Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Money and Jewish community or Dad, meet shul

I would be the first to admit that my Jewish education isn't deep. But it's deeply held, and rests on two foundational pillars: Rabbi Hillel's on-one-foot injuction, "That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary -- [and now] go study." And "justice, justice shall you pursue."

Which is why Rabbi Jay Kelman's article in last week's Canadian Jewish News, "We need not price Jews out of Judaism," broke my heart. It did this by acknowledging the depth of a potential Orthodox convert's pockets as a serious issue. Kelman quotes (without attribution) Rabbi Zvi Romm, administrator of the Rabbinical Council Of American's New York beit din: "One of the considerations we make is, can the person hack it financially?...If a person says I have no money whatsoever, I can't afford the $400 fee paid out over time, the question you have to ask is, how are you going to make it as an Orthodox Jew?"

Kelman insists, "Rejecting a convert is to be done for religious reasons only," saying rejecting converts based on their bank balance "would seem to be sacrilegious." Of course, there is a "but": "with the cost of Jewish life such as it is, financial considerations enter the confusing calculus of the conversion process." 

Which makes a mockery of what I thought I understood about Judaism.

Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but the Bible, though I don't believe in its literal truth, is filled with stories that move me. Like the story of Hannah in the Book of Samuel. Hannah, though much loved by her husband, is barren, which is a great trial to her. She goes to the temple and prays, weeping with intensity. The high priest confronts her, thinking she is drunk. When she explains her situation, he assures her her prayer will be heard and her wish granted. He didn't ask her if she was sure her family could afford to raise a child...


When I was growing up, we were far from wealthy, and my family struggled with this issue of money and community. Which may explain why the attitude toward synagogue membership I absorbed from my father was a riff on the Groucho gag, "I'd never join a club that would have me as a member!"

My dad was raised in a pretty traditional Montreal Orthodox Jewish family; his parents' unhappy marriage was arranged (in Poland) and produced seven children (one died in Canada in toddlerhood). According to legend, his mother did what she could to miscarry each pregnancy, though this may have only extended so far as taking bumpy carriage rides. My father is the sole survivor of this nuclear family.

The first shul I recall is set in my mind, as though I'm one of Erikson's ducks, imprinted on a particular version of a house of worship. Chomedey, a Montreal suburb, developed in the mid-sixties, rapidly transforming from farmland to tracts of "little boxes made of ticky tacky." When we arrived in 1964, fields with ponds and pussy-willows existed round the corner from our modest duplex. Over the next several years, these lovely "empty" spaces, actually teeming with so much life, morphed into apartment blocks and single-family homes. The postwar baby boom had the public schools I attended, nominally Protestant (as opposed to the Catholic ones, from which Jews were excluded), bursting at the seams.

The synagogue I imprinted on, Congregation Young Israel of Chomedey, might have been called "Our Lord of the Turquoise Folding Chairs." A gymnasium-sized room did double duty as a synagogue and community centre (the latter incarnation hosting hypnosis shows by the late Reuben Pecarvé and screenings of Mary Poppins, The love bug, and The computer wore tennis shoes). An Ashkenazi Orthodox shul, which meant most distinctively to me that men and women sat separately, though kids were free to swarm through both sections. And we did. Cleavage was also by tribe, with a Sephardic congregation meeting on the lower level. I never got the feeling that relations between these groups were warm.

We were members there by the good graces of my Dad's youngest brother, Issie (another Young Israel of Chomedey). Issie was an engineer and shul founder, active in the community, who worked hard to make Quebec a unique Canadian jurisdiction where religious schools received government funding for the non-parochial portions of their curricula. So Uncle Issie was a professional and a macher, the only one of his sib-ship to go to university. He went to McGill for his Bachelor's, and to the University of Tennessee for his Master's degree. After that, he took a job with Canada's Department of Defence, working, I believe, on the DEW line.

Family was very close in those days and the locus of socialization for my father, probably for both my parents (I suppose it could still be if there was enough of it). I was friendly with the eldest of Issie's four children, a girl a scant year older than myself. My dad was neither a professional nor a macher; he'd left school at about 12 years of age, and worked as a furrier with his two partner-brothers. Together, they confronted bankruptcy in 1963. At the end of the previous season, they had gotten a deal on mouton, a curly short-haired form of sheep skin, the fashion of the moment. The following season, though, it was "out." The brothers sold a good part of their decades long stamp collection to make ends meet; one of my earliest memories is waking from a nap to an apartment full of strangers, there to peruse proof sheets and first day covers. 

Following the close encounter with insolvency, my family couldn't afford full synagogue membership dues; I'm not sure we could afford even part dues. As long as Issie was around, we went to the Young Israel, and I think my dad imprinted on that financial arrangement. Or maybe he just remembered what being part of a shul community was like when he was young and most Jews lived in poverty: organized Judaism certainly couldn't have been so concerned about money in those days (or am I just being nostalgic?). Issie made aliyah with his family in the early '70s, about the same time our suburban shul--and its increasingly upscale membership--decided to add a more ornate sanctuary to the building, the folding chairs relegated to the basement hall, for bar mitzvahs and weddings. That was when the arrangement broke down for us, whether over membership dues and/or the additional funds needed for the new facilities. So we became peripatetic synagogue-wise, true wandering Jews.

One place I remember attending was a really small, religious shul, a shteibl my parents called it, with a sheet-like mechitzah dividing the women from the men (and, of course, the Torah). I recall candles glowing candles glimpsed through the mechitzah, presumably for Yahrzheit observance.

By the mid-seventies, a new factory-style high school was thrown up and quickly filled with Jewish and Greek kids who, like us, were rejects of the English and French Catholic school boards. Other students came from the aboriginal lands of nearby Oka. I had a number of classes (mostly sciences) in rooms of cinder block, with fluorescent lighting and no windows. It was a bit of a polyvalent nightmare, including some students who ripped mirrors off walls and toilets from floors--and that was just the girls!--some toughies, with blond hair and black roots, skin-tight jeans, and kohl-rimmed eyes. Of course, among the reprobates there were also Jewish kids who hung out at the back doors, smoking dope (or worse), similarly accoutred and behaved. At least one girl came to school pregnant while I was there. I wasn't overly exposed to these kids because I was an excellent student and our classes were streamed:  enriched, regular and general. But I digress.

At that point, my parents were able to swing a small mortgage, so we moved to a suburb even further from Montreal: Pierrefonds. Our family now included a son whose religious instruction was apparently an imperative much stronger than mine had been. We joined Congregation Beth Tikvah, an organization run by the formidable Rabbi Zeitz. His priority one was a Jewish day school and, through force of personality, he got the Hebrew Foundation School up and running almost single-handedly, it seemed. My brother attended school there. And we were still on folding chairs on holidays! 

My brother was bar mitzvahed the year I married my non-Jewish husband, 1981 (please see note 1). And, true to form, once the school was established, and as the community prospered, the membership was assessed to raise funds for a new sanctuary, banishing those folding chairs to the banquet hall anon. This was probably about 1983. My parents decided they could no longer afford membership in this synagogue and wrote the Rabbi, expecting to be offered a fee adjustment. Instead, there was silence. And that was that. We were again cut adrift, and wandered to holiday services in Golden Age institutions with grandparents in varying stages of decay.

In March 1986, we had our first child. A couple of weeks later, I met a woman and her first-born at a new mother's group run by the local public community service centre. We became friendly and ended up at her house for Rosh Hashanah dinner the following year (my mother had pneumonia). She and her husband  told us about the Reconstructionist synagogue. A place, she assured me, that would accept our family and allow me to re-join my tribe, a need which became pressing with parenthood.

My Jewish education had been haphazard; I went to the A.J. Reisen Yiddish school on Sunday mornings for two years, starting when I was nine. I remember singing Lomir zingen for my father's parents on one of our weekly visits. The exquisite mixture of pride and embarrassment that accompanied such occasions is still fresh in my mind. To tell the truth, I feel that combination of emotions most of the time.

My dad walked me to Yiddish class on Sundays, our dog Lucky trotting on ahead. One late October morning, I was an hour late, victim of a forgotten change to Daylight Savings Time. For an over-weight, overly-sensitive meatball of a child, the effect of all eyes swivelling toward me as I turned the brass doorknob and entered the classroom was profound.

By the end of the second year, we started a Hebrew reader with a red cover. I remember its first page:  an ink drawing of a large extended family group, and underneath, the single Hebrew word mishpacha. But by the end of that school year, I  began objecting, another salvo in the emerging rebellion against my parents, my mother in particular. The following year, I didn't go back.

As a young teenager, I was active in B'nai Brith Youth Organization, and at CEGEP, in Hillel. I went to Israel for a summer at 17 (and thought I'd return), but despite a smattering exposure to brief courses of Hebrew, I never progressed far beyond that single page of the red-covered reader until my husband and I took a course together during his conversion process. And any facility I have singing and following along at services nowadays is due to the instruction I received during my two sons' bar mitzvah preparations, and from my time spent in shul.

So as a young parent, I felt exquisitely ill-prepared to mother a Jewish family, a Jewish home: by that point, my family hadn't been synagogue-affiliated for about five years, I had married a believing Protestant, part of the fulcrum of that pride/embarrassment seesaw, my knowledge of Hebrew and many of the holidays was vestigial. But despite all this, I still felt deeply that I and my children were and would remain in the fold. There was never any question of bringing them up in both faiths, or of giving them neither. Especially because of the Holocaust, I was determined that we were going to have a Jewish family.

My mother told me how pleased she was to see what a warm and nurturing  mother I'd become. I was a scientist, had never expressed any particular maternal instincts that she could see, so it was a sort of happy surprise to her, she told me. She  tracked down an organization called Parveh, for the children of mixed Jewish marriages. She wrote away for their literature and brought it to me and, for a time, pushed me to join or otherwise subscribe to their newsletters and writings. Which infuriated me: I considered my son Jewish, not half-Jewish, as my mother kept suggesting. It took time to get this through to her, but she finally got the message.

She also had a conflicted attitude toward Judaism, due in part to a simplistic but common interpretation of the place it gave to women. She virtually never went to synagogue, either. Maybe on the high holidays. She continually mouthed the most scathing opinions about the over-emphasis of money in the community, how holidays at shul were mostly fashion shows, how little many of the people attending really cared about spiritual matters. Of course, I had noticed this myself.

By the time Dorshei Emet was suggested to us as a possible spiritual home, I responded like the desert celebrates rain. We went to a new members meeting, where Rabbi Ron Aigen told us he hoped this would be a place to feel challenged rather than comfortable. I suppose he was alluding to that adage of "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," but for me, after all these years of spiritual ache, I longed for solace, healing and, dare I say it, comfort. I was among the afflicted in that sense, though I wouldn't have put it that way at the time.

My husband went to shul most Saturdays during the year he was studying to convert to Judaism, while my son and I worshipped at that other local Jewish temple, Cavendish Mall. And when our second son was born a year or so later, his brith milah was held at the shul. As the years passed, my father started coming with us to Dorshei Emet's High Holiday alternate service, usually held on folding chairs at a satellite location: a library hall or parochial school gym. This second service was held for two reasons:  the original synagogue couldn't hold the entire congregation (and various hangers-on) when we all decided it was absolutely necessary to attend. Secondly, the shul's originators envisioned it as a space to nurture the adult intellect. The alternate service was a more relaxed place where parents of boisterous young children would receive fewer dirty looks.

The warm-hearted organizers of the alternate services gave my dad various honours; he held the Torah, received aliyot, and was always warmly greeted. All of this gladdened my heart; it was a large part of what I hoped to find in a shul community. But somewhere over the five or so years of his attending with us, the zeitgeist changed. It could have been because paid members found it increasingly difficult to find seats on the high holidays due to an increase in non-paying freeloaders, or because the costs attendant on the second service were rising, or because a larger number of members were changing fee categories (from full-paying adult or family memberships to reduced-fee seniors) or for a mixture of these or other reasons. The synagogue board seemed determined to force those who only bought High Holiday seats to become full members. What had been a celebration open to all unaffiliated Jews in the city morphed into a service with fees of $200, for one year only. Unless you were an out-of-towner, the second year you were expected to become a full-fledged member (with fees for a family at the time in the vicinity of $750, now closer to $2,000).

The predictable happened one late fall day (could it have been Halloween?). I was in the synagogue office to settle something-or-other pertaining to our first born's upcoming bar mitzvah. The shul's administrative director announced that she'd just received a $75 donation from my father. She looked at me, clearly expecting an explanation.

I wish I had told her to ask him herself. Instead, I said it might have had to do with his having attended the alternate service, held that year in the gymnasium at the Jewish People's and Peretz Schools. She replied to the effect that that was what she surmised, that he should have paid $200 for the privilege, and that anyway, as a Montrealer, he was required to join the synagogue if he wanted to come to future High Holiday services. And then, the gratuitous stiletto slipped between my ribs: "Next year, I am going to put him on a special list and tell [the organizers] specifically that he is to be barred from services unless he joins the synagogue."

Now, I know I had, particularly in that period of my life, a sort of aura of perpetual victimhood, a quality that a personality like our then-administrative director's would find impossible to ignore. I can't imagine her having dealt with most other shul members the way she dealt with me that day. I'm not saying it was my fault, but I'm sure there was something I should have done differently. But such was my precarious perch on my pride/embarrassment seesaw, that I miserably concluded my business with her, and went on my distinctly unmerry way.

And then I made what I still consider my colossal mistake:  I told my father what had happened.

Maybe I should have paid the membership fees for him (which I thought, at the time, we couldn't afford), or I should have called the Rabbi or a board member. I told my father that if it was a question of needing reduced fees, I was sure something could be arranged. But he had already gotten his back up about it, and anyway, simply didn't think even a $200 fee for three days of worship was justifiable.

And so, with a single spell of our own Dorshei Emet witch, a goodly portion of what I'd searched for most of my adult life went up in smoke.

My dad ended up at a Chabad congregation, which he could attend for free. He took pictures at their purim parties, and at various other celebrations during the year. Their major fund-raising involved--at Rosh Hashanah services, no less--the auctioning of aliyot in the coming year for multiples of chai. My mom, as usual, stayed home.

In the years since then, I've spent too much time thinking about my father and my synagogue. I vacillate in my interpretation, at times convinced it's my father's stubbornness, his refusal to pay to attend synagogue, that's  the cause of all this grief. A number of times, I considered leaving the congregation, especially when it came time to fund-raise for our new building, and not simply to follow a family tradition. I know there are some very wealthy people in our congregation, and an even larger number of the comfortably well-off. But I am convinced there isn't another religious community in Montreal, outside of ours, that would have the chutzpah, in attempting to raise funds for a building, to tell us that "we can do nothing --NOTHING--with only three and a half million dollars, that we absolutely have to raise $5 million," or the project would have to be scrapped.

I was also at a meeting where we were exhorted to simply take one less vacation each year, and donate the money thereby liberated to the building fund. Well, my family only took one vacation annually in those days, and only once in the nearly eighteen years since we'd had our first child, did it involve plane tickets!

I started this memoir in the hope of finally getting past these difficult feelings. And I recalled my Rabbi's Kol Nidre address to us a few years back, about wanting to acknowledge problems. He said he particularly wanted to know why those of us who left the congregation did so. My immediate family hasn't left, but I have at times felt estranged.

I know it's kind of a long story, but it is one I'm compelled to tell. The inordinate emphasis of money in the Jewish community is an ongoing problem for me--a disgrace, even--and I'm sure this perception is not mine alone.
1Our romance being a whole 'nother story, summarized as: we met at college; within a couple of years, we'd fallen in love, his mother died of metastatic breast cancer, I couldn't just leave him on his own--we were 20--and he didn't believe in "living in sin." So we married at the Reform Temple Emmanuel by Rabbi Bernard Bloomstone, z"l, the only local rabbi brave enough to marry a Jew and non-Jew. "Whither thou goest," as it were. My husband converted to Judaism six years later. Which sort of proves "if you build it, they will come."

2 The government of Quebec reorganized public schools along linguistic lines in the mid-1990s, requiring a constitutional amendment.


  1. Beverly, what a fascinating memoir. Todah rabah!

  2. Thanks for reading, and for your comment. There is such a wide range of experience in our communities. Just wanted my two cents' worth in there.