Aliza Spiro remembers noticing, during a Shabbat service at The Song Shul – the Toronto synagogue she founded just over a year ago with her husband, Cantor Simon Spiro – that a religious-looking man was davening among the mixed-sex congregants.
Her husband, she said, approached the man after the service and asked if he’d felt comfortable, as the shul’s resident choir, the Toronto Festival Singers, is comprised of both men and women. The man replied, “Sure, it’s the same God.”
The incident encapsulates The Song Shul’s stated philosophy that music transcends boundaries, be them denominational or otherwise.
It’s fitting, then, that on Nov. 18, The Song Shul, which is egalitarian (seating is mixed, but some rows are designated as being for men or women only), is hosting a special Shabbat to celebrate the Ethiopian-Jewish holiday of Sigd.
Although none of the synagogue’s members are, as far as Spiro knows, of Ethiopian-Jewish heritage, she believes North American Jews should learn about, and honour, the customs and experiences of Jews from all over the world.
“Ethiopian Jewry is an important part of the Jewish world landscape. Just as we know a lot about pre-Holocaust European Jewry, I think it would be wrong to ignore a corner of the world where Jews lived for thousands of years, and lived Jewishly as best as they could,” she said.
Sigd is celebrated by Ethiopian Jews on the 29th day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, and signifies the acceptance of the Torah. As most of the Ethiopian Jewish community has made aliyah, Sigd was recognized as a state holiday in Israel in 2008.
The Song Shul’s Sigd Shabbat will include an explanation of the holiday, prayers sung in Ethiopian melodies and more familiar songs adapted by Cantor Simon Spiro to an Ethiopian style. It will also feature a short sermon and subsequent kiddush talk given by special guest Judie Oron, a Canadian-Israeli journalist who once rescued an Ethiopian-Jewish child from slavery and adopted her and her sister. Oron wrote the children’s book, Cry of the Giraffe, based on the true events that led to the adoptions.
The Sigd Shabbat service will be held at the shul’s usual Shabbat location at Bialik Hebrew Day School. The weekly service typically draws between 350 and 450 people. On High Holidays, the congregation meets in a hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts and Spiro said that this past year, they filled most of the space’s 1,000 seats.
Spiro, who grew up in Massachusetts and Israel and is herself a songwriter, is the shul’s creative director. Cantor Simon Spiro, who previously worked as a cantor at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation, is the shul’s spiritual director. He has taught cantorial master classes in Europe, North America and Israel. A former career as a pop singer gives him a strong grasp of both “authentic chazzanut and crowd-pleasing pop music,” Spiro said of her husband.
The Toronto Festival Singers, for whom Cantor Simon Spiro writes special arrangements, sing with him each Shabbat, fusing traditional and contemporary musical material.
The shul prides itself on being inclusive and innovative.
“We have members who say they love the music, but don’t understand the prayers. We have classes that teach Hebrew, that teach the siddur, but music is what brings people in, touches them,” Spiro said. “Music can be celebratory, comforting, mournful.… Feeling is transmitted through it. Especially with Simon’s writing, because his music always fits the words (of the prayer or song).”
She noted that other synagogues are starting to copy The Song Shul by elevating music within their services and she hopes they will similarly “follow our lead,” when it comes to celebrating Sigd.
“The community should celebrate diversity and not have bigotry or racism,” she said. “We should show respect for Jews of all backgrounds.”
The Sigd service will be held at Bialik Hebrew Day School at 2760 Bathurst Street on Nov. 18.