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Honouring Rabbi Dr. Wilfred Shuchat zt"l at the Rabbinical Assembly

05/09/2019 02:33:49 PM


Rabbi Adam Scheier

I am grateful to the Rabbinical Assembly and the conference organizers for the opportunity to speak about our beloved Rabbi Shuchat zt”l.


An important piece of Rabbi Shuchat’s legacy for our congregation and community is through the books that he wrote, in particular the one documenting the history of the Shaar. In that book, he records the conversations that took place in the late 19th Century between Shaar leadership and the Seminary. (At that time, the Shaar was entering its second half-century, and the Seminary was finishing its first decade.)


The Shaar engaged Reverend Bernard Kaplan, and his installation – on June 16, 1898 – was a moment of significant connection between the synagogue and the seminary. The leadership of the seminary – the president, Joseph Blumenthal, the head of the faculty, Rev. H. Pereira Mendes, and the dean, Rev. Bernard Drachman, all made their way up to Montreal for this occasion. The relationship continued when the congregation searched for a new rabbi a few years later, and Dr. Solomon Schechter recommended that one of his students serve as a High Holiday rabbi as an interim measure. That student rabbi, Herman Abramowitz, ended up staying for almost half a century.


The connection with the Seminary and the Conservative movement remained strong under Rabbi Abramowitz’s leadership. One example was in 1933, when Rabbi Abramowitz arranged a series of lectures in Montreal in honour of the Seminary’s 50th anniversary. Essentially the entire JTS faculty made their way up to Montreal at some point or another that year – according to a synagogue bulletin article at the time, “from October to April of that year there were 32 total lectures.”


When Rabbi Abramowitz fell ill in 1945, the synagogue turned to the placement arm of the RA to find a replacement. Rabbi Shuchat’s first appearance at the Shaar was, in his words, bashert. He was visiting Montreal, his hometown, to officiate at the wedding of a childhood friend; somehow, the leadership of the synagogue found out about the visit and conveyed a message to him, in Rabbi Abramowitz’s name, inviting him to assume the pulpit for that Shabbat. He agreed, and served our community – first as assistant rabbi, then as rabbi, then as rabbi emeritus – for the next 73 years.


He would refer to his rabbinate – his legacy – as “enlightened scholarship and dignity and decorum in worship.”


For many years, the connection with JTS was strong. On the occasion of Rabbi Shuchat’s 25th anniversary at the Shaar ( which coincided with the congregation’s 125th anniversary) one speaker quoted the words of Dr. Solomon Schechter: “There is one thing more important than modernity and that is eternity.” During that year of celebrations, over 1000 people came to see Rabbi Dr. Louis Finkelstein present an honorary degree of doctor of laws from JTS to Roland Michener, the Governor General of Canada. Leading members of the congregation were named Fellows of the Seminary. The Shaar, the Conservative Movement, the RA, JTS, Camp Rama – they were all one, for all intents and purposes. In a large part, Rabbi Shuchat’s leadership was behind this vision.

In his book, he wrote the following:  “From about 1898 to 1976, relations with the Jewish Theological Seminary of America were front and centre at the Shaar Hashomayim.”


Of course, he wrote this book in the early-1990s. What transpired what that Rabbi Shuchat was also open and forthright with criticism when he felt it was deserved. The relationship between the synagogue at the Seminary was strained in the late 1970s, as Rabbi Shuchat was a member of the Commission on the Ordination of Women for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He authored the dissenting minority report.


Rabbi Shuchat was a champion of traditional Judaism. He was committed to mission first, and institutions second. Of course, was proud of the institutions with which he associated, in particular Shaar Hashomayim. More than 25 years after his retirement from the active rabbinate, synagogue members will recall some of the highlights of his leadership: developing connections with Israel, establishing a network of home study groups, representing the Jewish community on so many occasions including at the memorial services for King George VI, being a source of stability in times of political instability in this province, and maintaining a course of tradition Judaism for a largely non-observant – but deeply intelligent and interested – membership. 


A few months ago, Rabbi Shuchat passed away. He remained a vibrant members of our daily minyan and Shabbat community until his last days. He was often the first in shul in the morning, would spend his days engaged in Torah story and writing his books on Midrash, and always made himself available to the members of the congregation and the clergy who sought his company and advice. 


On behalf of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, we are very moved by the decision of the RA to honour Rabbi Shuchat’s legacy this evening. He was a man of integrity and devotion who loved the synagogue and his community. We will continue to remember Morenu Harav Zeev ben Meir u’Breina for years to come.


Thank you.

172nd AGM - President's message

11/27/2018 08:30:03 AM


Claire Berger Fagen

ברוכים הבאים, bienvenue, Welcome


Dear Rabbi, Clergy, honoured guests and friends,


As we gather this evening for the 172nd Annual General Meeting of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, I would like to start by thanking the Nominations Committee for their trust in nominating me for a third year and state that I am humbled and honoured to accept the position of President of our beloved Shaar Hashomayim for an additional year. It is indeed a great privilege to work with such an extraordinary team of professionals and lay leaders. Ceci est un grand honneur et je suis fière et confiante de pouvoir relever ce défi. Once again there have been many new initiatives this year as well as continued progress in the areas that make our shul so special.


We are proud to be recognized as a leading active and vibrant Congregation not only in our city but abroad as well. Our vision of outreach towards others of our community and communities beyond is exemplified by and demonstrated by our Rabbi Scheier who continues to lead by example and spreads the message of solidarity and acts of kindness both near and far from Montreal.


Indeed we are proud of the many diverse initiatives undertaken by our clergy team. Our Schools, Youth and Young Families and Young Professionals cohorts continue to expand their programming under the most able and steadfast leadership of Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold. Our services and music programs are second to none and continue to inspire week in and week out. This past year, the members of our music department have been invited to showcase their talents in multiple cities . As we prepare for our Spring concert “Tribute to Leonard Bernstein”, I would like to commend Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and musical director Roï Azoulay for their vision and passion for making the Shaar music program so prominent and respected by all. Our music department does our congregation proud, and on behalf of the Shaar family, we hope that they continue to go from strength to strength.


A special thank you to Yosi Even-Hen for his warmth and kinship making everyone feel at home in our services and religious day to day life here at the Shaar.


Membership continues to be priority and this year we were pleased to welcome 61 new member units. Il nous fait grand plaisir d’annoncer que nous avons accueilli 61 nouveaux membres cette année. Notre comité travaille tout au long de l’année pour s’assurer que les programmes sont d’une qualité exceptionnel. Je vous encourage à vous adresser à Robyn Bennett pour plus amples renseignements concernant les activités disponibles pour tous les intérêts et tous les âges.


Nous avons fait des progrès significatifs face aux nombreux défis que nous affrontons. Notre budget de fonctionnement annuel continue d’être problématique, puisque nous devons concilier les besoins de la Congrégation et notre responsabilité fiscale. Il est toutefois important de noter que, malgré la surveillance vigilante de nos coûts, nos activités quotidiennes sont touchées par les augmentations du coût de la vie et par les coûts de maintenance continue de notre édifice : il est beau, mais avance en âge.


The Shaar Family Campaign Committee, under the exceptional leadership of Honorary President Michael Cape and expert guidance of Marvin Corber, have worked tirelessly and with great passion to raise the funds that are so necessary for the long-term longevity of our congregation. They continue to work towards its goal of 12 million dollars necessary to sustain our physical structure for the urgent and necessary repairs to our nearly 100-year-old building and to transform key spaces and to enhance our programs for Jewish Life and Learning. I wish to express, on behalf of the entire congregation, with special mention to Rabbi Scheier and Mark Caplan and all members of the committee my sincerest gratitude and thanks. To date, we have $9.77 million pledged.


The outpouring of support has truly been amazing . It is now up to each one of us to join in and participate to the best of our ability in ensuring that we meet our goal. There is still time to take part and be recognized on the Donor wall. The plan is to conclude our Capital Campaign this coming spring, as we prepare to renovate the spaces on the upper level including the Chapel and Cote-St. Antoine Plaza. As we look to the future and examine the costs going forward in order to maintain our aging building, the Board, House Committee and Finance Committee will be evaluating the measures that will need to be put in place to create a solid financial base for our future. The entire membership will be expected to contribute through a “Building fund” which will be levied to those who have not donated to the Shaar Capital Campaign. It is our collective responsibility as a community to ensure at all times , that the Shaar continues to be fiscally responsible to its members, through vigilance over the current operating budget and continuing to raise funds to sustain the physical assets as well as the wonderful programming. I would like to thank our Treasurer Julius Suss and our very involved finance and investment committees for their invaluable help in ensuring that we move forward in meeting our fiscal objectives. L’équilibre de notre budget annuel demeure un défi puisque nous devons concilier les besoins de notre congrégation et la responsabilité financière.


In the coming year , we look forward to the launch of Planned giving and legacy gift program. Stay tuned , details to follow in the new year.


Last year I noted that we had engaged the services of both Manon Asselin of TAG for our interior renovations and Sophie Robitaille of Robitaille Curtis for the exterior universal access and landscaping portion. At present , work has begun on the universal access ramp at the 450 Kensington entrance. We await a set of approvals from the City of Westmount before we can continue with the design phase of the interior on the upper level. Also, renovations were completed on the 426 Metcalfe property .


It is most important to note, that our security committee lead by Joshua Ostregra had been extremely active in reviewing our security measures throughout the synagogue and working closely with Akiva to review the overall safety of our complex. These steps had been started prior to the Tree of Life of Pittsburg tragedy, but are being revisited and will ensure: that we engage a counsel of experts, and  that we upgrade all procedures with a concentration on ongoing and continuous training .

Il me fait grand plaisir de souligner que cette année a été spéciale pour notre communauté francophone. Non seulement nous avons participé pour la première fois à une mimouna ici au Shaar, qui a vu  plus de 500 participants de notre communauté de Montréal mais nous avons vécu la création du comité francophone qui a ajouté plusieurs programmes culturels et communautaires à notre calendrier du Shaar. Kol hakavod et bonne continuation à Isabelle Danino , France Bratt et leur comité.


Our By Laws and Governance Committee has nearly completed it revisions and will be notifying you of said changes in the 2019 year.


La Sisterhood du Shaar dirigée par Enid Backman et Oro Librowicz continue d'infuser  la synagogue de projets culturels et chesed.  Notre programme Tuesday Night Learning sous la direction de Mark Caplan et Lewis Dobrin continue de se surpasser chaque saison et fait venir des intervenants du plus haut calibre pour l'édification de toute la communauté montréalaise. Nous attendons avec impatience un programme élargi d'éducation des adultes dans l'année à venir sous la direction de Marie Hélène Laramée.


Un grand merci à nos programmes Meals on Wheels.  Pour les volontaires qui consacrent tant de temps à notre programme de popote roulante, ainsi qu’aux nombreux hommes et femmes participant au programme Bikkur Cholim - la mitsva de rendre visite aux malades - ces programmes sont inégalés et illustrent véritablement le dévouement de notre communauté et la culture de s'entraider.


We are grateful to Naomi Kassie who ensures that the Open Gate and Leisure Institute provides important programming to our seniors and shut-ins. Our long standing programs and committees are a tremendous a source of pride and remain at the core of who we are.


I marvel at how very fortunate we are to have such a talented, energetic Board who are keen to see positive change happen so that we remain both fiscally responsible and continuously relevant to our congregants and community at large. Our dedicated Officers and Board of Trustees spend countless hours and work tirelessly to govern this great institution with exceptional leadership and unwavering commitment. A special thank you to those leaving the Board & Officers at this time: Isabelle Danino, Marian Levy and Bruce Vineberg who have all been invaluable to me and our Congregation. They have all promised to stay involved in their areas of expertise and I am very thankful. To David Abrams who steps down as Parnass after 8 years , we thank you once again for your devotion to our shul which has touched us all.


Our chair “people” and their committees are integral to seeing that the core values of our community are upheld in all our programming and planning. I wholeheartedly thank them for their immense contributions.


Comme nous pouvons tous l’imaginer, plusieurs personnes, qu’elles soient laïques, professionnelles ou employées, déploient de grands efforts pour préserver et bonifier l’expérience Shaar pour chacun des membres de notre congrégation.


As anyone can attest, our offices and building are in perpetual motion and it is due in no small part to the teamwork of the incredible staff who work diligently to make it seem so effortless. Our profound thanks go to Executive Director Penni Kolb, the entire office staff, Jose, Tania and the entire kitchen and maintenance staff. We welcome Eric Amar  who has recently joined the Shaar family as CFO of the organization.


In closing, I would also like to add a personal thank you to my family.  My husband Alvin and my children Erica, Danielle and Ben for their unwavering support and encouragement.

To all those whom I may had not mentioned by name - please accept my thanks for your commitment and devotion to our beloved shul.


As I stated last year - it is my sincerest hope that all of us together as a congregation will continue to honour the past, celebrate the present, and look forward to a bright future for our Shaar Hashomayim.


Thank you, merci, תודה רבה.


Youth Shabbat Sermon 2

11/13/2018 03:02:19 PM


Olivia Layman

When you walk into the Shaar, one of the first things you notice is the separate seating between men and women in our synagogue. Many of you might have a hard time with separate seating, while others might be totally fine with it. However you feel about this issue, I hope to enlighten you with my own point of view.


To start, a bit of context. Seating separated by a Mechitzah started in the temple of Jerusalem. It all began with a balcony that was built for women to sit in so that the men and women would sit separately. Some may see this as the men got the luxurious seats below in the front, which in the world of sports would be “the best seats in the house”. However, since this temple was built a long time ago, we don’t really know for sure how the men and women felt about it. The only thing that we are sure of, based on the Talmud text which describes this, is that the balcony was created to prevent levity between men and women. Levity can be interpreted as being flirty with one another and displaying inappropriate behavior.


As time went by, there started to be this snowball effect where rabbis continued to add their views or interpretations of the mechitzah. This is what happens in every area of Jewish law, that as time goes on, many interpretations develop. Over time, mechitzahs developed in different designs and different heights. Rabbis debated the height requirement of a mechitzah. Some said the mechitzah should be so high that the men can’t even see the women on the other side. Others said it should be minimal height, enough to just

prevent levity by dividing the room. It makes you wonder, how do you measure levity? How do you measure a feeling or a behavior? In our case at the Shaar, we follow the minimum requirement of approximately 36 inches high.


I have learned that there are many reasons for the mechitzah. Many people believe that men and women simply cannot think of anything but each other when seated together. So, according to this belief, there needs to be separate seating to prevent distractions. But I disagree with this assumption. Are men such barbarians that they cannot take their eyes off of women in order to listen and pray during services? Is a woman’s sole purpose to be an object of beauty for men? In a class that I am taking in school, we discussed that when we enforce and conform to gendered stereotypes they become normalized and accepted in society. Have we heard this rationalization for the mechitzah so often that now many people think it is true?


What about other sources of distraction? Has anyone taken into account that women still talk to women on their side, and men do the same on the other side? It seems to me that no matter who you put someone next to, male or female, there is always potential for distraction.


There is also the issue that these rules were made for only certain kinds of human beings. The rules of the mechitzah never thought about homosexuality, and the fact that men can be a distraction for other men and women can be a distraction for other women. Also, those who are non-binary, that is not identifying with one gender, are put in this uncomfortable position of being forced to choose the men or the women’s side.


We must also take into account that mechitzahs can prevent certain families from sitting together. This is not true for all families, and I’m sure many people would argue that they do not mind being separated from their parents, siblings, and so on, but for those who do want to pray together, I believe they should have the choice.


So can we define a mechitzah in a way that includes all people, and that makes sense in the 21st century? I think it’s hard. But perhaps in some cases it is a way to designate the synagogue space as a unique space. Most places that you go to, there’s a purpose. In every other room in our lives, whether in a class or a theatre, there’s a reason you go there. The synagogue space feels different. It is a sacred space, and maybe the fact that we even sit differently can help be a reminder of that.


Everyone has traditions, whether it be family traditions or religious traditions. Mechitzahs have been a part of Orthodox Judaism for many years. To have one in the room is upholding a tradition, which to some it brings comfort and strength and a sense of continuity and stability.


I will be honest and say that even though I may not agree with having a mechitzah, I do understand where the practice came from. I think that like any tradition, it plays an important role and has been part of our synagogue for a long time. A tradition good or bad cannot and should not be forgotten, but it can be reinterpreted much in the way we have revisited other aspects of Judaism to make them more in line with our modern day lives.


Shabbat Shalom.



Youth Shabbat Sermon 1

11/10/2018 08:45:38 AM


Jared Boretsky

Growing up in Montreal, I was exposed to a very limited image of what being Jewish means. As a kid, Judaism was exclusively associated with traditional orthodox Judaism. Surely I had met other types of Jews, but in my schools that I attended and of course here at my synagogue, it was this traditional form of Judaism that was shown to me.


In the summer of grade 10, I went to Israel as part of the Diller Teen Fellowship, where, for the first time, I had the chance to meet and connect with a much more diverse group of Jews, from across the world. Until then, I had only known Montreal Jews who were fairly similar to me. I suddenly met Jews from across Canada, the United States, Israel, South Africa and Australia. And these Jews were Reform, Conservative, unaffiliated, atheist, and yes, Orthodox. All kinds of Jews from all walks of life.


Meeting these new Jews drastically shifted my understanding of what it means to be Jewish. I remember one instance in particular, when a friend of mine from the United States got a tattoo of a Magen David. I remember seeing that tattoo, and immediately feeling conflicted. Growing up, I had learned that Jews did not get tattoos. I understood that getting a tattoo was against Jewish law, directly based on a verse in the Torah. However, here was a friend, who felt so strongly about his Judaism, he decided to get a symbol of his faith permanently drawn onto his body. Surely then, he is a committed Jew. But he’s showing it in a way that contradicted everything that I had been taught about being a committed Jews. It was a new and confusing idea.

In this morning’s Parsha, Toldot, we read about two brothers feuding. This is not a new phenomenon. From Cain and Abel, to Isaac and Ishmael, to Joseph and his brothers, Bereshit is filled with conflict between brothers. Toldot is no different, documenting the upsetting rivalry between two twins, Jacob and Esav. However, the idea of sibling rivalry is upsetting. My three siblings and I never, ever fight! Why does it seem that in the Torah, brothers are destined to fight, and that families are to be ripped apart?


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the book of Bereshit teaches us that we can rise above these sibling rivalries. “Sibling Rivalry may be natural, but it is not inevitable”. The torah teaches us that through generosity of the spirit and active efforts of reconciliation, we can overcome this force that divides us. The story of Jacob’s children illustrates this so beautifully. Although the brothers initially fall prey to the entrapments of sibling rivalry, they manage to overcome it. In the end, all 12 brothers become members of the nation of Israel, each as their own tribe with their own identity and contribution. As Rabbi Sacks explains, “Only as a confederation of tribes can Israel exist.”


My friend who decided to get a tattoo, may have done something that I would never do in my own Jewish life. But his doing so, however, doesn’t make him less Jewish. Like the 12 tribes of Israel, we all bring our own unique values and character to the Nation of Israel, and it is only when we live together that the nation is at its strongest. Towards the end of my highschool career, through the Diller Teen Fellowship and other experiences, I started to be presented more views on how to practice Judaism, views different from my own, and my conception of what it meant to be Jewish changed fundamentally. I realized that to be Jewish is to not only be part of a religion, but to be part of a people, a nation. There is no one right way to be Jewish. For some people, Judaism means coming to synagogue weekly, or keeping kosher. For others, being Jewish means eating bagels and lox in the morning, or going on a birthright trip with other Jews. For some, being Jewish could even mean getting a tattoo of a Magen David. Even though I wouldn’t personally take that approach, seeing my peers so confident in practicing their own expression of Judaism, gave me the confidence to practice my own Judaism, which I learned from my schools, my synagogue, and my family.


On this occasion of Youth Shabbat, I think it is important for us to reflect on the next generation of Jewish leadership. Here today are many future leaders of the Jewish community. As we move forward into our leadership roles, we should be thinking about how we can help create a Jewish community that is more inclusive and diverse. We should remember that diversity is our strength, and that we truly are at our strongest when we are united as one nation, with every Jew bringing their own unique contribution.


Shabbat Shalom.


'I'm going to Pittsburgh' 

11/04/2018 12:12:37 PM


Rabbi Adam Scheier

Acts of kindness and solidarity are the best way to honor the Tree of Life victims


“I’m going to Pittsburgh.”


I had a tight connection — 45 minutes in Dulles. Around five minutes after boarding the plane in Montreal, while still at the gate, the pilot announced a delay: The auxiliary engine that powers the plane at the gate had malfunctioned. It would take 30 minutes for the mechanic to arrive, and we would have to temporarily leave the aircraft. As I walked off the plane, I asked the flight attendant whether there was any chance I’d make my connection. “No chance,” she said. The first officer, Landon, overheard the conversation. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“I’m going to Pittsburgh.”


I saw his eyes go up to my kippah. I continued, “I’m a rabbi here in Montreal. I’m going, on behalf of my community, to attend victims’ funerals.”


“Wow,” he said. “My condolences. Good luck getting there.”


We waited at the gate area. I walked up to the desk agent to explore my options. She was on the phone, laughing. She turned to the agent next to her. “You’re not going to believe this!” she said. “It’s the mechanic’s first day on the job! Oh, boy!” I laughed too, albeit a bit nervously.


We explored my options. I could fly to Dulles, stay overnight and continue to Pittsburgh on a late-morning flight. But that wouldn’t leave me much time, as I had a late-afternoon return to Montreal. Or I could drive there. The drive from Dulles to Pittsburgh is four hours. If we landed at 11 p.m., I could be there by 3:30 a.m. or so. I was expected at a 6:45 a.m. minyan. And that’s what I resolved to do.


We got back on the plane. They still had some paperwork to complete, so we waited a bit longer. The first officer walked out of the cockpit. I saw that he asked the flight attendant a question, and she pointed to me. He walked over. “I’m doing everything I can to make sure you can get there. I’ve put in a request that they hold the other flight. No guarantees. But the request is in.”


I was floored. I said, “I am so grateful. But please don’t delay just because of me. I’ll find a way to get there.”


He smiled and walked away. I saw how important this was to him. Perhaps he’s a military man, who understands the significance of honoring the dead.

After almost two hours of delay, the flight took off. At a certain point, the flight attendant came over to me and said, “Dulles is holding the flight for you. They’ve also moved our incoming gate. We’re going to park closer to your connection.”


As I walked off the plane, I shared my appreciation with the first officer. He tipped his cap and gave me a look of solidarity.

A Dulles airport employee was waiting for me at the gate. She walked me the short distance to my next flight. I heard them close the door behind me as I entered the plane. I strapped in, and the plane pulled away from the gate.


As I reflect on this kindness, I understand. Everyone is trying to do something, to make a gesture, to contribute in some way to healing the wound from this terrible crime. For some, it’s a financial donation; for others, it’s a solidarity visit; and for this pilot, it was helping a passenger make a connection so that he could honor the victims.


This experience left me with a great sense of mission during my stay in Pittsburgh. By all logic, I shouldn’t have made it that day, at least not on time. I felt as if my time there was a gift, and that I had to make the most of it.


In this spirit, I offered condolences to the families, heard of the incredible legacies of the deceased and prayed with so many in Pittsburgh for the violence to end and for acts of kindness to spread.

Opinion: Even amid sadness, the opportunity for blessing emerges

11/02/2018 11:23:47 AM


Rabbi Adam Scheier


I recently learned about the “Pittsburgh Left.” This refers not to a progressive political movement but to a genteel — albeit benignly illegal — traffic norm: as the light turns green, one allows the first oncoming car to make a left. It’s a small courtesy, for sure, but a special gesture that makes an impact on a visitor.


This week, I was one of those visitors. In solidarity, I represented the Jewish community of Montreal at funerals for victims of Oct. 27’s terror attack, when an anti-Semite opened fire at Congregation Tree of Life during Shabbat morning prayers.


My visit to Pittsburgh witnessed a great deal of pain. I encountered the fear of a community whose sacred space was violated; the personal loss of individuals whose relatives or friends were murdered; the stress of a small Jewish community thrust into a political storm and media frenzy, all the while tending to their dead.


Jewish tradition teaches that, even in moments of sadness, the opportunity for blessing emerges. In the days following the massacre, I was overwhelmed by the many kindnesses I encountered. Messages of condolence quickly arrived. Neighbours knocked on my door to express sympathies; political leaders called and emailed notes of solidarity; a Muslim friend from Quebec City, whom I had reached out to with sympathies following last year’s attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, reciprocated the gesture.


These kind sentiments seemed to intuit our Jewish community’s experience of the Pittsburgh attack as a deeply personal one. Simply put, the victims were murdered for one reason: they were Jewish. Therefore, it was an attack on every Jew.


In attending funerals in Pittsburgh, I learned that the beauty of a life must not be extinguished by the tragic circumstances of death.


I learned that Irving Younger was the synagogue’s unofficial greeter, standing at the back of the sanctuary and handing prayer books to those who entered.


I learned that Joyce Fienberg, raised and educated in Ontario, was a consummate giver who would quietly perform countless good deeds for others.


And I learned that true kindness prevails in Pittsburgh. People seemed to just want to do something, to help in some way, to alleviate the pain ever so slightly. For some, help meant financial support. A local Muslim community raised tens of thousands dollars to cover funeral costs; two students from Parkland High School, survivors of February’s attack, called in a donation of $54 to the Tree of Life Congregation (Jews commonly give charity in multiples of 18, the number that traditionally connotes life).


For others, kindness meant doing anything in their power to help out. My flight to Pittsburgh involved a brief layover at Dulles International Airport, and a mechanical delay in Montreal jeopardized this connection. As I discussed my options with a desk agent (after we had deplaned to allow work to be done), the plane’s first officer overheard our conversation. “Where are you trying to go?” he asked. As I answered “Pittsburgh,” I saw his eyes look up at my kippah. I answered his unspoken question. “I’m a rabbi, traveling in solidarity, and to offer comfort to the victims’ families.” He said, “I’ll see what I can do.”


I will be forever grateful to that United Airlines first officer: He submitted the request that the connecting flight wait for me; he changed our arrival gate to be right next to the Pittsburgh flight; and he offered me words of comfort and support as I hurried off of his plane to make my connection.


There is, undeniably, evil in the world. I strongly believe that, while not every situation is good, good can come from any situation. The killing of 11 innocent worshippers last Shabbat is an undeniable tragedy; the many acts of compassion that followed this terrible day will be foundations of the healing process.


Adam Scheier is rabbi of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount. 

The Curse of Eve is the Curse of Adam

10/06/2018 12:37:29 PM


Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

October 6, 2018  - Shabbat Parashat Bereishit 2018/577]


This week, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three individuals, including Canadian Donna Strickland. The media focused not only her incredible accomplishments in the area of laser technology, but also noted that Strickland is the first woman in 55 years to win the Nobel in Physics, and only the third woman ever to win the prize. The announcement also came just after one senior scientist at a nuclear research center in Geneva said that Physics was invented and built by men. (He was later suspended from his position.)


This shouldn’t surprise us. We know that women face barriers to advancement in every field. There are few women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; in the Jewish communal sector, there are a paltry few female executives. The research shows that women are interrupted more in meetings, are less likely to receive promotions, and are more likely to start a sentence with an apology - ‘I’m sorry to take up your time…’. I don’t have to tell you about the vast and deep impact of MeToo, which has unmasked abuses of power on the part of influential men, and the pain that so many women have suffered silently. The realities of sexual violence and abuse are being played out on the world stage in every arena (though I am not going to comment on the political content of these revelations).


Many of my female colleagues in the U.S. have given their “MeToo sermon”. Thankfully, I have not had a personal experience of abuse or sexual violence. However, probably like every woman in this room, I have endured cat calls and inappropriate comments about my body, even when dressed in sweatpants while going for a jog, and yes, even in the synagogue.


I don’t want to repeat what we’ve all read in the media. We know now more than ever, that women simply walk in a different world than our male peers. We also know that men can be unfairly vilified, or might simply feel confused about how to be a sensitive and responsible man in the the 21st century. It seems there are traps everywhere, even for feminist men. Of course, men can also be on the receiving end of objectifying comments. MeToo is not only about gender. It is about power, and the abuses of power that are able to flourish when we are not vigilant.


There is much to say. For this morning, I’d like to consider this: what we are to do when these ideas are inherent in some of our Jewish texts and traditions? How can we live with this, or can we perhaps reframe these texts or understand them differently?


It is right there, in the beginning of our Torah. In Bereishit, in the wake of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, God offers punishment to the first humans. The curse to Eve is that she will suffer pain in childbirth, and then God continues with this:

וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ׃ (ס)

Your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.

Man shall rule over woman. I studied the parsha this week with two 11-year-old girls in my office, and at this verse, they stopped short . What does it mean? they asked. And what could I answer? That women were subjugated to men? That men held power over women? How could I look at these girls, who love math and science, who might someday win a Nobel prize in Physics, and say to them that they were ruled by men?


Many of the commentaries don’t help. The Midrash explains that this phrase means (Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 3:16:4)

והוא ימשול בך. שהוא כובשה שלא תדבר עם בני אדם:

Woman is subjugated to man, literally ‘conquered’ by man, which is manifest in the fact that the man is concerned that she not speak with other men. This is about men controlling women’s actions. This screams MeToo - the power that men can hold over women. It even sounds almost like textbook domestic abuse - which often includes not just physical violence, but a generalized assertion of control, where [not only men, but usually it is] a man tries to control a woman, socially - who she hangs out with - or financially - how much money she spends. This is indeed a curse. But even if not taken to such an extreme, think of the power that men have held for centuries over women’s lives. Men could vote; women could not. Men could own property, while women could not. Men could go to school, to university, while women were not admitted. It gave men power, and yes, it subjugated women.


Even today, men are still proportionally in more decision-making positions than are women. And even to advance, women need male allies to advocate for them, in order to be seen or heard, in order to be hired. Often, they need to work twice as hard to reach the same level as a man, and then be paid only 75% of what he is making for the same job. Vehu yimshol bach, indeed, for most of history, men have run the world, and in many ways they still do.


This is what I told those 11 year old girls: God is saying that men are going to be in charge of the world, and that women are going to have to fight for their rights. They understood completely.


That’s the second half of the line, and the first half is -

וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ

Her urge/her desire is for her husband.

The commentator Ha’amek Davar (Netziv) in the 1800s explained it thus:

ואל אישך תשוקתך. לפי הפשט האשה משתוקקת תמיד שתהא נושאת חן בעיני אישה. .

That the woman is always looking to the man for approval. This is what feminist scholars have called “the male gaze”. Women learn that they are seen by men, and need to appeal to men. Research shows that women who groom well, who wear heels and lipstick, are statistically more likely to receive a promotion. The commentary then continues….

האיש אינו חושש שיהא נושא חן בעיני אשתו והאשה כל מעיינה שיהא האיש נוח ממנה וא״כ היא טפלה אליו

Men are not concerned with what women think, but women need to be interested in how they are seen by men. This makes the woman inferior. The power lies with the men.



And it’s been this way since Adam and Eve!

It’s not only this foundational text, but so many conversations in our tradition, that focus on gender and Judaism, are disempowering to women. Is there any way to reframe these texts in an empowering way? Is it even possible to be Jewish and feminist?


One possibility is to read these texts as validating, as deeply understanding of the reality. For example, when it comes to the blessing that men say in the morning, ‘Thank you God for not making me a woman,’ our own Rabbi Scheier has suggested that this is an acknowledgment of the fact that yes, it is hard to be a woman in this world, for so many reasons. When I read a text like this one in Bereishit, in a strange way, it is comforting for me that these texts understand deeply the experience that women have had. While the world has denied, has turned a blind eye, has ignored women when they try to speak out, has blamed the victim, has insisted that women and men are equal… These text give voice to a truth, which our modern world is only now finally, truly grappling with.


Another possibility is that when we read texts like these, or when we encounter Jewish traditions that seem to disempower women, we reframe the discussion. Sometimes we can restore women’s empowerment simply in the way we have the conversation.


There are so many areas of Jewish life and law that impact women but for today let’s take just one example, Tzniut - the Jewish ethic of modest dress.


Jewish law requires that women dress modestly, that they not wear revealing clothing. There are basic guidelines in our early Rabbinic texts. But what results after hundreds of years of interpretation, is that there are now entire books dedicated to the subject of how many inches of a woman’s leg are allowed to show, how long must the sleeves be, and what of the collar bone, and so on. These measurements do not appear in the original texts, but arise in the modern application and analysis of Tzniut rules and concepts. And when we discuss the laws of modesty, we often say that this is in order to curb the natural urges of men. While some of our ancient texts bear out this assumption, some do not.


The problem is not the laws of modesty themselves, but the way that they are spoken about. The focus on women’s modesty becomes an intense discussion about the inches of a woman’s body, which is actually less modest, and objectifies women. These discussions also make our men into barbarians who cannot control themselves.


We can talk about Tzniut, modesty, in a way that is not about hiding women’s bodies, but is about the way one carries oneself as much as the way one dresses, concepts that apply to men and to women in all of our behavior. Just as much as the halacha requires appropriate dress for women, it also forbids men to look enticingly at women, in a way that objectifies them. And I would like to think that the halacha would not want women to talk about men in a way that objectifies them either. Both women and men need to take responsibility for proper modesty in our community, as an ethic in all of our dress and behavior.


At the same time, we don’t deny that the way we dress, especially for women, influences the way people see us and how we see ourselves. We don’t need to shy away from the Jewish ethic of modest dress. In fact, Tzniut concepts can help us to articulate and acknowledge when something our daughter (or son) is wearing is inappropriate, and gives us the right and the responsibility to say it. But we can tell girls to dress appropriately without talking about men or putting it in the context of the male gaze. I can say to my daughter, I don't want people to focus on your body; I want them to focus on what you have to say, on your personality and your opinions. Women do walk in a different world than men do, and this is why it makes sense that Tzniut guidelines are different for women than they are for men. But we can do this in an empowering way to both women and men, not in an objectifying way. And we can stop giving boys the message that it’s important to be macho and domineering, in order to be a ‘real man’.


Adam and Eve collectively received three punishments. The first, to Adam, was ‘by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.’ This is the curse of the difficulties of agriculture, the hard work of planting, harvesting, and working the land. The second curse is to Eve, that she would ensure pain and suffering in bearing children. The third curse is “Vehu yimshol bach”, that man holds power over woman.


One can see these three as simple facts, and as a life sentence for each of us. But one commentator suggests that these are three challenges that we, as humans, are meant to overcome. In fact, we have, as a society, overcome the first two. With agricultural technologies, with plows and other innovations, it’s not actually all that hard to get bread from the ground. And with medical advancements in fertility, and with the epidural, women can choose not to suffer much pain in childbirth, and we no longer consider a woman in the delivery room to be at risk of losing her life. It is the third one, the power of men over women, that we are now struggling to overcome. The world is experiencing a reckoning, when it comes to male power.


Thankfully, our Jewish tradition gives us not only difficult texts, but also many powerful female Biblical characters. We have Sarah, Miriam, Esther, Ruth, Devorah. And even in the Jewish traditions around gender, there is a deep admiration of women’s spirituality, of their religious strength, of the important role that women have played in Jewish life.


And the future for women in Judaism is bright. One needed only to see our women’s Torah readings on Simchat Torah, and to see teenage girls standing before the Torah scroll, chanting from the Torah, feeling ownership over the Torah, and a connection of their own to the beauty of our tradition. The very fact that I am standing here is a sign of just how far we have come. Yes, women can win the Nobel prize, and women can receive Rabbinic ordination.


But there is still a long way to go. Even in my own leadership, I am so often invited to speak to Sisterhood events at other synagogues, or at women’s gatherings, as if what I say is not valuable to men. Even in preparing this sermon, I was concerned that people will think that I’m addressing a ‘women’s issue’ and that that’s all I’m here to do. There is so much work to be done.


“Vehu yimshol bach”, that men rule over women, is not a curse for Eve. It is a curse for humankind. It is the problem of an imbalance of power, which manifests in so many ways. It is up to us to work to correct that imbalance, and to create a more empowering Jewish world for women and men.

The View from the Balcony

10/03/2018 09:46:05 AM


Barbara Kay


As new members of a modern Orthodox congregation, the experience my husband and I had on the High Holidays this year was a striking departure from the previous 46 in a Reconstructionist synagogue. We’re rather old for such a dramatic change in affiliation, but, having recognized the need for personal Jewish renewal, we took the plunge.


We felt instinctively drawn to Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim synagogue, the oldest Ashkenazic congregation in Canada (and conveniently located nearby), not least because of the warm friendships we enjoy with some of its longtime active members and our familiarity with its exceptional programming.


As well, through his public appearances and writings, we had come to admire Rabbi Adam Scheier, Shaar Hashomayim’s spiritual leader. Likewise, through her writings and reputation, we gained a deep appreciation for Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, the Shaar’s director of education and spiritual enrichment and the first woman in Canada to serve as clergy for an Orthodox synagogue.

I noted two common reactions to my news. My friends who are members at the Shaar said, “You will love the music!” My liberal friends said, “But it’s separate seating,” pronounced with a certain dismay and even incredulity, as though it were impossible that someone accustomed to family seating for so long could adapt to such a retrograde custom.


My Shaar friends were right about the music. Words can’t convey the soul-stirring beauty of Cantor Gideon Zelemyer and the male choir’s voices (not to mention the heart-swelling children’s choir). But no psychological difficulties at all emerged over the separate seating. Quite the opposite: I liked it. I had, after all, been in such a setting before – but so long ago, I had almost forgotten what it felt like.


From the front row of the balcony, surveying the men’s section, with its serried rows of fully deployed tallitot, and tranquillized by the chanting, I was taken back in time to the High Holidays of my childhood in Toronto, when we accompanied our father to our zayde’s Polish shul. Although much smaller, it too was beautiful, with similar stained-glass windows.


My older sister and I would sit with the women in the balcony, dying of boredom, or play on the front steps with all the other modern grandchildren of ancient men with bushy beards, who could not speak English.


At the Shaar, past and present merged. I quite unexpectedly felt reconnected with my long-dead grandfather, the women in the balcony and, through those same Hebrew prayers, my ancestors. It was, as they say, a “moment.”


I see the value of separate seating. It promotes exactly the sense of cultural timelessness I experienced, creating a mood conducive to wholehearted liturgical response. I also like the way it decouples one’s individual prayer experience from one’s domestic status. When I sit amongst women, I do not know who is single, who is married, who is widowed or who is divorced. Decoupled, we are subliminally bound in sorority.


I saw couples parting ways before entering the sanctuary, exchanging meaningful looks, as if embarking on separate adventures. We felt that way, too. Our reunion after the services was a small gift.


I can almost hear the objection: “But patriarchy!” I dislike that word, because it carries such a reflexively pejorative burden. Judaism is indeed a patriarchal religion, but we should not damn those in the distant past for not assigning the same responsibilities to both sexes at a time when division of labour was the most expedient path to nation-building. Being separate as to function is not the same as being separate as to value


Liberalized, egalitarian Judaism served me and my family well in our salad days. I cherish warm memories of that community and the friendships that grew from it.


But, now a matriarch, I am attuned to the task of becoming a Jewish ancestor. I need to focus on the bigger picture. To my surprise, I find that picture coming into sharper focus from the women’s section.


Un Mariage au Shaar

06/06/2018 03:05:29 PM


Shaar Panel Discussion on German Jews

06/06/2018 02:40:24 PM


Monday, August 19, 2019 18 Av 5779