It’s a dark Friday evening in the Snowdon area and the lights are out at the YM-YWHA on Westbury Ave., in respect of the Jewish Sabbath.
Only one door is unlocked. When I enter and tell a security guard I’ve come for the Jewish Renewal service, he points left and says, “down the hallway, turn left, up a few stairs.”
The building is empty but inside what was once a boardroom, there is light.
A beaming Rabbi Sherrill Gilbert faces the folding chairs as they fill up, greeting the 25 women and men who have come to celebrate the Day of Rest as part of the B’nai Or Jewish community.
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B’Nai Or is Hebrew for children of the light. Terry Ysrael Rielly, Gilbert’s husband, is playing joyous Hasidic melodies on the keyboard and Fran Avni is tuning her guitar to prepare for the service.
It’s a simple setting, but all have come in search of the joy of Sabbath, described in one of Rielly’s songs as “a gift in space and time.”
Gilbert welcomes the congregation and invites everyone to get up and introduce themselves—a call for communication and community.
The service that follows is all about breaking down barriers, setting aside formalism and injecting spirit and heart into ritual, which is why the Jewish renewal movement is gaining traction across North America, and becoming part of the changing face of Jewish practice in Montreal.
But in contrast with the secular outlook of Humanistic Judaism, or the rejection of a supernatural God that is part of the Reconstructionist movement, this congregation is “definitely God-centred.”
“We take from the Hasidic theology that God is transcendent and imminent. A transcendent God is less personal, the God of Awe, God of Power—reachable, but not as close.
“The imminent God dwells within us, the God that has implications for human relations.
“We pray and sing from the heart, to bring the two together. … What comes from the heart goes to the heart.””
As a movement pamphlet says, Jewish Renewal is “a spiritual movement created by progressive Jews who seek to foster a personal connection to the divine by infusing ancient Jewish wisdom with a modern, egalitarian and socially progressive consciousness.”
Gilbert, born and raised in Côte St. Luc, traces her connection with Jewish Renewal to a Simchat Torah celebration of the Har Kodesh renewal group, which has since disbanded.
“I saw people dancing in a big circle and a woman in the centre holding a Torah scroll, and she said to me: ‘Here.’
“When does a woman hold a sefer Torah?” Gilbert remembers asking. The woman replied, “Dance.”
“This was the beginning of my religious career,” said Gilbert, who wears a kippah (skull cap) to signal her commitment and beliefs.
Gilbert had already been immersed in the human-potential movement through her studies at Concordia University, where she obtained a bachelor’s in applied human sciences.
For her religious training, she turned to Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal and its online learning centre at aleph.org.
Having fallen in love with Rielly, she moved in 2003 to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to join him and continue her studies.
Once a year she would fly to Boulder, Colorado, for study leading toward her ordination.
For her pastoral education, she turned to the Queen’s College Anglican seminary—its first Jewish student, she was told.
She studied Hebrew at Memorial University with a Christian teacher who knew the language well, but was unable to pronounce the “ch” sound that is part of the Hebrew alphabet, she recalls with some humour.
Gilbert’s internship was at a hospital where she learned “what it means to provide spiritual care as opposed to religious care.”
“For a patient in pain, the last thing he or she wants is someone to preach about the end of days. You want someone to hold your hand and reach out to your heart.”
After 14 years of study, she obtained from Aleph her ordination as rabbi, chaplain, and spiritual guide.
She returned to Montreal to serve as a rabbi at the Shir Chadash, or New Song, renewal community that Sharon Azrieli had started at Décarie Square.
It did not succeed, and in February Gilbert began serving pro bono as the rabbi and spiritual guide of B’nai Or at the Y, with services on the first and third Friday of every month, alternating with Saturday night end-of-Sabbath havdalah, which marks the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the regular week.
The congregation received a $5,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation but most of it goes for rent at the Y, which must provide a security guard.
Participants are asked to contribute what they can at the Friday night service, and host the wine, challah and light meal that follows.
Gilbert is receiving employment insurance and wonders whether the broader Jewish community will see the need to support this program and enable her to continue and expand her work.
Though there are many West End synagogues, most who attend B’Nai Or “are not connected, feel disenfranchised or disillusioned,” she observed.
Facing the end of her EI in December, Gilbert wonders what’s ahead.
“I wish someone will recognize the relevance of the work we are doing.”