Back in 1981, educator Jack Lipinsky became the ba’al koreh for the Stashover-Slipia Congregation in Toronto, after responding to an advertisement for a Torah reader.
Over time, his role at the synagogue evolved into its spiritual co-ordinator. In this capacity, he has been reading the Torah, leading services and teaching the congregants on Shabbat.
But after 36 years of working for the shul, Lipinsky is retiring from his leadership role. The congregation will be honouring him with a special Shabbat kiddish on Nov. 18.
Long-time shul president Jay Safer said the congregation is grateful to Lipinsky for modernizing its practices.
Safer explained that the two of them have worked closely to make changes designed to draw in younger worshippers. They shortened Shabbat services, women were given more inclusive roles in the services and Lipinsky introduced a learning component, following the kiddush.
Safer stressed that Lipinsky, who is Orthodox, made sure that all the changes instituted in the synagogue were halachically correct. “His open-mindedness and his willingness to adapt halachically was a huge amount of work,” said Safer.
Congregants have also been “enthralled” with the learning component, he added.
It’s no surprise that Lipinsky, 60, is a good teacher. The author and educator –he holds a PhD – taught at the former United Synagogue Day School (USDS, now Robbins Hebrew Academy), among other places.
He currently teaches Jewish history and Israel studies at Associated Hebrew school, among other things. He is also the principal of the congregational school at Adath Israel, the congregation where he grew up. “I’m returning to my roots,” he said.
The Stashover-Slipia Congregation is an amalgamation of two downtown synagogues. In the 1960s the Stashover successfully relocated from Dundas Street near Spadina Avenue to Sultana Avenue and amalgamated with the Slipia shul, which had been on Oxford Street.
Lipinsky noted that the Stashover’s best known rabbi was the learned Rabbi Yehuda Leib Graubart, who arrived in Toronto shortly after the First World War. He wrote books, started a yeshiva and later became the principal of the Eitz Chaim School.
According to Lipinsky, Rabbi Graubart was so esteemed that after his death in the 1940s, the congregation did not replace him and the shul has remained lay-led ever since.
But the synagogue has engaged numerous cantors over the years. When Cantor Simon Skurka retired in the early ’90s, Lipinsky took over the cantorial responsibilities.
He said he noticed that as the older members of the congregation grew frail, the number of people attending services began to dwindle and getting a minyan became increasingly challenging.
“There were families from the Stashover that were loyal to the shul … but the old guys were dying out,” said Lipinsky. Yet he saw the low attendance as “an opportunity to revitalize the place.”
In 2007, he and the congregation’s leadership set out to create an environment that would foster a sense of community. They shortened the Shabbat service and used the slot from 9:00 to 9:30 a.m. for coffee, rugelach and shmoozing.
Lipinsky also introduced communal singing into the morning service, which runs from 9:30 until 11:45 a.m. Kiddish is a full luncheon. The meal is followed by the interactive learning class from 12:15 to 1:00 p.m.
“We’ve created a community,” Lipinsky said. “The older people have bonded with the younger people.”
The learning sessions help people understand the prayers in the Siddur and learn “that there are many ways to being Jewish,” he explained.
Although he is stepping down from his current position, Lipinsky said he intends to maintain his connection to the Stashover-Slipia Congregation because, “It’s a wonderful and amazing little congregation, rooted in a landsmanshaft shul.”