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Temple Sinai leader honoured for 25 years in rabbinate

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Rabbi Aaron Penken, left, of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, awards an honorary doctorate to Rabbi Michael Dolgin

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion awarded an honorary doctorate  of divinity (DD) to Rabbi Michael Dolgin March 30 in recognition of his 25 years in the Reform rabbinate.

Later in the week, upon his return from HUC’s Cincinnati campus, the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai was honoured by his congregation at a special Shabbat celebration.

In an interview the following day, Rabbi Dolgin, 51, reflected on his 25 years at Temple Sinai.

He said of the group of rabbis who received honorary DD degrees with him, he was the only one who had spent his entire career at one synagogue.

He noted that Temple Sinai has only had two senior rabbis in its 63-year history – himself and the late founding rabbi, Jordan Pearlson. “That’s a lot of stability.”

The membership of about 1,500 families has also remained stable over the years, he added.

So what drew the newly ordained Chicago native to Toronto back in 1991?

He said Temple Sinai had a lot of appeal. “I was excited to be part of an ideologically Reform, progressive synagogue that clearly valued tradition.”

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He pointed to some large green volumes on the bookcases lining the rabbi’s study. These volumes were registries of the marriages, births, deaths and bar and bat mitzvahs of the temple’s congregants dating back to its early years.

“Rabbi Pearlson started the tradition, and it’s one that I’ve continued,” Rabbi Dolgin said, explaining that the registries reflected the synagogue’s emphasis on community.

He said he also introduced a new book where people can record a paragraph or two about their connection to the synagogue. “I’m building on something the temple has been doing. We value community.”

Rabbi Dolgin has been leading that community for 20 years. He became senior rabbi at age 31. “I was, in fact, young to be a senior rabbi, and Rabbi Pearlson and other rabbinic mentors in other cities were very helpful to me in finding my way into the new role.”

He, in turn, is developing leadership skills in some of the younger congregants, he said. “In the last 10 years we have focused on bringing in the next generation of synagogue leaders… Five members of the board are below the age of 40.”

The rabbi said that among liberal congregations, Temple Sinai is one of the most actively Zionist.

The temple subsidizes a youth trip to Israel every two years as part of its commitment to educate and connect its younger congregants to their Jewish roots and strengthen their ties to Israel, he said.

“We’re preparing them for the anti-Israel bias they may face at university.”

The temple also promotes plurality in Judaism in Israel by supporting Reform congregations there.

It’s affiliated with Kehillat Yozma Modi’in in the Jerusalem area and three years ago, the congregation founded Ramot Shalom in Be’er Sheva.

He said Temple Sinai has also taken a leadership role on some contentious social issues in the Jewish community.

“The first gay wedding officiated at a Toronto sanctuary was at Temple Sinai,” Rabbi Dolgin said.

“We are proud to lead on progressive issues, even if they are controversial.”

He also spearheaded the creation of a Jewish burial section for interfaith couples affiliated with Temple Sinai or other GTA Reform congregations.

Rabbi Dolgin – who is married to wife Joan, with whom he has three sons – said there are a large number of interfaith couples who are committed synagogue members. “We were willing to invest in meeting their needs.”

It took 12 years to establish this cemetery, he said.

The synagogue is constantly evolving on many issues, but for Rabbi Dolgin, the emphasis on relationships is constant.

“In rabbinic work we share in very intimate and powerful moments in peoples’ lives. We do it in a personal way. It’s about the long-term investment in relationships.”