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DN: The Early Years - Reflections from Harvey and Gilda Freeman

16/04/2019 11:23:03 AM


Reconstructionism has metamorphosed many times since it was introduced to Toronto in the 1940’s. Initially it was a few dozen individuals who subscribed to the Reconstructionist magazine and were philosophical acolytes of Mordecai Kaplan’s. There were even a few prominent rabbis who were followers and had studied under him while at JTS.

They were reluctant to admit to being Reconstructionists, as many in the community regarded it as “unkosher” . If asked, they called themselves Kaplanians or philosophic Reconstructionists. So, as a group they never coalesced.

I myself was something of a spectator. When Mordecai Kaplan came to speak to an overflow, standing-room-only audience at Beth Tzedek in the late 1950’s, I was hooked, but still a passive observer. Then, around 1960, two of the leaders of the existing Montreal congregation, Stephen Barber and Rabbi Lavy Becker, placed a small newspaper ad inviting interested parties to meet and begin a chavura, or a study group. From this followed a study group of about a dozen couples.

They continued to meet intermittently for the next ten years in a very fluid fashion. Most had a need for full synagogue services. Eventually only a few remained and were replaced by others; but several returned after Darchei Noam was formed.

During this era I was privileged to attend the National Convention of the Movement in 1967 in Montreal. It was a raucous affair, dealing primarily with the proposal that we become a  4th movement in Judaism. Kaplan and some older leaders were dead set against this. In the end, after hours of loud and animated debate, the younger more radical faction prevailed. Thus it began, the creation of seminary and administrative structure.

Coincident to all of this was the laying of the cornerstone for the Montreal synagogue. In attendance was the young local MP for that area and recently appointed Minister of Justice. His name was Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

Reconstructionism meanwhile was continuing in Toronto at a snail’s pace. One group superseding the study group began regular meetings and attempting monthly services. They met in various members’ homes; the Zionist centre on Marlee, in restaurant halls, and the Diet Workshop. However, in essence they were an eclectic, happy, clappy group of about two dozen families; with guitars, long hair, peasant blouses, and sandals. Most of the women were either pregnant or nursing. Later they somehow managed to begin bringing in student rabbis from the seminary in Philadelphia on a monthly basis.

In the mid 70’s, under urging from Lavy Becker they decided to hold High Holiday Services. This was at what was then called the North ‘Y’ on Bathurst. Again, student rabbis were brought in, until 1981. All the while, the group was slowly attracting more attendees and members.

In 1981 a pressure group consisting of Rabbi David Teutsch, Lavy Becker, and Stephen Barber called a few of us to a meeting at the Chelsea Hotel. They told us it was time to attempt to form a regular congregation with a rabbi and permanent location. This was like a “Nixon Goes to China” moment for us. It all seemed a little bizarre. When I became president in 1982 we had 34 dues-paying members, a sprinkle of generous donations, and some revenue from High Holiday ticket sales. A rabbi’s salary, rent at the B’nai B’rith building and related administrative expenses for the year was double that amount.

With a new and dynamic rabbi in Richard Hirsh and a permanent home, we were fortunate in more than doubling our membership that year and have moved forward ever since.

Did I have the vision to contemplate what we have here today? We were naïve and nervous, as well as too myopic to even entertain such a dream. It took other, greater visionaries in succeeding generations to achieve all this.

Sun, 21 April 2024 13 Nisan 5784