25th anniversary edition of the work with a foreword by Arthur Green is expected in 2019.
Raphael has found that traditional rituals and beliefs around death can have therapeutic value, whether those dealing with these transitions believe in a tangible afterlife or not. “For example,” he said, “traditionally it is believed that the soul stays behind for seven days after death, preparing to leave. Mourners can be encouraged to take this time to say things they wished to say to their loved one, whether they literally believe their words are heard or not. I have found that this practice has great value for people.”
At the upcoming Shabbaton, Raphael will share rituals like this one, as well as explore the rich traditional lore Judaism possesses around death and the afterlife.
Raphael’s teaching program at Or Shalom runs Nov. 25-26 and is called Judaism and the Mysteries of Life, Death and the World Beyond. He will address what the Hebrew Bible, Jewish custom and the kabbalah can tell us about death and dying. On the Saturday, at 7 p.m., he will offer a community talk called Twilight Between the Worlds: Jewish Ghost Stories, which will take place at Celebration Hall at Mountain View Cemetery.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
The Or Shalom board of directors with Rabbi Hannah Dresner, second from the left in the front row. (photo by David Kauffman)
Most Jews would agree that usually rabbis do the bulk of the talking and congregants the listening. That’s been reversed for the Listening Tour currently underway among rabbis of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The tour is making 13 stops in North America, as well as listening via video and Skype to Renewal communities all around the world. On March 25, the tour stopped in Vancouver, where it was hosted by Or Shalom.
Rabbis Rachel Barenblat and David Markus, ALEPH co-chairs, have embarked on the tour to hear from the breadth and depth of the community, including those not technically affiliated with the Renewal community but “aligned in method, intention and heart.”
“Every stop on the ALEPH: Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is different, and every one has been amazing in its own way. But I suspect that our weekend in Vancouver may stand out in memory as one of the most memorable experiences in a year-plus of remarkable experiences,” wrote Barenblat on her blog, the Velveteen Rabbi.
“Maybe that’s in part because we traveled such a very long way to be there. Maybe it’s in part because we were visiting such a storied community, one of the largest and longest-standing Jewish Renewal communities in the world. Maybe that’s in part because the people at Or Shalom welcomed us with such open hearts.”
“When ALEPH decided to go on a listening tour, it initially was to take the pulse of the Jewish Renewal movement, but it has come to mean for us and for stakeholders in the broader renewing of Jewish life so much more than that,” said Markus. “There is a yearning in Jewish life today that reaches through all the denominations … we are seeing a global consciousness arise about the need to reconnect Jews with the heart and soul of tradition, to experience the riches of spiritual life, and to address emerging social and ecological challenges.”
Markus explained that Jewish Renewal has grown organically, and was not created on the basis of strategy or design. “The time has come,” he said, “to introduce an element of design.” How should the Renewal movement take its rightful place in ecosystem of Jewish life? What does Jewish life need now? How to meet the needs of millennials? Summing up, Markus said, “How are we relevant for the 21st century and beyond?”
Speaking of the tour in a recent Or Shalom newsletter, the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, wrote, “They were here to gather information for their own discernment as they shape the next iteration of the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. But we had a bit of our own agenda, and that was to speak and hear the stories, challenges and hopes of Or Shalomniks for the flourishing of our home community and for our collective and personal senses of belonging, contentment and inspiration…. I listened very carefully, and my heart ached with the poignancy and beauty of the nostalgia, the hurts, the longings and the aspiration I heard spoken.”
On the Friday evening, the visit commenced with davening, followed by dinner, after which those gathered heard some of the origin stories and histories from Or Shalom’s almost 40 years of existence, starting with the early years as a chavurah in Rabbi Daniel Siegel and Rebbetzin Hanna Tiferet Siegel’s living room.
On the Shabbat, there were diverse sessions of listening at which different segments of the community were invited to speak and be heard. Younger members of the community expressed their desire for open, free dialogue, deep ecumenicism and freedom from xenophobia; members of the community who felt marginalized had a chance to tell their stories; elder members spoke of their desire to keep the best of Or Shalom alive and their anxiety to pass the torch to the next generation. Many other voices were heard, and the rabbis listened. “By being listened to,” Markus told the Independent, “people feel empowered to do the work that this era demands.”
Dresner was particularly moved around finding solutions for those who feel marginalized. “What can we do to optimize a young mother’s spiritual experience when she comes to shul with very small children?” she asked. “And how can we create a cohort for her? How can we offer community to individuals who remain single as couples form and begin to have babies? What will it take to go beyond friendliness in developing a deeper queer consciousness?”
The weekend unfolded over what Barenblat called “meetings and meals and meetings over meals,” including a trip on Sunday to the Vancouver vegetarian institution that is the Naam restaurant.
The Vancouver leg of the tour wound down Sunday evening, and so came to an end the ninth stop the rabbis have made so far. “It’s an honor and a privilege,” wrote Barenblat on her blog, “to get to sit with people and hear their yearnings and hopes for what ALEPH and Jewish Renewal might become.”
Matthew Gindinis a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com)and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.
As of Nov. 24, the Government of Canada was processing 4,511 applications for privately sponsored Syrian refugees (not including Quebec, which has its own procedure). The map shows communities where private sponsors have submitted an application. (image from cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/welcome)
Vancouver’s Jewish community is mobilizing to welcome refugees from Syria. The federal government has announced that 25,000 Syrian refugees will come to Canada before the end of February. While most of those will be government-sponsored, groups of Canadians, including many in the Jewish community, are leaping at the opportunity to be a part of the resettlement project.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Anglican church to streamline the process. The federal government has a number of sponsorship agreement holders, which are established, experienced groups that are engaged in aiding refugees on an ongoing basis. To expedite the process, the Jewish community is primarily working through the partnership with the Anglican Church of Canada so that synagogues and other Jewish groups that may want to sponsor can do so efficiently.
“The Anglican diocese, rather than setting up a separate relationship with each of the synagogues, proposed that there be one memorandum of understanding with the Jewish community,” said Shelley Rivkin, Federation’s vice-president for planning, allocations and community affairs. “We will be the holder of the memorandum of understanding so the synagogues will raise the funds and issue a tax receipt. The funds will then come to us and be in a restricted account and, as those funds are distributed, they will go directly through us so that the diocese is not having to deal with multiple parties.”
Or Shalom Synagogue has already raised two-thirds of the funds necessary to sponsor three families. Natalie Grunberg, a member of the Or Shalom Syrian Refugees Initiative, said they are expecting their sponsored refugees as early as January. The group has launched a series of events, including a concert of Syrian music, to raise awareness and money for the project. The federal government estimates the cost of sponsoring a refugee family for a year to be about $30,000, but Vancouverites involved in the process are working on an assumption of about $40,000, based on housing costs here.
Or Shalom is working through existing partnerships they have built over the years. Rather than going through the Anglican church, they are working with the United Church of Canada. Grunberg acknowledged that some in the Jewish community have differences with the United Church’s stand toward Israel, but the priority was to expedite the refugee sponsorship process and they believed working through existing relationships would be most effective.
Grunberg is noticeably proud of her congregation’s efforts so far.
“We’re a very small synagogue and we’re sponsoring three families,” she said.
Through existing relationships with the Syrian community here, Or Shalom will focus their sponsorship efforts on reunifying families that already have some members in Metro Vancouver and also on members of the LGBT community.
Temple Sholom is also rallying for refugees. Almost immediately after announcing the idea during the High Holidays, the synagogue raised enough money to sponsor one family.
“We’ve now decided to sponsor a second family,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz.
He acknowledges that there have been some anxieties among his congregation about bringing Syrian refugees here.
“I met with every person that voiced that concern to me,” he said. “I met with them personally. We talked about it. We talked about the people that we are bringing in – they were concerned about terrorists coming across – we talked about the difference between private sponsorship, as we are doing, and what we’ve been seeing in Europe with refugees flooding across borders … that we were sponsoring families with young children, that our sponsorships were family reunification, so they would have real roots here in B.C., particularly in Vancouver. We acknowledge the fears but at the same time we also recognize that this is a crisis and that the Jewish tradition teaches us quite clearly to love the stranger. Israel is doing things for refugees on the Syrian border right now with their hospitals and we had to do our part.”
Moskovitz cites Torah as the basis for his enthusiasm.
“Thirty-six times in the Torah, in the Bible, it says to love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land,” he said. “The Jews were once refugees ourselves and this goes all the way back to the land of Egypt and the slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh, where we were running for our lives; in that case from the famine, according to the biblical story, and the Egyptian people welcomed the Jewish people, welcomed us in and gave us food and shelter and we lived there for 435 years, according to the Bible. From that and so many other times in the Bible, the most often-repeated commandment in all of Jewish tradition is to love the stranger, to love the immigrant; love the stranger, because that was you once.”
More modern Jewish history is also a factor, he added.
“We are largely still here even though throughout our history people have tried to destroy us because at critical times in our history some people took us in,” said Moskovitz. “We like to think we did it all by ourselves and there is no doubt that there is a tremendous resiliency of the Jewish people but, at the same time, we have been the beneficiary of others sheltering us at times of mortal danger.”
Congregation Beth Israel has created a task force to look into possibly sponsoring a Kurdish Syrian refugee family. Executive director Shannon Etkin said the group will analyze the resources available within the congregation community to provide for a family beyond the minimum requirements set out by the federal government.
Other synagogues, organizations and individuals who may not have the resources to directly sponsor a refugee or family are being encouraged to support on-the-ground efforts by the Joint Distribution Committee, which is aiding refugees in Turkey and Hungary. This support is being organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
“They’re doing a lot of direct aid for women and children and also doing some work with frontline responders,” Rivkin said.
While American political discourse around whether to accept Syrian refugees smolders under the embers of xenophobia, Canadians have been opening their hearts and their wallets to bring in Syrian refugees.
Canada is one of the only countries with a private sponsorship option, which means that groups of ordinary citizens can provide funds and demonstrate their intention to provide emotional and logistical support to refugee families for one year, thus enabling the absorption of refugees whom the government might not otherwise have been able to afford.
Like many faith and neighborhood communities, Jewish communities, especially through synagogues, are on the frontlines of this effort.
It’s not often that a rabbi’s sermon gets reprinted in the daily newspaper of a major city, but such was the case for Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Montreal’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. “For too long, we have thought of religion in passive terms, counting how many people are sitting in the pews or paying dues,” she wrote. “All this is necessary but not sufficient. I want us to count how many lives we change, how many people we help, how many hearts we touch.” Her synagogue is sponsoring at least one refugee family.
Meanwhile, a sermon delivered on Kol Nidre this year by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom in Vancouver helped capture the hearts and minds of his congregants. “Tonight, I want to ask you to do something great. I want to ask you to save a life, the life of a stranger – because we were once strangers in the land, because we are human beings and that is the only similarity that we really need.” It didn’t take long for the congregation to come up with the $40,000 necessary to sponsor a refugee family. They are now fundraising to bring a second. Other synagogues across the city – including the Jewish Renewal Or Shalom, which is sponsoring three families – have followed suit. (See story, page 1.)
In Toronto, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, one of nearly 100 organizations across the country that enjoys sponsorship agreement holder rights, has been flooded with sponsoring requests.
I spoke to Ryan Friedman of Darchei Noam and to Pippa Feinstein of First Narayever Congregation, two Toronto-based synagogues that are sponsoring refugees. Feinstein in particular noted that, while wanting to “ensure a safe place for any refugee family who is looking to come to Canada,” her congregation is aiming to launch “parallel awareness-raising activities” around the plight of persecuted minorities in the region.
Among those minorities are the Yazidi people of Iraq, who are being faced with a genocide – in the words of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – at the hands of ISIS. In collaboration with other faith groups, Winnipeg’s Jewish community has spearheaded an effort to sponsor multiple Yazidi refugees. As Belle Jarniewski described it, “When I saw the article about the mass grave [of the Yazidis], I really responded to it viscerally. It reminded me that we keep talking every year “never again” and, as Jews, we talk about this all the time, how important it is … and what are we doing about it?”
In my own city of Ottawa, Lori Rosove and Dara Lithwick of Temple Israel launched a community-wide effort to sponsor a refugee family. As Rosove explained it, “It’s the human thing to do.”
I, too, have helped launch a cross-denominational grassroots sponsoring effort, working through both Jewish Family Services of Ottawa and the United Church of Canada. Since a handful of us gathered in a neighbor’s living room in early September, we now number 250 participants and have raised $150,000 so far, enabling us to sponsor six families. So as to provide the suggested “soft-landing” that settlement agencies advise, each family will live with a neighborhood host for the first couple of months.
And what of pushback from community members? Moskovitz explained that, while 95% of his congregants have been enthusiastic, a few were not. “I met with each individual or group who registered a concern,” explaining the “rigorous UN screening and the Canadian screening [process].”
For their part, American Jewish groups have been doing what they can. There was the statement of moral clarity issued by 10 Jewish organizations. And there is a rabbis’ letter drafted by HIAS, urging their elected officials to “welcome the stranger.” In addition to lobbying Congress to accept refugees and supporting local resettlement agencies in their efforts, the U.S.-based Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism has taken the initiative to help American congregations partner with Canadian ones in order to support their neighbors’ efforts. As RAC head Rabbi Jonah Pesner told me: “To sit at our [Passover] seder tables every year and [tell] the story, [starting with] ‘my father was a wandering Aramean,’ and to live through 5,000 years as a community of refugees, not to model for the world what it means to welcome the stranger would be an abdication of our legacy.”
So, while the U.S. Congress wrings its hands over whether to accept a meagre 10,000 souls, Canada (one-tenth the population) has pledged to receive 25,000 Syrian refugees by February, of which 10,000 are expected to be sponsored privately. When private citizens are empowered to help people from across the globe, the bluster and rhetoric can be bypassed while the real work of saving lives and opening hearts can take place.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.
The Jewish Renewal synagogue in East Vancouver, Or Shalom, is marking the eight nights of Chanukah by honoring eight “lights” of life on the city’s east side.
“I had this idea that it would be really special to open ourselves out to our community and to really focus on the notion of Chanukah being a celebration of light emitting from darkness, or the notion of Chanukah as being about light that seems unlikely to continue to shine but miraculously does persevere,” explained Rabbi Hannah Dresner, spiritual leader of the shul. “I would really like our community to focus on what it means to be a human being that is a light in the community.”
The synagogue will have a celebration this Saturday night that recognizes the contributions of eight individuals and organizations that add light to the east side community.
Among the honorees are John Jardine of Vancouver’s Native Education College; firefighters from the hall nearest Or Shalom; a group within the Or Shalom congregation devoted to aiding refugees; Kim Leary, executive director of the Homework Club associated with Britannia Secondary School; members of the Habonim-Dror youth movement; Angela Marie MacDougal, the director of Battered Women’s Support Services; Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House; and Rev. Sally McShane of First United Church, which runs programs in the Downtown Eastside.
“Our miracle story is that, when the Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated, they came in afterwards and wanted to relight the candelabra that was kept lit all the time but there wasn’t enough oil, so they lit it anyway and the miracle that’s celebrated is that that oil was sufficient to keep the lamp lit until olives could be harvested and oil could be pressed and brought forward to the Temple,” Dresner said. “So the notion is that if you light the light and tend it, that there is an element of trust and faith that, if we do our work, then the divine energy will join us in uplifting our world.”
Eight Leading Lights takes place Saturday, Dec. 12, at Or Shalom, 710 East 10th Ave., with a potato bar supper at 5:30 p.m. and communal singing and candlelighting at 7 p.m.
Rabbi Hannah Dresner wants “to come to know my congregation and the culture of Jewish Vancouver, to understand what the needs are and draw from our great tradition.” (photo from Rabbi Hannah Dresner)
Vancouver’s Congregation Or Shalom welcomed Rabbi Hannah Dresner as its spiritual leader this summer, recruiting her from Berkeley, Calif., where she was working part-time for Congregation Netivot Shalom, teaching niggun and meditation, and traveling broadly to hold spiritual retreats.
Dresner, a mother of three who grew up in Springfield, Mass., was ordained in January 2014 and worked previously as a visual artist and professor of fine arts. At Northwestern University, she taught painting and visual aspects of directing for graduate students in theatre direction.
“My artwork has always had a spiritual content, but I felt I needed further enrichment in developing the content of my work,” she said of her decision to seek ordination in the Jewish Renewal movement. “I began to study, got caught up in the study of Chassidic texts and became very enchanted with the imagery and worldview. I see the resultant shift of my professional energy to the rabbinate as another aspect of being an artist. I’m building my life as a work of art, and this is just another way of reaching people in a more direct manner.”
Her spiritual leadership at Or Shalom comes at an important time, she added, because it follows the recent death of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal. Dresner has tremendous respect for the congregation’s founding rabbis, Daniel Siegel and Hanna Tiferet Siegel, and for Laura Duhan Kaplan, the rabbi who stepped back just over a year ago. “I consider them to be visionary people and I feel like, because of its strong rabbinical leadership in the past, Or Shalom is a community that’s primed and ripe for learning – head, heart, body and spirit,” said Dresner, who took over the congregation’s spiritual leadership from Louis Sutker, rabbi during the transition period.
Dresner grew up the child of a Frankfurt-born mother with an Orthodox background, and a father from the American Midwest, from a highly assimilated family. “Ours was a hybrid family that embraced an observant culture and engaged in a lot of social activism,” she noted.
She plans to develop Or Shalom’s musical davening program and Shabbat observance, to strengthen its b’nai mitzvah program, and to present varied adult education programs “that reach out not just to enrichment of our intellects but also offer points of entry that are more heart-centred.”
This fall, there is a midrash program on women in the Bible, beginning with the character of Tamar. Another new program is on spiritual eldering. “It will begin with a life review and talk about an evaluation of our lives, looking to the end of life with the perspective of wanting to live into our very fullest selves,” she said.
Dresner is also planning a davening laboratory where congregants can learn parts of the liturgy and practise their davening skills.
“As a rabbi, I think about Judaism as a treasure chest that speaks to all our human concerns,” she reflected. “I want to come to know my congregation and the culture of Jewish Vancouver, to understand what the needs are and draw from our great tradition – halachic, agadic, liturgical and Chassidic – in answering our real, current, human questions and concerns. I think these are very deep wells of wisdom that remain alive if we keep them alive.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Change is hard. Ending one thing and beginning another can cause stress, and can even end up feeling like a poignant loss. It’s no different in the realm of synagogue life. When a long-serving rabbi leaves his or her position, the congregation may feel as though they exist in a vacuum and may need to go through a sort of grieving process before moving on.
The local community is in the unique situation of having had two rabbis of well-established congregations leave their pulpits in the course of one year. Both Beth Tikvah Congregation, Richmond’s Conservative synagogue, and the Renewal synagogue in Vancouver, Or Shalom, are in the process of adjusting to life after the leadership of rabbis who had been with them for nearly a decade.
Beth Tikvah’s Rabbi Claudio Kaiser-Blueth has retired from synagogue leadership, serving over the years as a congregational rabbi in both South and North America. Or Shalom’s Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who got smicha (rabbinical ordination) after a career as a university philosophy professor, has returned to academia; she is now interim director of Iona Pacific Inter-Religious Centre at the Vancouver School of Theology at the University of British Columbia.
The vacuum left by the departure of two such well-loved rabbis is not easy to fill. Both congregations have taken the course recommended by their movements for rabbi replacement: hire an interim rabbi to assist with the transition.
According to Rabbi Howard Siegel, Beth Tikvah’s interim rabbi, the position of interim rabbi is now a career choice, even for young rabbis starting out.
“The Reform movement has a very sophisticated course for interim rabbi training,” he told the Independent. “There is a seminar the Conservative movement provides to specialize in this area, as well.” Siegel has acted as interim rabbi for a number of congregations over the course of his career and mentioned that he could lead the seminar with the experience he has accumulated.
Prior to becoming a rabbi, Siegel earned a bachelor of science from the University of Minnesota, a bachelor of Hebrew literature from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and a master of arts in Judaica from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he also received his smicha in 1978.
Or Shalom’s interim rabbi also has unique qualifications for helping congregants deal with the transition to a new permanent spiritual leader. Rabbi Louis Sutker recently retired from practising psychology. Prior to working in private practice, he was a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria. Sutker came into his smicha later in life, training at the same time as Duhan Kaplan, and he has experience as acting spiritual leader of Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El before they found their current permanent rabbi.
“Being a psychologist is good preparation for being a rabbi, and thinking like a rabbi is good for being a psychologist,” said Sutker when asked about his decision to do formal rabbinic studies. He said he is enjoying the experience of working with congregants in a variety of ways, and towards helping them choose their next rabbi.
“Being an interim rabbi is a great experience,” he explained. “The expectations are clear. I’m here to help with the transition, to act as a place-marker, and encourage the possibility of doing things differently.”
Siegel agreed that congregations become set in their ways and need to redefine their goals when choosing a new rabbi. “The search for a new rabbi is a process. They first need to redefine their mission and purpose … they need to know their goals and find a rabbi to meet the objectives of the community.”
Unlike Sutker, who knows his term will end in June 2015, Siegel said that he’s happy to stick around for a couple of years. He feels it’s his role to slow the congregation down so they don’t hire the wrong person. Or Shalom, however, is farther along in the process; they will be soon hosting candidates at the shul.
One bonus of being an interim rabbi, said Sutker, is that he or she has the opportunity for change, as well, while helping a congregation transition.
Siegel, who hopes to retire with his wife to Austin, Tex., once Beth Tikvah fills the permanent position, sees it another way, too. He is thrilled to be in his position, not only because one of his four children lives in Richmond but also because he can be especially forthright as an interim rabbi. “If I’m not happy, I can be open and I don’t have to worry that my contract won’t be renewed!” he joked.
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer and community volunteer living in Vancouver.
Kibbutz Magen member Shunit Dekel speaks via Skype to the almost 800 people who came out to Temple Sholom to show support for Israel. Dina Wachtel, executive director, Western Region, Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, is at the podium. (photo from JFGV)
Close to 800 people gathered at Temple Sholom the night of July 27 to show solidarity between Canadians and the state of Israel.
Temple Sholom Rabbi Dan Moskovitz started the evening by leading the crowd in “Am Yisrael Chai,” and Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chair Diane Switzer read aloud a letter of support from Premier Christy Clark who wrote, “The current conflict in Israel and Gaza is of great concern to anyone who believes in democracy and human rights…. At this difficult time, let us remember the values we share with Israel: a vibrant, culturally rich, democratic nation committed to maintaining the rights of its citizens, regardless of gender or religion. Israel is an example not only to the region, but the world.”
The event featured a number of guest speakers, including Shunit Dekel, a member of Kibbutz Magen, and Farid Rohani, a businessman, social activist and a board member of the Laurier Institution. Dekel spoke via Skype from her home 4.3 kilometres outside of Gaza. Her kibbutz was forced into lockdown three times last week, because of the danger posed by the underground tunnels connecting it with Gaza. Rohani addressed the issue of antisemitism in recent social media. Through his own analysis of Twitter, he concluded that the coverage is remarkably lopsided and that “remaining quiet is a disservice not only to the values that we share as Canadians, but to order and what is right.”
The event was a collaborative effort between several local organizations: Canadian Friends of Ben Gurion University, Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, Magen David Adom, Congregation Beit Hamidrash, Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation Temple Sholom, Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Hillel BC, Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Jewish National Fund, Or Shalom, State of Israel Bonds and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region.
At the end of the night, community member Bill Levine remarked, “The tone of the evening was respectful, and stressed our desire for a peaceful resolution. It was good to see the community react in the spirit of coming together.”
Dr. Charles Kaplan and Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. (photo from Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan)
The small group meeting to pray and learn in living-rooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s couldn’t have known for certain that their community would survive to grow into a 200-family congregation, but they did know that they’d helped start something special. That much was apparent from the start.
This year, Or Shalom, the outgrowth of that small group, celebrates 36 years, but will also say goodbye to its current spiritual leader, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. She and her husband, Charles Kaplan, arrived in Vancouver in 2005, encountering a vibrant and energetic Jewish Renewal congregation, with a permanent home on East 10th at Fraser Street – and an already storied history.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel who co-founded Or Shalom with his wife and partner, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, was in 1974 the first person to receive smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Today, Siegel is director of spiritual resources for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, where he also serves as associate dean of the ordination programs, chair of the rabbinic texts department and rabbinic director of ALEPH Canada. From his Gulf Island home, Siegel described the congregation’s early evolution, and what makes Renewal’s approach resonate today.
“We consciously chose Vancouver, Hanna and I, as a place to move to because we wanted to start a congregation and we wanted to see whether the things that made us newly excited about our Judaism were things that other people would respond to, other people who were also disenchanted or disconnected, so we were looking for a place to do that.”
About a year after arriving here, the Siegels’ vision took root. “We started the second year that we lived in Richmond, in 1978. We started what was then called the Hillel Minyan, and we would meet once a month on Friday night and the following Shabbos morning,” he said.
With help from friends, the Siegels were able to put a down payment on a home on West 22nd Avenue and started leading Shabbat morning services in their living-room. The name was changed to Havurat Sim Shalom. Over the next several years, services were held in participants’ living-rooms, rented homes and on the University of British Columbia campus. The Siegels worked in partnership, Daniel taking leadership of more traditional aspects, he recalled, and Hanna Tiferet on the creative expressions. In that way, there were various access points for participants.
“The intention was that we wanted to create something that gave ownership to people very quickly,” he explained. “So, Torah discussions, which could be done in English, and pesukei d’zimrah, which could basically be some melodies bridged by reading … were open to almost anybody as soon as they wanted to try it. And then there was leading shacharit and reading Torah, which required traditional skills, which meant that people had to decide to improve their Hebrew or whatever they needed to do. I think that was always intentional…. The motto of Havurat Sim Shalom was ‘traditional, egalitarian, creative,’ that’s what we called it.”
Harley Rothstein was a member of the young community. In an essay he wrote in 2000 about the history of Or Shalom, he shared some of those experiences. “I attended the minyan for the first time in January 1980. Entering the Siegels’ house on 22nd Avenue I was instantly struck by the enthusiastic participation. I enjoyed the meditative quality of the service in which some prayers were highlighted and certain lines repeated. I noticed a number of beautiful and unfamiliar melodies. I appreciated the depth of thought and extent of participation in the Torah discussion. I was surprised by the leadership shown by the women (I learned later that I had walked into a special women’s Shabbat). The physical layout was fascinating. Almost all participants were sitting on the floor, crowded into a limited space (Hanna’s enormous loom took up about one third of the living-room). I was delighted by the potluck lunch afterwards with the kind of vegetarian and whole foods that I had eaten for years. I was impressed by the energy and spirit of this small group and immediately became a regular participant.”
“The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters.”
Later he wrote, “The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters. We were drawn together as friends and held together by inspired leadership. What made it work was that we honored the centuries-old wisdom of the Jewish tradition while at the same time honoring our own creativity and insight, as well as our commitment to deeply held political values, such as gender equality, social justice and peace.”
By the time the Siegels left for Hanover, N.H., in 1987, Or Shalom was already on firm footing and, though it was still small and mostly consisting of friends, its early success encouraged mainstream congregations to reconsider some of what they wanted to offer. “I think Or Shalom served the function of being a kind of presence that encouraged a bit of ferment in the community, which I think was good because supposedly people cared about the fact that so many young people were not connecting … and they wanted them to connect,” Siegel said. “When we actually got them to connect, I think people had mixed feelings about that success.”
The tension between tradition and creativity was the defining feature. “The most important thing in my mind about what Hanna and I were trying to set up was a community that would be experimental and traditional at the same time,” he explained. “What Zalman called ‘backwards compatibility.’ The creativity that we do is compatible with what we inherited. That still is a very important thing to me. That’s why I do halachic thinking…. In my mind, what was really innovative about Or Shalom as we envisioned it was that combination of a creativity [that] was backwards compatibility, which was loyal to the tradition … both in the sense that we respected what we inherited and we also respected that we inherited a tradition of creativity…. I would say that was the challenge that we faced when we started it, and it would be the challenge that I would hope Or Shalom would look to finding ways to face and play with over the next 36 years.”
“Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Today, Renewal communities have sprung up all over North America – and beyond, Siegel said. “We have strong connections in Brazil, we have some people in Costa Rica now, we have a small hevre in Germany and in Amsterdam and in Stockholm, less so in England. And in Israel.” This growth can be attributed to the fact that “Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Duhan Kaplan, who has now been Or Shalom’s spiritual leader for nearly a decade, warmly described her first days with Or Shalom and her plans to continue participating in the congregation and wider Jewish community. “When Charles and I first came to Vancouver, we fell utterly, totally in love with Or Shalom – and East Vancouver. None of that has changed; if anything, it has intensified. Every week day, I appreciate Vancouver’s combination of natural beauty, access to urban services and perpetually green foliage. I especially love the winter mist and fresh air. With every Shabbat gathering at Or Shalom, I get cumulatively more relaxed. I worry less about logistics, and appreciate more deeply the way that singing, studying, shmoozing and celebrating life events together creates spiritual community. Leading the service has become a spiritual high for me; I take note of who is there, try to connect with them in thought and feeling, and help uplift the group with words and music.”
Growing up in New York, Duhan Kaplan said her “childhood experiences of Judaism were all positive: a large social circle, Orthodox synagogue, Conservative Jewish day school and Hebrew-speaking summer camp.” A self-described book addict, she graduated from university with plans to be an educator.
“My own education is ongoing; I’m in love with school,” she said. “I have a BA in philosophy from Brandeis, an MEd in adult education from Cambridge College Institute of Open Education, a two-year certificate in ayurvedic yoga from the New Life Centre, a PhD in philosophy and education from Claremont Graduate University, rabbinic ordination from ALEPH … a graduate certificate in spiritual direction from Vancouver School of Theology; and I’m currently taking graduate courses in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Honestly, I’m pretty tired: for 33 years, I’ve been working full time, going to school and raising children – without nannies or extended family, but with a great marital partnership and an organized household.”
After spending several years as a philosophy professor, Duhan Kaplan said she was looking for something new. “My leadership role in our local havurah and my powerful dreams and conversations with God led me to deeper Jewish study. I found [ALEPH]’s ordination program, a hybrid distance-learning/residential program, with an emphasis on kabbalah, just right for a philosopher juggling work, family and school. In 2005, I received smicha, moved to Vancouver and started to work at Or Shalom.”
She is inspired by and proud of her accomplishments during her tenure, including the year-long Exploring Judaism course, her experiences working closely with bar and bat mitzvah students and the more “personal moments in pastoral care, where I witness people’s reserves of strength and courage. I may be exhausted a lot of the time, but I never, ever feel my work lacks meaning.”
“Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Renewal’s orientation towards Judaism and life provides a vehicle to chart a satisfying course, she noted. “Renewal is spiritual and socially liberal. Following the early Chassidic teachers, we explore the inner spiritual journey of Jewish life. We take seriously life’s existential questions and we fully expect Judaism to help us answer them. To stimulate our souls, we study, sing, make art and have fun. Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Judaism’s evolutionary character resonates with those who haven’t fit into more mainstream Jewish life. “Or Shalom is really a community of seekers. Our members are deeply committed to Judaism, but they don’t participate out of a sense of obligation,” she explained. “Each person is genuinely and self-consciously on a path of spiritual and moral growth. Of course, we are all at different places on our path. But this self-awareness really makes working relationships easier; people reflect, reach out across conflict, and grow the community.”
Though the time has come to move on from synagogue leadership, Duhan Kaplan doesn’t plan to stop being a teacher. “Charles keeps reminding me to take some down time, but my normal way of living is to be working, going to school and volunteering. Next year, I’ll be working part time, teaching three graduate courses each at the ALEPH seminary and the Vancouver School of Theology. I’ll continue to take courses in Jungian psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and I have agreed to a big volunteer project for Ohalah: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. I hope to do some cat transportation for VOKRA, Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue. Yes, I’ll still be blogging! And I hope to put the finishing touches on the animal book.
“Of all the roles I play, educator still resonates most deeply,” she continued. “When I’m teaching, I can be scholar, deep listener and interpersonal facilitator all at once. I have to be well prepared and flexible at the same time. And I get to play with different learning modalities, as we explore really deep ideas in ways that work for the learners.
“Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies.”
A Pittsburgh native who grew up in “a relatively non-observant, culturally Jewish-identified home,” Charles Kaplan said that he “began to rediscover and explore my Jewish (religious) roots in my 30s and this accelerated exponentially after Laura and I met.” A multi-instrumentalist, he and his wife have continued the tradition of making music a large part of the service. “Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies,” he said.
And though he often gets asked by others about being the rabbi’s husband, he said “Or Shalomniks are far too comfortable with egalitarianism to even think the question! Usually, it’s asked with a clever smile, ‘You know the wife of the rabbi is the rebbetzin. What do they call the husband of the rabbi?’ My standard answer is ‘Around here they call me “the hubbetzen!”’ In all seriousness, supporting the rabbi’s work as a spouse is a challenging responsibility regardless of gender.” Among other contributions, “I’ve gotten myself involved in davening, musical events, ritual committee and even building maintenance! All with ‘ivdu et Hashem b’simcha!’”
Pat Gill and David Kauffman are co-chairs of the board of directors, and spoke to the JI about reaching the double-chai milestone. Or Shalom “occupies a unique place in Vancouver Jewish life,” said Kauffman, who first discovered the congregation in 1985. “Firmly committed to inclusiveness, we make efforts to invite and engage everyone who wants to explore, or return to Jewish life and Jewish community, regardless of their background…. As a participatory shul, most Shabbat services are different each week, portions of davening and reading Torah and Haftorah by a significant percentage of the congregation.”
Gill said she heard about Or Shalom “20 years ago when my husband and I were planning to move here from Seattle. A friend said we should check it out; we’d like it. She was so right. Our first event was High Holidays, 1994, and we were hooked!”
Both agree that Duhan Kaplan has “set the bar high” for the next rabbi. “Reb Laura has brought to Or Shalom a high level of insight, analysis of text, and ability to teach,” said Gill. “As well, her davening and leyning are exceptionally musical and beautiful…. I believe Reb Laura was the first female congregational rabbi in B.C. Her knowledge, intellect and desire to work with the greater Jewish community in Vancouver have earned respect for her and, I believe, for female rabbis in general, as women become more accepted in the role of pulpit rabbi.”
Kauffman seconded that praise. “Reb Laura has brought the aspects of Jewish life that Or Shalom dreamed of in a rabbi. Teaching that draws from rabbinic tradition and modern philosophy, davening that reflects musical influences both traditional and more recent, such as those taught by Reb Shlomo Carlebach and others. For the greater Vancouver Jewish community, Reb Laura is known for her courses all around the Lower Mainland, including Talmud Torah, Vancouver School of Theology, Melton Institute and the most recent Limmud Vancouver. We expect that Reb Laura will continue to teach in her many ways in and around Vancouver even after she leaves the role of Or Shalom’s full-time spiritual leader.”
For now, the search for an interim rabbi continues. “We’ve embarked on a rabbi search mission, one based on the thorough process that gave us such excellent results 10 years ago,” said Kauffman. “We’re looking for an interim rabbi for about a year, and posting a larger search for a full-time rabbi to start in the summer of 2015. Our process will eventually bring the committee’s three top choices to Vancouver for Shabbaton-like interviews, after which a community process will help us find the best match.”
Or Shalom’s 36th anniversary celebration features entertainment by Tzimmes and Grand Trine, on March 1, 7:30 p.m., at VanDusen Botanical Garden. Tickets at 604-872-1614 or [email protected].