Montreal a model for other Jewish communities

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-10-11

The mid-October issue of the Jerusalem Report exploded as a naches-bomb for me. Naches, of course, is that delicious Yiddish word meaning delighting in someone else’s accomplishments. My delight stemmed from two articles in that issue demonstrating how young Montrealers are revitalizing the Jewish world. These articles raise the question of how did these transformative, creative juices start flowing in Montreal?

The first article described downtown Toronto’s vibrant Jewish scene, centring on the hip, Carlebachian “Annex Shul.” One co-founder, Richard Meloff, is a Torontonian who studied at McGill University in the mid-1990s, while the Annex’s spiritual leader, Yacov Fruchter, is a Montrealer who enrolled at McGill in 2002.

The second article was written by a Montrealer who is now a Jerusalemite, Justin Korda, executive director of ROI community, an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries, created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Korda’s article, “Innovating Jewishly,” describes how social entrepreneurs are transforming modern Jewish life at the grassroots level, social entrepreneurs being innovators who combine “the vision of a social reformer with the business acumen of an entrepreneur.”

The Montreal flavour to these welcome Jewish revolutions struck me because when I moved to Montreal in 1990, I saw a stodgy, top-heavy, uncreative Jewish community. Even the few young Jews involved in this decaying city seemed prematurely old, shmoozing their elders, not wowing their peers. Although still dining out on its Yiddishist, Zionist prime earlier in the 20th century, the city was now traumatized by Quebec separatism, which sent many young Jews packing. Montreal Judaism seemed more likely to turn Jews off than turn them – and others – on.

I asked Meloff how he explained Montreal’s success in helping to incubate exciting new Jewish expressions. “Montreal’s Jewish community was where I was when I started to feel the tug of my faith and heritage and it was a wonderful, welcoming place,” Meloff responded. He was impressed by Montreal’s ideological diversity – “there was Hillel and Chabad, Revisionist Zionists and progressive Zionists, and perhaps most critically, a tight-knit and traditional community that surrounded the school. Toronto is huge and impressive, but the community is far-flung. Montreal seemed so intimate yet still had the amenities of a significant community.” Meloff got the message that “you could do anything you wanted from a community point of view” – which soon resulted in the launching of the “Ghetto Shul,” a vibrant, intimate, student-based synagogue in Montreal which has inspired – and helped populate – Toronto’s “Annex Shul.”

Fruchter notes that Montreal’s traditionalism provides such solid grounding for Jewish life in the city, including “a fairly strong knowledge base,” as well as “strong Holocaust education and a commitment to Israel.” He also draws inspiration from leading activist Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Reuben Poupko and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz. Fruchter appreciates the “Moroccan (French) element of the Jewish community,” which “has remained distinct while adding some ‘cool’ and spicy flavour to the overall community,” as well as the “fertile ground for cross-denominational exchange” resulting from the mix of Toronto and Montreal Jews at McGill. Finally, Fruchter mentions that “Hillel and the Ghetto Shul are set up to maximize empowerment and ownership. When I was the student president of Hillel Montreal, I controlled the $50,000 program budget.”

In his article, Korda, who with his friend Sig Shore created a dynamic duo of Jewish activism during their days at McGill, added another critical element, the successful Birthright Israel program which has connected thousands of young Jews to each other and to their heritage through “transformative free trips to Israel.” Birthright Israel helped inspire the founding of the Ghetto Shul, which inspired the founding of the Annex Shul, while ROI logically flows from philanthropist Lynn Schusterman’s generous involvement with Birthright.

I would also add two important “I” words – infrastructure and investment. Montreal has a rich Jewish organizational and educational network, maintained by a strong federation and thousands of generous donors. Visionary donors such as Charles and Andy Bronfman were also critical in funding identity-oriented initiatives, small and large, which bore fruit later.

The Montreal formula, then, emerges. A traditional, literate, well-organized, and well-financed community also needs strong youth-oriented programming, empowered young leaders and an openness to new ideas. But ultimately, you need sparkplugs, young, passionate, creative people to create a new mix, putting their dynamic modern twist on our ancient, enduring, traditions.

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Jewish joy in the ghetto needs your help

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-12-09

The great financial meltdown of 2008 continues to wreak havoc, causing the great organizational shakedown of 2009. We should take advantage of these hard times to close institutions that only survive thanks to inertia or clever politicking. But we must ensure that worthy organizations aren’t wiped out, too.

Since 2000, Montreal’s student community has been blessed by an amazing institution called the Ghetto Shul. The jarring name – reflecting its location in the neighbourhood bordering McGill University known widely as the student “ghetto” – gives this generation of students a positive association with a word burdened by the scars of our tragic past. But making young students feel good about the word “ghetto” is only one of many ways the Ghetto Shul engages in tikkun olam, or fixing the world. At a crucial time in young Jews’ lives, the Ghetto Shul offers a welcoming, hip, inspiring, warm, Jewish space to pray and play, learn and eat, and sing and dance.

Led by a dynamic husband-and-wife team, Rabbi Leibish and Dena Hundert, the Ghetto Shul helps make Friday night what it has been for centuries – the highlight of the week, the moment to delight in welcoming the Sabbath Queen, with utter joy. Every week, dozens of Montreal students – and 20-somethings – crowd into the shul. Some are observant and lucky they can do Jewish at an institution that has become central to McGill Jewish life. Some are traditional, and might have drifted away from Jewish life at other universities but have been attracted to the shul’s friendly, intense, Kabbalat Shabbat – and it’s all-important Shabbat dinner scene. And some are uncommitted, having grown up without Shabbat dinner and all of a sudden going occasionally, or even regularly, because, believe it or not, it’s fun.

All, as Jews in the modern world, are searching for something. All are blessed and cursed by the dizzying array of choices that today’s world offers, able to be whatever they wish but overwhelmed by so many options and so few anchors. Many, unfortunately, arrive at the Ghetto Shul already Jewishly scarred, having been bored by Hebrew school, narcotized by their staid synagogue back home, or misled by their parents’ sorry example into thinking that Judaism is a thin gruel of ethnic food, juvenile holiday rituals, colourful expressions and simplistic lessons, with one day of fasting a year and a big blowout guaranteed when you turn 13.

The Ghetto Shul is constructively counter-cultural. It’s a place of warm hugs, not awkward handshakes. It’s a place of ecstatic prayer, not polite posturing. It’s a place of substantive spirituality, not superficial guilt-mongering. It’s a place where students feel welcome and at home, but they also feel Jewishly stretched and fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the Ghetto Shul is also a place at risk of closing. If more individuals and more institutions don’t support this amazing institution, it won’t survive, certainly not in the long term. This isn’t a matter of figuring out how to raise money for a year or two. The question here is how does the broader Jewish community ensure that this positive Jewish space grows, that it inspires legions of imitators, and that it helps guarantee Jewish survival in the 21st century.

In the real world, one of the first steps in that process is securing regular funding. A place such as the Ghetto Shul should be flooded with honorary memberships. Alumni, parents, Montrealers, Jews from the rest of Canada and others should step up to pay the $360 annual fee to join the Ghetto Shul. And they should commit to doing so for the next 10 years. This way, Rabbi Leibish, Dina and their devoted student leaders can focus on nurturing their community rather than raising money to stay afloat.

If a small number of people, say 300 or 400, undertook to make this relatively small investment, the payoff would be enormous. These people and others would be contributing to a successful Jewish community that serves hundreds of students and Montreal-area 20-somethings every year, while pioneering institutions rooted in our past, fulfilling us in the present and guaranteeing us a meaningful future.