Rabbi Ahron Hoch is careful to point out that he isn’t retiring. He’s “transitioning to a different stage,” and promises that he will still be involved in communal life.
After spending 40 years in Toronto – a biblically significant number – Rabbi Hoch, the senior spiritual leader at the Village Shul who’s among the five founding rabbis of Aish HaTorah in Toronto, plans to return to his native United States, where he will be a travelling rabbi and a kind of itinerant fixer.
With the death last August of Faigy, his wife of 42 years, Rabbi Hoch moved his departure up by a year. “The time had come to give it over to the next generation,” he said.
It was on his watch that Aish HaTorah grew in Toronto, from five families who opened a Jewish learning and outreach centre in a 900-square-foot office at Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue in 1981, to a powerhouse that has reached thousands with programs, speakers and seminars aimed at strengthening Jewish identity.
By 1988, Aish HaTorah families were holding synagogue services in the home of their rabbi, Yaakov Palatnik, and then in the basement of Beth Lida Synagogue on Gilgorm Road, before winding up for a decade in a former cheese shop on Eglinton Avenue.
It seemed an almost natural culmination when, in 2000, the current Village Shul opened on Eglinton Avenue, with Rabbi Hoch as its spiritual leader. With its heavy emphasis on family oriented programming (the Jewish Family Institute was started by the shul and given to Aish HaTorah to run), the traditional Orthodox synagogue today boasts more than 300 family members.
The full name of the distinctive Jerusalem stone structure says a lot about its story: the Dan Family Village Shul & Friedmann and Berg Families Aish HaTorah Learning Centre.
Rabbi Hoch rose to become the education director of Aish HaTorah, but becoming the synagogue’s rabbi was not in his plans.
“The Village Shul pulpit was not something I sought out,” Rabbi Hoch, who turns 65 in April, admitted to The CJN in a recent interview. “I was asked, when I was education director of Aish HaTorah to also take on the Village Shul. And so I formed a partnership with the lay community to build something special. We had a vision of trying to build a role model community.”
His odyssey began in 1980, when Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah, met with Toronto philanthropists Joe and Helen Berman to discuss opening a local branch of the Jewish outreach and learning centre.
One Canadian and four American rabbis took on the job. A native New Yorker not long out of Rabbinical Seminary at the time, Rabbi Hoch remembers that upon arriving in Toronto, “I enjoyed the civility and it was a special place, but it did take me a while to understand the mindset of the Jewish Canadian. When we came, we were all in our mid-20s and were very idealistic. We had a dream of creating a renaissance within the Toronto Jewish community.”
What struck him as different here was “the concept of learning Torah as a mainstream activity; the concept of relating to Judaism and accessing it as a vehicle of growth on your terms; using your own free will. Those things were very, very foreign.”
But there was a hunger for the approach among university students and young professionals, “and that’s where our success began. And then eventually, it branched out to marrieds and business leaders. They wanted to build something special for their children, something that was growth-oriented, yet not judgmental, that would be open to people from all walks of Jewish life.”
The idea was to give people the ability “to access Judaism as a source of wisdom for growth,” and getting people to realize they can make a difference.
That, he said, translated into the Village Shul’s mission statement: to infuse meaning into every ritual and action.
Rabbi Hoch will visit Toronto frequently – two of his seven children live in the city – but he plans to return to the job he started some years ago and has taken to 23 cities in Canada and the United States: that of an independent volunteer who travels to communities to help rabbis, synagogues, lay people and organizations troubleshoot problems, or just improve.
“The idea is to take the 40 years of experience and to share what I’ve learned, as well as inspire and speak and teach.”
He has a departing message for CJN readers: “That they should understand they have a genius within them and that they can make a huge difference in the world. And the question is just becoming inspired to make the choice to go and actualize their greatness.”