Synagogue president is one of the toughest jobs in the Jewish world, usually coming with little praise and a double dose of criticism.
Temple Anshe Sholom, Hamilton’s first synagogue and the oldest Reform congregation in Canada, will try to balance that old formula on March 28 in a gala event dubbed Past. Presidents. Future.
The fundraising evening will also mark the 100th birthday of Rabbi Bernard Baskin. He held the Anshe Sholom pulpit for a record 40 years, the longest tenure in the synagogue’s history.
Over the congregation’s 170 year history 40 men and four women have taken on the job of steering the institution through periods of growth, decline, building and reshaping.
The job can be so demanding that neither of the two men who currently share it would agree to take it on his own. Acknowledging the people who have provided such leadership, they say, is long overdue.
“Volunteers are a unique group of people, but our presidents take on an entirely different kind of responsibility and we have never celebrated that,” said Yves Apel, who is co-president with Mark Levine.
“Being president is like a third level Jewish ninja. It needs stamina, intensity and tact. There is no textbook, so you have to learn on the job,” he added. “It takes a really special person to step up for that and that’s who we are celebrating.”
Anshe Sholom’s roster of presidents includes four women as well as doctors, several lawyers, business owners, real estate brokers, academics and accountants. There’s brothers Carl and Dave Loewith, who operate a dairy farm on the outskirts of Hamilton, two father-son presidents (Albert and Jay State and Louis and Harold Minden) and a father-daughter pair, Nicholas Sole and Louise Sole Rotman. (She was also the first woman to head the congregation.)
“Until I assumed this mantle I didn’t really understand how much work this is,” Levine said. “It’s almost a full-time job because we have to be hands-on managers as well as strategy people.”
Anshe Sholom’s roots go back to 1850, almost two decades before Canada was even a country. That’s when Hamilton’s 13 Jewish families started gathering informally to lay the groundwork for a communal life.
They were all German – so German in fact that they kept their early records in that language. Most were merchants who had arrived in Canada looking for a life free from prejudice.
In 1853, the group formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society Anshe Sholom of Hamilton. In 1863 the Jewish Congregation Anshe Sholom was incorporated. Early gatherings were held in each other’s homes, but in 1886 they rented a room above a leather goods store, their first permanent location. Almost 20 years later, committees were formed and money was raised to build a Temple on Hughson Street South, which was opened in 1882. That building served until 1952 when it was replaced by the present structure on Cline Avenue North.
Edmund Scheuer, often called the “father of Reform Judaism in Canada,” was the first president. He came to Hamilton in 1871 to join his brother-in-law Herman Levy’s jewelry business. In 1873 at age 26, he was elected president of the Temple and held the position for the rest of his 13 years in Hamilton.
Among the Temple’s 14 religious leaders, names such as Emil Fackenheim. who went on to a distinguished career as a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and Arthur Feldman, who was a scholar in his own right, and a great personal friend of Sigmund Freud, stand out. The name towering above all others, however, is Rabbi Bernard Baskin.
During his 40 years in the pulpit it fell to him to lead the congregation through two building campaigns, periods of growth and decline and struggles to redefine the nature of Reform Judaism for a world unimagined by his predecessors.
Those struggles included wrestling with questions such as what degree of kashrut would be observed, would men cover their heads during worship, what roles would the non-Jewish spouses of members be permitted to play in the life of the Temple, would gambling be an acceptable way to raise money and how could a younger generation be kept interested in the faith of their parents.
Sponsorship opportunities and tickets for the March 28 event are available at PastPresidentsFuture.ca or by calling 905-528-0121.