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DN: The Early Years - Reflections from Eric and Lil Mendelsohn

03/04/2017 12:20:28 PM


What inspired us to get together in that gathering of like-minded people? Even before the first time we came together with others in a Toronto Reconstructionist service, Lil had a good feeling when she made the first phone call and connected to Rhonda Schild. When Rhonda outlined plans for the first Rosh Hashanah service, Lil told her that we wanted to be there but could not find a babysitter for our year-old daughter, Aurora. Rhonda assured Lil that several of the families had young children and that co-op babysitting among the parents would be arranged. That first gathering, Rosh Hashanah, 1973, was warm and welcoming. Everyone seemed eager to help with the service, childcare or Kiddush setup. We felt we could relate to many of the people whom we met because of our mutual desire to be part of a Reconstructionist service, and that we could relax there as a family. The fact that the community was being listed as a congregation, not a chavurah, nor a study group inspired hope for us in a future as a shul.

Phyllis Angel Greenberg and David Friendly in front of the downtown,
original Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Photo from the files of Eric and Lillian Mendelsohn


Lil had already met Mordecai Kaplan at Brandeis Camp Institute and we both had been to a Reconstructionist seder at Rabbi Lavy Becker’s as grad students in Montreal. We had found the Toronto community most unwelcoming at the time and so were excited when she got a warm response from Rhonda. I suggested we start once a month services after that wonderful encounter with a great group of people and the idea it would become a synagogue eventually.

Memories of those early days:

  • Mitch, Eric, Danny and Danny schlepping prayer books to the next Shabbat service or to a shiva house.
  • Lil recalls the shiva service arranged by Danny after the death of her father. It was an exceptional occasion in those early days (1975) to be able to get a minion in order to hold services on a weekday evening.
  • The board meeting at which it was decided not to disband but to continue on. We knew we had reached a level of legitimacy that encouraged us to begin some serious outreach.
  • The hiring of our first regular-part-time student rabbi
  • The hiring of our first graduate rabbi
  • The participation of a number of congregants at a JRF conference in Philadelphia. We enjoyed learning skills at workshops and were able to see some of our struggles around shul growing pains as mirrored in the experiences of other congregations
  • The time we had Simchat Torah and someone forgot to bring the Torah
  • Meeting immigration at the airport when a student rabbi forgot that Canada was a different country
  • Davening from extremely cold siddurim which had been in the trunk of a car for a week
  • Intermediate rabbi first or building first meetings including a meeting about an available shtible on Barse Street only to find we couldn’t meet there because hydro was cut off and the furnace wasn’t working
  • As for the evolution of the synagogue, I always liked the quote “Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people and not the other way around”. We, as we were in the beginning, should be striving to be ahead of the curve and very different from other egalitarian synagogues through our unique message. We should do this through social action, adult education, and distinct Reconstructionist flavour in all our services and endeavours.
Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781