TORONTO — A dissonant note was struck at the inaugural convocation of the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School when its newly installed chancellor bemoaned the lack of Jewish community support for the new institution.
“I was deeply disturbed and even distressed when I heard that certain sectors of the local community have not given the support that this sacred institution deserves. Rather, they sought to crush it as millstones crush wheat,” said Rabbi Daniel Sperber at the celebratory event Nov. 27 at the University of Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre.
The school, which began offering classes to the community in September, expects to open its seminary in 2012. It needs the “total support of all members of the Toronto Jewish community and indeed the Canadian Jewish community,” Rabbi Sperber said.
“Some elements of this community may find difficulty in accepting the fact that a new institution is being created which may challenge certain basic tenets of their Jewish position. To them, I would ask that they be silent.”
Rabbi Sperber also noted the uniqueness of the school being part of the Toronto School of Theology (TST), a consortium of seven theological seminaries affiliated with the University of Toronto. A veteran of interfaith dialogue, he noted that such interactions clarify areas of common ground and “fortif[y] our own faith,” while at the same time fostering an appreciation of other religions.
Martin Campbell, chair of the board of governors of TST, expressed its commitment to supporting the new yeshiva.
Among other speakers at the convocation was Senator Linda Frum, who brought greetings from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who now runs a foundation he established to promote understanding about religions, expressed support in a video.
Rose Wolfe, chancellor emerita of the University of Toronto, also took part as installing officer.
The new yeshiva, which has an interfaith advisory board, is housed at U of T’s University of St. Michael’s College. It is not affiliated with any Jewish denomination. Instead, the school hews to what is described on its website as “classic” or “pre-denominational” Judaism.
In an interview following the convocation, Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, the school’s rosh yeshiva and the driving force behind its creation, told The CJN that supporters of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary “might worry that this will draw away from the Jewish Theological Seminary, when we don’t think it will, because JTS follows a much different pattern of Halachah than we do.”
As well, he added, some Orthodox people question whether the yeshiva is “really” traditional, because of the Conservative background of some of its faculty members.
Rabbi Tanenbaum served as a second rabbi at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation until his retirement in 2009. Beth Tzedec ended its affiliation with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 2008. Rabbi Wayne Allen, the yeshiva’s provost, was longtime spiritual leader of Beth Tikvah Synagogue, which is Conservative. Rabbi Sperber, a 1992 recipient of Israel’s prestigious Israel Prize for his scholarship, is a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and president of its Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies. He describes himself as centrist Orthodox.
Explaining part of the raison d’être behind the establishment of the new yeshiva, Randall Starr, chair of its board of governors, said at the convocation, “Up until now, Canada has had to go outside its borders to fill its pulpits and other rabbinical positions.”
In his address at the convocation, Rabbi Tanenbaum said the school is initiating “a 25-to-50-year plan to reinvigorate Canadian Jewry. Each year, we aim to send out another wave of rabbis – rabbis who understand and speak Canadian – to organize, to develop and to lead underserviced Jewish communities.”
The yeshiva’s honorary chair, retired senator Jerry Grafstein – who once considered pursuing rabbinic studies – called the convocation “a splendid and striking event.”