Standup comedian Cory Lupovic will perform at Congregation Beth Israel’s gala next month. (photo by Joan Ullyett)
Congregation Beth Israel’s Be the Light Gala Presented by Gerry & Ruby Gales & Family takes place June 4.
The fundraising event features the Candlelight Experience – the synagogue will be lit by hundreds of candles and a string quartet will perform songs by ABBA and Queen. The night’s emcee will be Dr. Erik Swartz, comedian Cory Lupovici will perform and Howard Blank will serve as auctioneer.
The “Be the Light” theme was inspired by the concept of people either being a light to Beth Israel and the Jewish community or how the synagogue has been a light to those in need.
“It gives us light and hope,” said Gerry Gales about why the family donated to the synagogue. “The work the Beth Israel does for the community is essential and must be supported,” he said.
Formerly known as Friends of Beth Israel, the newly redesigned and revamped event will include a mix-and-mingle cocktail reception for major donors followed by the concert (compliments of Beth Israel), dinner and entertainment. It is being planned under the leadership of Beth Israel’s new director of development, Jacci Sandler.
Swartz, the emcee, is head of pediatrics for Richmond Hospital, Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care, and is a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia. Born and raised here, Swartz graduated from Vancouver Talmud Torah and attended medical school at UBC. After years studying and practising elsewhere in Canada and abroad, he and his family returned to the city in 2008, and have been members of BI ever since.
Lupovici is a Chinese-Jewish comedian based in Vancouver – he spent his childhood summers at Camp Hatikvah and is a King David High School alumnus. Lupovici describes himself as an observational comic, in that he observes his parents and makes fun of them to strangers. His jokes mainly stem from his unique background and are a mix of personal anecdotes and silly everyday observations. With a Montreal Jewish father and a Hong Kong Chinese mother, the well of humour and rare perspectives is deep.
Rounding out the event’s main performers is Blank, chief executive officer of Point Blank Entertainment Ltd. Over the past 25 years, Blank has helped raise more than one billion dollars for organizations across North America, and his auctioneering is something to behold. He has received many accolades and awards and is recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, the British Columbia Community Achievement Medal and the Order of Canada Sovereign’s Medal for volunteerism. In 2021, he was featured in Business in Vancouver’s BIV 500 as one of the top executives in the province.
Funds raised from the gala will help ensure that the synagogue continues providing programming and services to the community. Attendance at BI for morning and evening minyan, as well as for various programs, is back to pre-pandemic numbers – this isn’t the case at most Conservative synagogues in North America. Most recently, BI had more than 800 people in attendance for its Purim programs and well over 350 people for its Passover seders.
Years ago, I briefly served on a synagogue board and did some research into membership dues. Some congregations had flat rates. Others had scales according to income or age. Others had no set dues, members gave according to what they felt they could give, with the congregation merely offering suggested amounts. There are plenty of articles on this topic, and even a book by rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Ari Olitzky. Synagogues cost money to run: salaries, buildings and activities are expensive. If we want Jewish life to continue, we need to consider this because synagogues offer us education, community, lifecycle events and more. However, there is no one size fits all when it comes to membership models.
Just as there are many models for dues, there are different ideas about new members. Some congregations post their membership application forms online and indicate where to submit the finished paperwork. Others offer membership information via email or post when it’s requested. Still others insist that the potential congregant meet with the executive director to gain access to the paperwork or the requirements for membership.
My husband and I have moved a lot in nearly 25 years of marriage. That has included “shul hopping” within communities sometimes. We’ve formally belonged to seven congregations, and attended services at many other places. Our experience hasn’t been limited to one North American movement. Due to our families’ diverse affiliations, geographic limitations and shifting needs, we’ve been members at Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and unaffiliated congregations. We joke, when asked, that “we get around.”
All this resurfaced while I read about Toronto Congregation Beth Tzedec’s recent experiment with membership. This congregation saw that members under age 40 paid only 5% of their total operating income. By waiving dues for members under 40, Beth Tzedec gained 900 members in eight months, according to a recent JTA article. This remarkable leap in membership shows just how much of an obstacle membership dues are for many younger Jewish people in Canada.
For years, when I joined a congregation in a new place, I was asked to join committees, lead services, teach, volunteer or provide other services. Only very rarely did any of these congregations ask first, “What can we do to meet your needs?” or “What are you hoping to gain from this experience?” While it sounds crass to see this as a solely “transactional” experience, it can be painful to spend a lot of money to support a place that sees no obligation to create a relationship or a meaningful experience with its new and/or younger members.
Few congregations have new members start by meeting with a rabbi or cantor or other engagement professional. The first interaction is almost always with an executive director who is essentially asking, “How much can you pay us?” While congregations almost always state that they don’t turn down anyone due to lack of funds for membership, in practice, many people are turned away. They’re turned away or turned off because they don’t even make the embarrassing first appointment where they must admit they cannot afford the full costs of membership.
We just signed on the dotted line at a big, established congregation because our twins are nearing b’nai mitzvah age. We’ve been regular synagogue attendees for years. We had asked about membership when I was pregnant and, at the meeting with the executive director, we felt as though we were being interviewed to join a country club. As older first-time parents, we saw the membership cost was delineated by age and we fell into a more expensive category. Our roof was leaking, we were expecting twins. Our decision was easy – we fixed the roof. Synagogue membership could wait.
Over the years, we briefly joined two other congregations to access their educational opportunities or community events. In the end, though, we faced the same process over a decade later, with a different executive director. He told us that no one was turned away. However, the paperwork indicated that, unless we paid the building fee plus membership dues plus b’nai mitzvah charge, we couldn’t have a lifecycle event at the congregation. That upfront cost was about 4% of our gross annual income, which is a large chunk of change. That’s before paying for a Kiddush luncheon or family celebration.
There’s no one answer to this challenge. Here are some ideas based on our anecdotal experience.
Make synagogue membership paperwork and financial information easily available on a website or via email. It shouldn’t be a secret, offered only in a face-to-face meeting with the executive director. This isn’t a good first impression. Potential members might also want to meet with a rabbi, cantor or other professional rather than the executive director.
Second, consider a membership model that provides multiple options based on income rather than age or a flat fee. There will always be older members who earn less income and younger people who can afford more.
Third, create an environment where members will not begrudge further donations. If the membership fee is a suggestion, and is affordable enough so that people can manage it, then a happy member may want to donate more money in the future. A supportive congregation and positive community experience is worth a lot! Members who sense that level of support are willing to pay for it.
Finally, recognize that many “middle-class” incomes don’t cover the cost of living the way they used to. Due to inflation, a professional who, for instance, works as a teacher or at a nonprofit may not have much expendable income. Find ways in which professionals might volunteer hours in lieu of part of their membership fees. Despite education and experience, these professionals have often been asked to volunteer for work in a Jewish context that one would have paid for elsewhere. They pay for membership that they perhaps couldn’t afford – for the privilege of also volunteering expertise.
We need each other for many reasons. Membership dues are not just for a minyan but also for the building where the minyan meets. Our tradition teaches us that every person is valuable, that embarrassment should be avoided at all cost, and that Jewish communities are essential. Synagogue membership models should reflect those teachings, too.
Joanne Seiff has 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.
Daniel Shalinsky being interviewed and filmed as part of White Rock South Surrey Jewish Community Centre’s oral history project, which will form part of the community’s Feb. 5 Tu b’Shevat Gala, along with singer Tania Grinberg, speaker Karen James and more. (photo by Helen Thomas Mann)
The White Rock South Surrey Jewish Community Centre Tu b’Shevat Gala will take place on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 5, the start of the holiday. With the theme “Strengthen Our Roots,” a main component of the event will be community members’ oral histories.
“The idea for the project came about in a very multidirectional way,” Helen Thomas Mann, WRSSJCC president, told the Independent. “First, we wanted to host an annual fundraising event and, with our membership drive being around the High Holidays, Tu b’Shevat seemed like a good time for it.”
Tu b’Shevat, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is the New Year of Trees.
“Naturally,” said Thomas Mann, “the theme for a Tu b’Shevat event would be trees, so we began focusing on our ‘tree of life’ as a community. But we were coming back together after a three-year lull from the pandemic – we needed people to remember why this place is important, and why it should continue to exist. The ideabecame, let’s honour our roots, our history as a community of nearly 30 years; remember the branches that connect us to our Jewishness and the WRSSJCC, and celebrate our leaves, the future of our community.
“As a new president and newer member of the community,” she said, “I felt sensitive to the fact that, although I was playing a leadership role in the organization, there were many people who had worked hard before me to create this warm Jewish space. Our new board didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I made it my mission to learn those stories.”
A therapist by profession, Thomas Mann is naturally interested in people’s stories, she said. “I had a conversation with Alysa [Routtenberg] from the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia, and that’s where collecting life stories of people in our community came about. She provided me with a recording device. Then it occurred to me that these life stories and the stories of the JCC itself could be incorporated into our celebration.
“I was scrolling the WRSSJCC Instagram account, and I saw a person we follow, and who follows our organization back, who had beautiful fine art photos. Their website said they were passionate about storytelling. I took a chance and reached out, and the person happened to be Yaacov Green, who participated in the JCC as a child and whose father was a president of the JCC for many years! Yaacov generously offered to donate his time to record and edit these interviews to make a short presentation for the Tu b’Shevat event, and a longer version to be submitted to the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C.”
During the project, Thomas Mann said, “Marcy Babins from the museum mentioned this may be the first representation of Jews from our outlying community in the archive, so I’m thrilled we will be represented. There’s such a rich history here of creative, scrappy and very grassroots Jewish community-building efforts. It’s been very inspiring to learn about. We have interviewed 23 people so far, plus we are having two make-up days…. We are also completing a few Zoom interviews for those who are no longer local.”
Everyone in the community was invited to participate, whether new to the community or having been a part of it for a long time. One of the participants was Daniel Shalinsky, who was interviewed for the project by his grandmother, Helen Lynn Lutterman.
“He attended Hebrew school at the JCC and spent lots of time there as a child,” said Thomas Mann. “There are pictures of him as a child with a hammer, literally building our WRSSJCC alongside his family. His parents are Hertha and Steve Shalinsky, who we are honouring at the Tu b’Shevat event. Their family, including Steve’s brother and his wife, Ken and Andrea Shalinsky, were integral in acquiring our physical space. Steve was a president for many years. For more on the fascinating story of how the space was acquired, you will have to attend the event to find out!”
In addition to the community histories, award-winning Yiddish singer Tania Grinberg will be featured at the celebration. And the night’s keynote speaker will be Karen James, who will share the story of her experience at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. James was there with the Canadian Olympic swim team, and witnessed a group of people climbing over the wall of the Olympic village. Only later would she find out that those people held hostage and then murdered 11 Israeli athletes. “She will share how witnessing this event impacted her life, her connection to her Jewish identity, and her relationship with the WRSSJCC,” said Thomas Mann of James’ presentation.
The Tu b’Shevat fundraiser is for specific programming, as well as operating expenses of the WRSSJCC.
“We are fundraising to generally pay our bills, and our hope is to be able to hire a part-time employee to support our admin needs and flourishing programming,” Thomas Mann explained. “We also have a list of ‘wishing tree’ items that range in dollar amounts from new oven mitts to computer monitors, and open amounts for specific purposes such as donating towards a child in need’s Hebrew school tuition. Long term, we would love to be able to find a new building space where we could have a stand-alone building, as opposed to being in a strip mall, with an outdoor area for a sukkah and community garden. That would be our pie-in-the-sky donation! We are a 100% volunteer-run organization, so every contribution counts.”
The entire community is welcome to the Feb. 5 event, which will be held at the White Rock South Surrey Jewish Community Centre, 32-3033 King George Blvd., in Surrey. “We considered the ease of hosting in a different location for space restrictions, but it seemed too important to centre the space,” said Thomas Mann. “Plus, our tree of life is on the wall, and we will be unveiling the newadditions at the event.”
Left to right: Cantor Josh Breitzer, Cantor Shani Cohen, Rabbi Kylynn Cohen, Prof. Joyce Rosenzweig and Cantor Lianna Mendelson at Shani Cohen’s installation as cantor at Temple Sholom the weekend of Oct. 28-29. (photo from facebook.com/templesholom.ca)
Temple Sholom officially installed Cantor Shani Cohen, the first ordained cantor to serve the congregation, on the Oct. 28-29 Shabbat weekend, with services and music throughout to mark the occasion.
Always passionate about music and Judaism, Cohen found a path that combined her interests – and talents – while studying for a master’s of music in vocal performance and pedagogy at the University of Houston in the mid-2010s. There, she started working for Congregation Shma Koleinu.
“Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss saw something in me, and invited me to lead High Holy Day services with him. He knew that I would become a cantor before I did. Once I started leading services, I looked into becoming a cantor and what that would mean,” Cohen told the Independent. “What I discovered was that being a Reform cantor encompasses so many different skills: you get to lead the congregation in prayer, teach b’nai mitzvah, introduce new music, and lead lifecycles for the community.”
Following her studies in Houston, Cohen enrolled at Hebrew Union College and embarked on a five-year cantorial program, which comprised a first year of study in Jerusalem, followed by four years in New York. “I got to work with the most incredible, groundbreaking cantors and rabbis of our generation, and enter into a diverse community of Jewish clergy around the world,” she said. “The training for cantors centres on Jewish music and liturgy, but many of our courses are in conjunction with the rabbinic students, including pastoral care, Bible, Jewish history and philosophy, and lifecycles.”
As a student, she presented recitals every year on different topics, such as Shabbat, High Holy Days, and Jewish composers. In her final year, she wrote a thesis and presented a recital on the same topic – her research delved into the collaboration between rabbis and cantors, looking into the history of these roles and the way clergy teams function in Reform congregations today.
Cohen was influenced by the cantors of the early to mid-20th century, which is often referred to as the cantorial “golden age.” These cantors included such names as Yossele Rosenblatt, Moshe Koussevitzky, Leibele Waldman and Moishe Oysher.
“I love how they brought their full voices to every piece, whether they were leading services or performing on the concert stage. I am also greatly inspired by the incredible teachers that I had at the Hebrew Union College Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music (DFSSM), including Chazzan Israel Goldstein, z”l, who I got to work with as my coach my second year.”
Two of Cohen’s mentors, Prof. Joyce Rosenzweig and Cantor Josh Breitzer, were in attendance at her October installation, offering both words and music. Cohen worked with Breitzer as an intern at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, where she got “to see firsthand his ability to weave together traditional and contemporary musical styles in an authentic, cantorial way.”
She said, “I too strive to bring the breadth and depth of Jewish music into my cantorial work, showing our community that both new and old music has a place in our synagogues. I think this is what cantors are called to do in order for us to keep this art form alive.”
Cohen delights in both the variety of her job and its interpersonal nature, noting that no two days are alike. “I could go from teaching students and leading prayer with our religious school one day, to officiating a wedding or going to visit one of our home-bound congregants the next,” she said. “Each facet of my work feels meaningful, especially being there for people when they are feeling vulnerable: when someone loses a loved one, gets bad news, or even the excitement and anxiety of preparing for their child’s b’nai mitzvah.”
A native of the Bay Area, Cohen attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., where she studied music and psychology. “I love being close to the water and, when the sun comes out, you appreciate it so much more because so much of the year is dark and rainy,” she said. “It was definitely a big contrast from where I grew up, but I felt a strong connection to this part of the continent when I was an undergraduate student, and am so grateful to be able to live here now.”
Cohen and her wife Rabbi Kylynn Cohen moved here with their black Lab mix, Trouble.
“The addition of Cantor Cohen to Temple Sholom’s clergy team is a milestone for our growing congregation, having grown from 600 households in 2013 to nearly 950 households just nine years later,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, senior rabbi at Temple Sholom. “Cantor Cohen adds a depth of pastoral skills and Jewish knowledge to her outstanding musical and cantorial abilities.
“She stands upon the shoulders of lay cantorial soloists Arthur Guttman and Naomi Taussig, who together set the tone and tenor for generations of Vancouver Jewish families,” he said.
“It is an honour and a privilege to be part of the Temple Sholom clergy team,” said Cohen, who brings the team to three, joining Moskovitz and Rabbi Carey Brown. “And I am grateful to get to do this work every day.”
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
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.
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.
Juneteenth webinar panelists (clockwise from top left) Heather Miller, Dr. Tameika Minor, Rafi Forbush and Kendell Pinkney. (photos from internet)
The United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) held a webinar entitled Juneteenth Through the Eyes of Jews of Colour: Sharing Stories and Perspectives on June 17, the same day the United States declared Juneteenth (June 19) a federal holiday. Slaves were freed from Texas, the last Confederate state with institutionalized slavery, on June 19, 1865.
The objectives of the evening were to establish better dialogue, to create a space to honour the Jewish and Black communities, to learn about the challenges people of colour have in the Jewish community, and to find the means by which people of colour can feel welcome in the Jewish community. Marques Hollie, a theatre artist, storyteller and musician, led the evening with a rendition of the post-Civil War song “Oh Freedom.”
“Our people crossed the Red Sea. People of colour are still in Egypt. For Black people, freedom has not come fast enough and not in a straight line,” said Ruth Messinger, a former politician and head of the American Jewish World Service, in opening remarks that preceded the introduction of the panel discussion.
The four panelists were Heather Miller, Dr. Tameika Minor, Kendell Pinkney and Rafi Forbush. Rabbi Ari Lucas of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J., moderated the event. Lucas encouraged the audience to listen before asking questions.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like I came out as a Black person last year,” said Miller, president of the Jewish Centre in Brooklyn and a future rabbi. “In the Jewish spaces I have been in, people have tried not to see my colour. The stakes are different for us than the majority of people in this Zoom room. I was afraid this would just be a moment for everyone else and that the world would go back to not seeing this stuff again after the pandemic. I was afraid of being left exposed without a community.”
Minor, a professor in clinical mental health counseling and rehabilitation counseling at Rutgers University, said she would like to see Juneteenth become a day of reflection and not just celebration. “Reflection of where we have come from and how far we have to go,” she said. “It’s not a day we should sit back and not look at the wealth gap, mass incarceration and police brutality. Now it is a federal holiday, and yet so many states are banning critical race theory in schools.”
“For me, the question isn’t what does Juneteenth mean to me now but what might it mean to us moving forward,” said Pinkney, a Brooklyn-based theatre writer, Jewish-life consultant and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “The Jewish people are so, so good at crafting stories, creating rituals. What rituals might be created 20 years from now around Juneteenth? Which stories and voices will we finally open our ears to?”
He added, “I like to think of it more as a promise of what might be and what we might become as a Jewish community.”
Rounding out the panel was Forbush, youth director at Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights (St. Paul) and founder of the Multiracial Jewish Association of Minnesota, which focuses on creating space for Jews of colour to connect to one another, through the community, education and advocacy.
“If you had told me that our community would be having this conversation at the beginning of the pandemic, I would have laughed at you,” said Forbush. “There is a bright light in our community starting to see outside of ourselves. If we are a people and not a race, then we owe it to each other to get to know who we are. The idea here is, extend the tent and not move it to exclude somebody else.”
Like Pinkney, Forbush spoke of the potential the holiday holds for the future and the sense of inclusion it can bring to the entire community. He pointed out that young Jews of colour often feel excluded.
Throughout the webinar, the panelists touched on various points of exclusion they feel as part of a community – of not believing they are entirely heard and of the microaggressions that occur in Jewish spaces, such as being quizzed on aspects of Jewish life or being viewed as staff and not a member of the community. Understandably, these are the sorts of issues that drive Jews of colour away from synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
The hope was expressed that Jews of colour could achieve more positions of leadership within Jewish organizations. There was also a sense that the community as a whole is not achieving its full potential without engaging more actively and openly with Jews of colour.
“This year, as we expand upon the understandings of diversity and inclusion, we have, despite COVID, actively widened the doors to our tent so to speak,” said Rabbi Susan Tendler of Richmond’s Congregation Beth Tikvah, which has been promoting the recent USCJ webinars on reaching out to interracial families and building a larger sense of inclusion for all Jews.
“We have actively listened and considered with compassion the feelings of people who may want to enter and yet find barriers to feeling authentically accepted within the larger Jewish community,” she told theIndependent. “United Synagogue’s program on Juneteenth is one example of many in which we have taken the opportunity to listen and learn.”
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
So enthralled am I by the sheer volume and calibre of free online Jewish learning opportunities since the start of the pandemic, that I sometimes forget that the people who do the teaching do it as their livelihood, not as a hobby. Therein lies the problem.
We, the students, the partakers of all manner and sorts of online classes and lectures during COVID, gobble up the learning as though it’s candy, or fine wine. We sit in front of our laptops, tablets and smartphones and act for all the world as though we deserve this high level of education. It should rain down upon us. We’re Jews. We’re the People of the Book. We’re entitled. Teach us!
Make no mistake: we are blessed to be the recipients of this stratospheric level of dedication, and we should not and cannot take it for granted.
But, sometimes, we forget.
We forget that the rabbi or rebbetzin or Jewish scholar or educator who is teaching us needs to feed their family and pay their bills. We forget that we need to support them just like they support us. Too often, we blithely go on learning from week to week, month to month, blissfully ignoring this reality. Yet, we expect a paycheque. Or a pension check, if we’re lucky. Why shouldn’t they?
Zoom classes have become as common as dust since the beginning of the pandemic. Every Jewish religious and/or spiritual organization I can think of is offering Zoom classes weekly, if not daily. They have filled the gaping holes that once were our thriving, healthy, “normal” lives. These same Jewish organizations recognize the desperate need for some kind of normalization, some sort of lifesaver for people to hang onto. In the absence of our daily routines of work, socializing and gathering together as a community, there is little left to celebrate, never mind sustain us. Local synagogues have leaped into the abyss to lift us all up, or those of us who needed lifting, anyway. They have rallied together to create curricula, offer Torah classes, general Jewish study courses, podcasts, livestream videos and so much more. Not only because it’s the source of their livelihood, but because they feel our desperate need, the soul’s yearning for Jewish learning.
There is enormous comfort in seeing others – even if only virtually – and knowing that we are studying Jewish topics together, learning as a community. The overwhelming isolation felt by so many people right now is beyond description. The personal losses, the devastating repercussions from COVID-19 can’t be counted. Our lives have been turned upside down in every way imaginable. And then some. But learning offers hope.
Sure, everyone copes differently with the pandemic, but anybody who says they haven’t been affected by it is just plain lying. Being the adaptable creatures that we are, we take comfort (or relief) where we can find it. For some, it’s food, or alcohol, or Netflix. For others, it’s learning. And, for others still, it must be Jewish learning. Something draws us – something draws me – to our heritage, our history, our Judaism. And, suddenly, we are home.
Myriad times, sitting in front of my computer during or after a Zoom class, usually given by a rabbi, I find myself weeping. Partly as a release from all the stress and anxiety I’m feeling right now; but mostly from a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude that we, as a community of Jews, haven’t been forgotten. That, amid the detritus of COVID, our faith leaders have intuitively known that we need help, that we can’t do this on our own. So they step up to the plate, full of enthusiasm and inspiration, and they fill us up. Not only do the classes inform us and expand our brains, but they benefit us by keeping us moving forward in a meaningful, purposeful way.
So, why am I writing all this? To remind each and every one of us, myself included, that we should be menschen and pay the favour forward. Pay it, literally, to every rabbi and rebbetzin and Jewish scholar or other educator who shares not only their time, but their wisdom, to help us get through this pandemic in the most meaningful way they know how. Make a donation. Show you care. Make as many donations as you’re able. Big or small, the act is a sign of appreciation. A sign that we value the learning. A sign that we know little, and yearn to know more. A sign that we appreciate their caring, knowing that they will do anything in their power to help. And G-d knows we need it right now. So, whatever we do, we shouldn’t forget to support those who support us.
It would be the century’s grossest understatement to say that I’ve learned a lot during the pandemic. Sure, I’ve learned immeasurable things about human nature and caring and compassion. But I’ve also expanded my Jewish learning a hundred-fold, maybe a thousand-fold. The pandemic has given me the time. But those doing the teaching have given me the inspiration, the foundation, the thirst for more. Instead of being overcome with hopelessness, I’m filled with hope. I see a pattern to life, a way out of this. That is no small thing. We need to pay it forward. Or pay it back. Either one will do.
If there’s a global sense of helplessness pervading much of what we do these days, we can counteract that by not only feeling grateful, but showing it. It could be construed as crass to say that we should pay for our Zoom classes and livestream lectures and podcasts. So be it. Call me crass. It wouldn’t be the first time. Just get out that credit card and do the right thing.
Shelley Civkinis a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.
The author in the synagogue in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (photo from Miri Garaway)
When I first started planning and researching our October 2017 trip to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the foremost thing on my mind was learning about the Jewish history of the region. It was uncharted travel territory for me and I was curious to uncover the areas that were once vibrant Jewish communities.
Rather than being herded around by bus on a large organized tour and staying in North American-type hotels, which are far away from the pedestrian-only “Old Town” neighbourhoods of the cities, I wanted the challenge of researching centrally located, charming and historical bed and breakfasts and/or apartments and then finding private or small group Jewish heritage tours within each place. This proved to be an interesting process, whereby I delved into several possibilities. I left no stone unturned in designing this journey and it was such a feeling of exhilaration to put it all together and enjoy it.
Once I decided on accommodations in each city, I then had the task of transportation. To save time and energy, I hired a series of private drivers. This proved to be a wise decision, as 17 days does not allow for a slow pace. An added bonus was having our driver appear at the hotel, take our luggage and drop us off at our next destination, stopping to tour along the way, if we desired.
By pure chance, I had come across a U.K.-based company called mydaytrip.com – they responded promptly, were professional and easy to deal with and I had full confidence that I made the right choice. In addition to hiring a private driver, I also discovered a private tour company (based in Vancouver) called toursbylocals.com – their in-depth walking tours were excellent and I would highly recommend them.
Another option I used was Viator, a subsidiary of Tripadvisor. They offer a variety of small group (maximum eight people) tours all over the world and they liaise with local travel agencies, which provide the service. It is a great way to have various tour options at a reasonable cost.
Our first stop was Ljubljana, Slovenia, a charming university town of friendly people, exquisite Baroque architecture, a delightful cobblestoned Old Town and a vibrant café culture. Most notable is the Kaverna Zvezda, the best pastry café in town, featuring the traditional kremna rezina, also known as cremeschnitz, cream and custard between layers of puff pastry, which I had also tried in Israel. In short – divine. The gibanica (pronounced gabanitza), a delicious cake with poppy seeds, curd cheese, walnuts and apples, is another legendary cake in Slovenia and reminded me of a cake my Eastern European grandmother made. She was from Czernowitz, Austria-Hungary.
Pumpkin seed oil is “king” here and is used with the same frequency as olive oil is in Italy. Vegetarian pumpkin soup is on every menu, much to my delight. Were there any remnants of a Jewish community here? This seemed like Jewish comfort food to me.
Documents show that Jews settled in Ljubljana from the 13th century onward and worked as merchants, bankers, artisans and some as farmers. They had a synagogue, a school and a rabbinical court. In 1515, the Roman emperor Maximillian expelled the Jews and Ljubljana’s Jewish Quarter disappeared.
As I walked down the two narrow streets in the Old Town, that once housed a small Jewish community – Zidovska ulica and Zidovska steza, Jewish Street and Jewish Lane – the only sign of a Jewish presence was a vacant stone indentation on a building where a mezuzah had once stood.
Maribor, the second largest city in Slovenia, has a synagogue, but, unfortunately, it sits empty. Jews were also expelled from here, in 1496, though, eventually, both Ljubljana and Maribor regained their Jewish communities – until the Second World War. Then the Holocaust took its toll.
On a positive note, a synagogue did open in Ljubljana in 2003, but it is now part of the Jewish Cultural Centre. Ljubljana was previously the only European capital lacking a Jewish house of worship. The city does not have a rabbi, but the chief rabbi for Slovenia, Rabbi Ariel Haddad, resides in nearby Trieste, Italy.
* * *
Split, Croatia, once had a vibrant Jewish community, so, after visiting the Dalmatian coastal town of Zadar, we headed a little further south to Split, stopping first at the World UNESCO Heritage Site of Trogir.
In Split, I had arranged for a private guide, Lea Altarac, to meet us and give us a Jewish history tour as well as a general city walking tour. In 3.5 hours, we covered a lot. Lea is a teacher; extremely knowledgeable and proud of her city. Her mother is Bosnian and her father is Jewish; she has a Jewish soul, albeit one that does not practise Judaism. Nevertheless, she was eager to enlighten us with some of the Jewish history of the city.
We first toured Diocletian’s Palace in the Old Town and Lea pointed out the many Magen Davids etched into the stone. Once we had finished touring the extensive palace, we walked to the edge of the Old Town. There, we came across the small synagogue of Split, no exterior decoration to distinguish it, which is maintained as a museum by Lea’s father. As we climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old stone building, I tried to visualize it teeming with congregants, sadly no more.
One of the oldest European synagogues, it was created in the 16th century. The interior dates back to 1728. That was the first restoration of several, and when the mechitzah (partition between men and women in an Orthodox shul) was added. It is interesting to note that the ark was built into the western wall of the palace.
The synagogue was plundered by fascist fanatics in 1942 and, unfortunately, many valuable ritual books, archives and silver objects were burned or stolen.
In 1996, during another restoration, a commemoration plaque of local victims of the Holocaust was given to the synagogue as a gift from the Israeli ambassador.
There is no official rabbi for the synagogue in Split, but the rabbi from Zagreb, Croatia, comes about twice a year.
During archeological excavations carried out in the area of the Roman city of Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia and the parent city of Split, traces of an established Jewish community were found. When Salona was destroyed, in the early seventh century, the surviving Jewish members took refuge within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. This settlement was the early beginning of the city of Split.
The term Zueca is used to describe the localities where Jewish tanners and dyers lived. This was a common trade for centuries. Other Jewish occupations included weaving, tailoring, the sale of cloth, the running of a bank, as well as the food business, which was not permitted to Jews elsewhere.
Via 16th-century documents, we learned that there were Spanish and Portuguese immigrants who settled in Split, which was a port for trade between the Republic of Venice, to which Split belonged to at that time, and the Ottoman Empire. Most notably, a Spanish Jew named Daniel Rodriga, short for Rodriguez, was responsible for promoting the development of trade between Europe and the countries in the east. Caravans were also used for the exchange of goods to Turkey and Asia, which Rodriga felt was safer. He conceived the idea of building a large quarantine area, a lazaretto, in the port of Split to house men and goods from the eastern countries, before ships took them to Venice and the rest of Europe.
There was no Jewish ghetto in Split, as the members of the Jewish community enjoyed civil liberty. It was not until the late 18th century, toward the end of Venetian rule, that a ghetto was formed, due to the influence of the clergy and the decline of the Venetian economy.
Our walking tour led us up a steep hill, Marjan Hill, where we were afforded a spectacular view of Split. Overlooking the city, in a forest-like setting, is the Jewish cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries known. It was founded in 1573 and was used until 1946.
After the collapse of fascism in 1943 and before the occupation of Split by the German army, many of the younger Jews left Split and joined the resistance movement in partisan units. Jews who did not leave were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to forced labour and concentration camps. Only one-third of the community survived and returned to Split after the liberation; others emigrated to Israel.
* * *
Sarajevo was our next stop, with a visit to Mostar on the way. Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is a picturesque city situated on the Neretva River, only a two-hour drive from Split. I arranged a walking tour for the morning and asked the tour guide if we could visit the proposed site of a new synagogue. The small patch of land was donated by Zoran Mandlbaum, head of Mostar’s 45-member Jewish community, in the hopes that a synagogue would be built there. His vision was a building made of glass, symbolizing trust between Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Roman-Catholic Croats, and bridging ethnic gaps. For now, the only distinguishing feature of this barren piece of land is a wrought-iron Magen David carved into the gate.
Mostar originally did have a synagogue, but it was damaged during the Second World War and the communists turned it into a puppet theatre in 1952. We visited that colourful building. Today, there are only a handful of Jews living in Mostar.
Walking through the charming Old Bazaar (Kujundziluk), we reached the famous Old Bridge, a curved structure, originally built of square stones and completed by a Turkish architect in 1556. Its arch spanned nearly 29 metres and stood 20 metres above the river. Although the famous bridge was destroyed during the war in 1993, it was rebuilt in 2004. The tradition of diving contests off the bridge has been maintained.
Of notable interest is the elegant Turkish-designed Muslibegovic House and courtyard/garden, now a hotel, which we were fortunate enough to tour.
In another couple of hours, we arrived in Sarajevo, a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains. The first Jews, Sephardim, arrived in Sarajevo as early as 1541. They were mainly artisans, merchants, pharmacists and doctors. Ashkenazi Jews began arriving in the 17th century, fleeing persecution in Europe. When the Austrians occupied Sarajevo in 1697, they burned and destroyed the Jewish Quarter, including the synagogue.
When the Ottomans regained control of Sarajevo, the lot of Jews improved. Sarajevo became known as “Little Jerusalem,” having the unique feature of a synagogue, a Roman Catholic church and a mosque all within 500 metres of one another.
Jewish life changed dramatically with the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust – 85% of the Jewish population perished and those who survived emigrated to Israel in the late 1940s. Before 1941, there were 12,000 Jews living in Sarajevo and 15 synagogues. In 2017, 700 Jews lived there, out of a population of 400,000. There was no official rabbi, but a rabbi, originally from Sarajevo, came in from Israel to officiate for the High Holidays.
Our Jewish heritage tour was given by a young Muslim man, the owner of Meet Bosnia travel agency. He was very proud of the fact that he was licensed to give this tour. We began at the Old Synagogue, which was originally built in 1581, but burned down and was rebuilt a couple of times. The synagogue was converted into a museum in 1965. There are historical exhibits, ritual objects, Ladino books, photographs, religious traditions and depictions of life before the Holocaust. There is a replica of the famous 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah; the original being in the National Museum. Unfortunately, that museum was closed for renovations.
Next to the synagogue is the building called Novi Hram, or New Synagogue, now an art gallery owned by the Jewish community of Sarajevo. There was also a large, ornate Sephardi synagogue, built in 1932, but the interior was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941.
Most impressive was the grand Ashkenazi synagogue, built in Moorish style and located across the Miljacka River that runs through Sarajevo. It also serves as the Jewish community centre. We were fortunate enough to be there during Sukkot, and went to their sukkah. The synagogue also holds Friday night services.
We visited the large hillside Jewish cemetery, among the oldest in Europe. It was founded by Sephardi Jews in 1630 and contains more than 3,500 uniquely shaped tombstones; some with inscriptions in Ladino. There are two Holocaust memorials: one Sephardi, one Ashkenazi. After 1959, it became a mixed cemetery and, in 1966, it closed. The cemetery was used as an artillery position by the Bosnian Serbs during the siege of Sarajevo and many of the tombstones were toppled.
One thing I noticed during our stay in Sarajevo was that everyone we met was proud of the multicultural aspect of their city. One woman, in a Judaica shop we were taken to, next to a cinema that once housed a Sephardi synagogue, proudly told us that her Muslim neighbour helped her and her family build their sukkah.
It was hard to leave this fascinating, exotic city that had weathered so much, but we drove on to Dubrovnik, via the country roads. In the Serbian parts of that countryside, we saw signs in Cyrillic and I felt like I was in Russia.
What a contrast to arrive in Dubrovnik, a city inundated with tourists, even in October. Our Jewish heritage tour, which also included a walking tour of the city, was led by a Catholic woman studying for her master’s degree in archeology. In the late 1400s, early 1500s, there was a Sephardi community in Dubrovnik, with about 300 members. In the 1800s, Ashkenazi Jews arrived. Before the Second World War, Jewish property was confiscated and Jews had to wear the yellow armband. Some community members were involved in the anti-fascist movement. After the war, Jews were still registered in Dubrovnik, but most of them had immigrated to New York City.
We visited the Sephardi synagogue, located in the Old Town in a three-storey stone Baroque building; it is one of the oldest in Europe. The synagogue and museum received a direct hit from a missile during the war in the 1990s, but the Museum Foundation, the Croatian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and UNESCO, as well as private donations, helped restore it. There are fascinating displays of ritual objects in the museum and a Judaica shop next door. Sadly, there are only about 50 Jews left in Dubrovnik, all residing outside the Old City walls.
Services in the Schara Tzedeck auditorium, with social-distancing measures in place. (photo by Camille Wener)
In early March, Canadians were just beginning to take COVID-19 seriously. Then, in what seemed like an instant, the province shut down all places where people gather. Religious organizations were forced to close their doors – in some cases for the first time in more than a century – and rethink everything about how they engage with their congregants.
In a survey of rabbis and synagogue leaders across British Columbia after a summer of COVID, what emerges is not so much a story of hardship and difficulty but of resilience, creativity and a paring away of the superfluous to rediscover the most elemental things that we seek from spirituality and community.
The loss of life, the horrible illness and difficult recovery have directly affected thousands of British Columbia families, but we have fared better than many other jurisdictions. Even those not directly affected by the virus itself have had heartbreaking occasions, such as losing loved ones to other causes without family beside them, funerals and shivahs conducted online and, of course, the various burdens and isolation experienced by older people, those who live alone or others who are especially vulnerable.
As we approach High Holidays that are assured to be unlike any we have experienced before, there is an air of anxiety, but more evident is a flexibility and commitment to make the holidays as meaningful as possible. Although close coordination has taken place through RAV, the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, every congregation is finding its own way and the holidays in most cases will occur along a spectrum of hybrid in-person and online services, most with multiple smaller, shorter programs. Services that routinely occur outdoors, such as Tashlich, will be joined in some cases with shofar-blowing and other services held out of doors. Despite all, reaction among rabbis is that community engagement and flexibility have made these months far better than could have been predicted in March.
“From day one, our motto was, we are not ramping down, we are ramping up,” said Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. His Conservative shul, Beth Israel, had not previously done programs or services online but, within 24 hours of the shutdown, all activities had moved online.
Zoom, an online meeting platform that almost no one had heard of before the pandemic, has proved a lifeline for individuals and communities, including almost all synagogues in the province. The platform’s interactivity allows individuals to participate in services, make virtual aliyot, engage in back-and-forth with teachers and guest speakers, and participate from home in numbers that rabbis say are routinely higher than in-person programs in “normal” times. “The social community of the synagogue’s remained intact,” said Infeld.
Most of Beth Israel’s congregants will experience the High Holidays from home, online. “It’s only the people who are leading the services and/or their families who will be in the building,” he said.
Provincial regulations permit a maximum of 50 people in any gathering, with social distancing enforced. For synagogues, that number varies based on the size of a sanctuary and the reality is that, to ensure two-metre separation, smaller synagogues will be able to accommodate far fewer than 50.
For the Orthodox Congregation Schara Tzedeck, however, online Shabbat and holiday services are not an option.
“We’ve had to think very creatively,” said Camille Wenner, executive director of the synagogue. “This was the first time in 110 years that our doors closed for davening,” she said.
People who had made minyan every week of their life suddenly couldn’t.
“That was really difficult,” said Wenner. “That’s why it was so important for us to mobilize a chesed committee to connect with everyone and make sure that everyone was OK. That’s how the idea of Shabbat in a Box developed and the idea of feeding people and making them feel that that ritual of Shabbat is still very much alive, you don’t have to be here to do it, we can still do it together.” That concept will be extended to Rosh Hashanah in a Box, which will go to more than 300 households.
Schara Tzedeck was the first Orthodox synagogue in Canada to reopen to limited in-person services, on June 1. “It was nerve-racking,” Wenner admitted. The usual single Shabbat service has been increased to two. Hand sanitizers and masks are required. Those who do not bring their own siddur are handed a newly cleaned one. Additional custodial staff are on hand to wipe down the entire sanctuary between services. An online registration program allows congregants to see how many of the 50 seats remain available.
For the holidays, services will be expanded to meet demand, she said. Rabbis and cantors who work in day schools and elsewhere in the community have volunteered to lead smaller services, which will occur in various places throughout the building and may even take place under a tent in the parking lot, if need be.
“The services will be condensed to about two hours instead of the regular five,” she said. “Right now, we’re looking at six or seven services back to back starting at 6:30 in the morning.”
The Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture normally doesn’t run programming through the summer. But, this year, the Sholem Aleichem Speakers Series has continued every Friday on Zoom and Exploring Jewish Writers, on Saturday mornings, also has continued through the summer, said Donna Becker, the centre’s executive director. “Both of them are better attended on Zoom than they were in person,” she said.
Peretz Centre holiday services will feature Stephen Aberle singing Kol Nidre, but the usual musical program, which sees the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir interspersed with the audience, is obviously out of the question.
This year’s High Holidays will be the first since the inception of the progressive congregation Ahavat Olam in 2004 that will not be held at the Peretz Centre. Said board member Alan Bayless: “We would prefer not to use computers for Shabbat or High Holiday services, but we believe that virtual services are necessary for our community this year given the danger of the coronavirus.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg of Chabad Lubavitch BC, said the 10 Chabad centres in the province are all adopting protocols appropriate for their congregants’ needs. He worries that, with daily infection reports often heading in the wrong direction, the province may re-impose stricter regulations by the time the holidays roll around. Either way, he suspects many or most people will be marking the holidays at home. “It’s the reality,” he said. “It’s a question of what works and what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
On the positive side, online learning has skyrocketed.
“The amount of study that’s going on by Zoom is absolutely unprecedented,” Wineberg said. “That’s the silver lining. I have a feeling that it will continue once this pandemic is over, God willing as soon as possible, I think people are going to continue learning that way. You have the convenience of sitting in your home and participating almost as if you are there – that’s the new reality.”
The Reform synagogue Temple Sholom had a running leap at livestreaming services, so some of the infrastructure was well in place before the pandemic. The difference now is the effort they are going to not just to allow people at home to observe, but to participate in the services. Classes, webinars and other programs have been expanded online. The Men’s Club and the Sisterhood have moved their programs onto Zoom. The accessibility means Temple Sholom programs are reaching new audiences, often far outside Vancouver.
The summer weather has allowed the synagogue to hold some events in parks and in the courtyard behind the shul. Still, Rabbi Carey Brown has no illusions that these High Holidays will be like any other. For one thing, only clergy will be in the sanctuary.
“It will be really different,” said Brown, who is the synagogue’s associate rabbi. “We are working really hard to put together High Holiday services and experiences that will help people feel the sense of the season, both the newness of the new year and the reflectiveness of the season.”
The Okanagan Jewish Community, which does not have a permanent rabbi, has depended on volunteers to deliver programs and services. The Kelowna-area centre has seen significant growth, and is running an 11-person conversion class and various adult education programs on Zoom. As great as all that is, Steven Finkelman, the centre’s president, thinks this might be a tough year financially for the group, a concern expressed by several interviewees. Revenue generated at the High Holidays and through in-person galas or other fundraising events in normal years is likely to suffer this year.
While online programming has proven hugely popular, there can be no denying that this experience has resulted in some missed opportunities. Rabbi Philip Gibbs of West Vancouver’s Conservative shul Har-El, has pangs of regret when he thinks back to the grand plans the synagogue had in January for a year of innovation and new initiatives.
“I was very excited about both the scale and the types and the variety of programming – more cooking events or culturally focused programs that really were going to give our community the chance to gather and engage in a really fun, exciting and meaningful way,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost that opportunity.”
The challenges and opportunities of the High Holidays will be met with one or more services on different days, he said. While he and his congregation are making the best of the situation, Gibbs laments the loss of in-person collective connection.
Similarly, Rabbi Hannah Dresner of Or Shalom, which is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, grieves the loss of some in-person connections. However, she feels that Zoom can provide an intimacy that a large group gathering might not. As well, not only are out-of-towners joining Or Shalom’s offerings, but the rabbi and others are surfing programs throughout the Jewish world and beyond.
“I just think it’s a time when the world is our oyster,” said Dresner. “Spiritually you can look for whatever kinds of workshops you want, so people are experimenting a lot more.”
Or Shalom will hold successive Tashlich services at False Creek, each accommodating congregants in limited numbers. For the well-being of ducks and other birds, Or Shalom members drop leaves rather than bread in the water.
“I love the creative challenge, but I can’t say it doesn’t keep me up at night,” Dresner said, laughing. “I hear a lot of rabbis say, I didn’t sign up for this. There’s nothing that we’re doing that I signed up for.”
This extraordinary time has forced and invited rabbis and others to reconsider everything. The changes have made her reflect on “what’s at the heart of the service, what do we really need, what’s extraneous, what makes it tedious? Because it cannot be tedious. It’s got to be tight, shorter and beautiful.”
Rabbi Levi Varnai of the Bayit in Richmond concurs that the crisis forced a reckoning. “If a synagogue is not doing services – and we don’t do services online – what do we do? It got us thinking to the real core of what a synagogue is really supposed to be about,” he said.
As an Orthodox shul, the Bayit cannot stream services on Shabbat or the holidays, but they have expanded classes throughout the week and held socially distanced events at Garry Point Park. Pre-Shabbat events help people prepare for the Sabbath and regular phone calls and visits by the rabbi and volunteers to speak with people from a distance and drop off packages keep a sense of community alive.
Now that limited in-person gatherings are permitted, the shul’s size permits 25 congregants. But even that is not quite as it was. “It’s coming in, praying and going, which is great because it’s more than we had before that,” he said, but there’s no food and no kibbitzing.
The holidays will see multiple services and people can arrange to be there specifically for Yizkor but perhaps not come for the entire day.
The chaos of shifting suddenly from the way things have always been done has not left Varnai a lot of time to reflect. But, when pressed, he acknowledged how surreal it is.
“It’s a huge change to the regular Jewish life that I’m accustomed to since I was a young boy, since my bar mitzvah, praying three times a day with a quorum of others,” he said. It’s a stunning transformation, but entirely within Jewish tradition. “We always put safety and well-being and health first.”
He puts the whole thing in perspective. “Our people came out of the centuries and had to go through a lot worse,” he said. “Not going to synagogue is not fun but, thank God, other generations were challenged with much greater hardships and we’re relatively blessed.”
Beth Hamidrash, the only Sephardi synagogue in Canada west of Toronto, counts among its congregants Dr. Jocelyn Srigley, a microbiologist who is a director with the infection prevention and control branch of the Provincial Health Services Authority. Rabbi Shlomo Gabay and shul president Eyal Daniel credit Srigley with helping guide them through this difficult time and say it was on her advice that their synagogue was the first in the city to close.
Despite the challenges, however, engagement is better than ever, said the rabbi. Daniel added that synagogue membership has actually jumped 20% since the pandemic began, something he credits to an increased desire for meaning, and also a direct outreach he began when he became president in June to encourage occasional attendees to commit to membership.
The strange situation has also helped strengthen relations between Beth Hamidrash and the two Sephardi congregations in Seattle. They virtually co-hosted an Israeli historian speaking on Medieval Spain, for example.
Probably no rabbi has had an experience quite like Rabbi Susan Tendler. The new spiritual leader at Richmond’s Conservative shul Beth Tikvah arrived in the midst of the lockdown with her family from her previous posting in Chattanooga, Tenn. The family then had to quarantine for 14 days, with community members dropping off prepared meals and greeting the family from a distance. Despite that unusual arrival, or perhaps because of it, she has reflected on big things.
“While I would never wish the pandemic on this world or on any person, really, this is an opportunity for renewal,” she said. “We do all have to reconsider what we’re doing and what our goals are and find new paths for reaching them.”
While hoping that services might return to normal in the not-too-distant future, she acknowledged that the very term sanctuary implies that every congregant must feel secure. “At a minimum,” she said, “it has to feel safe.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to reflect that Or Shalom is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, not the Reconstructionist movement, as stated in the original online and print versions.