Yom Yerushalayim took place Sunday, commemorating the reunification of the city during the 1967 Six Day War. The liberation of the Western Wall, a moment captured so powerfully through an iconic photo of three awe-struck young soldiers, is an unforgettable part of Jewish history.
The reunification of the city was by no means merely a symbolic or administrative event. Neither was it solely a national victory. In the millennia-long history of the Jewish people’s connection to the Second Temple, there have been just two decades when Jewish prayer at the Western Wall has been interrupted – the years between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and refused freedom of religious observance at Judaism’s holiest site.
Put mildly, the reunification of the city and its spiritual implications, as well as its political ones, represent a massive historical event. So, it is hardly surprising that emotions run high on the subject. Now, at a time when political extremism is sadly on the rise in so many places in the world, including in Israel, it is likewise hardly surprising that Yom Yerushalayim would be a lightning rod for the worst elements in Israeli society.
On Monday, top Israeli leaders condemned some of the words and deeds of a minority of participants in Sunday’s Yom Yerushalayim parade. Some of the men who marched through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter wore T-shirts with phrases like “Rabbi Kahane was right” and images of a machine gun emerging from a Star of David. Some marchers chanted calls for death to Arabs and slapped racist stickers on the shutters of Muslim storefronts that had wisely closed for the afternoon. Young men shouted “Whores” at a group of Arab women watching the passing spectacle.
Yom Yerushalayim is a day for celebration. While imperfect, Israel ensures freedom of worship at holy sites under its jurisdiction, something occupying Arab forces (that is, Jordan) refused to do. Most of the celebrants Sunday did not exhibit xenophobia and hatred.
Still, the best are tainted by the worst. In this space several weeks ago, in relation to the appearance of Nazi flags and other atrocities at the “truckers” protest in Ottawa, we said: “It is no less abhorrent to march alongside people carrying a swastika flag than it is to carry a swastika flag.”
To march alongside evil is to condone it.
To their credit, top Israeli leaders responded strongly, albeit a day after the abhorrent actions took place. Benny Gantz, the defence minister, said it is time to declare several of the groups involved in the mayhem as terrorist groups. Among them are extremist groups like La Familia and Lehava.
Israelis – and Jews – are very often held to a higher standard than other nations. This is a phenomenon with deep, discriminatory roots. Put simply, it may be a natural, though cynical, human reaction to adherents of the original form of ethical monotheism, i.e. if Jews cannot exemplify superhuman virtue, the justification presumably goes, why should the rest of humanity feel compelled to behave any better?
Conversely, though, the fact that critics (or enemies) of the Jewish people are hypocrites should not affect Jews’ own striving for ethical conduct. The bad behaviour of others is not an excuse for bad behaviour by anyone. Israel as a state – and Jews as a people – must roundly condemn the perpetrators of xenophobia and violence last Sunday.
And Gantz is right. It’s time to call out these perpetrators for what they are.
We experienced a remarkably sunny and beautiful spring day this week. It was an unusual day as our twins had a “well-child” physical at the pediatrician’s, something we hadn’t done in several years because of the pandemic. We took the morning off school and work. The appointment was remarkably smooth and quick. There was a park with swings near the medical building, deemed perfect by the kids. The bakery was open on the way home so we got a piece of rich chocolate cake and croissants for a snack.
As I drove my kids to school after lunch, so they could catch the second half of the school day, we all remarked on the amazing weather. There was a tendency then in our discussion to wish away the intense flooding, mud and big snowstorms we’d had in Winnipeg. Flooding and snow have been a huge problem in Manitoba this year, too much of a good thing after three years of drought. We agreed that there was nothing wrong with a good snowstorm, but that the muck we’d lately endured was a drag.
I tried to stop the negative thoughts popping up and ask my kids to please help me just cherish the sunny, warm, new bright green grass moment we’d had. We arrived at school. I walked them across a busy intersection, and drove home.
In the past, our pediatrician trips sometimes might take three hours. It was a combination of complicated medical issues, a wait to be seen, and negotiating the hospital corridors, tests and crowded, expensive parking lots. We used to joke that after returning home with the twins after vaccinations, they got baby Tylenol and we deserved a stiff drink. If you’ve had a history of health challenges, even a “regular” appointment can be stressful and I was exhausted after our relatively smooth experience that morning.
I’ve learned from reading a page of Talmud a day and doing Daf Yomi that my tendency to focus on the details and worry about every eventuality is nothing new. It’s not at all special. The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud explored every detail when they figured out what the laws and issues could be around Jewish life, law and observance. When the text seemed brief, commentators filled in the blanks. We have thousands of years of recorded details and “what ifs” in our tradition. Thinking about every detail and overthinking every eventuality is a Jewish tradition! It’s no wonder that we may have anxiety over getting everything right and wondering about how things will go in advance – it’s literally part of our oral Torah and identity.
Sometimes these details can mean life and death. While it seems dark to drag this thought into such beautiful spring weather, I was struck by how many generations of anti-Jewish hatred have forced us to be on our guard. Many Jewish families carry two passports or have escape plans ready because they remember that their families have had to do it before: to escape the Holocaust, the Farhud, pogroms, banishments, the Inquisition, and beyond. Heck, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews were the definition of the original diaspora, as many were sold into slavery throughout the Roman Empire. Historically, we have good reason to be on edge.
Back at home, after the medical appointment, I was tasked with organizing the first birthday party for our twins in years. Counting up RSVPs resulted again in focusing on the details while reminding myself of the huge gains we’d made. Recovering from what was a traumatic birth experience, with one twin in neo-natal intensive care, is always tough for me to celebrate each year. Despite the big fuss some people make over birthdays, it can be a rotten series of flashbacks for me to manage. I remember the obstetrician’s surprise when he asked how I saw the outcome of my twin pregnancy, which was a struggle. I explained that my goal was to live through it, as that was what Jewish law valued most, the life of the mother. If I came out with one or two healthy infants at the end, well, that would truly be an amazing miracle.
Now, I have two healthy and active almost-11-year-olds. Things change and we must focus on the joyful moment, the present, and enjoy the sunny days we’ve got.
All of these mundane family events happened on May 24, when many elementary school children were gunned down with their teachers in Uvalde, Tex. While my kids spent their afternoon at school in Winnipeg, the news spread that there had been another mass shooting in the United States. While the details aren’t all clear yet, the pattern is too familiar. Many families are being torn apart by horrible, unnecessary loss. Still others will face endless numbers of very difficult medical appointments ahead, for which I feel so much empathy and pain. Everyone should be able to go to school, the grocery store or their place of worship in safety. Every life taken by this awful violence is too many.
Our tradition tells us to cherish every single life, to do everything possible to save a person. Every moment and detail counts when something so precious is at stake. Still, we also have to find ways to pause and savour the details that make meaning. We need to find the moments that give us joy. We’ve got blessings to say, like the all-purpose Shehecheyanu, to embrace those grateful, new experiences and we’ve got specific ones for seeing rainbows, eating delicious snacks, and more. It’s a crucial part of our Jewish identities to use ritual tools to balance joyous, celebratory details in the moment with the real and dark feelings that come from tragedy.
May we all have chances this summer to celebrate, embrace the sunshine, and grow things – and pleasure. May we gather only for good moments.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
The new Beth Israel building welcomes people from 28th Avenue, while the original building (below) had its entrance on Oak Street. (photos from Beth Israel)
Congregation Beth Israel celebrates its 90th anniversary with a gala on June 12. It will feature “a walk down memory lane through each of the past nine decades,” as well as music, cocktails, dinner and other activities.
While the congregation’s history began in the 1920s, it wasn’t formally established until 1932. In a feature article in The Scribe (2008), community historian Cyril Leonoff, z”l, quotes an Oct. 9, 1931, editorial in the Jewish Western Bulletin, the predecessor of the Jewish Independent. A meeting had been held at the Jewish Community Centre, which was at Oak Street and 11th Avenue in those years, to discuss the possibility of a new congregation. The editorial commented:
“There can be no doubt in the minds of anyone that there is a distinct need for a Conservative or semi-Reform congregation in Vancouver. There are hundreds of Jews and Jewesses and their children who are so far removed by environment and training from the strictly Orthodox service that they have no inclination or desire to attend the synagogue now in existence here. The absence of [such a] synagogue carrying the services at least partly in English, has created a void in the religious life of many of our Jewish people…. The consensus of opinion in the community is … that a new congregation will be welcomed.”
The Jewish Community Centre was considered the best location initially, as the synagogue’s founding was during the Great Depression. Leonoff again cites that Oct. 9, 1931, editorial: “That the Community Centre, situated, as it is, convenient to all residential districts, would be the ideal place in which to set up the new congregation until such time as there are sufficient funds available for the erection of a separate building.”
It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that the land along Oak Street between 27th and 28th avenues – where the synagogue still stands – was bought. As Beth Israel’s website notes, “by the late 1940s, both a rabbi (David Kogan) and a building site – at 27th and Oak – became available and, in 1949, Beth Israel’s synagogue was dedicated.”
The congregation grew over the years and, for three of those first several decades, the synagogue was led by Rabbi Wilfred and Rebbetzin Phyllis Solomon, Cantor Murray Nixon, z”l, and Ba’al Tefillah, Torah reader and teacher David Rubin z”l.
Programs increased, as did the participation of women, beyond a bat mitzvah ceremony. According to the BI website, “In the late 1980s, it became clear that women, now well-educated in Jewish ritual and study, were ready to move up to the bimah and take their place as full participants in synagogue ritual. By 1989, women were called to the Torah for their own aliyot, were counted in the minyan and acted as sh’lichat tzibbur (prayer leader). Beth Israel was the first major Canadian Conservative congregation to become fully egalitarian.”
The synagogue’s current senior spiritual leader, Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, and his wife Lissa Weinberger came to Beth Israel in 2006 via Ohev Shalom Synagogue in Marlboro, N.J. He told the Independent at the time: “We are very excited about moving to Vancouver, taking on an exciting challenge and being part of this community. I didn’t really know much about Beth Israel when we visited Vancouver, but after doing some research, I realized what a wonderful synagogue with a rich history it was.”
“It has been a pleasure working with Beth Israel as its rabbi for almost 17 years,” Infeld told the JI last week. “I remember the first day I walked into the synagogue. The congregants were wonderful. They were kind and welcoming. But the building was dated and literally falling apart. Everyone knew that we needed a new space for our spiritual home. After a few years, we were able to build an incredible and beautiful new synagogue that will last us for generations. We built a synagogue building for a new millennium…. Beth Israel has always been at the heart of the Vancouver’s Jewish community. I am proud to be part of that. I am sure that the spirit of Beth Israel will be strong for at least another 90 years. I look forward to helping to nurture it for many years to come.”
Construction on the current building began in 2012 and it was dedicated in September two years later. Along with Infeld, Beth Israel is currently led by Rabbi Adam Stein, Ba’alat Tefillah Debby Fenson and youth director Rabbi David Bluman.
“According to Mishna Pirkei Avot,” said Infeld, “a person is strong at the age of 80 and bent over at the age of 90. Beth Israel certainly has shown that 90 is the new 80. We are stronger than we have ever been. We are a synagogue built on the shoulders of giants. Many great women and men have dedicated their time, sweat and tears into building Beth Israel to be the synagogue that we are today. We greatly appreciate that. We could not be where we are today if it were not for them. And we greatly appreciate all of the people who continue to support us so that we can continue to grow and serve the Vancouver Jewish community. Ninety years is a big milestone in the life of synagogue. We really look forward to celebrating our 100th anniversary in 10 years.”
The 90th anniversary gala chair is Dale Porte and committee members are Howard Blank, Alexis Doctor, Jean Gerber, Myrna Koffman, Debby Koffman, Alan Kwinter, Debbie Setton, Leatt Vinegar and David Woogman. To purchase tickets to the June 12 celebration, call the synagogue office at 604-731-4161 or visit bethisrael.ca.
March 18, 2022, marked the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah ceremony in the United States.
Judith Kaplan, daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, became the first woman to publicly celebrate the traditional Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Becoming a bat mitzvah, or “daughter of the commandments,” signifies that a young woman has attained legal adulthood under Jewish law.
A bat mitzvah is based on the centuries-old ritual of bar mitzvah, or “son of the commandments,” the ceremony for 13-year-old boys. Today, it typically involves months or years of study, chanting Torah in front of the congregation and giving a reflection on the week’s Torah reading.
Since that day in 1922, coming-of-age ceremonies for Jewish girls have gradually become more popular, especially in more liberal branches of Judaism.
As someone who studies how legal and social changes intersect to advance the rights of women in religious communities, I see bat mitzvah as having a transformative impact on the rights of women in Jewish life, one that continues to reverberate in important ways today.
For many years, the significance of becoming a bat or bar mitzvah was very different. For boys, it marked the moment when they took on all the privileges accorded to adult men in the tradition, including the right to be counted in a minyan, the minimum number of people required for community prayers; to be honoured by being called up to give blessings over the Torah reading; and to read from the Torah itself. For girls, meanwhile, it often marked a celebration of maturity, but did not necessarily bring along the rights to full and equal participation in synagogue rituals.
It is only in recent decades that the rituals enacted and the rights bestowed for boys and girls have become substantially equivalent, and only in more liberal movements.
Indeed, because of controversies over whether women should be permitted to read aloud from the Torah, Judith Kaplan was not given the honour of being called up to read from a Torah scroll – part of the ordinary routine for bar mitzvah boys. Rather, she spoke after the service had formally concluded, reciting prayers and reading selections from the biblical passages out of a book.
Even today, bat mitzvah girls in some communities read passages from sacred texts after services on Friday night or Saturday morning, instead of during the standard Saturday morning service. But the bat mitzvah ritual, in varying forms, has become widespread in all movements within Judaism. It is widely practised in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist – a branch of progressive Judaism later founded by Kaplan’s father – communities and is increasingly popular in the Orthodox world.
The introduction of bat mitzvah was a steppingstone to expanding roles for women in every part of the Jewish world. In the Conservative movement, for example, women’s inclusion in bat mitzvah created tensions with their exclusion from other aspects of ritual life and leadership. Girls and women who were educated alongside boys and celebrated their bat mitzvah in similar ways later found themselves excluded from adult roles.
Jewish studies scholar Anne Lapidus Lerner summed it up this way: “The bar mitzvah ceremony marks a young man’s entrance into adult Jewish responsibility and privilege – the first, it is hoped, of many such occasions. But a bat mitzvah would mark a young woman’s exit from participation. It would be the only time she was permitted to go up to read the Haftarah,” selections from the biblical books of the prophets, read after the Torah portion each Sabbath.
The push to resolve this inconsistency led to an expansion of women’s roles within Conservative Judaism, including the ordination of women as rabbis.
Orthodox women continue to push boundaries around bat mitzvah. Many Orthodox synagogues have special programs devoted to girls coming of age and host celebrations marked by lighting Sabbath candles and sharing their learning about sacred texts in a speech to the community. Some Orthodox communities host women-only prayer groups where girls read from the Torah, while families in other communities host ceremonies in their homes.
As the ritual of bat mitzvah became more widely accepted, adult women who had been denied opportunities to study for it as children have sought out bat mitzvah as well. They may choose adult bat mitzvah because they seek to become more involved in ritual leadership in their synagogue community, or to enhance their skills so that they can guide their children when it becomes time for them to begin training for their own bar or bat mitzvah. Becoming an adult bat mitzvah may also provide a public forum to mark important transformations in one’s Jewish identity.
Project Kesher, an American nongovernmental organization that fosters Jewish women’s leadership in the former Soviet Union, supports programs for adult bat mitzvah. These initiatives allow women who were forbidden to receive a Jewish education by antisemitic state policies to reclaim their identities.
Sometimes, the ritual of adult bat mitzvah celebrates a more personal journey. In a recent episode of And Just Like That, the sequel to Sex and the City, the character Charlotte faces a crisis when her child does not want to participate in their Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Charlotte saves the day by using the occasion to have her own bat mitzvah, to celebrate her own Jewish identity as a “Jew by choice,” after converting to Judaism years ago.
The TV episode also highlights another emerging innovation around the ritual of bat mitzvah: the adoption of more gender-neutral terms “b’nai mitzvah” or “b-mitzvah.” In many contexts, the rituals of bar and bat mitzvah have become identical, but the names of the ritual are still sexually differentiated: “bar mitzvah” for boys and “bat mitzvah” for girls. Some congregations, like Charlotte’s, have moved to using the term “b’nai” – children of the commandments (though b’nai literally means “sons,” it is also used to describe gender-mixed groups) – or simply “b-mitzvah” as a term that embraces all children, including those who identify as non-binary. (The Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture uses the term p’nei [faces of] mitzvah.)
So, when North American Jews celebrate the 100th anniversary of bat mitzvah, they not only celebrate a momentous occasion in the life of one young girl, but an innovation that has paved the way for wider inclusion of generations of women, children and those previously excluded from a central ritual of Jewish life.
Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and director of the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, which explores the tension between women’s equality claims and religious laws. Her research focuses on gender and multiculturalism in family law and on the intersection between secular and religious law. She is a co-founder of the Boston Agunah Task Force, devoted to research, education and advocacy for women under Jewish family law. This article is republished from The Conversation, and the original can be found at brandeis.edu/jewish-experience.
The construction site of the mausoleum for Bahá’í leader ‘Abdu’l Bahá, east of Haifa Bay, Israel. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Construction of Vancouver-based architect Hossein Amanat’s mausoleum for Bahá’í leader ‘Abdu’l Bahá (1844-1921) was set back when a fire on April 8 caused significant damage to the main building at the holy site just east of Haifa Bay, Israel.
The Iranian-Canadian architect’s design features a sloping geometric meditation garden rising in a sunburst pattern to form a dome covering the tomb. Amanat’s neoclassical Persian structure extends the Ridván Garden, which was a favourite oasis where ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s father, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) – the founder of the Bahá’í faith – retreated after he was released from Acre Prison in 1877. The modest house in which he stayed during his visits there has been restored. After his father’s death, the Iran-born ‘Abdu’l Bahá’ popularized the new religion outside the Middle East in a series of visits to Montreal, and cities in the United States and Europe.
Amanat, 80, fled his native Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and settled in Canada. He is best known for his Shahyad Freedom Tower in central Tehran, which was dedicated in 1972 to honour the Pahlavi dynasty. Following Iran’s revolution, the monumental 45-metre-high archway was renamed the Azadi Tower, after the square in which it stands.
Amanat also designed a series of Bahá’í administrative buildings on Mount Carmel, including the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts, and the Centre for the International Counselors.
The April 8 blaze destroyed “several months of work” on the 2,900-square-metre circular platform and piazza, the Universal House of Justice (the governing council of the Bahá’í faith) said in an April 14 statement. Clouds of smoke billowed from the mausoleum, prompting firefighters to evacuate the nearby suburbs of Giv’at Hatmarim and Afgad.
The fire broke out when windblown sparks from welding on the dome ignited scaffolding and plastic forms being used to mold poured concrete, Ynet reported. The completed concrete walls and structures were undamaged, and the 250 million shekel ($77 million US) project – announced in 2019 – is insured, said the Universal House of Justice. The shrine and meditation garden are being paid for by donations from Bahá’í faith’s five million members around the world.
Bahá’í media representative Sama Sabet said construction “will resume soon.” She didn’t estimate the cost of the damage.
For the last century, ‘Abdu’l Bahá has been temporarily entombed in Haifa’s shrine of Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad Shírází (1819-1850), popularly known as the Báb (“Gate” in Arabic). Shírází was executed in Tabriz for apostasy after claiming to be the deputy of the promised Twelver Mahdi, or al-Qa’im. According to legend, the firing squad’s initial barrage of bullets failed to hit him, and a second team of shooters was brought in. As a Shiite heretic, his body was fed to dogs. It was rescued and hidden by believers.
In 1908, all Ottoman political and religious prisoners were freed by the Young Turk revolution. Newly released, ‘Abdu’l Bahá smuggled the Báb’s remains to Ottoman Palestine and built his iconic shrine midway up Mount Carmel, near where he himself was living. Its dome, visible from the Haifa harbour along the axis of the German Colony, was gilded in 1953.
The mausoleum and garden south of the Tel Akko archeological mound will be one of seven Bahá’í holy sites, ornamental meditation gardens and administrative complexes in a western Galilee pilgrimage route stretching from Mazra’a near Nahariya south through Acre (Akko in Hebrew and Akka in Arabic) to Mount Carmel in Haifa. The serene mausoleums of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh – together with their adjoining gardens, characterized by their sacred geometry and immaculate landscaping – were registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2008.
The Bahá’í faith believes in progressive revelation – that God has revealed himself in a series of manifestations, including Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and, most recently, Bahá’u’lláh.
In 1863, Bahá’u’lláh fulfilled the Báb’s prophecies by proclaiming the Bahá’í faith. The new creed eventually evolved into a global religion. Exiled from Persia to Ottoman Baghdad and then the imperial capital Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 1868, Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned in Acre’s Turkish citadel in remote Palestine. For Israelis, the notorious jail and its gallows are best known for the prison breakout on May 4, 1947, near the end of the British Mandate of Palestine, in which gunmen from the Irgun underground freed 27 incarcerated freedom fighters.
After being released from Acre Prison, Bahá’u’lláh moved six kilometres north to Mazra’a, also called Mazra’ih. Two years later, he settled in the Mansion of Bahjí (meaning “delight”) in Acre. That palatial home was built in 1821 by ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá, then the Ottoman governor of Acre. Bahá’u’lláh remained there until his death in 1892.
In addition to the mausoleums of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í pilgrimage sites in Haifa and the western Galilee on UNESCO’s World Heritage List include the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh and adjoining Mansion of Bahjí and Bahjí Gardens in Acre; the Shrine of the Báb; the 19 terraces of the Bahá’í Gardens and Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa; and the House of ‘Abbud in the Old City of Acre, where the Bahá’u’lláh spent time after being released from prison.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.
Bohras in prayer at the marble open-air mosque located on the grounds of Barzilai Medical Centre. (photo from Ron Lobel)
The Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon, Israel, is known for treating victims of border skirmishes with Gaza. It is also the former home of a tomb where a Shi’a Muslim sect known as Dawoodi Bohras (or Bohras) still make pilgrimages. Bohras believe that the head of Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the founder of Islam, Prophet Mohammed, was buried here in 680 AD, following his death in battle.
While many Shi’as believe that Husayn’s complete body was buried at Karbala, Iraq, others, like the Bohras, claim that his head was hidden in Ashkelon and then taken away centuries later to Egypt to prevent desecration by European Crusaders. Despite that its final resting place might be in Egypt, the location in Ashkelon continues to attract pilgrims.
Dawoodi Bohras number around one million adherents worldwide – though some estimates are as high as five million – and trace their ancestry to Egypt during the Fatimid Caliphate. They eventually migrated to India via Yemen after the Caliphate ended in 1171 AD. Today, Bohras live mostly in Western India, with smaller communities in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya and elsewhere.
Dr. Ron Lobel, former deputy director of the medical centre, has met with various pilgrims and described them as “very decent people who visit quietly and respectfully.” He continued, “You hardly notice when they’re here.”
Lobel said, wherever Bohras hail from, they converse in Lisan U Dawat, which is similar to Gujarati, with Arabic and Farsi influences, reflecting their Middle Eastern roots. Unlike the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, there is no specific time prescribed to visit Ashkelon. Therefore, pilgrims visit whenever they are able to do so.
Bohras are of the Ismaili Shi’a subdivision and have a centralized leadership, currently headed by the 53rd da’i al-mutlaq: Mufaddal Saifudeen. The Bohras’ leadership lineage can be traced directly to Prophet Mohammed. The Druze, who today live in Israel and the Levant, split off from Ismaili Shi’as in 1017 AD and now identify as a different religion altogether.
The pilgrimage site in Israel has had structures atop that were constantly demolished and rebuilt throughout history. The last standing one was a mosque named Mashhad al-Husayn, which was razed in 1950 by Moshe Dayan despite protests by Shmuel Yeivin, then director of the Department of Antiquities. The Barzilai Medical Centre was opened in 1961, and they contend that they “had no clue that the hill within the premises was a sacred site.”
Although pilgrims had visited prior to 1948, the first known group to visit after Israeli independence came in 1980, shortly after relations between Israel and Egypt were normalized. According to Aliasgher Zakir from Kenya, these pilgrims were Indian and Kenyan Bohras who had recently moved to Egypt for business purposes. Most pilgrims also visit Jerusalem, for its religious and historical significance.
In 2000, the 52nd dai, Mohammed Burhanuddin (the father of Da’i Al-mutlaq Mufaddal Saifudeen), visited during an excavation that uncovered remnants of historic structures barely a metre below the ground. Subsequently, a marble platform was installed, which now serves as an open-air mosque for pilgrims.
“Just like us Jews, they are very stubborn about keeping their old traditions, language and customs alive,” Lobel said with a chuckle. He added that, while Muslims from other sects have also visited, only Dawoodi Bohras show consistency in making pilgrimage as an organized community.
Avi Kumaris an historian and freelance writer. He has lived in six countries and speaks 10 languages. His work has been published in many countries, from his native Sri Lanka to Israel and Ireland, and he has written on a variety of topics, including history, wildlife and linguistics.
Israel’s Gilat Rapaport and the InJoy Band headline this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration on May 4 at the Vogue Theatre. (photo from injoyprod.com)
This year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration on May 4 at the Vogue Theatre, headlined by Israel’s Gilat Rapaport and the InJoy Band, marks 20 years since the first large-scale community-wide event to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day was organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
“Growing up in Vancouver, the community had occasional large Yom Ha’atzmaut events with Israeli performers and I have wonderful memories of attending them,” said Stephen Gaerber, who co-chaired that first major gathering. “I was incredibly impressed by a large event held to celebrate Israel’s 50th in 1998 at the Orpheum [which was chaired by Judy Mandleman]. It was 2001, the Second Intifada was raging, Camp David had resulted in failure and Israel was, as usual, being disparaged in the press. My friend, Rick Schreiber, had become the chair of the Federation’s Israel department, and I told him that I thought the community should be having large-scale events every year to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut and all that is wonderful about Israel. His response was, ‘OK, you chair it.’ That’s how I became chair for the 2002 Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, first co-chairing with my wife, Shari, and then, starting in 2003, with my brother Allen.”
Of course, local groups celebrated Israel’s birthday in various ways prior to 2002, notably the now-defunct Canadian Zionist Federation (CZF). Bernard Pinsky was CZF chair in the late 1980s.
“In the 1980s,” said Pinsky, “CZF brought in big names from Israel for a Yom Ha’atzmaut concert, including top artists like Nomi Shemer, Chava Alberstein, and Haparvarim. The concert was held at the JCC and wasn’t always right on Yom Ha’atzmaut, it was when the artists were available. The venue meant that we could only sell about 400 tickets, and CZF did a lot of fundraising to cover costs.”
Geoffrey Druker, who still leads the community’s annual Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) ceremony, said he was recruited by Pinsky to become involved in CZF and it was from Pinsky that Druker took over the role of local CZF chair in the early 1990s.
“We ran most Israel-related community programs,” said Druker, including Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom Hazikaron, Walk with Israel (which took place on Jerusalem Day), the student public-speaking contest and other programs. When CZF closed nationally, Druker said he gathered past local leaders of the group to decide “whether to become an independent local organization or join Federation.”
The choice was to join the Israel desk at Federation, and Druker continued to chair many of the events, with most of the Yom Ha’atzmaut activities being held at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, he said.
“Federation didn’t have the funds for a large Yom Ha’atzmaut, and we couldn’t risk having a large celebration … while keeping the event tickets affordable to all,” said Druker. “So we ran smaller celebrations and with less-known artists.”
Affordability remained key when Federation, led by a committee put together by Stephen and Shari Gaerber, took over the event.
“Our goal wasn’t to just make it a concert, but a real community celebration,” said Stephen Gaerber. “We kept ticket prices very low so that everyone could afford to attend – and if they couldn’t afford even that, we made free tickets available through JFS [Jewish Family Services]. We invited all Jewish organizations in the city to add their names as Community Partners, and dozens did. We had children from Hebrew Academy, Talmud Torah and RJDS performing in addition to Israeli singer Danny Maseng.
“We were given no budget (other than staff time) for the event from the Federation and I didn’t want one. I was determined that the Federation not take anything away from what they were allocating to local community agencies in order to make this event happen. We believed that the community would support the event and we were right. We raised the funds from generous donors, rented the Chan Centre and signed a contract with the performer. We put tickets on sale and we sold out all 1,200 seats very quickly. The event itself is a bit of a blur, but my most vivid memory is the joy people expressed to us at its conclusion.”
With that success behind them, the goal was to involve even more individuals and organizations in the celebrations.
“For years,” said Gaerber, “Jonathan and Heather Berkowitz wrote a piece for young community members to perform and we were fortunate to have Wendy Bross Stuart direct them. We later added the JCC’s children’s Israeli dance troupes to the program, sometimes joined with dancers from our partnership region in the Upper Galilee.
“Pam Wolfman took over chairing the event in 2014 and continued to tweak things to make sure everything is new and fresh and even better each year, including involving the entire community in the community song,” he said. “What hasn’t changed is the support from the community. To this day, other than staff time, the Federation has not had to give any funding at all towards putting on the event. The group of donors has grown over the years and that allows the event to continue to stay true to our initial vision – tickets are still affordable and many are available at no cost to those who need them – and the events continue to sell out.”
The annual celebration brings Israeli performers – from veteran musicians to up-and-coming singers and musical groups – to Vancouver on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“For many,” said Gaerber, “it was their first time performing outside of Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, as they hesitate to leave the country for this important day. Without exception, they have all expressed how incredibly meaningful it was for them to experience the warmth of our community and its love for Israel. A number of our performers who would not have otherwise considered coming to Vancouver for Yom Ha’atzmaut have only done so because they have heard from other performers about their experience and our Jewish community.
“Despite our Jewish community’s relatively small size,” he said, “we have been told by Israeli diplomats that Vancouver’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, always occurring actually on erev Yom Ha’atzmaut, is one of the largest celebrations of its kind taking place on that day outside of Israel.”
Joan Beckow, left, Wendy Bross Stuart, centre, and Jessica Stuart, during a visit a few years ago. (photo from Jessica Stuart)
Acknowledging that the music world is “a fickle one in which skill, talent and ingenuity do not necessarily result in widespread acknowledgement or musical reach,” Jessica Stuart said Joan Beckow’s “music deserves to be heard. It deserves to be performed and played for many generations to come, and it is more than good enough to stand next to the work of Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim.”
Stuart and her mother, Wendy Bross Stuart – accomplished musicians in their own right – are co-directors of the Joan Beckow Project. Stuart is also project manager and producer of the project. Arts administrator Rosie Callaghan handles many of the behind-the-scenes details.
Beckow passed away on Jan. 13, 2021, at age 88. She was a close family friend of the Stuarts, and she and Bross Stuart collaborated professionally for more than 40 years. Jessica Stuart grew up surrounded by Beckow’s music, both because her mother and Beckow had worked together and because Stuart has performed a large body of Beckow’s work. The seeds of the Joan Beckow Project were planted in 2015, when Stuart discovered that none of Beckow’s music was available online and almost none of her choral or musical theatre music had ever been professionally recorded or transcribed. Beckow gave Stuart her blessing for the project.
Beckow started her career with a music degree from the University of California at Los Angeles. At UCLA, she composed six original musicals for the theatre department, where she collaborated with her friend, Carol Burnett. Beckow was resident composer and music director for the Stumptown Players, out of San Francisco, and, when she graduated, she started composing for Holiday Theatre L.A.
Eventually, Beckow found her way to Vancouver, where she worked with many theatres as a composer and music director, including the Playhouse, Carousel and Belfry theatres, as well as with the Shaw Festival. With Bross Stuart, she composed several musicals and, in 2002, It’s All in the Song, a summary of Beckow’s work, premièred at the Chutzpah! Festival.
Beckow’s resumé also includes a degree in music therapy from Capilano College, where she was faculty for 10 years. And, over a 25-year period, she wrote original material for the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! theatre program for youth.
“Part of the reason I think it’s so important to record Joan’s work for the first time, is that, although her pieces have a natural beauty and intuitive sound, on paper (literally, the musical scores), her pieces look very complicated,” Stuart told the Independent. “Many of her songs cycle through multiple musical keys and several time signatures in one piece and I strongly believe that, if we want choral directors, vocalists and instrumentalists to choose this music to perform, they need the chance to listen and fall in love with it first.”
Beckow wrote hundreds of compositions, and Stuart and her mother started talking about song selection long before the project officially started.
“How does one sum up a composer’s career in one album? Well, we decided that we couldn’t, so we made it a double disc,” said Stuart. “One disc will focus on Joan’s musical theatre material, and the other will focus on her classical and sacred music, including many pieces set to text from the Jewish liturgy. There will be 22 pieces in total.”
Also part of the project is a 25-minute documentary, directed by Stuart’s father, Ron Stuart, in collaboration with editor Carlos Coronado.
“We applied to the Canada Council for the Arts, to the Concept to Realization program, in which we were able to define the scope of our project activities to include more than just an album recording,” said Jessica Stuart. “We wanted to tell the story of Joan’s life, culminating in the present-day recording of her debut album, albeit posthumous.”
In addition to the Canada Council support, the project has received support from the Ontario Arts Council and from Beckow’s son, David Beckow. But such undertakings are expensive. This one involves 30 musicians, and recording sessions in both Vancouver, where Bross Stuart lives, and Toronto, where Stuart is based.
“Even with the arts councils’ generous contributions, this massive undertaking still requires more financial support and, with some of this music having waited 70 years to be recorded for the first time, cutting corners is not an option we’re willing to consider,” writes Stuart on the Indiegogo fundraiser page.
As part of the project, Beckow’s songs have been “lush[ed] out.”
“Joan wrote most of her pieces for piano and voices, and the piano accompaniment always felt very orchestral, so adding strings, woodwinds and percussion felt completely natural and somehow brought even more emotional levity to the pieces,” explained Stuart. “The arrangements were done by Wendy and I, separately, but then requiring approval from each other before signing off. We agreed that these arrangements needed to keep a focus on Joan’s actual writing, instead of letting our imaginations run too wild, and we stuck to that. The results are quite wonderful!”
As for the vocal contributors to the project, Stuart said, “The main consideration here was about getting the right voices for the right pieces. Wendy hired the personnel involved in the musical theatre portion of the album, which took place in Vancouver at Bryan Adam’s recording studio, the Warehouse.
“When I first conceived of this project,” she said, “I recognized that Joan’s classical and sacred music somehow had a kinship with jazz in terms of harmony, so I was eager to get the material into the hands of some of my favourite jazz musicians and improvisers based in Toronto. When choosing the personnel in Toronto, I went for both classical and jazz musicians, and even arranged a few pieces with sections earmarked for improvised solos. As suspected, not only did the music lend itself exceptionally well to improvisation, but Joan’s music had the Toronto jazz scene completely enamoured, and kind of in a tizzy, which was a real pleasure to watch.”
One of Stuart’s longtime favourite Beckow pieces is “Dwelling Places.”
“Joan once told me that she never wanted a harmony to simply exist as an ornament to a melody – that a harmony should be able to stand alone even if the melody were removed,” explained Stuart. “That, to me, is a profound idea, and I’ve always admired the myriad moving lines Joan was able to work into one piece concurrently within the accompaniment and vocal parts of her work. These lines lead you emotionally from one place to another, seamlessly, and all of sudden you have goosebumps and don’t even know why.
“Also, whether Joan was setting her own lyrics, or else poetry by Dorothy Parker, or else Jewish liturgical text, like ‘Dwelling Places,’ to music, she had an incredible gift for being able to mirror spoken cadence and intonation within her melodies.”
Stuart continued, “A new favourite of mine, though, discovered through the process of working on the Joan Beckow Legacy Project, is what I refer to as her ‘instant Christmas classic,’ called ‘A Christmas Wish.’ This is a song that stands up next to ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire (The Christmas Song),’ and you can’t help but to imagine Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra’s voice all over it. And I’m sure we’re all aware of the long-standing tradition of Jewish songwriters creating the best Christmas music, so it’s time we added a female composer’s take to the mix!”
For anyone wanting to know more about the Joan Beckow Legacy Project, there are regular posts on Facebook and Instagram. To contribute to the project via Indiegogo and watch a short video about it, visit igg.me/at/joanbeckowlegacy. There is a six-level range of incentives for donors, from a personal social media shoutout for a $25 gift, to a personal thank you in the liner notes of the album – and all the goodies of the prior levels – for a $1,000 contribution.
Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim has been at its Kensington Avenue home for 100 years. (photo by Lainie Berger / unsplash.com)
Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim is 176 years old – and it has been in its current building for 100 years now. Among those who have attended the shul over its long history are Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (who was chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine), former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, legendary musician Leonard Cohen and various members of the Bronfman family. Recently, the historic congregation made history, when it hired Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, the first Orthodox woman in Canada to become ordained.
“It remains a traditional synagogue that follows traditional Jewish law,” Finegold told the Independent. “Me being the first female member of the clergy may have been significant, but it only did so in complete consistency with halachah (Jewish law).”
Finegold was among the first group of female students to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, which is located in the Bronx, N.Y., in 2013. She has chosen as her title the term rabba, although female rabbis exist in other streams of Judaism.
“I walk up to the bimah [pulpit] like my male colleagues, but I go back and sit in the female section, because our building is 100 years old and the bimah resides in the central/men’s part of the sanctuary,” she said. “That is just what the architecture allows.”
Shaar Hashomayim split off from Congregation Shearith Israel (also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal) in 1846. Ashkenazi members – English, German and Polish Jews – wanted to practise rituals and observances more akin to what they were familiar with, rather than what was traditional for the Sephardim. In September 1922, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim moved to 450 Kensington Ave. in Westmount, where it resides to this day. After the Second World War, a school was added to accommodate the new families who had joined the congregation. Further expansion happened in 1967.
“This is among the most grand of Montreal’s synagogues. Their choir is simply like no other and the sound permeates the walls throughout during services,” said Lucy Verebes Shapiro, who, while not a member of Shaar Hashomayim, has visited the shul many times. “There is a notion of great importance about all that transpires within,” she said.
The synagogue cemetery also gets visitors, Jewish and non-Jewish, who are attracted by its denizens.
“I’m a Leonard Cohen fan and visit the cemetery every year on the anniversary of his death,” said Marta Etynkowski. “I’ve never met him, but his poetry and music have helped me through many deep, private, emotional moments throughout my life and it’s one of my biggest regrets that I never saw him while alive. It has become a bit of an annual tradition for many of his fans to pay their respects – some people leave mementos, some play his music there, others just have a private moment in front of his grave. It’s quite beautiful.”
Shaar Hashomayim has a long and rich music tradition. The services are centred around a cantor, who is accompanied by an all-male choir, the origin of which dates back to 1887.
Its museum – the Edward Bronfman Museum – holds much Judaica, including a shofar from Yemen and a few books that are centuries old. It features rotating exhibits and is open to the public.
“In the wake of the COVID pandemic, people often ask, are synagogues still relevant? I think that is because there is a misconception that synagogues are just a place of prayer alone,” said Finegold. “However, many synagogues, and ours in particular, offer a connection to community – that’s something people want. After being isolated and at home for so long, to know that there is a place that has so many doorways to access, is something that will keep the relevance and people coming in for years to come.”
Avi Kumar is an historian and freelance writer. He has lived in six countries and speaks 10 languages. His work has been published in many countries, from his native Sri Lanka to Israel and Ireland, and he has written on a variety of topics, including history, wildlife and linguistics.
Again and again the world does not learn. The ego of dictators and high-ranking politicians is inflated, bordering on insanity. There are many conflicts in the world, but it is Russia’s war on Ukraine that I’m thinking of at this moment.
Who is suffering from all this? The mother with her scared child in her arms, the father who is forced to stay behind and fight, the old and frail, the children in the orphanage who have nowhere to go, the 36-day-old baby boy who does not have yet an identification paper, a name of his own. Who is suffering? The expecting mother who is running, injured, between the ruins of the hospital; the children, scared, hiding in the bomb shelters, hearing explosions and not knowing if they will have a home to return to.
Again and again, people are running in fear, looking for safe shelter. All around them, shelling, sirens, bombardment, hundreds of tanks parading on main city streets, explosions, ruins and distraction.
All this is taking me back decades to another time, the Second World War: Romania, 1940. It triggers memories of my early childhood journey of displacement, fear, cold and hunger. Then 2 years old, my family and I – and thousands of other Jews from northern Romania – were driven out of our homes to the unknown. For one year we were forced to live in a ghetto in a city called Czernowitz (now in Ukraine) in terrible conditions.
After one year, the ghetto was dissolved and we were forced for days to walk by foot in deep mud, carrying bundles of our meagre belongings on our backs toward an area called Transnistria. Long lines of frightened people, old and young, crying babies, the sick and those with disabilities. Those who could not walk were left behind or shot. The Romanian or German soldiers riding on their horses where shouting and beating up anyone who did not comply with their orders.
They forced us to walk from village to village until we arrived in a place called Djurin, where we settled down. There, we lived for four years in terrible condition. My father was taken from us to a work camp. My mother collected dry wood bunches from the nearby forest and exchanged them for food with the Ukrainian women who felt sorry for us. Toward the end of the war, my mother was injured in a bombardment when the Germans were retreating.
I am glad that I was too young to remember most of my fears, but I can’t escape the ripples of horror from those times. They are engraved in my psyche, in my pores. I tremble now when I see the young children on the TV screen with their big, scared eyes. Maybe they are hungry, cold or frightened. I wish I could hug and console them and feed them with my special chicken soup.
For us, there was no place to seek shelter, nobody wanted us, and nobody cared. The world was silent to our plight. We were denied refuge from most countries. We should remember the destiny of the St. Louis ship, which carried Jewish refugees trying to escape the terror of the war in Europe but was not allowed to enter Cuba, the United States or Canada. The ship had to return to Germany, where 254 of the passengers were murdered by the Nazis. Nor should we forget the ship Struma’s disaster – it was torpedoed and sunk with 800 Jewish refugees, who were on their way from Romania to Palestine. We should not forget Canada’s Frederick Blair, who was in charge of the immigration branch at the time, or then-prime minister William Lyon MacKenzie King’s immigration policy “None is too many,” just when the Jews of Europe were in despair and looking for shelter.
War is evil, then and now and always. Still, I can’t stop being amazed at the differences I see in the world’s reaction of kindness and compassion toward the Ukrainian refugees these days. Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, Poland, Romania and Germany – all have opened their gates with outstretched arms to help the tired mothers, scared children, orphans, the sick and the old. The world’s reaction shows me that the world is changing – including Canada – and that gives me hope.
Israel is bringing in thousands of people from the war zone. They give humanitarian assistance wherever needed. Synagogues in Ukraine, and Jewish congregations from around the world, help bring people to safety, like the Odessa orphanage children that were taken to Berlin.
Still, millions of people suffer because of politics and a madman who wants to expand his territory and his pockets.
I wish that we had in our camps some support, food and warm clothing, medical attention and safety. For us, the world was blind. Only the ones who survived live to tell.
We child survivors are now home for one another.
Sidi Schafferwas born in northern Romania. In 1940, she and her family were put into a ghetto in Czernowitz and, one year later, they were driven toward a concentration camp named Djurin, in northwestern Ukraine. There, in terrible conditions, they survived for four years. In 1945, they returned to Romania and, in 1959, they immigrated to Israel, where she received her degree in art education. In 1975, with husband David and their three sons, she came to Canada. In Edmonton, she went back to her studies and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Alberta. In 1998, she and her family settled in Vancouver. Schaffer is a proud member of the Child Survivor Group of Vancouver.