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Thornhill rabbi’s contract not renewed

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Shaar Shalom Synagogue

Thornhill’s Shaar Shalom Synagogue has been “struggling” recently, and its board of governors and executive have decided not to renew Rabbi Martin Berman’s contract, according to an Oct. 19 letter emailed to congregants by shul president Janice Shachter.

Rabbi Berman, 62, was ordained in 1977 and has led the congregation since 1994. His contract will end on July 17, 2013.

“He has been with us, through good times and bad, since July 1994, and we have all shared experiences with him during that time. We will miss him and sincerely wish him all the best,” Shachter wrote in the e-mail. She clarified in an interview that he is not being fired.

The Conservative congregation is “going through no more nor less than other congregations in North America,” Shachter told The CJN last week.

The 38-year-old synagogue, located just north of Don Mills Road and Steeles Avenue, has about 550 member units, down from just under 600 in April 2008.

“We have… had to make some very tough decisions over the last two years,” she wrote in her email, referring to the closure of Shaar Shalom’s congregational Hebrew school three years ago for demographic reasons and the move to discontinue off-site High Holiday services this year.

Both changes proved correct from a financial perspective, she added.

Rabbi Berman, speaking generically about whether Shaar Shalom’s decisions reflect a larger situation, told The CJN he thinks it’s “easy to blame the rabbi when there are lots of factors going on in the synagogue’s growth or lack of growth.”

He said he was informed Oct. 19 by Shachter of the final decision not to renew his contract. No reason was given, he added.

The rabbi said there were “some problems [and] we went through a difficult time about five years ago,” when his previous contract was up for renewal, but that he thought the problems were resolved.

Shachter confirmed that the rabbi was given a one-year contract at the time, before his current five-year contract was signed.

She said that a financial settlement was being negotiated.

Shachter told The CJN that most North American synagogues are trying to keep their members and also attract the unaffiliated.

“It’s a difficult time for synagogues with our current model,” she said, alluding in large part to annual membership dues.

Other models being explored in the United States include donations and month-to-month payments in lieu of annual dues, she said.

As well, she added, “You need relevancy to increase membership, and you need membership to solve your financial situation. It’s about being viable. The shul is a business as well as a religious institution.”

Changes at Shaar Shalom, based in part on feedback from congregants at its June annual general meeting, have included monthly young family services for the past year and a half and a new Simchat Torah format for the morning service this year. The holiday service included a half-hour mid-morning lunch for the congregation. Between 75 and 100 children attended Erev Simchat Torah services, Shachter said.

In her email to congregants, she said a search committee for the next spiritual leader will be struck after a “let’s-figure-out-the-criteria” committee lays the groundwork.

The synagogue, which is traditional Conservative and remains affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has not made any kind of decision to alter its ritual practices, she said, denying rumours to the contrary. “We are not looking at changing anything about our traditional service.”

That includes a full Torah reading and women not receiving aliyot, Rabbi Berman said, adding that he instituted a special women’s Torah reading for Simchat Torah. As well, as of this year, women are permitted to have the honour of glilah, or wrapping the Torah.

Rabbi Berman said he and his wife would like to stay in Toronto when his contract expires. “I’m going to have to explore and see what I can do.”

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