I’ve had a hard time settling into a shul. I gave up Orthodoxy in my early 20s and was left in a denominational void thereafter.
I did, however, find myself attending Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation once a year on my father’s yahrzeit. It was laid back. I felt comfortable, not judged. The membership was made up of hard-working, largely blue collar men and woman who cherish their shul and adore their Judaism.
So when my mother passed away last December, I naturally found my way back to that Toronto shul on Yeomans Road led by Rabbi Philip Scheim, a spiritual leader who understands life, and is superlative when dealing with the life cycle. He is surrounded by a warm staff, including ritual director Michael Rubin, Cantor Marshall Loomer and the office administration, who exhibit devotion to the dynamics of their spiritual workplace. The team is composed of decent Jews who work arduously to enhance the spiritual core of all the membership.
I sit in the back of the chapel at Shacharit, just as I did in all my classes in school, and watch the minyan play out. I see Norman, the gabbai, a youthful octogenarian, encourage members to lead the services. Norman is the shul fellow with the jokes. His smile and laugh and daily wish to all of us for “a meaningful day” can set the tone for a day of light.
I see Max, a mighty man like Samson, in his late 80s, lead the entire service, reading the Torah, and, in Elul, belting out a respectable tekiah, shvarim, truah, on his twirly shofar. There are many stories about Max’s courage as a young man and a physically strong Jew. I wouldn’t mess with him nowadays.
I joke with Lionel. I watch as he stands with Bev, a newer member of our Kaddish fraternity, giving her the strength to recite the Aramaic mourner’s prayer for her dear late husband, Lee. I have a special relationship with Lionel. I am intrigued by his vast knowledge of Judaism, of prayer, in particular. He’s a fine human being, in his 50s, funny and a special Jew.
The egalitarian nature of Beth David brings out the nuanced spirituality of both genders. What a unique treat it is to hear Gitta, a woman well into her 80s, recite the Rosh Chodesh Torah reading. One morning, after reading the Torah, she asked me what I thought.
I responded, “Are you kidding? You were magnificent.”
On Oct 26, I’ll complete the 11 months of Kaddish. When I do, no doubt I will feel relieved, with the knowledge that I’ve completed my task of helping my mother ascend to the gates of heaven. I believe, however, a part of me will want to keep going, recognizing that I won’t be protected by the amens to my Kaddish trumpeted by my fellow congregants. What will it be like to remain silent while my Kaddish friends – Floyd, the Marks, Howard, Stephen, Bev, recite the prayer?
Having spent a year at Beth David, I am more anchored in Judaism. I’ve experienced some boisterous morning breakfasts that frequently served up scrambled eggs, herring and schnaps. And I’ve established friendships with people who are lovely and deeply sincere every time they wish me and others yasher koach after we are given an honour. I wonder if I’ll be disciplined enough to continue coming to shul once Kaddish is over and seeing my village, my shul friends like Charlie, Sholom, Wolfe, Marcel and all the elegant women I flirt with.
I’m grateful to Beth David for embracing this sad son and helping to turn a mournful time into ongoing moments of spirit, friendship and peace. Thank you!