When Toronto Jews awoke last Saturday morning and collected their Globe and Mail newspapers from their doorsteps (those who still subscribe, that is), they discovered a front-page story detailing how Holy Blossom Temple, the city’s oldest synagogue – and the country’s largest Reform congregation, with some 1,950 member families – has, in effect, dumped its senior rabbi, John Moscowitz.
The article painted a picture of shul politics at their most vicious, and the goings-on were on display for all in the Jewish and wider communities to see. It wasn’t pretty, but it seems to be par for the course in large Toronto synagogues these days.
The story of Rabbi Moscowitz’s departure first broke in the Jewish Tribune “newspaper,” the house organ of B’nai Brith Canada, which ran a short paragraph on April 24 that quoted shul president Mark Anshan as saying Moscowitz would retire in June 2015.
That was it.
But the item ran with a picture of a rather young-looking Moscowitz, who apparently is only 60 years old.
Moscowitz’s youthful appearance and the rather cryptic nature of the announcement raised questions in the community. Veteran journalist Michael Posner answered many of them in his Globe piece.
Basically, Moscowitz – who has been at Holy Blossom for 25 years, including 12 as senior rabbi – will take a three-year sabbatical and then become rabbi emeritus of the congregation. The legal settlement reached after “protracted” talks between him and the synagogue was said to be worth more than $1 million.
Posner reported that the move to oust Moscowitz has divided the congregation, with a number of high-profile members saying they will leave because of it, including Canadian Senator Linda Frum and her husband, developer Howard Sokolowski. Frum called called Moscowitz’s ouster “a tremendous act of board mismanagement.”
Neither Moscowitz nor the shul board are talking about the issue, but the Globe reported that a powerful “old-guard” faction within the shul tried unsuccessfully to block his reappointment in 2005.
The rabbi’s detractors would only speak anonymously, but some said he was more of a manager than a scholar and not in the same intellectual and scholarly league as his world-renowned predecessors, such as Dow Marmur, now the temple’s rabbi emeritus, and the legendary Gunther Plaut, the famed Torah commentator and former president of Canadian Jewish Congress who died earlier this year.
Others said Moscowitz wasn’t skilled enough at shmoozing with congregants.
More to the point, however, was that Moscowitz is politically and religiously more conservative than the temple’s more classically Reform liberal old guard.
He was front and centre in advocating a 2007 renovation plan that would have spent tens of millions of dollars to reorient the temple’s sanctuary to face east, toward Jerusalem, as do those in most Conservative and Orthodox shuls.
Many Reform temples, including Holy Blossom, deliberately erected buildings in which congregants would not face east when praying as a way of differentiating themselves from their more traditional counterparts in other movements.
The proposed renovations, however, have apparently gone nowhere, even though the changes to the sanctuary were part of a modernization of the temple’s building that is reportedly long overdue.
“I think what happened is that [board chair] Mark Anshan managed to galvanize the opposition to John, based on his political conservatism and religious traditionalism,” prominent Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, a good friend of the rabbi, told the Globe. “Holy Blossom was classical Reform, and John offended those sensibilities. He broke the mould by understanding the implications of the collapse of the Oslo accords and by bringing in more Hebrew and greater respect for Halachah [Jewish law]. This was very painful for the old guard.”
Rabbi Moscowitz’s unceremonious departure is perhaps the most recent high-profile case in a large Toronto shul, but it’s not the only one.
At Beth Tikvah Synagogue, a Conservative congregation with some 1,100 member families, spiritual leader Rabbi Wayne Allen is completing an 18-month sabbatical this month after he was rumoured to have been forced out of his position for undisclosed reasons.
There a number of parallels between his case and Moscowitz’s.
Rabbi Allen, who was solidly on the religious right wing of the centrist Conservative movement and was a prominent member of the Union for Traditional Judaism (which, ideologically, straddles Conservatism and Orthodoxy), is leaving the congregation after 25 years as its spiritual leader.
Like Moscowitz, Allen, too, replaced a well-known predecessor, the charismatic founding rabbi of the congregation, Avraham Feder, who began his career as a cantor and also fulfilled that role at Beth Tikvah, with his powerful and passionate singing voice.
Speaking to The Canadian Jewish News in January 2011, Allen said his departure had nothing to do with philosphical differences with the shul’s leadership, although Beth Tikvah’s president at the time said the synagogue would be going through an “evaluation of when, and who, and what direction the synagogue will take in terms of ritual orientation.”
As well, this past winter, Beth Tikvah moved to allow women to participate in Torah reading, a change that had apparently been considered under Rabbi Feder but didn’t happen during the Allen years.
But aside from ritual direction, as with Rabbi Moscowitz, Allen was said by many people familiar with the congregation to lack shmoozing skills, and some saw him as too dry and cerebral, particularly compared to his fiery predecessor, Feder, who was a gifted orator.
There are other relatively recent examples of clergy in Toronto wearing out their welcomes with shul memberships in various ways.
• At the shul I attend, the contract of the longtime cantor wasn’t renewed a couple of years ago amid talk that the shul leadership wanted to head in a more participatory direction during services, and that a gap had opened up between the shul and its employee around salary demands, job description and the need to contain costs. The controversy divided the membership, pitting the cantor’s supporters, who said he was mistreated, against his detractors, who wanted to take the synagogue in a different direction. The acrimony became so bad that the rabbi had to write a stern open letter to congregants telling everyone to settle down (a brave move in retrospect, considering what’s happened to his colleagues Allen and Moscowitz).
• At one large Orthodox congregation, in a scandal that went unreported, the founding rabbi was reportedly seen by a private investigator attending a movie with a married congregant. He subsequently retired.
• Another large modern Orthodox congregation is renowned for chewing up and spitting out its rabbis, having gone through three or four spiritual leaders (depending on how you count them) in the last 20 years since the retirement of its longtime rabbi. One rabbi was seen as too liberal by some congregants, another as insufficiently Zionist. One shul member, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, used this old chestnut to describe the synagogue’s recent experience with its spiritual leaders: “Being a congregational rabbi isn’t a job for a nice Jewish boy.”
Why have there been so many rifts between clergy and congregants in Toronto (although Toronto is not necessarily abnormal in this regard, and the problem isn’t confined to Jewish congregations)?
Maybe it has to do with budgets and dwindling memberships in many cases, which puts power in the hands of a small number of donors who can more easily call the shots. Or maybe it has to do with synagogues’ tendency to develop a small coterie of committed and interested individuals who come to dominate organizations mainly comprising dues-paying members who don’t attend synagogue more than once or twice a year.
In some cases, financial considerations are to blame, as younger people aren’t joining the mega-shuls that their parents and grandparent erected over the course of the 20th century in North America, opting instead for less costly and more intimate worship options and leaving mega-shuls in financial peril.
Perhaps it has to do with the sense that rabbis and other clergy are more like hired guns than spiritual leaders in modern consumer societies, particularly in cities like Toronto, which, with its large and vital Jewish community, is seen as a prime destination for clergy, so synagogues feel they can afford to be picky.
Or perhaps the baby-boomer successors to the moral and scholarly giants of yesteryear truly do lack the intellectual gravitas of their predecessors. (I can think of a number of examples to bolster than opinion.)
Or maybe it’s that the large-shul model has broken down for reasons of cost and cultural change, and those who still choose to affiliate with a mega-shul are increasingly bickering amongst themselves as they struggle to choose a direction that will keep the lights on and the whole enterprise afloat.
More likely it’s due to a combination of factors, as well as the reality that it’s darned near impossible to please all of the people all of the time. And being a rabbi of a large synagogue is all about dealing with people – lots and lots and lots of people.
Whatever the reason for all the turmoil, heckling the rabbi – if only under one’s breath or to the poor shmo in the next pew – is like a national pastime for Jews.
I’ll bet rabbis Moscowitz and Allen wish it were something gentler, like knitting, or checkers.