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Around the Jewish World Montreal Jews Pay Tribute to a Man, and to the Long Era That He Spanned

May 8, 2006
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When Montreal Jews recently honored Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat for his years of rabbinical service at Shaar Hashomayim, one of Canada’s oldest synagogues, they weren’t just paying tribute to the man’s spiritual inspiration and scholarship — they were reflecting the vitality of Jewish life in Quebec’s largest city over the past six decades. Located in well-heeled Westmount, Shaar Hashomayim, which is celebrating its 160th anniversary, has always been home to Montreal’s Jewish business elite. The late April tribute to Shuchat drew more than 550 celebrants to a gala dinner.

Shuchat first took the pulpit in 1946, and over the 60 years of his tenure Montreal Jews have seen their community flourish in diverse domains, sharply diminish in size, then begin growing again from fresh waves of immigration.

The city’s Jewish population, which numbered 125,000 at its peak in the mid-1970s, now is approximately 92,000.

“Jewish life in Montreal is nothing if not resilient,” Shuchat, 85, said in an interview at the synagogue, where he maintains an office and continues to serve as rabbi emeritus.

“In how many cities do you find such ethnic, linguistic and denominational variety among Jews?” he asked. “Our institutions — social, educational, medical — bring us renown. Add to that our per capita contribution to Jewish community fund raising, which remains the highest in the world. All I’m trying to say is, Montreal Jews have earned their community a very special reputation.”

Stephen Lipper, a longtime synagogue board member and chairman of the tribute committee, would be among the first to identify Shuchat as one of the architects of that reputation. He credits the rabbi for helping to keep Jewish life in Montreal intensely traditional.

“Rabbi Shuchat’s vision was to keep the Shaar halachic. He would not compromise, he would not modernize — and the congregation followed him,” Lipper said. “The synagogue is very firmly in the traditional camp, and that is his doing.”

Also Shuchat’s doing was the Pavilion of Judaism when the city hosted Expo ’67.

“This was a bold move of a man of vision,” said author Joe King, a historian of Montreal Jewry. “The World’s Fair marked the centennial of Canadian confederation and was the most heavily attended event in the country’s history. It was Rabbi Shuchat’s idea to have Judaism represented in an official sense on the site; he then took the lead in carrying out the idea.”

The pavilion ultimately welcomed 3 million visitors. In addition to the exhibits, there were different events every day and prayer services every night, and every synagogue in Montreal took part.

“From the interfaith point of view, it was spectacular. Catholic clergy came in large numbers, nuns in their habits, brothers in cassocks. It wasn’t planned, they just came,” Shuchat said. “This was one of the high points in the life of our community.”

The next decade began a protracted crisis for the community. In 1976, a separatist party was elected in Quebec that aimed to take the province out of Canada and create an independent state. The effort ultimately failed but it sparked an exodus of Jews, especially young English-speakers who sought jobs in a welcoming linguistic environment.

Over the next 20 years, tens of thousands of Montreal Jews headed down the highway to Toronto, and thousands migrated to Alberta and British Columbia. Hundreds of Jewish doctors and lawyers moved to cities such as Atlanta and San Diego.

Still, Shuchat hasn’t lost hope.

“Quite a few are coming back. We have a return now. And we should never forget how good Quebec has been to Jewish education,” he said. “The Quebec government sponsors our community’s day schools by providing 60 percent of their budget. It is the only place in North America where this happens at the elementary school level.”

In addition, 30 years of immigration from Morocco have contributed to the community’s resurgence.

“Because Moroccan Jews speak French, they intermarried a lot with French-Canadians until they established their own institutions. Rabbis came from Morocco; now they have their own yeshivot, their own form of kashruth,” Shuchat said. “They’re playing a large and important role here, and assuming leadership positions.”

For example, when Bernard Landry was Quebec premier from 2001-2003, Shuchat noted, a top deputy was a Sephardi Jew from Morocco.

Shuchat’s second book of midrashic commentary, “The Garden of Eden and the Struggle to Be Human,” has just been published. His history of Shaar Hashomayim, “The Gate of Heaven,” was published in 2000.

“To be a rabbi in the most elite synagogue and to be able to last in that position for half a century reflects the leadership of an extraordinary man,” King said. “At the same time, he produced scholarly works that people study intensively. He was also responsible for the creation of the Board of Jewish Ministers, assembling almost all of the different shades of opinion around one table to discuss mutual problems. Rabbi Shuchat has a legacy that will live on in many respects.”

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