The prayer for the sick is a traditional part of the Jewish Sabbath service. In most conservative congregations, the rabbi reads a list of names -- typically ailing relatives of members -- and then intones a single, collective prayer. At Toronto's Beth Torah, they do things a little differently.
There, petitioners form a queue in the central aisle and Rabbi Yossi Sapirman comes down from the bimah (prayer altar) to greet each one separately. For each one, he recites the prayer. For the next 10 minutes or so, the other congregants are free to schmooze. In fact, Mr. Sapirman wants them to schmooze, and not only because socialization breeds community.
The chatter, he says, "helps to create a veil of silence" for the private discussion he has with the petitioners. "Each one can tell me something about the person who is sick. It makes a stronger connection."
Connection is a word that Mr. Sapirman, a youthful 36, uses frequently. In an age when religious leaders of many faiths are struggling to make ancient liturgy and ritual relevant to contemporary life, he is taking the personal approach to connecting with the 410 families who belong to Beth Torah.
It seems to be working famously. Since he arrived seven years ago, the synagogue -- situated in a largely Italian neighbourhood near Dufferin and Lawrence -- has doubled its membership, mostly with young families. Friday-night dinner services draw as many as 300 people. And while many synagogues are scratching to find new members, Beth Torah boasts a two-year waiting list of about 60 families eager to join. An article in a recent Canadian Jewish News called the synagogue "a shul that rocks."
Asked to explain his secret, Mr. Sapirman invokes Nobel Prize laureate J. M. Coetzee's line about refusing to anchor his novels in time or space. "Well, I refuse to anchor Judaism in time and space, but I insist that it live in the moment. That's the gift of Judaism. We give a lot of weight to history and tradition, but the central question for me is, what does this individual's moment require and can we accommodate it?"
It's not that God has been removed from Mr. Sapirman's Beth Torah -- not at all. It's simply that too many conservative institutions, in his view, "overuse the concept of God. You must do this because God says so. You lose half your audience if it's just God. Our duty is to translate God into a meaningful concept, not by top-down deductive faith, but by inductive faith, by intuition."
That overarching philosophy informs Mr. Sapirman's approach. But it's the translation of this unorthodox attitude into everyday Judaism that seems to be making the synagogue the hottest Jewish ticket in town.
His services are informal and family-oriented. When the Torah is marched with deliberate slowness around the sanctuary, Mr. Sapirman and cantor David Young -- by day, the auditor for the city of Brampton -- stop to shake hands, hand out Hershey's Kisses and chat briefly with congregants, while young children follow in procession, carrying their own mock Torahs. In addition to services, there are adult education sessions, as well as what Mr. Sapirman calls the Jew of Living Jewishly for pre- and post-bar-mitzvah-year classes. The synagogue's Hebrew school is called Hebrew's Cool.
"Rabbi Sapirman has brought a whole new spirit to the place," says Mindy Alter, a Beth Torah congregant for a decade. "It's especially appealing to families with young children. He's very welcoming of kids. He's learned, but not overbearing about it. He's just a genuine human being and he connects."
Another Beth Torah member, Miriam Jacobson, compares Mr. Sapirman to a Chagall painting -- "colourful and whimsical and very spiritual, but very grounded. He has an incredible capacity to make everyone feel important. I feel lucky to be there. He's really made it happen."
Part of Mr. Sapirman's appeal is his eclectic range of interests. Like many rabbis, he is well-read, though you're as likely to find him poring over the latest New York Times Magazine on Sundays as a book of Talmudic commentary. But there aren't many rabbis who are avid fly and salmon fishermen, or whose still-life photography is good enough to merit public exhibition (his is now on display at the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre) or who spent their formative years repairing washing machines and rebuilding bicycles.
Indeed, as the eldest son of an ultra-orthodox rabbi, Mr. Sapirman says his own path to the conservative pulpit has not been without familial strain. "It was difficult at home. There were rules to follow and I was not up to the rules."
He left home at 15, "struggling with the notion of what it meant to find a human experience in Judaism." By day, he replaced transmissions in washing machines; by night, he studied Talmud, never severing his connection to the Jewish community. Eventually, he received his formal ordination. About a decade ago, when filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici launched a small Orthodox synagogue on the Danforth, he asked Mr. Sapirman to lead it. Later, he also served as rabbi for a small congregation in Peterborough, Ont. -- a part-time job he supplemented by repairing bicycles.
"I have a lot of respect for him," says his friend Avrum Rosensweig, founder of Ve'ahavta, a Toronto-based international relief agency. "Yossi marches to the beat of his own drum. He's managed to take his learning into a place that is comfortable for him. And he's creating programs applicable to the times we live in."
The synagogue's explosive growth, of course, is not an unalloyed blessing. Beth Torah lacks the facilities needed to serve its membership. A building committee is now examining options for expansion. The highest priority would seem to be a social hall. At the moment, lunches and dinners for weddings and bar mitzvahs must be set up in the sanctuary, after the services end.
But for the moment, few are complaining -- certainly not Mr. Sapirman. Only weeks before heading off on a holiday vacation with his wife, Gaby Pollard, he signed a new four-year contract.