(** Well, to clarify, not MY first, but certainly the first held in this community.)
I have been attending the only synagogue in Québec City for a year now – it is a tiny synagogue (there is a tiny Jewish community here), and on paper the community has been Orthodox, or perhaps even Modern Orthodox for decades. I am not an Orthodox Jew – I am an egalitarian Conservative Jew, and if you who are reading this are not Jewish, here is a very brief description of the difference (this is important for what’s coming).
Orthodox Jews still observe the separation of men and women at prayer – they do not sit together, nor do they pray together. In some communities, there is a mechitzah, a barrier, to separate the men’s section from the women’s. Sometimes the mechitzah is as simple as sitting in the same sanctuary with pews that are open only at one end, by the aisle, so that there is a wooden barrier between men and women. In some synagogues, the mechitzah is a barrier to vision – a dividing screen, or row of trees, or something that prevents men and women from seeing each other in the sanctuary. And in some synagogues, there is a balcony, so that women don’t actually enter the main sanctuary – they can see and hear the rabbi, but neither they nor the men can see each other. Women in a traditional Orthodox community do not read from Torah. They are not invited to have an Aliyah (to make the blessing before and after a Torah portion is read). Women are not invited to the bimah (the place from which the Torah is chanted and from which the D’Var Torah, the sermon, is given).
In my Conservative community in Halifax, there is absolutely nothing that a man can do that a woman cannot also do. Women have Aliyot (the plural of Aliyah, the blessing for the Torah reading). Women chant from Torah, and they chant the Haftorah (a reading from one of the prophetic books that follows the Torah reading). They deliver Divrei Torah (the plural of D’var Torah, the sermon). They lead many communities as rabbis. They are mohels, responsible for ritual circumcision. Both women and men who are not rabbis can and do lead services. And we don’t follow any physical separation at prayer.
Many of my friends were surprised to hear that I was attending an Orthodox synagogue – that’s not my practice in Halifax, so why, they wondered, would it be so here in Québec? The answer is actually quite simple: this is the only show in town. If I wanted to be a Jew in community with other Jews, this was the only place in which to do it. Certainly, I can be a Jew all by myself – but the community is tremendously important.
It is no secret to say that the Jewish community here has struggled recently. It moved from a Modern Orthodox sort of community to one that became increasingly more Orthodox, right down to the installation of a mechitzah (the divider between men and women). Women certainly were not invited to the bimah, did not make Aliyot, did not deliver Divrei Torah. For some, it stopped feeling like a welcoming place, a place in which all Jews were seen as equal.
It seems that I arrived in Québec in time for something like a revolution. It started with a simple question – “What does the community here do for Tashlich?” (Tashlich is a small ceremony held near water, at which we throw bread on the water, symbolising the sins we have committed, the harm we might have done, as we count the days between Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.) We’d always done Tashlich in Halifax, so I presumed that every community did it and was pretty surprised to discover that this wasn’t necessarily so. I shrugged it off and said, “Well, OK, I will just go down by the St Lawrence River and make Tashlich myself.” No biggie. But it caught the attention of a few people who wanted to know if they could also participate. So we made a Tashlich observance on a cool, grey day on the St Lawrence, and it was profoundly beautiful. And it was a first.
Then I asked another question – “Why don’t we do Kabbalat Shabbat services?” Kabbalat Shabbat is the Friday night service at which Jews welcome the Sabbath. It is a very clear separation of the mundane from the holy, and again, it has always been part of my practice. That’s how I came to lead the first Kabbalat Shabbat service of this community in at least 20 years – we combined it with a community dinner, and because we were concerned about the kashrut (the kosher status) of the kitchen in the synagogue, we held it at the Kirk Hall of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Old Québec. A little unorthodox, you think? Yeah... and it was great.
The community has gathered for communal Passover celebrations in the past and did so again this year – at the Masonic Lodge in the Old City. There were many more people present there than we see on any given Saturday morning, which is no big surprise. It seems true in every tradition that the holidays cause people to become more observant than other days!
Since the first Friday night service, we have held several other Kabbalat Shabbat services, combined with community dinners. We have held those at the synagogue, being very careful to do nothing that could be seen as interfering with the kitchen’s kosher status. We even eat from disposable plates, using disposable dinnerware.
And we have marked Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month, done 13 times a year) together in community. Interestingly, Rosh Chodesh is considered a women's holiday - tradition has it that it was given to women as an honour from God for not having given their gold to the making of idols, as the men of the community had done. Our first observation of Rosh Chodesh as a community was to mark the beginning of the month of Av, generally accepted to be our saddest month, as it is the month in which we commemorate the loss of two temples, amongst a host of other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in this month, on or near its 9th day, which is known as Tisha B'Av. This month, Av, also marks a more joyous event – Tu B’Av, which is a celebration of love. And we will have a Kabbalat Shabbat service and community dinner at which we talk about what this means as well.
We will mark Rosh Chodesh Elul at the beginning of September, in much the same way. We will talk about Rosh Chodesh and what it means, and we will talk especially about why this month is meaningful for us.
We have celebrated Havdalah together – a small, beautiful ceremony to mark the end of the Sabbath. And we will do it again.
This weekend, during which falls the 9th day of Av, that saddest of all days, marked another first for this community – for the first time in anybody’s recent memory (for the first time in more than a decade) – we held a Shabbaton. Think “scholar in residence.” Rabbi Alan Bright, from Shaare Tzedek in Montréal, accepted our invitation to come and spend a couple of days with us. So we had a Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evening led by a rabbi – it was beautiful. There was no men’s or women’s side to the synagogue, because people simply sat where they wished. We had dinner together and had some great discussion about Judaism – what is authentic Judaism? Is there even such a thing? (Hint: there is no single right way to be a Jew.)
On Saturday morning, we gathered for Shabbat services, and it just kept getting better. This small synagogue hasn’t had a Saturday morning minyan for at least 7 months. What that means is that we could not take the Torah out of the Ark. We could not read from it. Any prayers that required a minyan (a gathering of 10 Jews – in an Orthodox synagogue, 10 Jewish men) could not be said, or could not be said aloud.
The Shabbaton weekend was designed to have an egalitarian minyan. The women counted. And so on Saturday morning, we had a minyan – for the first time in months, I was part of a congregation chanting the Amidah together, and it’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.
Even more importantly, the President of the synagogue’s Board was present with her family. She had never had a Bat Mitzvah celebration, but on a recent trip to Israel, she bought a tallit (a prayer shawl). And on Saturday morning, her husband placed the tallit around her shoulders, and she said the blessing for the first time. Then he and their teenage daughter opened the Ark to remove a Torah scroll, and my friend made the Aliyah over a Torah portion for the first time ever.
Women are not obligated to do many things to which Judaism obligates men. But some women choose those things. Some women choose to wear a tallit, or have a practice that includes the wearing of tefillin (ritual prayer objects). Some women choose to chant a Haftorah or to deliver a D’Var Torah. And while tradition has meant that women did not generally do these things, there are not laws prohibiting the assumption of these obligations.
The question of “authentic Judiasm” was part of this weekend’s Shabbaton. And here’s the thing: my Judaism is every bit as authentic as any Ultra-Orthodox rabbi’s. My practice may not look like the practice of women in that community, but it is no less authentic for that. I am no less a Jew for that.
It may well be that the Jewish community here will change dramatically over the next couple of years – and I hope that it does. Not simply because then it might have a practice with which I am personally more comfortable. But rather, because if it does not change, I am afraid it will die. And there have been Jews in this city for hundreds of years – HUNDREDS of years. Jews helped build this city, and it’s astonishing how many people don’t realise that.
We are approaching Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which falls a little later than normal (in early October), and I hope with all my heart that it marks the beginning of a great renewal not only of individuals in their relationship with God and with each other, but also of this community. I think it still has great things to do here, and it’s time for everyone who is even peripherally part of the community to stand up and be counted.