Burquest Jewish Community Centre has invited a series of local Jewish leaders to visit the centre and discuss their approach to Jewish practice. A Coat of Many Colours: Conversations about Jewish Practice takes place every other Sunday, through Dec. 11. It started Oct. 16.
Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan – rabbi emerita of Or Shalom (Renewal), volunteer at Beth Israel (Conservative) and director of inter-religious studies and professor of Jewish studies at Vancouver School of Theology – began the series with a talk called An Integrative Spirituality.
On Oct. 30, 1:30 p.m., Congregation Har El’s Rabbi Philip Gibbs speaks on The Conservative Synagogue and the Modern Jew.
“As a Conservative rabbi, I believe that Jewish law develops over time so that even a deep commitment to live according to Jewish values, traditions and rituals can fit with modern sensibilities,” he said. “At the same time, as a community leader, I also recognize that not every person wants to or is able to follow the discipline of an observant life. The synagogue acts as a spiritual toolbox with the many rituals and values that can add meaning to your life. The tension between an individual’s interest and the communal practice is both a challenge to create a welcoming space and an opportunity to explore the deeper meaning of our tradition. We will look at a few examples of how a synagogue could approach rituals like kashrut, prayer and Shabbat.”
Rabbi Tom Samuels of Okanagan Jewish Community Centre, Beth Shalom Synagogue, will give the Nov. 13, 1 p.m., talk, on the topic From Synagogue to Home.
Samuels, who does not identify with any singular Jewish denomination, institution, theology, pedagogy and the like, said, “My session will explore the idea of relocating the North American model for ‘doing Jewish religion’ from the synagogue building to the home. In response to the destruction of the Second Temple, a new Judaism emerged called Rabbinic Judaism. The ancient rabbis established a new locus of Jewish identity and connection to the home, and specifically, to the shulchan, the Shabbat table. Using the model of the Chassidic tish (or botteh, or what Chabad Lubavitch call the farbrengen), we will experience the seamless tapestry of Torah learning, tefillah (prayer), singing and eating that could be replicated by Jewish communities, with or without a local synagogue, throughout North America.”
On Nov. 27, 1 p.m., Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz will speak on These Are The Things – 10 Commandments for Living a Purposeful Life.
“Reform Judaism in general emphasizes the moral ethical commandments as being obligatory while the spiritual ritual commandments are more subjective to the individual worshipper with the autonomy to make meaningful, informed choices in their personal practice,” said Moskovitz. “My current rabbinate as senior rabbi of Temple Sholom is shaped by an emphasis on finding meaning through Jewish custom and practice, social justice work, inclusion, outreach to the unaffiliated and developing a relational community.
“I will present a passage from the Mishnah called Elu Dvarim, which details 10 commandments that, if followed during your life, receive reward now and for eternity…. I will present and we will discuss how the application of these particular commandments to your life, regardless of your faith tradition or whether or not you even have one, is one answer to the eternal question what is the meaning of life.”
Rounding out the presenters will be Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, Chabad Lubavitch, on Dec. 11, 1 p.m., with a topic to be announced.
Further information on presentations and presenters is available under events at burquest.org.
Zoom presentations became a regular affair at Beth Israel during the pandemic. Inset: JFS director of programs and community partnerships Cindy McMillan provides an overview of the new Jewish Food Bank. (screenshot from BI & JFS)
As Vancouver-area synagogues cautiously edge their way toward reinstituting in-person religious services, many rabbis are doing a rethink about the impact that the past 17 months of closure has had on their congregations.
Finding a way to maintain a community connection for thousands of Jewish families became an imperative for all of the synagogues early on in the pandemic. Not surprisingly, for many, the answer became cutting-edge technology. But careful brainstorming and halachic deliberations remained at the heart of how each congregation addressed these urgent needs.
“We immediately realized that services per se were not going to work over electronic medium,” Congregation Schara Tzedeck’s Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt told the Independent.
He said Orthodox rabbis across the world were already discussing halachah (Jewish law) in light of the pandemic when the province of British Columbia announced the shutdown in March of last year. “We realized that we weren’t going to offer any services,” he said. “We can’t have a minyan online.”
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t offer support. Schara Tzedeck’s answer to that need was only one of many innovative approaches that would come up. For example, to help congregants who had lost family members, the Orthodox shul devised a new ritual, as the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish requires a minyan (10 men or 10 men and women, depending on the level of orthodoxy, gathered together in one physical location).
“What we did is immediately [start a Zoom] study session in lieu of Kaddish. [The Mourner’s] Kaddish is based on this idea of doing a mitzvah act, which is meritorious for the sake of your loved one, so we substituted the study of Torah for the saying of Kaddish,” he explained.
For many other communities, such as the Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Israel, the deliberations over how to apply halachah in unique moments such as these were just as intense. For these instances, said BI’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, rabbis saw another imperative.
“This is what is called she’at had’chak, or a time of pressure,” Infeld said. “It’s a special time, it’s a unique time, and so we adapted to the time period.”
The concept allows a reliance on less authoritative opinions in urgent situations. So, for example, with respect to reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, Infeld said, “We felt that, especially in this time period, people would need that emotional connection, or would need that emotional comfort of saying Mourner’s Kaddish when they were in mourning, and so we have not considered this [internet gathering to be] a minyan, except for Mourner’s Kaddish,” Infeld said. He noted that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which reviews halachic decisions for the Conservative movement, has adopted the same position.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay, who leads the Orthodox Sephardi synagogue Congregation Beth Hamidrash, said that although his congregation would not hold Mourner’s Kaddish online, venues like Zoom played a vital role in allowing the congregation to meet during shivah, the first seven days of mourning. Like a traditional shivah, which takes place in the mourner’s home, often with a small number of visitors, an online shivah gave community members a chance to attend and extend support as well.
“That was actually an especially meaningful [opportunity],” Gabay said. “The mourners, one after another, told me that, first of all, you don’t often get the opportunity to have so many people in the room, all together, listening.”
For members of the Bayit Orthodox congregation in Richmond, an online shivah meant family on the other side of the country could attend as well. “What was most interesting, of course, was the people from all across the world,” remarked Rabbi Levi Varnai. “You can have people who are family, friends, cousins, from many places in the world, potentially.”
Vancouver’s Reform Congregation Temple Sholom also came to value the potential of blending online media with traditional venues. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz said the congregation had been streaming its services and classes as much as a decade before the pandemic arrived. But lifecycle events, he said, demanded a more personal approach, one that would still allow families to actually participate in reading from the Torah scroll, while not violating the restrictions on large public attendance.
“The big change is that we brought Torah to everybody’s home,” he said. Literally. Moskovitz or his associate, Rabbi Carey Brown, would deliver the scroll in a large, specially fitted container, along with a prayer book, instructions and other necessary accoutrements.
“We had a document camera so, when we streamed, you could look down on the Torah as it was being read on screen. Those were very special moments on a front porch when I would deliver Torah, socially distanced with a mask on, early on in the pandemic,” he said. “I had a mask and I had rubber gloves and they had a mask, and you put something down and you walked away. We got a little more comfortable with service transmission later on.”
Switching to online media also has broadened the opportunities for classes and social connections. Infeld said Beth Israel moved quickly to develop a roster of classes as soon as it knew that there would be a shutdown.
“We realized right away that we can’t shut down. We may need to close the physical building, but the congregation isn’t the building. The congregation is the soul [of Beth Israel]. We exist with or without the building,” he said. “And we realized that for us to make it through this time period in a strong way, and to emerge even stronger from it, we would have to increase our programming.”
He said the synagogue’s weekly Zoom and Learn program has been among its most popular, hosting experts from around the world and garnering up to 100 or more viewers each event. The synagogue also hosts a mussar (Jewish ethics) class that is regularly attended. “We never had a daily study session,” Infeld said. “Now we [do].”
For Chabad centres in the Vancouver area, virtual programming has been a cornerstone of success for years and they have expanded their reach, even during the pandemic. “We have had more classes and more lectures than ever before, with greater attendance,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, who runs Chabad Richmond.
Zoom and other online mediums mean that the centres don’t have to fly in presenters if they want to offer an event. Like other synagogues, Chabad Richmond can now connect their audiences directly with experts from anywhere in the world.
“We can’t go back”
All of the synagogues that were contacted for this story acknowledged that online media services had played an important role in keeping their communities connected. And most felt that they will continue to use virtual meeting spaces and online streaming after the pandemic has ended.
“As our biggest barrier to Friday night participation was the fact that many families were trying to also fit in a Shabbat dinner with small children, the convenience of the Friday livestream is worth including in the future,” said Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who runs the North Shore Conservative synagogue Congregation Har El.
“We’re scoping bids to instal a Zoom room in our classroom space so that we can essentially run a blended environment,” Rosenblatt said. “We anticipate, when restrictions are lifted, some people will still want to participate by Zoom and some people will want to be in person.”
However, some congregations remain undecided as to whether Zoom will remain a constant in their services and programming.
Rabbi Susan Tendler said that the virtual meeting place didn’t necessarily mesh with all aspects of Congregation Beth Tikvah’s Conservative service, such as its tradition of forming small groups (chavurot) during services. “We are talking about what that will look like in the future,” she said, “yet realize that we must keep this door open.”
So is Burquest Jewish Community Association in Coquitlam, which is looking at hybrid services to support those who can’t attend in person. “But these activities will probably not be a major focus for us going forward,” said board member Dov Lank.
For Or Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation, developing ways to bolster classes, meditation retreats and other programs online was encouraging. Rabbi Hannah Dresner acknowledged that, if there were another shutdown, the congregation would be able to “make use of the many innovations we’ve conceived and lean into our mastery of virtual delivery.”
For a number of congregations, virtual services like Zoom appear to offer an answer to an age-old question: how to build a broader Jewish community in a world that remains uncertain at times and often aloof.
The Bayit’s leader, Rabbi Varnai, suggests it’s a matter of perspective. He said finding that answer starts with understanding what a bayit (home) – in this case, a Jewish house of worship – is meant to be.
The Bayit, he said, is “a place for gathering community members and for coming together. The question, how can we still be there for each other, causes us to realize that we can’t go back to as before.” After all, he said, “community service is about caring for each other.”
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
At LimmudVan’20, Anna-Mae Wiesenthal will present on The “Othering” of Germany’s Jews and Canada’s First Nations. (photo from Anna-Mae Wiesenthal)
The latest local incarnation of the global Jewish learning festival Limmud takes place Feb. 29 and March 1. LimmudVan’20, which is being held at Congregation Beth Israel, begins with Havdalah and a few musical and intellectual appetizers on the Saturday night, followed by a day of presentations on a diverse array of topics on Sunday.
Anna-Mae Wiesenthal, a teacher at King David High School and a PhD candidate in Holocaust and genocide studies, will present on The “Othering” of Germany’s Jews and Canada’s First Nations.
Originating from Winnipeg, Wiesenthal has long had an interest in First Nations issues and has been involved in community programs there. She is aware of the sensitivities around paralleling these histories.
“There is a lot of controversy surrounding the use of the word genocide and First Nations, but I approach it from an examination of looking at different viewpoints and different research that argue both sides,” she told the Independent. “What do these two experiences of these two people have in common?” The point, she said, is not to come to any firm conclusions.
“I want to leave it open to the audience to process the information and to assess the commonalities and the differences,” Wiesenthal said. “I’m certainly there to point some of them out, but I think it’s to provide a different perspective that will engage and inspire discussion and curiosity among the participants to go further with it.”
Also not promising any proscribed conclusions is Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who will ask: Would the rabbis approve of Uber? Gibbs, who is spiritual leader of Congregation Har El, in West Vancouver, said that even issues as seemingly modern as an app that permits ride-sharing can be addressed through ancient wisdom.
Traditional arguments around fair and unfair competition have remained with him since rabbinical school and came to the fore in recent weeks as British Columbia argued over, and then slowly and somewhat clunkily implemented, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Some of the issues that could arise include whether a company keeps money in the community it serves or extracts it to some distant parent company. But don’t expect him to come down clearly on one side.
“If you’ve ever looked into a question of Jewish ethics, you know that you can make the joke of saying two Jews will have three opinions,” said Gibbs. “Maybe, through the discussion, someone else will tell me what it seems like I’m thinking, but really I think the goal is just to be more attuned to what some of the issues are so that, as we begin to make choices of who do we call up for a ride to the airport, that we’re taking into account a wider range of values than simply how little we want to pay for it.”
Other presenters will talk about crafting Jewish children’s books (see jewishindependent.ca/new-publisher-set-to-launch); how Leonard Bernstein used the music of Selichot to create West Side Story; the rich and poor among Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam’s Golden Age; building Jewish micro-communities through co-housing; healing Christian antisemitism; analyzing the Israeli smash TV show Shtisel; and many other topics.
T’ruah students help plant trees in the Hebron Hills. (photo from T’ruah)
U.S.-based T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights works in Jewish social justice circles in Israel and North America.
“We work with human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians…. We’ve also worked on introducing rabbis and rabbinical students, and also congregations, to what’s happening in West Bank and more,” executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs told the Independent.
T’ruah, which supports a two-state solution, offers the Year-in-Israel program for rabbinical students.
“Students study in Jerusalem at various institutions,” said Jacobs, “but they don’t necessarily get to see human rights issues up close. We take them once a month to see a human rights issue on the ground, either in the West Bank with Palestinians, in Bedouin Israeli communities in the Negev, asylum seekers, etc.”
At these sessions, students meet with Israeli human rights and other leaders on the ground. The program is held during students’ free time, separate from their regular studies.
“The goal of the program is to help them develop a rabbinic moral voice,” said Jacobs. “As rabbis, they’re going to be called on to speak about Israel. The question is, how do they talk about Israel as a rabbi? Rabbis talk out of their values, and also are generally dealing with politically diverse communities…. So, the question is, how can a rabbi speak in a way that will push people to listen to perspectives they might not otherwise listen to, [based on] Jewish texts and Jewish values?”
Jacobs recognizes that the information they provide is not comprehensive. Their focus is to give students the opportunity to interact with human beings – to meet Palestinians, Bedouins and others and learn from them what their life experience is like.
“It’s also crucial to us that they are meeting with Israeli human rights leaders,” said Jacobs. “Very often, there’s a dichotomy that suggests that being pro-Israel means supporting the right-wing government of [Binyamin] Netanyahu and that being pro-Palestinian means being against Israel. We’re pro-human rights and we want them to meet Israelis working every single day to push for human rights in their own country because they love their country. We want them to see that there are actually people who are changing the situation.
“We hear a lot from the students that our program gives them hope. Sometimes, they are so hopeless about what is happening in Israel and then they meet people, both Jewish and Palestinian communities, who are trying to change their situation.”
One T’ruah graduate is Rabbi Philip Gibbs, spiritual leader of Congregation Har El in West Vancouver.
“During my year in Israel, during my second year of rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to then be a fellow with T’ruah for their rabbinical student program,” Gibbs told the Independent. “I really appreciated the opportunity, both because, at least the year I was doing it, there was clearly a huge focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, also because the way, in terms of educating about social justice issues in Israel, they were able to show some of the other issues happening – whether it was meeting with Bedouins, talking to some asylum seekers from Africa … really seeing what their home-grown needs are and seeing how it developed into a strong sense of the how they were fighting for many of those needs through the legal systems in Israel.”
Gibbs met with Palestinians who had been displaced from the Jerusalem area after the 1967 war. “We had the chance to hear their narrative,” he said, “highlighting how their status as refugees during that conflict had really come into question because of both the policies of Jordan, as they were occupying the area, as well as some of the motivations of different settler organizations in their attempt to create a much stronger Jewish presence behind the Green Line… I felt like that was more educating us in understanding the way that the nature of a lot of these neighbourhoods had been going back and forth.
“For the Israeli settlers, they felt they were reclaiming a neighbourhood that was Jewish. For the Palestinians that had been living there, their legal status was caught up in layers of legal confusion of having that area under control of many different authorities over the past 150 years.”
Gibbs has not yet had an opportunity to bring this part of his rabbinical education to his congregation directly, but it has definitely played a role in how he shares his perspective regarding, for example, the upcoming Israeli election.
“I’m making sure there’s a deeper sense of having the recognition that a lot of these questions that are coming up, some of these issues are on the minds of most Israelis … but that, no matter what, a lot of the work that human rights organizations are doing, a lot of that is going through the overt legal system of Israeli government.”
Regarding the many Israelis he has met who work for human rights organizations, Gibbs said he appreciated the way their main motivation was a deep sense of trying to make their country the best it can be, noting that every government needs to be transparent in their treatment of their citizens, allowing for a certain amount of criticism.
“That’s something coming from a place of love and it’s the most ideal way to get things done in a constructive way,” said Gibbs. “People can debate about how much people living outside of Israel are supposed to be making any sort of direct intervention, which happens on both sides of the political spectrum, but, I think, there’s absolutely nothing that we should hide in terms of understanding the full array of political work happening in Israel.”
Rabbi Philip Gibbs is the new spiritual leader of Congregation Har El. (photo from Rabbi Philip Gibbs)
Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who took up the pulpit at Congregation Har El / North Shore Jewish Community Centre in July, had an unusually straight path to Judaism in many ways, at least for someone living outside the Orthodox world.
“Judaism was always part of my life,” Gibbs told the Independent.
Growing up in Marietta, Ga., he attended a Reform synagogue, went to Hebrew school and lived in a home life structured by Judaism. He found Judaism both comforting and intellectually engaging. He loved the thorny moral questions of Jewish tradition and studying Torah stories for guidance about how to live in the world. By the time he finished high school, he was on the regional board of the Reform Jewish Youth Movement (NFTY).
Being a leader in NFTY helped Gibbs see what it meant to bring others to and through the experience of Judaism – and the seed of a rabbinic calling was planted.
Gibbs went to college at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and graduated in 2012 with a double major in Hebrew and the humanities. He also attended summer programs for intensive Talmud study and, as he settled into “that place of serious learning about Judaism,” he felt at home. He was enamoured by how the Jewish community supported each other in times of crisis and celebration, giving a wider sense of meaning to even happy moments.
Gibbs attended the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), attracted “by its academic emphasis and its acknowledgment of the evolution of Judaism.” It also fit his personal level of observance.
He focused on Talmud and halachah (Jewish law) at the seminary and became the secretary of the committee on Jewish law and standards. He became passionate in his interest in halachah, both theoretically and as a “road to values.” He enjoyed taking ritual practice and explaining “the goal and meaning of it from a place of depth.”
Gibbs graduated with a master of arts in Talmud and received his rabbinic ordination earlier this year.
As a rabbinical student, he was engaged with global social justice and human rights issues, and became a member of Rabbis Without Borders. In his second year, after touring Hebron with T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, he was featured in an article in the Forward about younger rabbis willing to grapple fully with the moral complexity of life in Israel.
Gibbs connected to Congregation Har El, which has been without a permanent spiritual leader for just over a year, through the JTS matching process for new rabbis. He had been to Vancouver before and looked forward to flying out for the interview.
“B.C.’s wilderness and outdoors activities are a big draw for me,” said Gibbs, who led the Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute camp Ramah in the Rockies and is looking forward to the hiking and skiing opportunities available in the Vancouver area. “I grew up doing a lot of hiking in the southeast and led backpacking trips with Conservative movement summer camps. When I got here, I was also thrilled to find a community of very nice and caring people, a place that wanted depth in what they were doing.”
Gibbs said his main priority right now is getting to know the community before he begins putting together any new ideas. He is also getting to know Vancouver.
“It’s great,” he said. “One of the first things I did was get a bike – it’s a city very easy to get around in. My first view was before the forest fire smoke came in, and it was absolutely beautiful.”
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.