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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

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Smaller shuls offer room for growth

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Rabbi Catharine Clark

To build a full Jewish life for you and your family, it is time to become part of a small Jewish community. This Shabbat at Congregation Or Shalom in London, Ont., three members of the synagogue will lead services, one member will chant Torah, another will chant Haftorah and two more will prepare kiddush for their fellow members. On Monday evening, another community member will teach at the JCC in an adult Jewish education program organized almost entirely by volunteers. Later in the week, our youth director, a lifelong member of the congregation, will lead the elementary school children in fun, experiential learning activities. A similar story could be told about the Jewish community in Halifax and Saskatoon or about one of the few small congregations in Toronto or Montreal.

But in one of the mega-shuls in Canada’s largest Jewish communities, the senior rabbi, cantor, assistant rabbi, chazzan sheini, education director, membership liaison, events coordinator and caterer will perform these duties for you. It will be convenient and easy that these professionals will fulfil all the essentials of Jewish communal life for you. Unfortunately, convenience and ease do not create an empowered spiritual life for anyone, especially not for a Jew.

Judaism sets high standards for each of its adherents. In contrast, in Catholicism, only a priest is required to follow certain behaviours that are considered holy, such as celibacy, and only a priest can perform many of the rituals, called sacraments, in that religion. Our theology of religious leadership is different. Each adult Jew is obligated in the 613 commandments. Any of us could witness a marriage and, with some Hebrew and extra study, perform a funeral. With more Hebrew and the ability to carry a tune and keep the beat, any Jew could serve as shaliach tzibbur, the prayer leader who carries the prayers of the congregation to God.

For lay leaders to perform these sacred tasks, however, there must be room for them on the bimah, in the classroom, in the synagogue kitchen and on the programming calendar. In communities with many Jewish communal professionals, it is difficult to create this space. The cantor, assistant rabbi, synagogue program director, Jewish educator and caterer, understandably, want to keep their jobs. Small Jewish communities, though, have long relied on lay leaders to fill at least some of these vital roles.

You could be one of these lay leaders. You just need to be in a community where there is room for you. For some of you, finding the space to develop your Jewish skills will mean switching membership from a huge congregation to a smaller shul in the same city. For others, you might decide to move to a smaller Jewish community.

If the latter option is right for you, I hope the smaller Jewish community you choose is London. You will find an absence of gridlock and more affordable housing. You will find a community that soon knows you, welcomes your interests and helps you develop your talents. I look forward to meeting you – and to seeing you on the bimah.

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