Danny Benlolo gets a frisson sitting in the very same chair on the bimah of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue where the legendary Cantor Salomon Amzallag once presided.
After two years as cantor at Shaare Zedek Congregation, Benlolo is now at the Spanish and Portuguese, the synagogue that his family joined when they arrived in Montreal from Morocco in 1970, when he was eight.
Amzallag, who died in 2008, served the Spanish and Portuguese from 1967 to 1984. He was also renowned internationally as an interpreter of Arab-Andalusian songs under the stage name Samy Elmaghribi.
Benlolo returned to Montreal in 2017 after almost 23 years in Ottawa, where he was cantor at Congregation Kehillat Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue like Shaare Zedek.
The hiring of the energetic and charismatic Benlolo was hailed as a needed boost for the now 65-year-old NDG congregation of about 550 families, which had not had a cantor since 2008.
“Shaare Zedek was amazing. It was really a beautiful community-building experience. I loved working with the clergy and the people. It was heartbreaking to leave,” Benlolo said.
The lure of the Spanish and Portuguese, however, was strong. Not only did Benlolo spend his youth there, but Amzallag, who’s related to Benlolo, was the one who encouraged him to sing, first in the children’s choir and, when he was 17, on the bimah as a soloist.
“He said to me, ‘One day you will take my place’,” said Benlolo. “It feels like I have come full circle.”
After so many years associated with the Conservative movement, Benlolo and his wife Muriel yearned to serve in an Orthodox congregation.
The Spanish and Portuguese, which celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2018, has seen a change of leadership over the past couple of years, after what Benlolo acknowledges was some turbulence.
He is confident, however, that it has entered a period of serenity and can now look to growing its membership, which numbers over 700 families.
It is not an easy congregation to govern, due to its being so “eclectic,” as Benlolo puts it. It is largely made up of Sephardim from Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon and other countries. Some conduct their own services.
But it also has a large Ashkenazic contingent, as the Ashkenazic Congregation Chevra Shaas joined the Spanish and Portuguese after it closed its synagogue, although it retains its own rabbi and minyanim.
So imbuing everyone with a sense of having a common mission is a challenge, Benlolo admits. “We have to rise above politics and refocus on why we are here and what the goal is.”
Rabbi Maimon Pinto was recently appointed as the synagogue’s senior spiritual leader, the first permanent one in a couple of years. He’s the first Sephardic rabbi in its long history, and most recently was director of French-language adult education at the Montreal Torah Centre, a Chabad institution.
“We get along very well. We have talked about our dreams and aspirations for the community,” said Benlolo. “I think we complement each other. The Spanish and Portuguese has a brand, a very big heritage. Now it’s up to us what we do with that. We want to bring back the lustre of that brand.”
Although Benlolo is Sephardic, he feels at home in the Ashkenazic and anglophone culture, having studied at the Belz School of Jewish Music in New York, an affiliate of Yeshiva University, and having worked in Ashkenazic congregations for virtually all of his career.
A goal of his is to bring back the “authentic” liturgy and music of the Spanish and Portuguese tradition.
“When I was studying, I sang in the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in New York, London and Amsterdam. Right now, our liturgy is a mixture, a little of this, a little of that,” he said.
Benlolo, 56, is tasked with trying to attract new, younger people to the shul. The synagogue is formal (top hats and tails are worn by officials on the bimah). Benlolo, by contrast, is a big believer in “relational Judaism.”
He wants a warm, welcoming atmosphere and a relationship between the clergy and each member. He does not want services to be top down; instead, he wants them to be more participatory.
For example, one of his last services at Shaare Zedek was on Simchat Torah, when he invited everyone up to the bimah to sing along with him. He wants to see things like that at the Spanish and Portuguese.
The Spanish and Portuguese’s location in Côte-des-Neiges does put it at a disadvantage in attracting new members, he acknowledges. Although it is close to the Jewish Community Campus, the area no longer has a large Jewish population. Benlolo’s home in Côte-St-Luc is a good 35-minute walk, and he expects to sleep at his son’s apartment on Shabbat, as it is closer.
Benlolo is optimistic by nature and he sees no reason why Jews might not return to the neighbourhood some day, clustered around the Spanish.