My strongest image of Rabbi Ron Aigen is one that pretty much no one else got to see. A Friday afternoon, edging toward 4:30 p.m., the sun getting lower in the spring sky. Ron sits at his desk, several books open and face down. Hand-written pages in his small script in front of him. He’s working on his dvar Torah for the next morning.
I’m stopping at his office on my way out to say good shabbes, that he’s the last one left in the building and to lock up behind him. “Hey, got any texts to talk about the need for contemplation?” he asks, or “Have you read Ron Wolfson’s new book? What did you think? I’m talking about community building,” or “I’m trying to work out something about peoplehood and the next generation…” I put my bag down, sit in the chair opposite him, and we hash it out a bit. He listens intently, gazes at his computer screen, jots some notes.
I finally say I have to run to get my daughter from daycare. He wishes me good shabbes with a smile. I leave him there at his desk, surrounded by his favourite books, photos of his family, binders from training he’s completed, awards for his publications, his rabbinical degree on the wall and artwork from his haggadah. He was always the last one to leave on Fridays. I think he relished the quiet of the empty synagogue to gather his thoughts.
On May 8, we lost Ron suddenly to a stroke. He had just survived a heart attack mere weeks earlier. He was weeks from retirement, after serving Montreal’s Congregation Dorshei Emet, his one and only pulpit, for 40 years.
Much can and should be said about his life and work. I write humbly my own reflections.
Ron was an amazing mentor, colleague, and friend to me over my four years in Montreal, two as his assistant rabbi. As a young rabbi just starting out, Ron believed in me. He shared with me his pulpit and leadership of the congregation he’d led for 40 years, even though at this time in his career he didn’t need to be generous. Ron treated me as a colleague and a peer, even though he had decades more experience.
He was wise and humble. His generosity pushed me to believe in myself and my rabbinic voice and my instincts.
And in this way, he made space not only for me, but for people of all stripes, creating a welcoming Jewish community that propelled congregants to find their own way in to Judaism. Indeed, he would try to match congregants’ skills and interests with whatever we were working on, to bring their expertise into Jewish life.
Ron was always learning, whether spending his summers in Israel learning Yiddish, or participating in the Hartman Institute’s rabbinic programs, or taking the latest Institute for Jewish Spirituality training, or just reading the latest book on progressive trends in the North American Jewish world. And he was always striving to enhance his spiritual practice. Through meditation, through music, through text, through contemplation, Ron cultivated his own spiritual life and tried to offer that path to the congregation.
Ron could have retreated to his scholarship. An accomplished liturgist, he published a well-received siddur, machzor, and haggadah of his own translation, interpretation, and sometimes creation. A leading voice in the Reconstructionist movement, he could have left Montreal, taken an academic position at a rabbinical school or institute. But he preferred to stay with his people, to have his hands dirty with the work of the world. In a city where he was one of the only liberal rabbis, Ron created a haven for spiritual seekers, progressives, and the intellectually curious. He created a safe space for nuance – about religious life, about Israel, about ethical living.
I thought when I was ordained that I would surely do organizational work. Ron showed me an inspired vision of what congregational service could be. I feel grateful to have worked alongside him, and I hope to someday have built the kind of rabbinate he did.
Ron, your impact has been great. I will miss you, and our time spent thinking together in those quiet moments before Shabbat. Your memory is a blessing for
Rabbi Julia Appel is the director of education and family programming for Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism, in Toronto. She served as assistant rabbi of Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal from 2013-2015.