The rabbis I got to know when I went to rabbinic school in London in the 1950s were mostly refugees from Hitler’s Germany and other countries in Europe. When they met, they’d often ask each other, probably as they used to in the old country, “What have you published recently?” Later they became my colleagues and role models. I’ve been publishing articles and books ever since.
When I came to Canada and got to know my North American colleagues, I’d overhear them ask each other, “How much money have you raised recently?” Here not only religious leaders but also academics are expected to engage in fundraising in support of the institutions they serve. In my 17 years at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto I didn’t raise money but continued to publish. That was probably one of several reasons why many American colleagues decided that I’m a shlemiel.
My successor in office, Rabbi John Moscowitz, had the vision of renewing the physical environment of the temple. His successor, Rabbi Yael Splansky, continued in the same vein and helped to turn the vision into reality. Earlier this month Holy Blossom Temple saw the completion of the first phase of its ambitious renewal project. By all accounts, it’s a stunning tribute to all who made it happen and a happy place for the congregation’s many and varied activities.
I’m writing this in praise of my successors and in admiration of their achievement. They’ve properly understood the dictum in the Ethics of the Fathers that we may paraphrase as “where there’s no material support (the text uses the term kemach, flour) there’s no Torah.” My European role models taught the same but assumed that others, not rabbis, would raise and provide the funds.
They – we – may have been influenced by the Christian separation between spirit and matter and assumed that rabbis, like Christian clergy, should only be concerned with the software of religious life, which in the context of Judaism meant primarily preaching, teaching and writing. Rabbis were to be exponents of Judaism, counsellors to Jews and representatives of their communities.
We all know that the synagogue, the place of Torah, also needs physical space to be effective, because in the Diaspora, the synagogue is the primary place for Jewish teaching and Jewish practice. It welcomes all Jews who seek it out. It’s also the vehicle by which Jewish concerns for society at large are manifest. Whenever possible and appropriate, this is being done in co-operation with non-Jewish neighbours.
Our enemies, too, know the importance of the synagogue. That’s why they so often seek to attack Jewish places of worship. The recent massacre in Pittsburgh is a telling tragic example. Therefore, synagogues in the Diaspora must nowadays provide security in order to protect those inside. In Europe, those who are not regular members will only be admitted upon proof of identity.
Israelis who hear or read about this tend to view it as evidence that Diaspora Jewry is doomed. Some argue that only aliyah will save it. Israelis who’ve visited synagogues abroad are often amazed at their vitality reflected in the many activities apart from worship. The vibrancy of Holy Blossom Temple and many other synagogues in Toronto and beyond are a telling part of the evidence.
With this in mind, if I had my time over again, I’d probably spend more energy on fundraising than on writing books and articles. With few notable exceptions, buildings seem to outlive books.
What may have been appropriate in prewar Europe and in postwar Britain isn’t as relevant in North America of the 21st century. It’s good to know that, like so many other congregations in the city and elsewhere, the temple I served happily for 17 years isn’t a relic of the past but a role model for the present and a guarantor, I pray, for the future. As long as synagogues are thriving, so will Judaism.