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Canada’s oldest Reform shul celebrates 165 years

Hamilton’s Temple Anshe Shalom
Hamilton’s Temple Anshe Shalom

At 165 years old, Temple Anshe Sholom is Canada’s oldest Reform congregation, and its clergy and lay leadership weren’t going to let the anniversary pass without a celebration.

The Hamilton, Ont., synagogue started over a store on James Street South in 1850, when the city’s 16 Jewish families formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society Anshe Sholom of Hamilton. They purchased land for a cemetery and incorporated in 1863. In 1882, they built the city’s first synagogue at 143 Hughson St. S. In 1952, they raised funds and built a new shul at the corner of King Street West and what was then called Cline Crescent. They added a new wing, including a school section, in 1963.

Temple Anshe Sholom still stands there today.

“There have been challenging times, but that vision of coming together as a congregation has always been important,” said Ginny Jones, who has been a member for 27 years. “To come together and learn together is our mandate. There is a real commitment to being a community, being a congregation.”

Jones is on the committee for the temple’s anniversary celebration, to be held Nov. 21. It will include a 3 p.m. service in the main sanctuary with guest Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, followed by a kiddush. At 6 p.m., will be a black-tie optional evening of cocktails, dinner and dancing at Liuna Station at 360 James St. N. The gala will also celebrate the 95th birthday of Rabbi Bernard Baskin and Rabbi Jordan Cohen’s 25th year as a pulpit rabbi. Proceeds will benefit the temple, including the dedication of the main sanctuary in honour of Rabbi Baskin’s birthday.

Rabbi Baskin led the congregation from 1949 to 1989, and under his leadership, the congregation grew from 100 to 475 families. Rabbi Baskin, a former longtime CJN books columnist, is widely recognized for his interfaith work, for which he received a B’nai Brith Humanitarian Award. He was also voted into the Hamilton Gallery of Distinction, and received an honorary doctor of laws degree from McMaster University and an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. As the temple’s rabbi emeritus, he has remained very active in the community and is a highly respected speaker and writer.

“So many have looked to Rabbi Baskin over the years as not only an inspiration, but a bit of a guide,” Jones said. “He has an enormous following, and not just in the Jewish community. He has tremendous intellect but always made his messages very simple and accessible.”

After Rabbi Baskin retired, Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz followed. During his tenure, he hired a full-time educator and worked to revitalize the school. He introduced the increased use of Hebrew, as well as innovations to make services and ritual observance more engaging for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Nine years ago, Rabbi Jordan Cohen took over the pulpit. He leads with the values of education, social justice, egalitarianism and congregational participation in prayer and leadership. The congregation stands today at about 350 families.

“There is a strong sense of the temple’s history. We have five-generation families and members who have grown up here. There is a wonderful sense of connection,” Rabbi Cohen said. “History can be weighty, with the mindset of ‘we’ve always done it that way’ while battling changes in Reform Judaism. We have to try to facilitate the exciting and progressive changes in our movement while honouring that history.”

And while celebrating this momentous anniversary, the temple isn’t resting on its laurels. Jones said a vision committee has worked with the congregation to create a 10-year plan for the synagogue.

“We are intentional about working toward that vision, of being inclusive, active and engaging,” she said. “We really have a lot of reasons to celebrate.”

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