Openness to creativity and change is where Montreal’s only Reconstructionist Congregation will be headed in the coming years, if its new Rabbi has his way.
American-born Boris Dolin, who was completing a year serving liberal Jewish communities in Warsaw, Poland when he was hired, wants the doors to the Hampstead congregation opened wider as it faces demographic and other challenges.
In fact, he wants the Reconstructionist way to Judaism to reach out to Jews who live in Mile End, or downtown, and others who would never think of attending formal services in Hampstead, where the synagogue has been located for almost half a century.
Dolin had been expecting to ease into the job to replace Rabbi Ron Aigen, who was retiring after 40 years, but Aigen died suddenly after a stroke. The transition for the membership of some 500 has been dramatic.
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“Rabbi Ron was an incredible rabbi who created an incredible community,” Dolin said, seated in the study of the building on Cleve Rd.
He is 38, vegan, father of three, and was raised in Oregon where he was associate rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene for four years. He was Rabbi Aigen’s choice, as well as that of members, seen mutually as a good fit, comfortable in the more traditional wing of the Reconstructionist movement.
Dolin says the focus of his vision dovetails with that of the membership — “deep respect for tradition and traditional values, but also with the understanding that we have to use these values to confront contemporary challenges instead of hiding from them.”
When he leads a service, his acoustic guitar is always by his side as he injects a personal melodic touch to its protocols, part of his way of reaching for a spiritual experience beyond book-based conventions.
“Music is the path that so many people have for entering Jewish life. The Shabbat service is filled with music … every week should have opportunities to expand our repertoire. A new melody can sometimes break through to a level of spirituality and connectiveness that the traditional liturgy cannot get to you.”
Of the Dorshei Emet Congregation, he says, “I know this community will not survive unless it accepts and welcomes people who have a different idea of what it means to be Jewish.”
The congregation has to reach out more to people in their 20s, 30s and even 40s, he says. “These are people who are not religious, but these are people who have a real desire to be part of a cultural community. They want spirituality, but they aren’t willing to do things the way they’ve always been done. They need above all a place that is welcoming and accepting of the choices they have made.” On interfaith marriage for example — when a Jew wants to marry someone who is not Jewish — Dolin is clear that these couples should be welcomed into the community.
‘Interfaith marriage can strengthen community’
“I have and will continue to officiate at weddings where the non-Jewish partner does not convert, although they must agree to raise their children Jewish, have a fully Jewish ceremony, and do what they can to support their Jewish partner.”
“Interfaith marriage … can actually strengthen Jewish community and help all of us reflect on what it means to be Jewish in a changing world.
“I will never say to anyone that the best choice for the Jewish community is for people to intermarry,” Dolin says, but adds that the Reconstructionist philosophy posits a different priority. Its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, began what became a movement in New York City almost a century ago, with the principle, in Dolin’s words, of “trying to reconcile the core of Jewish tradition with the realities of living in the contemporary Jewish world.”
In his keynote speech on Rosh Hashanah, Dolin underlined where he feels the congregation should go in order to increase participation and become more meaningful.
He went on to say, “We accept that Jews have many identities, that being Jewish may be only one of many layers of who we are. We accept and celebrate the diversity of our Jewish family, interfaith families, people with different gender identities, political views, cultural background, and histories.”
In our interview, he said his approach is to recognize and accept that people are falling in love and making choices that constitute a break from the past, adding, “It is our task to say, ‘we accept and welcome you for who you are’.
“We also hope you will become part of our community, and feel obligated to learn and explore Jewish life and become part of this community in a way that feels right for you.”
In this vein, the congregation has instituted a monthly chanting at a yoga studio on Monkland Ave. and when the weather improves he plans to lead “Holy Hikes” on Mount Royal, similar to what he led while in Oregon.
“Holy Hikes are an opportunity for learning ‘on the trail,’ and offer opportunities to gather outside of the synagogue and remember our wilderness roots,” Dolin says.
“In Oregon the program was especially popular among people who didn’t feel as comfortable in the synagogue space, but felt that the outdoors was their spiritual home.
“We need to show people that Judaism does not just exist on a Saturday morning during services, or in this building — it exists in everything we do in life. That is the only way we are going to grow and survive.”
Rabbi Sherril Gilbert, who is adept at the renewal style of Judaic practice, now leads a renewal-style service there every third Friday night. Her B’Nai Or community is now part of Dorshei Emet.
“I suggested this because I felt this was another way of opening our doors to different ways of seeing Judaism, by providing a different kind of service,” Dolin noted.
On Leonard Cohen and his legacy, Dolin says, “he used his words to guide us through love and some of the worst pain we could feel. The final lines of Hallelujah remind us that we live in a very screwed up world, but the best we could do is to say Hallelujah, to continue to give thanks for the blessings we do have, even with all the pain and suffering we encounter.”
“He was a very religious man — it is rare to find someone who understood what it means to be Jewish, to believe in God, and to pray. He wrote liturgy, got rid of some of the stuff we have to wade through reading through some of the traditional sources. It is rare that someone can use that religious imagery and
language in a way that makes sense like that.”
Leonard’s religious contemplation was linked to the essential issues of our lives, Dolin notes. “So many of his songs were profoundly religious in a very important way because he connected them with reality — falling in love, death, tragedy, sadness, and joy, through his ability to use words to give us that sense of emotion, but with this underlying core of a religious outlook.
“It doesn’t matter if he didn’t go to synagogue, that’s not what makes someone religious: it’s being able to translate life into an understanding of God, meaning, and spirituality, and that’s what he did.”