KINGSTON, Ont. — With the official installation of both a new rabbi and a new shul board on Jan. 25, Beth Israel Congregation, Kingston’s oldest shul, has completed its transition from an Orthodox synagogue to a Conservative one.
For 14 years, under the leadership of Rabbi Daniel Elkin, the 102-year-old synagogue maintained an active and engaged community, said Richard Kizell, Beth Israel’s treasurer as well as a longtime member.
However, after Rabbi Elkin retired in 2012, congregants decided the time had come for a change.
“Our community has changed in terms of its philosophy and demographic over the years,” said Michael Springer, the newly installed president of Beth Israel.
“In the beginning, our shul was made up of immigrants, primarily Ashkenazi, who weren’t necessarily Orthodox, but believed in a strong Orthodox ritual. [But] over the last 30 or 40 years, most of the congregants had begun to align with the Conservative movement. Certainly, that’s the case today.”
The change in religious affiliation better suits the needs of the synagogue’s members, such as their desire for more liberal and egalitarian values, Kizell said.
Many young Jewish families who have recently come to Kingston have voiced some of these ideas, he added.
“I think seating was the No. 1 issue. There were more and more people that had quit our synagogue because they found separate seating offensive to them,” he said. “There were always people that wanted more women’s participation in the synagogue, and over time, that desire grew.”
Indeed, there has been a complete change in women’s roles and participation in Beth Israel’s liturgy, such as counting women as part of a minyan and allowing them to be have Torah aliyot.
Women are encouraged to participate in the congregation’s religious and spiritual services, said the shul’s new spiritual leader, Rabbi Shalom Plotkin.
Springer said the transition to a Conservative synagogue has been very well received by a majority of the Kingston Jewish community, which numbers about 1,100 people.
“Since this transition, we haven’t looked back,” said Rabbi Plotkin, who arrived in July. “We’ve had a minyan every single weekend, every Shabbat, and we’re proud of that. People are coming to read, to pray, and to sing together, and also to learn Torah together.”
Not surprisingly, the recent change has not been well received by everyone, and the synagogue has lost some members as a result, while others are at odds with the transition, but remain members because they can still connect with the shul’s programming, Springer said.
But he stressed that members can expect great things under Rabbi Plotkin’s leadership.
By drawing on significant experience from previous pulpits in the southern and eastern United States, Rabbi Plotkin said he hopes to bring new energy and members into the growing congregation, which currenly has 130 member families.
After completing his degree in ancient history and business management at the University of Maryland, Rabbi Plotkin received his ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
He said he and his wife, Elise, and his two daughters, Hannah and Elyana, have received a warm welcome from the Beth Israel congregation and the Kingston Jewish community.
“The families and members of the synagogue have invited us into their homes,” he said.
Alongside his responsibilities at Beth Israel, Rabbi Plotkin has become involved in many parts of the Kingston community, particularly with staff and student leaders of Hillel at Queen’s University, building on the relationship Rabbi Elkin established.
“One of the most significant changes apart from the transition of the synagogue has been that the Hillel at Queen’s has grown exponentially,” Rabbi Plotkin said. “There seems to be a connection between some of the students and the local Jewish community, and I’d like to see even more connection.”
The relationship between Hillel and the shul is mutually beneficial, said Josh Freedman, president of Queen’s Hillel.
“Beth Israel offers us the infrastructure to cater to the needs of Jewish students. Moreover, we try to advertise to their events as much as possible in an attempt to foster a broader sense of community,” he said.
Both Springer and Rabbi Plotkin said they’re optimistic about the future of Beth Israel.
“Over the next 100 years, I’d like to see us strengthen our ties to Israel, and also, strengthen our ties within the community,” Rabbi Plotkin said. “My vision is to build community and bring people together. I’d like to see the synagogue meet as many of the spiritual needs of the members as we can.”