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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

What This Tisha B’Av Meant for Me: My Temple is in Trouble

I have never paid much attention to observing Tisha b’Av. My wife’s family, Sephardic Jews from Morocco, is much more in tune with the day, counting down from the Three Weeks of no haircuts to the Nine Days of lentils and the 25 hours of fasting. I respect their beliefs and traditions, but there is no way someone is going to force me to be sad. Not when, even during these difficult times, I feel truly blessed with a roof over my head, food on the table and a loving family surrounding me. I refuse to think about the destruction of some building that happened 2,000 years ago.

Next Tisha b’Av, however, may be different. We may be commemorating the loss of something much more meaningful. Our local synagogue is now on the verge of bankruptcy. If we do not find a savior, our shul will not last for another year.

I am somewhat of an anomaly, especially among my friends and family living in the United States. Since I was 3 years old, with one brief exception, I have lived for 62 years within the same square mile. Since 1956, my family and I always have belonged to the same Orthodox congregation. My bar mitzvah was there, also my wedding, the brit milah of my oldest son, his wedding, and the bris of my new grandson.

All of my kids attended nursery school in the building and either participated in or ran the youth activities. My father was a founding member, and I have been on the board of directors for the past 20 years. I said Kaddish there for both of my parents, who are buried in the shul’s cemetery. I have attended Sabbath services almost every Saturday for the past 30 years, been on dozens of committees, worked at the annual bazaar, purchased raffle tickets and seats for the High Holy Days. I watched the synagogue grow to 1,600 families at its peak. I watched the building expand and grow to its current size.

The High Holy Day seat sale always has been a cash cow for the shul that helps sustain it for a good part of the year …. Our local synagogue is now on the verge of bankruptcy.

When I first moved to this community, it really was an Ashkenazi Jewish ghetto. Every door had a mezuzah, and maybe three homes each had a Christmas tree. I went to the neighborhood public school, and of the 120 children in my stream, four were gentiles. It was not an Orthodox community. Many of the men had small businesses and had to work on Saturdays. But there were a few observant families, so they decided to construct an Orthodox synagogue. The land was donated to them by a wealthy entrepreneur (not Jewish) and pretty soon, a funding committee started to go from door to door to get the necessary pledges to construct the building.

At first, the shul was part of the Talmud Torah School. On Shabbat and holidays, the gymnasium was converted into a sanctuary. It wasn’t long before a new school was constructed, and the shul became a full-time house of worship. A beautiful 800-seat sanctuary was built in the 1960s. There were so many bar mitzvahs then that you had to double up. For each haftarah, you got an instant replay. The community grew and the shul was thriving.

If my beloved shul closes its doors [next year], I will truly have something to be sad about. 

In the 1970s, a political movement called the Front de Libération du Québec threatened to bring social upheaval to our beautiful province. This was followed by the election of a separatist government that threatened to take Quebec out of the Canadian federation. Anglophones, especially Jewish ones, became very nervous, and so, the great exodus began. Many of my friends, classmates and family members packed their bags, sold their homes and headed to Ontario, British Columbia or the United States. In our community, many homes were sold to French-speaking Sephardic Jews, who built their own synagogues so they could pray and celebrate with their traditional customs.

Times change; it’s a fact of life. Our local Jewish day school was sold and became a Muslim private school. The longtime glatt kosher butcher in the strip center closed its doors. There are a lot more Christmas decorations around the neighborhood, and many homes are being bought by Asian immigrants.

Our Jewish ghetto is no more.

With this change in demographics, there are not enough members left to support the shul. The building is old and requires a lot of maintenance. Heating and air-conditioning costs are expensive. The grass needs to be cut in the summer and the snow needs to be plowed in the winter. Drastic measures already have been taken to reduce staff and cut costs.

The arrival of COVID-19 makes things even more difficult. The High Holy Day seat sale always has been a cash cow for the shul that helps sustain it for a good part of the year. There probably will be a much-diluted High Holy Day service, with no singing, no schmoozing, a muted shofar and limited seating. Few people will be willing to pay or even attend this year’s abridged service.

I know I will be praying. I will be praying for a savior. Perhaps the Mashiach himself will appear to save our shul. If not, then next year, at Tisha b’Av, I will join my Sephardic family and for three weeks, nine days and 25 hours, I will abstain from haircuts, eat lentils and fast for a day. If my beloved shul closes its doors, I will truly have something to be sad about.


Paul Starr is a retired systems analyst living in Montreal. He belongs to a Modern Orthodox congregation.

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