The Canadian Way

Interview with Canadian rabbis Michael Dolgin, Leigh Lerner, and Dow Marmur

Does Canadian Jewry have a unique character as opposed to American Jewry?

Rabbi Leigh Lerner, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal, Quebec: Yes, the Jews of Canada possess distinct differences from their U.S. counterparts.

Of the 370,000 Canadian Jews, a goodly number stem from the 40,000 survivors of the Holocaust that Canada received at the end of the war. For that reason, Holocaust consciousness runs higher in Canada than in the United States. Zionism, too, is stronger. Canadian Jews are twice as likely as American Jews to have visited Israel.

In addition, Canada experienced little organizational influence from the mid-nineteenth century wave of German-speaking Jewish immigrants who founded Reform Judaism in the U.S. Rather, traditionalist, Yiddishist, and even Chasidic influences have prevailed north of the border. Today, for example, Reform Jewry comprises only an estimated 6% of affiliated Jews and 3% of all Jews in Montreal, where various types of Orthodoxy form the religious majority. About 50% of Jewish elementary-age children attend Jewish day schools, and one Jewish school system teaches Yiddish along with Hebrew, English, and French.

Canada is a bilingual society, so Reform Judaism here has to be bilingual, too. In Montreal, where 25% of the Jewish community speaks French, we published an adaptation of Gates of Prayer in Hebrew, English, and French, and some b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah) choose to give their speech to the congregation in French.

Rabbi Dow Marmur, rabbi emeritus, Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, Ontario: Whereas Reform has long been a dominant force in American Jewish life, in Canada we are a minority, significantly outnumbered by Conservative and Orthodox Jews. As we're determined not to become a fringe group, we have tended toward traditional observances that unite rather than divide the Jewish denominations in Canada. In fact, many Reform Jews in the States have wrongly perceived me as an Orthodox Jew masquerading as Reform. In Canada, one gets a sense of klal Yisrael, the whole of the Jewish people, in ways that are less pronounced in the States.

Rabbi Lerner: A sample of Canadian distinctiveness: Toronto rabbis took the lead in demurring from the Reform rabbinate's position on patrilineal Jewish descent, generally holding to the traditional stance: "A Jew is the child of a Jewish mother, or one who has converted to Judaism." While not every congregation in Canada agrees, most do, and that's part of what makes Canada different. Our experience with tradition can be informative south of the border, and we need to hear how the American experience with patrilineality is working out.

Rabbi Michael Dolgin, Temple Sinai, Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Reform congregations support one another's growth. In the 1950s, for example, Holy Blossom Temple provided an interest-free loan to help Temple Sinai get its start; in the '60s, these two congregations helped create others; and only a few years ago, the more established Reform congregations assisted a sister synagogue in acquiring land for a future building.

Another key characteristic of Canadian Reform Jewry (western migration not withstanding) is stability. While American Jews are generally mobile, it is common for members of the Toronto community, in particular, to live their adult lives in their native community. Most established congregations in our region have members in every demographic category, including twenties and thirties. The challenge is for the younger generations to feel "ownership" of a congregation established and nurtured by their forebears.

What have been the major Jewish contributions of Canadian Reform Jews?

Rabbi Lerner: Rabbi Harry Joshua Stern, who served Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal for half a century, fought anti-Semitism in Montreal and Quebec. In bygone days, when McGill University had a stiff numerus clausus against Jews, Rabbi Stern reputedly told its principal, "Jesus Christ himself couldn't get into this university." Today, McGill has one of North America's highest numbers of Jewish students.

In addition, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, who was born in Germany and immigrated to Canada after many years in the U.S., provided strong direction for the Reform Movement by building a base of congregations and educational institutions in Ontario; writing thought-provoking articles for the Canadian Jewish News that gave Reform Judaism a respected voice in Canada; and editing The Torah: A Modern Commentary , which remains the standard Torah commentary for virtually all of our North American congregations.

Also, Toronto composer Ben Steinberg has enriched the world's repertoire of Jewish music; his setting of " Shalom Rav " is now a Reform standard.

Rabbi Dolgin: Rabbi Jordan Pearlson of Temple Sinai in Toronto created a brilliant structure for lifecycle events that transformed the congregation. He conceived lifecycle moments as opportunities for the personal and the communal to be woven together through the keeping of lifecycle books. At the time of a naming, b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah), Confirmation, wedding, and burial, families place their secular and Jewish names in these archival books, which are labeled at the bottom of each page as "eternal records." At the time of the celebration, few individuals remember the act of writing names in the book, but in time, these records become precious and significant. When a bat mitzvah sees her name in the naming book and her mother's name in the bat mitzvah book, those moments express more clearly than any words can say that she is about to become a part of her community. Likewise, when a mourner, present to say Kaddish, sees the signature of her husband from their wedding and his bar mitzvah, she knows that she is not alone in remembering him.

In addition, all celebratory lifecycle events are immediately preceded by a brief family ceremony which, in the case of b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah), includes signing the eternal record and teaching about the relationship between tallit and adult Jewish responsibility-but its central purpose, as a private family moment in the rabbi's study, is for parents and grandparents to give the 13-year-old person their blessing. Rabbi Pearlson realized as a young rabbi that it would be a quiet tragedy at such an emotional moment to deny parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents the opportunity to articulate their feelings, and deny the celebrant the chance to hear them.

During Rabbi Pearlson's 41 years on the pulpit, the number of member families skyrocketed from 14 to 1,700.

Rabbi Marmur: We Canadians take great pride in the accomplishments of late theologian and University of Toronto philosophy professor Emil Fackenheim, who became, arguably, the most influential Jewish thinker of his generation. He taught that continuing Jewish life and thus denying Hitler a posthumous victory was the 614th commandment. And, outside the Reform community, one of our heroes is human rights advocate Irwin Cotler, a former attorney general and current member of Parliament, who has been in the forefront of the world's struggle against anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Dolgin: As a minority within the very traditional Canadian Jewish community, we prove ourselves to the rest of Canadian Jewry by bringing out the best of the Reform approach to Judaism, demonstrating that one can be at the same time modern and traditional, progressive and principled. For example, our Reform community in Toronto recognizes same-sex marriage-I officiated at the first same-sex Jewish wedding in Toronto-and we purchased a Jewish cemetery section to meet the needs of Reform-affiliated interfaith families. At the same time, the Reform community operates its own mikveh (ritual bath), and four Reform congregations offer one or more daily minyan services. This morning at our minyan, four of our members wore tefillin and all of the women and almost all of the men chose to wear a tallit.

How do the challenges facing Canadian Reform Jewry compare to those faced by American Reform Jews?

Rabbi Marmur: We both face anti-Semitism, though it may rear its ugly head more noticeably here than in the States, perhaps because more immigrants come here from countries with a history of anti-Semitism, such as Eastern Europe. This is especially true on university campuses, even though the Canadian government is pro-Israel and open to Jewish community input-or, perhaps, because of this. The prevailing sense of Jewish communal unity in Canada should help to address this problem. Moreover, the fact that many Jews here are either Holocaust survivors or their descendants has bolstered our community's resilience.

Rabbi Lerner: Canadian church attendance has fallen appallingly, now at low levels never before plumbed by the Americans. If general Canadian society rejects organized religion, what will Jewish society do? Already there are strong indications that the same "fee for service" mentality that afflicts the U.S. community is wreaking havoc upon the survival of organized Canadian Jewry.

Compounding these challenges, Muslims in Canada far outnumber Jews. Regular demonstrations in front of Israeli consulates and anti-Israel inroads at universities through leftist student unions have required the Jewish community to devote more time to providing balance in the press and in politics. ARZA Canada takes part in these efforts and Reform congregations also reach out to mosques l'shem shalom (for the sake of peace).

How have Canadian Jewish demographics changed and what are their implications for the 21st century?

Rabbi Lerner: Canadian Jewry, the fourth largest Jewish community in the world, appears to be growing slightly, in large part because of the 10,000 South African Jews who moved to Toronto in recent years. Still, the number of Jewish immigrants to Canada today does not equal the number of past arrivals-Holocaust survivors, refugees from the 1956 Hungarian uprising, French-speaking Jews from North Africa in the '60s and '70s, and Jews from the former Soviet Union in the '90s.

The greatest shift in Canadian demographics occurred in the 1970s after the election of the Parti Québécois, precipitating the relocation of thousands of Jews from Montreal to Toronto, Ottawa, and elsewhere. Once the largest Jewish community in the country, Montreal now ranks second by far to Toronto.

Today, the westward flow continues. Members of my congregation have been instrumental in founding and building Reform congregations in Regina, Saskatchewan, and Victoria, British Columbia. Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton are also becoming stronger centers of Jewish life. Vancouver's Jewish population, for one, has increased 30% in just ten years. A growing number of Jews also live in smaller western cities such as Kelowna, Whistler, and Fort McMurray, home of the oil sands.

What are some of the quirky facts or surprises one might discover about Canadian Jewry?

Rabbi Marmur: Quirky isn't something you should look for here. Life in Canada is decent and solid but, mercifully, not particularly exciting. It's a good country to live in, which is why so many immigrants stay. Those in search of excitement pop over to the United States, at least for a visit.

Rabbi Lerner: Canada's first synagogue, Shearith Israel, The Corporation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, was founded in Montreal by Ashkenazic Jews, but since all the other colonial synagogues of North America were Sephardic, they chose the Sephardic ritual, too.

In the Laurentian Mountains about sixty miles north of Montreal, a ride through the maple woods will take you to Mont Rabbi Stern, the only mountain in the world named after a rabbi, Rabbi Harry Joshua Stern.

From a Canadian perspective, what does it mean to be part of a North American Movement when the overwhelming majority of the North American population is in America?

Rabbi Marmur: Canadian Reform often receive less attention than American Reform. Voices have been raised in favor of creating a separate organization that better reflects our specific profile, but proximity to the great American Jewish centers as well as the common language and countless cultural and economic links make separation quite unrealistic. Thus we choose to be loyal members of the Union for Reform Judaism. Many of us also appreciate the vitality and resourcefulness of American Reform, despite living in its shadow.

Rabbi Lerner: Our major challenge is to stay distinctly Canadian, contributing to the whole of North American Jewish life, while learning from Jews in the United States, for what transpires in America often (but not always) arrives in Canada.

What does it mean for us to have a Biennial in Canada?

Rabbi Lerner: It's an opportunity for Americans to explore the Judaism of another country, where Canadians think differently about government, personal rights, group rights, healthcare, gun control, and the importance of traditions. They will also learn more about the Canadian psyche-Canadians are more than Americans with health insurance and without guns. Plus an exploration of Jewish life in Toronto, as well as the culture of the city itself, may well offer insights worth exporting to the United States.

Rabbi Marmur: The URJ Biennial in Toronto is a sign of our good convention facilities, excellent restaurants, many cultural institutions; easy access from the USA-and, currently, a favorable dollar exchange rate.

I also hope that Biennial visitors from America will recognize the vitality and strength of our community, despite its smaller numbers.

Rabbi Lerner: We welcome the Union for Reform Judaism to Canada in the hope that all of us can share a little of ourselves-our differences, our similarities, our challenges-and that we can learn, daven, and grow together as a Movement.