MONTREAL — Sherril Gilbert was in university when she first felt fully at home in a synagogue service, one that was warm and joyous and spiritual and respected her as an equal.
She grew up in Côte St. Luc, attended the Orthodox Beth Zion Congregation, and had accepted the traditional way of Jewish worship. (Some may remember her by her original name Gielibter, which the family changed when she was 18.)
The service the then-Concordia University graduate student was attending was that of Chavurah Har Kodesh, which “offered a Judaism I had never experienced or expected.
“People were dancing and singing. A woman was holding a sefer Torah. I knew no one, but I was gently brought into the circle and handed the Torah. I had never even been close to one before,” she recalled. “It was very exciting.”
Today, the mother of a grownup daughter is an ordained rabbi of the Jewish Renewal movement, whose adherents seek “a personal connection to the divine by infusing ancient Jewish wisdom with a modern, egalitarian and socially progressive consciousness,” according to her formal definition.
Rabbi Gilbert is the leader of the new B’nai Or Montreal Community Shul, which meets at the YM-YWHA and has received seed money from the Jewish Community Foundation. Although new to Montreal, Renewal’s roots go back to the 1960s.
Rabbi Gilbert says those coming to B’nai Or (Children of the Light) can expect a “Judaism that infuses your body, heart, mind and soul.” Kabbalat Shabbat services are held every other Friday evening in the Y’s Kellert Hall, and are characterized by singing, chanting and circle dancing to live instrumental music.
An Oneg Shabbat follows with a potluck reception, everyone invited to bring a kosher contribution. B’nai Or held its first community seder on the first night of Passover, potluck vegetarian style.
The aim is not just to have a good time, but to find spiritual depth and meaning in everyday life.
Prayers are in Hebrew with English translation, and typically have a slower, meditative or reflective quality to encourage participation by all.
Learning is an important component, and the mystical Kabbalah and other spiritual texts are among those studied. But, the basics of Judaic beliefs and practices are also taught because Renewal “welcomes everyone with open arms.”
Inclusiveness and accessibility are the cornerstones of this “trans-denominational” movement. Its welcome, Rabbi Gilbert said, extends to the LGBT community, those with mental or physical health issues, the low-income and those lacking in Jewish knowledge or disconnected from their Jewish identity Even those who are not Jewish but feel drawn to the religion can find a place.
There is no membership fee. Rather, participants are encouraged to “pay per use.”
Currently, Rabbi Gilbert is attracting some of those who were involved in the now-defunct Chavurah Har Kodesh, people today in their 40s to 60s. She’d like to get younger people, too.
“Some people have called Jewish Renewal ‘chassidic Reconstructionism,’” she said. “The mantra is ‘serve God and the universe with joy.’”
The chassidic influence goes back to the movement’s founder, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who began as a Lubavitch emissary in the 1940s, before branching off in a direction he believed would revitalize modern Judaism.
A professor of religion at the University of Manitoba from 1956-75, today, at 87, he still heads the Renewal movement from Boulder, Colo.
Jewish Renewal, which sees itself as “a phenomenon, rather than a denomination,” takes in a wide range of people, Rabbi Gilbert said. Some of its leading voices are political like American rabbis Michael Lerner and Arthur Waskow, she said. “But most of us are somewhere in the middle.”
Rabbi Gilbert returned to Montreal last year after living for eight years in St. John’s, Nfld., where she led a tiny community and held weekly Torah learning sessions at a café open to all.
She spent many years studying under Renewal programs, progressing from “spiritual guide” to chaplain to rabbinical ordination this January. Nine of her fellow 10 graduates were women.
Her study was gradual because she continued to work full time in Montreal and was a single parent.
“Renewal’s Aleph rabbinic program is as rigorous as any other liberal seminary,” she said.
Rabbi Gilbert, who wears a kippah, has performed regular clerical functions, including wedding ceremonies, and is a member of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, serving on its adult education committee.
She will be officially installed during a Shabbaton April 27-28 at the Y when Renewal chief Canadian representative Rabbi Daniel Siegel will be coming in from Hornby Island, B.C.
For more information, e-mail Rabbi Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org. B’nai Or can also be visited on Facebook.