‘Mensch’ Father John Walsh Mourned by Jewish Montrealers

Nov. 20, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—To many, “Father John” was the Montreal Jewish community’s priest. Some even respectfully called him “Rabbi Walsh.”

All considered him a mensch – and a beloved one.

That’s been abundantly clear, given the outpouring of sadness, gratitude and, as he would have wished it, humorous reminiscing since Father John Walsh’s death at age 78 on Nov. 9.

Surely this was the first time in its century-long history that Paperman’s funeral home listed a Catholic priest among the funerals, with links to the interreligious memorial planned for him and to his favourite cause, the Nazareth Community, which serves the homeless.

The Paperman family said it “mourns the loss of a compassionate leader, a bridge builder and a dear friend” to the community. The scores of condolences on the website concurred.

“He endeared himself to Jewish Montrealers, who considered him one of their own,” tweeted Eta Yudin, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec.

In a nod to Father Walsh’s Irish heritage, one synagogue’s cantor sang Danny Boy at the Shabbat service after the priest’s death.

His longtime friend and collaborator Rabbi Michael Whitman of Congregation Adath Israel, posted a “secret” on social media: “The rabbis of Montreal knew that Father Walsh was much more popular in the Jewish community than any of us.”

Over the decades, Father Walsh had a bond with the community that went beyond interfaith dialogue, a term he avoided. He was not an emissary of the Catholic Church; he acted on his own volition. This was personal, even visceral.

Everyone has spoken of his genuine love and interest in each person, whoever they were. But Judaism and the Jewish people were the strongest among his ties to other religious and cultural groups.

He joked that with his initials – his full name was John Emmett Walsh – predestined him to a kinship with Jews.

His goodwill was constant in good times and bad, said Rabbi Whitman. Whenever there was an act of antisemitism in the world, he immediately called to express his solidarity.

As Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom put it at an interreligious memorial on Nov. 14, “those in interfaith work build relationships on theology or policy, but Father John built relationships for the relationship; nothing got in the middle.”

The memorial, which was webcast from a funeral home due to pandemic restrictions on gatherings, preceded Father Walsh’s funeral Mass, also invitation-only, on Nov. 16.

After studies in Rome, Father Walsh continued his education in theology and scripture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He learned Hebrew and his command of the language delighted Jewish audiences.

His ministry in Montreal spanned close to 50 years until his retirement from St. John Brebeuf Parish in LaSalle a decade ago. After that, he devoted even more time to what was dear to his heart.

In 2012, he, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, and Imam Zijad Delic, created a blog called Faith Blender. Each clergyman offered his perspective on current issues or common human dilemmas. Their goal, as the site points out, was not to convert anyone, but rather to share their respective traditions.

Father Walsh died of a heart attack as he was about to officiate at a funeral. He had been well and active until then. Just a few days before, he was feted by the Nazareth Community, with which he was associated for 40 years, when its newest shelter, a home for young men, was named “John’s House.”

Israeli Consul General David Levy made a donation on behalf of his country, to which Father Walsh remained faithful. Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sang on that occasion, as he did at the interreligious service.

Zelermyer had been friends with Father Walsh since the young American cantor came to Montreal some 20 years ago. This was not a polite acquaintance, but a deep relationship that extended to Zelermyer’s entire family.

He recalled the first time Father Walsh was a guest at his home for a Passover seder. The priest apologized that he had forgotten his kippah. Zelermyer’s young son quickly fetched one. “It was a red velvet one. A big smile came on John’s face and he exclaimed, ‘Hah, a promotion!’” alluding to the headwear of Catholic cardinals.

Zelermyer concluded the memorial with Come Healing and If it Be Your Will, two spiritual songs by Leonard Cohen.

There were official tributes as well. Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of CIJA-Quebec, stated that his close friend “brought Montreal together. His sincerity and love were powerful forces that helped shape the life of the city.” Federation CJA CEO Yair Szlak commented that Walsh “embodied the spirit of tikun olam. A mensch to the core, he will be deeply missed by Jewish Montrealers…”

When he was honoured with the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award in 2012, Father Walsh explained what motivated him. “My work in interfaith [dialogue] is to change humanity. If we can all reclaim that together, then we can make a better world. Yes, there will be differences. We need to say: How can we become better human beings?”

Pandemic Has Federation Pivoting on Priorities, AGM Hears

Sept. 29, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Thousands in the Montreal Jewish community have become ill with COVID, and “far too many have not survived.”

That grim observation by Federation CJA president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz set the sombre tone for the organization’s 103rd annual general meeting, livestreamed from its headquarters on Sept. 24.

Gail Adelson-Marcovitz
Gail Adelson-Marcovitz

In her report, Adelson-Marcovitz signaled that the pandemic has brought into stark relief the necessity to reassess the community’s priorities and direct resources to where they are most needed.

These have been identified by the Federation as meeting the immediate needs of those most severely affected by the pandemic, both those community members already recognized as vulnerable, and others who have suddenly found themselves struggling financially or facing domestic problems, as well as sustaining community institutions and the quality of Jewish life.

“All non-essential costs are being cut to ensure everyone’s survival,” Adelson-Marcovitz said, and that’s included “a dramatically reduced staff.”

This belt-tightening was being set in motion before the pandemic was declared, and has since accelerated, she said.

The Federation wants the input of the community-at-large in this process and is circulating a survey on critical needs, completed anonymously.

Adelson-Marcovitz said the goal is to “emerge a leaner and stronger community.”

Federation CEO Yair Szlak said the organization is moving away from automatic support for “legacy” agencies to “a funding model based on outcomes,” meaning funding will be based on measurable results.

Since the pandemic, the money going to Federation’s dozen agencies has been determined on a month-by-month basis, rather than an annual allocation.

Staff was cut by 30 percent in April and those remaining have taken salary cuts, he said.

The Federation is also re-evaluating its role, with a view to transitioning to “convener and collaborator rather than central command control,” said Szlak.

Pre-pandemic priorities of bolstering Jewish identity and community security are moving forward. Szlak said that $5.5 million raised during last year’s Combined Jewish Appeal will help pay for enhanced security at 34 synagogues, schools and other institutions, a total of over 40 buildings. More than 100 volunteers have been trained to served as “the eyes and ears” at those places, he said.

Jewish Identity Montreal has been created, integrating the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre and various programs, and a mobile application called JLife will soon be launched to provide a “concierge system to the Jewish world,” Szlak said.

In July, Federation kicked off a two-year campaign to raise $100 million in lieu of the usual annual CJA drive. Treasurer Serge Levy reported that while revenue from all sources for the fiscal year ending March 31 was down $7 million, for a total of approximately $50 million, the organization is in “a strong and stable financial position.”

Harvey Levenson

The meeting did have its lighter moments. Longtime volunteer and philanthropist Harvey Levenson was treated to a tribute video in which he was good-naturedly ribbed for everything from his love of scotch to his lack of fashion sense.

Levenson, who has been associated with Federation since the 1970s, received the Samuel Bronfman Medal, the organization’s highest honour. It was presented by Samuel Bronfman’s grandson, Stephen Bronfman.

In his acceptance speech, Levenson, currently chair of the Jewish General Hospital Foundation, said COVID has “completely altered our perception of what is important in the community…Who could have believed a pandemic would make the community come together in such a cohesive manner. We must have the courage and patience to continue on this road.”

Adelson-Marcovitz is completing the first year of her two-year term. The slate of board of directors for 2020-2021 was approved by online vote, and sees Joel Segal become first vice-president, traditionally the post before the presidency.