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Rabbi Yael Splansky has ‘done a lot to bring the congregation back together,’ one member says. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Rabbi Yael Splansky has ‘done a lot to bring the congregation back together,’ one member says. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Religion

A Toronto rabbi builds a big tent Add to ...

Yael Splansky, the new senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple, had a joyous encounter this week. A former member of the congregation who had fallen away from the fold approached her to say that he and his family had decided to rejoin the prestigious Toronto synagogue.

“They feel we are on the right track,” said Splansky, who was designated as senior rabbi last month after acting in the role for two years.

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After a difficult transition from the rabbinate of her predecessor, John Moscowitz, Splansky’s job is to convince a diverse and sometimes fractious membership of 6,500 that Holy Blossom is indeed back on track. She has to reengage the members alienated by her cerebral predecessor and calm the ones angry at the way he was pushed aside, but more importantly still, she has to reach new congregants, especially from interfaith families.

Holy Blossom is Canada’s most influential synagogue, with a powerful membership that includes top Bay Street lawyers and investment bankers as well as a senator or two. But, like many mainstream Jewish institutions, it is facing an existential crisis: Its membership is declining and yet split on religious and cultural questions. Splansky, who was selected after an exhaustive search, has to oversee a contentious $30-million renovation to the 76-year-old temple, tiptoe around varying views on Israel, ensure the competing needs of different generations are met and preach inspirational sermons to boot. The least of her worries is that she is the first woman ever to hold the job.

“There are women and men those who approach me … [and] say ‘I think it’s terrific; that Holy Blossom Temple is bold enough to make to make a woman a senior rabbi.’ In the minds of some of our congregation it’s significant in terms of egalitarianism and liberal thinking,” she said. “Others barely notice.” The Reform branch of Judaism to which Holy Blossom adheres has been faster to promote female clergy than many Christian churches. There have been women in assistant rabbi roles at Holy Blossom since 1980.

“By the time I got there, nobody blinked,” said Splansky, who started work at Holy Blossom as an assistant rabbi in 1998 and was promoted to associate rabbi in 2000.

Still, Splansky, a 43-year-old mother of three school-age boys and a fourth-generation Reform rabbi who hails from the Boston area, represents a big change in style at Holy Blossom. She is the author of a Jewish prayer book and cites Torah study as the highlight of her week, but what her congregants value is her empathy, humility and tact. In keeping with a traditional model of the rabbi as a teacher and scholar, her predecessors formed a long line of patrician and sometimes intimidating men – Moscowitz, in particular, was noted for his cool intellect – who were better at delivering important sermons than offering the Kleenex box.

“She is just so opposite to every other rabbi we’ve had,” said lifelong member Phyllis Pepper who was in kindergarten when Holy Blossom moved into its current building the 1930s. “They have all had great stature and that is what she lacks … [But] what is really important and we haven’t had for a long time is someone who really cares about the congregation.”

“Moscowitz is an intellectual as a rabbi, he was interested in ideas and matters of the mind; he had a formidable intellect,” said congregant Allan Gotlieb, the former Canadian ambassador to the United States. “She is a very different personality … She’s an extremely nice person, very warm.”

That warmth is already starting to heal the wounds that were opened in 2012 when the synagogue’s board announced Moscowitz would be taking a three-year sabbatical and then retiring. (The sabbatical ends in June, 2015, at which point Splansky officially becomes senior rabbi.)

“She’s really done a lot to bring the congregation back together,” said Diana Goodman, a long-time member who served as board president in the 1990s. “We are in a good place at the moment – there is still a lot of work to do, but given where we were a year and half ago – that has a lot to do with Yael.”

In part the divide in the congregation was generational: perhaps counter-intuitively to outsiders, middle-aged Canadian Jews tend to be more conservative than their parents, intent on reviving traditional rituals and adding more Hebrew to services. Many also take hawkish positions on the subject of Israel. Their elders at Holy Blossom were often old liberals who had not learned much Hebrew; they had thrown off their immigrant parents’ ways and assimilated into mainstream Canada. The most outspoken opposition to Moscowitz’s retirement came from Senator Linda Frum, a supporter of Israel who takes credit for bringing Jewish votes to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives: she left the synagogue in protest.

How much criticism of the Israeli government is permitted in the pulpit is one of the trickiest issues a contemporary rabbi faces, says Stephen Fried, the American journalist and author of The New Rabbi, a 2002 book that dissected a rabbinical appointment in Philadelphia. If Moscowitz could sometimes raise congregants’ eyebrows with his enthusiasm for the idea that Israel has a right to defend itself, Splansky takes a highly diplomatic approach.

“I wouldn’t use the word criticism, but I might use the word disappointment, the way we might be disappointed in the people we love, but our commitment and our loyalty to the people we love has to be steadfast,” she said. And she adds: “When it comes to which speakers we invite, we should have the whole spectrum, left, right, and centre. That mirrors the congregation.”

The generations are also divided over the renovations at Holy Blossom, which was founded as an orthodox synagogue in 1856, shifted to Reform later in the 19th century and erected its building at Bathurst and Eglinton in 1938. The building’s front doors are on Bathurst, placing its altar at the western end of that site; some enthusiasts believed the renovations needed to reorient the sanctuary so that the congregation would pray facing east towards Jerusalem, the traditional orientation of synagogues. However, the reno that starts next fall will keep the old sanctuary. Long-time members’ sentimental associations with the existing space won out over the symbolism of the reorientation.

Who will this new building receive? Holy Blossom currently counts 1,750 families in its membership, down from 2,500 in 2001. Once wounds are healed and renovations complete, perhaps the biggest job for Splansky is ensuring that Holy Blossom’s doors are genuinely open to anyone who is interested – even if they aren’t actually Jewish. How interfaith couples and their children should be welcomed is another difficult issue. Unlike its American counterparts, Reform Judaism in Toronto maintains the traditional position that only children of a Jewish mother are Jewish by birth; at Holy Blossom, the children of a Gentile mother and a Jewish father must convert to participate. Splansky wouldn’t speculate when that might change, but noted that the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto have taken a position that synagogues should support interfaith families; these days, no traditional religious institution can afford to be exclusive.

“Our first step is to bring the outer circle of congregants into the centre and help them feel more engaged,” she said, pointing to everything from Torah study groups to social justice programs like Out of the Cold as potential entry points. “One of the roles rabbis play is to help guide people to find that place. Once you have got your circle, it really feels like an extension of home. You find sacred community. There is nothing like it.”

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