MONTREAL — This was the first time in her 68 years that Beverly Spanier did not spend the High Holidays in synagogue.
The retired public high school teacher has been hospitalized since June, and her physical condition is such that being transported to her spiritual home, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was out of the question.
The holidays are especially significant for this indomitable woman: they would have marked the 34th year – fully half her life – that she organized the “third service” at the synagogue.
These free, lay-led services are attended by university students, clients of the Miriam Home and Services for the intellectually disabled, and anyone else who has no other synagogue to go to or just likes the participatory format.
So Spanier, from her bed at the Institut de Réadaptation Gingras-Lindsay de Montréal, a rehabilitation facility in Côte des Neiges, organized her own Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur program there during the Days of Awe.
What is especially remarkable is that her partner in this project was a Catholic priest, Luc Laurence, who went well beyond his duties as spiritual care animator to make the well-attended program possible.
While Spanier’s main concern was to bring a little of the holiday’s sanctity and joy to Jewish patients who could not get home, she also wanted introduce Judaism to anyone interested.
“I think it is important for those who are Jewish, who have lost life as they knew it, to have a sense of community at this time and to stay close to what is familiar,” said Spanier, who acutely feels the isolation for her own world.
“For the others, I think the more we learn about each other, the less foreign others will be and the less hostility there will be,” an aim she believes is significant as Quebec plunges into a debate once again on religious accommodation.
For “Father Luc” she has nothing but praise. “He is the one who has enabled me to feel a part of the Jewish community and to take part in a creative program as I always have at this time of year. This is an extraordinary man.”
An open invitation was extended to all patients, whatever their religion, to come to the program through a flyer Spanier had printed in the days leading up to the event.
She put together two illustrated booklets, one on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the other on the significance of blowing the shofar. They were suitable for people with no knowledge of Jewish traditions, as well as those well versed in their observance, with its suggested Haftorah readings.
Father Laurence took on the difficult task of translating them into French. In addition, he bought the food: grape juice, honey cake, apples and bread, making sure to go to a kosher bakery.
Members of his Catholic community helped set up the room in the cafeteria. They embroidered and beaded star-shaped holders for the electric candles on the clothed tables.
Father Laurence explained that they are a reminder that God said to Abraham that his descendants should be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
The priest’s message was that Jews should be “welcomed as our brothers and sisters,” as a people with an intimate relationship to God. He wished everyone a Shanah Tovah.
Spanier first met Father Laurence 1-½-years ago during an earlier stay in the institute. It was Passover, and the convivial priest was interested in Spanier’s explanation of the meaning of that holiday. He gladly accepted her invitation to Shaar Hashomayim’s third service last year, when she had no idea that she would not be at its helm to usher in 5774.
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The Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur program drew about 40 people, representing a variety of cultural origins, most in wheelchairs or with walkers.
Also present were two rabbis: the institution’s longtime Jewish chaplain, Meyer Kizelnik, and Schachar Orenstein from the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, a friend of Spanier’s since he was associate rabbi at Shaar Hashomayim.
“Beverly is an inspiration to me,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “She seems to have accomplished more in rehab than those outside of hospital.”
A highlight was the blowing of the shofar, not once but three times, including a virtuoso performance by Rabbi Orenstein. Also sounding the ram’s horn were two people who have been associated with the third service: David Sochaczevski and 16-year-old Jonathan Zlotnick, while Spanier read off the 30 blasts.
Rabbi Kizelnik said the brachot over the refreshments.
Though she’s American-born and didn’t learn French until after she came to study at McGill University in the 1960s, Spanier valiantly conducted the program primarily in that language.
She tried to convey that the Jewish New Year is a more solemn occasion than the secular one, a period for self-reflection and resolve to become a better person.
Spanier underwent risky spinal cord surgery at the Montreal Neurological Institute in June, which she says has left her partially paralyzed from the waist down. Her rehabilitation has been slow and painful, and she has had to simultaneously cope with a number of medical issues.
The loss of independence and the long hours institutionalized have allowed Spanier plenty of time to think and try to adjust to her new circumstances.
“As someone who will probably spend the rest of my life having serious mobility issues, I must learn not to judge the people who look at me strangely and who treat me with what I consider disrespect,” she said.
“They simply do not understand as I did not understand before these problems hit me.”
The third service, incidentally, did go ahead successfully, with Spanier keeping in touch all along to see that it did so.