TORONTO — Rabbis from the 12 GTA synagogues that were involved in this year’s inaugural Yom Kippur outreach program to local Israelis don’t agree on how successful the pilot project was, but Amir Gissin, left, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, thinks it was a success despite mostly low turnouts.
Rabbi Reuven Tradburks of Kehillat Shaarei Torah said he thinks it will be possible to repeat the project next year in a different way, but his assessment is that the initial effort “didn’t work.”
Only a couple of people showed up at his synagogue, which is located in an area that doesn’t have a high number of Israeli residents.
“It was disappointing but not unpredictable,” he said.
Yet Gissin, who initiated the project under the auspices of the consulate, believes that it “managed to touch a real need” for Israelis who are disconnected from Israel, he told The CJN in a phone interview. As an example, he cited the number of Israelis who showed up at services at Chabad of Mississauga (between 30 and 50, according to Rabbi Yitzchok Slavin).
“It was really surprising,” Gissin said. “In Israel, we say that even the most secular Israelis go to synagogue to hear the shofar on Yom Kippur,”he said. “We managed to recreate an opportunity for them to do that without the barriers of having to pay for it [there are no fees to belong to a synagogue in Israel] or to be there in a way which is not familiar to them.”
All the Yom Kippur services in the program were free of charge, geared to Israelis of all ages, and included prayer, the blowing of the shofar, discussion, explanations and an opportunity to ask questions.
Gissin said it’s the job of the existing Jewish community and the Israeli community – not the consulate – “to get together to understand cultural differences, to have a mutually built relationship. I was very happy to be the facilitator for the project, but I think the continuation should be in the hands of others, be it the Israeli Forum, which represents Israelis in the city and is an arm of [UJA Federation of Greater Toronto], or the Israeli and Jewish media, and the different synagogues.”
He said his aim in launching the project was to make sure “that for the young generation of youth who have Israeli parents who immigrated, that Israel will remain an attractive option. The fact that they speak Hebrew doesn’t automatically make Israel relevant to them.”
Israelis who have been here for a long time are starting to discover that their children have no attachment to Israel, he said.“All of a sudden they discovered that speaking Hebrew and visiting Israel once in a while is not enough.”
He noted that synagogue can be intimidating for Israelis, particularly youth, who are not connected to that environment.
Feedback he has received indicates that the program served as a catalyst for family discussion for Israelis who took part.
“I don’t know whether they will choose to come again next year. I just know we opened a door for them.”
Gissin said it was a “very important development” that the two communities “were forced to look at the world through the eyes of the other group. If you’ve done it once, you’ll be able to do it again… As small and modest as it was, other ideas for doing things together can grow. At the end of the day, the way to bring and integrate Israelis into the Jewish community is by developing a community agenda.”
Rabbi Harvey Meirovich, a Torontonian who made aliyah and is back in Canada spending a year at Beth Tzedec Congregation, said that four families with young children, as well as one adult, showed up for the Yom Kippur for Israelis program that he ran this year.
“They were looking for something for their kids,” he said. “Perhaps [such a program] is what we should be planning for next year,” he wrote in an e-mail report to Rabbi Michal Shekel, executive director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis.
Rabbi Meirovich told The CJN that one of the issues that large congregations grapple with is division of resources between serving a large group of members and reaching out to non-members.
Rabbi Michael Dolgin of Temple Sinai Congregation, the only other non-Orthodox synagogue involved in the project, said he was pleased to take part and “next year certainly we’re happy to participate again.”
The turnout at Temple Sinai was “really small,” he noted. “But in the first year, we were more concerned about making it available.
“It was a late initiative,” he added, referring to the planning process, which began with an initial meeting in late August.
Liana Kanengisser, director of the Israeli House, which is run under the auspices of the consulate, speculated that one problem may have been that shuls specified a set time for the Israelis to come, for the most part late in the day preceding the Neilah service. Thornhill’s Beth Chabad Israeli Community Centre, which had its doors open all day, attracted a few hundred people, she said.
“We didn’t expect very huge numbers,”Kanengisser said. “We think it was important just because the synagogues agreed to participate.”