Gala to Honour Hamilton Temple Presidents

Sept. 15, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Synagogue president is one of the toughest jobs in the Jewish world, usually coming with little praise and a double dose of criticism.

Temple Anshe Sholom, Hamilton’s first synagogue and the oldest Reform congregation in Canada, will try to balance that old formula on Oct. 4 in a gala event dubbed “Past. Presidents. Future.”

Rabbi Bernard Baskin
Rabbi Bernard Baskin

The fundraiser will also mark the 100th birthday of Rabbi Bernard Baskin, who held the Anshe Sholom pulpit for a record 40 years, the longest tenure in the synagogue’s history.

Originally designed as a gala dinner at Hamilton’s largest banquet hall, the COVID pandemic forced the entire affair online.

Over the Temple’s 170-year history 44 men and four women have taken on the job of steering the institution through periods of growth, decline, building and reshaping.

The post can be so demanding that neither of the two men who currently share it would agree to do it on his own. Acknowledging the people who have provided such leadership, they say, is long overdue.

“Volunteers are a unique group of people, but our presidents take on an entirely different kind of responsibility and we have never celebrated that,” said Yves Apel, co-president with Mark Levine.

“Being president is like a third level Jewish ninja,” Apel confided. “It needs stamina, intensity and tact. There is no textbook, so you have to learn on the job. It takes a really special person to step up for that and that’s who we are celebrating.”

Added Levine: “Until I assumed this mantle, I didn’t really understand how much work this is. It’s almost a full-time job because we have to be hands-on managers as well as strategy people.”

Anshe Sholom’s roster of presidents has included doctors, several lawyers, business owners, real estate brokers, academics and accountants. For 22 of those, leading the congregation has been a family affair, including two father-son tenures, one father-daughter presidency, and several who followed in the footsteps of uncles or brothers-in-law.

Louise Sole

There’s brothers Carl and Dave Loewith, who operate a dairy farm on the outskirts of Hamilton; brothers Louis and Harold Minden; father-son Albert and Jay State; and Dr. Nicholas Sole and daughter Louise Sole Rotman. She was also the first woman to head the congregation.

Anshe Sholom’s roots go back to 1850, almost two decades before Canada was even a country. That’s when Hamilton’s 13 Jewish families started gathering in each other’s homes to lay the groundwork for a communal life.

They were all German; in fact, they kept their early records in that language. Most were merchants who had arrived in Canada looking for a life free from prejudice.

The group eventually named itself the Hebrew Benevolent Society Anshe Sholom of Hamilton. In 1863, the Jewish Congregation Anshe Sholom was incorporated. The first synagogue was over a downtown store, but in 1882, committees were formed and money was raised for the first Temple on Hughson Street South. That building served until 1952 when it was replaced by the present structure on Cline Avenue North.

Edmund Scheur
Edmund Scheuer

Edmund Scheuer, often called the father of Reform Judaism in Canada, was one of the first presidents. He came to Hamilton in 1871 to join his brother-in-law Herman Levy’s jewelry business. In 1873, at age 26, he was elected president of the Temple and held the position for the rest of his 15 years in Hamilton.

Among the Temple’s 14 religious leaders, names such as Emil Fackenheim, who went on to a distinguished career as a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, and Arthur Feldman, a scholar and great personal friend of Sigmund Freud, stand out.

But the name towering above all others is Bernard Baskin.

During his 40 years in the pulpit it fell to him to lead the congregation through two building campaigns, periods of growth and decline and struggles to redefine the nature of Reform Judaism for a world unimagined by his predecessors.

Those struggles included wrestling with questions such as what degree of kashrut would be observed, would men cover their heads during worship, what roles would the non-Jewish spouses of members be permitted to play in the life of the Temple, would gambling be an acceptable way to raise money and how could a younger generation be kept interested in the faith of their parents.

The event will be hosted by veteran broadcaster Ralph Benmergui.

Tickets for exclusive access to the streaming event, and for sponsorship and donation opportunities, are available at: www.pastpresidentsfuture.ca or by calling 905-528-0121. Ticketholders will receive an email with access information prior to the event.

* The above corrects the phone number to call for tickets to this event.

Reform Jews Begin High Holiday Period Online

Sept. 11, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Canada’s Reform congregations are going online tomorrow (Saturday) night to mark the start of the High Holidays.

Sponsored by the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, the event follows the Reform movement’s successful online “Tikkun Leil” late-night study session at Shavuot.

It will be the movement’s fourth effort at staging important events online. Previous efforts included the “Rise Up for Israel” fundraiser that collected $100,000, and a nationwide Tikkun Olam town hall.

Saturday’s event, however, will be the first involving an actual service. Twenty congregations across the country are expected to take part.

“Selichot is the official kick-off to the High Holy Days season,” said Rabbi Jordan Cohen of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton. “It has always been a uniquely different service that I find very moving.

“We knew we had to do something to get the most out of this season,” he added. “We got together on this rather than having everyone reinvent their own wheel. With this, we are all working from the same siddur and everyone is literally on the same page.”

Cohen and his wife, Cantor Paula Baruch, took the lead in organizing the event. His team put together study sessions and a keynote presentation by Rabbi Larry Hoffman of Hebrew Union College. Baruch led a group that arranged the pre-recorded service.

Anshe Sholom’s traditional Selichot service includes a period of text study, changing the dressings on the Torah scrolls to their High Holy Days white, and a period of prayers where the sanctuary lights are dimmed and congregants are encouraged to spread out and search their souls.

That’s a spirit Baruch said they want to preserve in an online service where participants will have a chance to see their own sanctuary.

“We want to give people an inclusive, intimate moment, even though it’s all on a screen,” she said.

“Every congregation will be able to see inside their own sanctuary and their own rabbi and cantor. That will make the experience very special.”

Headlining the service will be a new version of Avinu Malkeinu performed by a virtual choir of cantors.

Dr. Pekka Sinervo, president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, said the council is providing advertising and technical support for the event.

“We see it as doing the things we are supposed to do, supporting the community,” he said.

Reform congregations, he said, have been leaders in responding to the COVID pandemic by using technology to continue offering services and programs to members, something he thinks will continue, especially for marginalized communities such as the elderly and handicapped.

“With this, we are taking advantage of technology to rethink how we reach out to our community,” he said. “With the pandemic, it became very clear that this was the right thing to do. This opens up a new dimension to what out congregations can be,” he added.

Saturday’s program on Zoom begins at 9 pm with a keynote presentation by Hoffman, followed by discussion groups at 9:30; Havdalah at 10 p.m.; and the Selichot service at 10:15.

Among those helping to organize the event were Rabbi Stephen Wise of Oakville’s Share-Beth El congregation; Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto’s City Shul, Rabbi Debbie Dressler of Temple Israel in London, and Cantor David Rosen of Holy Blossom Temple.

Register at https://urj.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJAqdeqvpjgpE91beim3eE_6amUJqlmlQpdy


Steve Arnold
Steve Arnold

Steve Arnold worked 42 years in Canadian journalism, retiring in 2016 from The Hamilton Spectator. He holds a BA in history and political science, an MA in public policy analysis and has received 25 awards for writing excellence. He now lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.