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Toronto Reform synagogue celebrates 60 years

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Rabbi Debra Landsberg, back left, unrolls a Torah scroll as members of the congregation look on. (Walter Seaton photo)

Temple Emanu-El in Toronto celebrated its 60th anniversary on May 4, with a family Shabbat service, communal dinner and a talk from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

In honour of the 60th anniversary, Temple Emanu-El is rejuvenating the congregation by writing a Torah.

Sofer Neil Yerman writes and restores Torah scrolls. He has been preparing the congregation for the mitzvah by explaining the deeper meaning of how each individual letter leaves its historic mark, as well as how the project links to all generations before us and will connect us to those who will use the Torah for generations to come.

“For our 60th, we wanted to do a project that involved everyone in our community. Writing our own Torah scroll and working with the sofer has been powerful. Ensuring that all members of our community have a connection with our Torah has been our goal and purpose,” stated Rabbi Debra Landsberg of Temple Emanu-El.

“We want every single member of our congregation to write a letter. We are fundraising for this Torah. We want it to be both a fund- and friend-raiser, with funds raised to refurbish our kitchen and social hall,” said Paul Leszner, president of Temple Emanu-El.

“It’s something that most people don’t get a chance to do. It’s the 613th commandment in Torah. We have a banner outside our sanctuary that reads, ‘v’atah kitvu lachem’ (And now write for yourselves). Just as no Torah is complete should even one letter be missing, this Torah will not be complete without every member’s participation.”

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Rabbi Jacobs marked the occasion by speaking to the congregation about strengthening the next generation of youth leaders and the future of liberal Jewish life in Canada and the world.

“In the last century and a half, we are finding new adaptive ways to matter in today’s Jewish landscape. The 60th anniversary is a chance to celebrate a remarkably strong congregation and exceptional leadership. Temple Emanu-El is just 10 years younger than the State of Israel. Some of the ways in which Jewish life has anchored us include spirituality, learning and finding new ways to stand for Israel and for social justice. I think we are feeling across North America and around the world that Reform Judaism is growing in strength and is true to our principals – which means we are always ready to adopt and to reimagine and to find new ways to strengthen,” said Rabbi Jacobs.

Many of Temple Emanu-El’s 330 families, several whom have been awarded the Order of Canada, reminisced about their remarkable history. Temple Emanu-El represents the merging of two congregations. Born out of the suburban growth of the Toronto Jewish community in the mid-1950s, the original congregation was founded by a handful of like-minded Reform Jews who gathered in the basement of a church on St. Clair Avenue. Due to rapid growth, the congregation launched a search for a more spacious and permanent home. On Sept. 6, 1960, groundbreaking ceremonies were held at 120 Old Colony Road in North York. And in 1970, it merged with another synagogue, Beth-El.

“The amalgamation between a Conservative Beth-El congregation and the Reformed Temple Emanu-El community really is something. It has that sense of coming together with diversity and everyone has found a home together. This congregation has an incredible history in its work of tikun olam,” said Rabbi Landsberg.

Temple Emanu-El also helped settle over 100 Vietnamese boat people some 40 years ago.

“A number of our congregants have maintained relationships over 40 years with the people they sponsored. We have worked to sponsor other refugees. It’s been an ongoing commitment of the congregations,” said Rabbi Landsberg.

Temple Emanu-El’s new Torah will be ready for Simchat Torah.

“We plan to go to Israel for the spring of 2019, as our older, beloved Torah will make aliyah. We will gift a Reform congregation. We are working with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism to see who requires a Torah. The congregation that accepts our Torah will become our sister congregation,” concluded Leszner.