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In Its Old Age, Toronto Congregation More Accepting of Jewish Traditions

September 14, 2006
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During a more radical period of its history in the 1930s, worshippers at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple were forbidden to wear a kippah or tallit during services. But these days, the 2,000-family Reform congregation, which marks its 150th anniversary in September, takes a far more accepting view of traditional Jewish garb and ritual objects.

“At one time, if you walked in wearing a yarmulke, you would be asked to take it off,” said Gary Posen, a congregational past president. “Now if you walk into our sanctuary, you’ll see it’s about half and half.”

“Ritual traditions were thought to be unnecessary,” related Sheila Smolkin, another past president. “We weren’t as extreme as some other congregations, but there was a period when we discouraged our sons from having bar mitzvahs.”

Established by a group of 17 families from England, Germany and the United States, Holy Blossom has embraced the full spectrum of Jewish belief from strict Orthodox Judaism to radical Reform since holding its first services in a room over a downtown drugstore on Rosh Hashanah in 1856.

The congregation built its first synagogue in 1876 and then another, an elegant twin-domed synagogue, in 1897; the latter is now a Greek Orthodox church.

In 1938 it moved uptown to its present home, a monumental, basilica-like edifice whose design was visibly influenced by New York’s Temple Emanu-El. Situated on a slight rise of land, it is sometimes jocularly referred to by locals as “the church on the hill.”

An outdoor historical plaque describes the congregation as the first in Ontario, dating back to when the province was still called Canada West. The building, the city’s first major poured-concrete structure, has become a midtown landmark whose walls are crammed with colourful history and stories.

With sublime indifference to Ashkenazi tradition, most pews in the main sanctuary face northwest instead of east toward Jerusalem. The rabbi at the time, Maurice Eisendrath, was a fervent anti-Zionist whose arrival in 1929 sparked widespread local Jewish protests and calls for his dismissal. He later recanted his views and, like most Holy Blossomites, became a strong supporter of Israel.

The building includes an unusual medieval flourish in the form of a large bell tower without the bell. In actuality it is a ventilation shaft in which various synagogue artifacts, from oil paintings to 19th-century documents, have been stored and forgotten over the decades, only to be rediscovered as found treasures in recent years.

In its early years the congregation briefly went by the names Sons of Israel and Toronto Hebrew Congregation before adopting its current moniker. The name is based on a scriptural allusion to “pirchay kodeshim” or holy blossoms — referring to young Torah students — but as writer Robert Fulford once observed, it “would apply more aptly to a perfume made in Kyoto.”

In the early 1900s, Toronto became home to tens of thousands of poor Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe, who recognized that they did not fit in with the anglicized and gentrified crowd that frequented Holy Blossom; instead, they formed many small synagogues of their own. Even so, Holy Blossom took a leading role in helping to assimilate the immigrants and providing necessary social services.

“In looking back over our 150 years of history, one of the things that have become apparent to us is how much the congregation keeps adapting and adjusting in the face of contemporary pressures,” Posen said.

In the 1880s, the board decided to erect a mechitzah, or separation, over the women’s gallery, a decision that was speedily reversed after the president’s wife led an angry revolt. In the late 1890s, a pipe organ was installed on Bond Street but some Orthodox-minded congregants were offended by the innovation and put it out on the sidewalk.

After many such tugs of war between tradition and modernity, Holy Blossom joined the Reform movement and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1921, a decade that saw the banishment of the yarmulke, tallit and many Hebrew texts from the sanctuary. At one time the synagogue’s best-attended weekly services were held on Sunday.

The pendulum has swung back considerably since then. Recently a lifelong congregant was called to the Torah and given a tallit — the first he had ever owned — as a gift for his 85th birthday. “I wear it proudly,” said Leonard Levy, whose great-grandparents were early members of the shul in the days when there were some 100 Jews in the city; there are now close to 200,000.

Anniversary celebrations call for a lavish opening ceremony, public tours and several concerts, including one in June 2007 featuring the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Another anniversary project calls for congregants to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah.

A guided tour of the Pape Avenue Cemetery, administered by Holy Blossom, is scheduled for Oct. 22 to coincide with a ceremony at which it is to be designated a provincial historical site. The Jewish burial ground was established in 1849 and is Ontario’s oldest Jewish cemetery.

Historic displays along an upper-floor corridor will feature portraits of the synagogue’s influential spiritual leaders such as Eisendrath, Abraham Feinberg, Gunther Plaut, Dow Marmur and John Moscowitz, a former California hippie who, as the present senior rabbi, has helped “liberate” the congregation from “the once-strangling Reform orthodoxy.”

Anniversary celebrations are scheduled to continue until June but, for Posen, the most important activity is the inscription of the sefer Torah. “Our aim is to get every member of the congregation to participate,” he said.

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