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Changing of the Guard: Three Montreal-area Synagogues Welcome New Rabbis

Mike Cohen

Montreal’s Jewish community is about to mark its first Rosh Hashanah in many years minus the presence of three extraordinary spiritual leaders: Rabbis Sidney Shoham, Ron Aigen and Chaim Steinmetz.

Rabbi Shoham served Beth Zion Congregation in Côte Saint-Luc for 50 years. Although officially retired when he passed away suddenly on Sept. 20, 2015, he remained a true presence as Rabbi Emeritus and at community events. Rabbi Aigen, who was at the pulpit at Dorshei Emet Congregation in Hampstead for 40 years, did not even get to enjoy retirement. He died last June only days before a special evening was planned to celebrate his many achievements. Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz served as the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem Congregation for 19 years. He left to become the senior rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, a distinguished and historic synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, succeeding one of the great leaders of the North American rabbinate, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. At Beth Ora Congregation in St. Laurent, Rabbi Mark Jablon has retired after nearly 30 years of service. He will remain a presence though an advisory role.

Be it for frequent or occasional synagogue-goer, the rabbi is viewed not only as a spiritual leader but as a counselor, role model and educator. He is the glue that keeps the congregation together. While membership at Montreal area synagogues vary, there are many struggling to stay afloat. When a rabbi departs, the choice of his successor – like the head coach of a hockey team – plays heavily on the organization’s future.

Rabbi Shoham was a legend in this city.  The first person chosen to succeed him came from the United States and left less than three years later. His replacement didn’t stay long either. It was only when Rabbi Boroch Perton agreed to leave his post as educational director at Hebrew Academy to join Beth Zion full-time that stability returned.

I met Rabbi Shoham as a toddler. As a lifelong member of Beth Zion, I’d see him during Hebrew school and was honoured that he stood at the pulpit during my bar mitzvah ceremony. Every year during the High Holidays, I would sit at my seat mesmerized by every word he uttered. He was often very controversial, but that is what his audience expected. Rabbi Shoham was a “very young” 86 years old when he died only hours after celebrating with friends and family at the synagogue’s annual Cantorial Concert.

As a city councillor in Côte Saint-Luc, I knew that we had to do something special to remember Rabbi Shoham. So, alongside Beth Zion president Earl Rosen, Mayor Mitchell Brownstein and the rest of the Council we renamed the portion of Hudson Avenue where the shul sits as Sidney Shoham Place. Hundreds showed up on Sept. 25 for an emotional ceremony as 5740 Hudson became 1 Sidney Shoham Place.

Soon after Rabbi Shoham`s retirement, I actually left Beth Zion. For it was the charisma and warm personality of Rabbi Steinmetz who prompted my family to switch over to Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem (TBDJ). Rabbi Steinmetz joined TBDJ in September, 1996. Prior to that, he served congregations in Mount Vernon, New York, and Jersey City, N.J. While I am hardly a regular synagogue-goer, I felt crushed when Rabbi Steinmetz announced he was leaving. I remembered how warm he was to me when my father died, attending the shiva each day. He participated in many family celebrations and was there for us during medical emergencies.

When our community was faced with challenges, such as the former separatist PQ government’s intolerant Charter of Values, Rabbi Steinmetz spoke out loudly and clearly against the proposed legislation.

So how does a synagogue go on and find suitable successors to the likes of Rabbis Shoham, Steinmetz, Aigen and Jablon?

Beth Zion got it right this time with Rabbi Perton. There have been rumours for years that it might merge with Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation (located nearby) but the stumbling block has always been what building would house the new entity. So they each carry on.

Dorshei Emet, which is a reconstructionist synagogue,  was in the process of finalizing the choice of a successor to Rabbi Aigen when he passed away after suffering from a heart attack a month earlier. Rabbi Boris Dolin arrived soon after via the Union of Progressive Congregations in Poland, where he led a multi-congregational community working to help rebuild Jewish life in Poland. For four years he worked as the associate rabbi and educator at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, OR and was previously a nursing home chaplain and university Jewish student advisor in the Philadelphia area.

TBDJ undertook one of the most comprehensive searches for a new rabbi I have ever seen, enabling every single member of the congregation to play a role. Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich, affectionately known as “Rabbi Y,”  arrived here in mid-August with his wife Rifki and their seven children via Atlanta. Since 2007 he had served as the Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Jacob. In addition, he became Head of School at Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael High School in 2014. In a very short period of time, he has begun to win people over.

Rabbi Freundlich was one of three final candidates brought to TBDJ to spend a weekend with congregants.  Prior to that a detailed survey had gone out, asking members to suggest exactly what kind of person they wanted to succeed Rabbi Steinmetz. More than 300 people attended a Shabbat dinner the week he arrived to formally welcome the rabbi and his family to TBDJ. “As my wife and I went from table to table to introduce ourselves it really felt like our wedding,” he said. “There was so much positive energy in the room.”

Finally, at Beth Ora, Rabbi Jablon gave a year’s notice that he wished to retire at which time a thorough search for his replacement began. It ended with the appointment of Rabbi Anthony Knopf, a native of Manchester, England who more recently served a congregation in Cape Town, South Africa.

I recently sat down with Rabbi Knopf, his charming wife Carly and synagogue president Howard Sholzberg. He was offered the job last fall, and accepted and arrived here with his wife and their four children in May. “Our personnel committee was very taken by him,” said Sholzberg. “I got to meet him via a Skype conversation.  After about 45 minutes I felt like I had known him my whole life. Immediately I arranged to have him and his wife flown to Montreal from South Africa for six days. He stayed with one of our members. We were all sold on him at that point.”

The rabbi already has sent the right vibe to congregants with his new open door policy (he sits in an office right beside the front entrance). His door is wide open and a sheet lists all of his personal phone numbers. “People can drop by and see me any time,” he says.

Though only 36, Sholzberg believes the rabbi will remain at Beth Ora, which serves more than 600 families in the area, “for a lifetime.”

A footnote to this story: the Young Israel of Chomedey Synagogue will soon be holding its final High Holy Day services. Due an incredibly dwindling membership, the synagogue’s executive made the difficult decision to sell its building, and it must vacate the premises in November. Some options exist for the synagogue to continue elsewhere, but at this point nothing has been finalized.

I very much look forward to the High Holy Day Services at my synagogue. For this is when attendance is at its peak. There will be three new rabbis delivering their first Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur sermons in Montreal. I am confident that congregants will be hanging on every word.

Mike Cohen is B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec news bureau chief, a veteran writer and municipal politician. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mikecohencsl