Or Shalom: The Early Years

By Harley Rothstein
January, 2000.

In the Fall of 1979, Daniel and Hanna Siegel started a Minyan in their living room.  This had grown partly out of monthly services Daniel had organized at Hillel House at U.B.C. where he was the Director.  I met Daniel and Hanna at a Hanukkah party that December.  I had spent the previous two years attending Beth Israel, the shul in which I had grown up, in an attempt to reconnect with my Jewish roots.  Although I enjoyed my time at Beth Israel, I believed that there had to be more to Jewish spirituality than what was being offered there at that time.

I attended the Minyan for the first time in January, 1980.  Entering the Siegels’ house on 22nd Avenue I was instantly struck by the enthusiastic participation.  I enjoyed the meditative quality of the service in which some prayers were highlighted and certain lines repeated.  I noticed a number of beautiful and unfamiliar melodies.  I appreciated the depth of thought and extent of participation in the Torah discussion.  I was surprised by the leadership shown by the women (I learned later that I had walked into a special women’s Shabbat).  The physical layout was fascinating.  Almost all participants were sitting on the floor, crowded into a limited space (Hanna’s enormous loom took up about one third of the living room).  I was delighted by the pot-luck lunch afterwards with the kind of vegetarian and whole foods that I had eaten for years.  I was impressed by the energy and spirit of this small group and  immediately became a regular participant.

The group met every other Shabbat during those early years.  Average attendance was about fifteen but sometimes we didn’t have a minyan.  Hosting the service was a huge amount of work for Daniel and Hanna, preparing the space, and more importantly, preparing the service.  They had their own small Torah housed in a makeshift ark which Daniel had banged together resting permanently in the living room.  (Several years later a sturdier and more aesthetic ark was built by Frank Segal.)  Daniel and Hanna led 90% of the service, Daniel more traditional, Hanna more creative, and the overall effect was a beautiful flow to the davenning.  Afterwards, everyone enjoyed the pot-luck lunch and the long interesting discussions that ensued in the kitchen.  Often people stayed until mid-afternoon.  How to involve the children was a long-standing issue.  Hanna sometimes prepared a special service for the children in one of the bedrooms, but Daniel thought they should be allowed to play, absorbing whatever they wanted of the regular service.  Noah Siegel took part in Torah discussions as early as eight years old.  From the beginning the equal participation of women was a central principle and the leadership provided by the women was significant.  The monthly Rosh Hodesh group was an important and meaningful event.  Hanna Siegel inspired a whole group of Jewish women to take their rightful place in Jewish life and ritual.  Issues such as environment and peace were also central to our concerns and on several occasions services ended early so individuals could attend the annual Walk for Peace.

Accommodation was always problematic.  After two years the Siegels could no longer muster the energy to continue hosting the Minyan at their house.  We tried moving from house to house with individual families hosting for one month at a time.  This solved the immediate problem but created others.  For example, it was difficult to tell new people about the Minyan if we didn’t know exactly where it would be meeting on specific dates.  I found a location in the basement of Chalmers Church on 12th Avenue which was adequate for six months.  Later we rented a large house on Douglas Crescent which we were able to afford by renting out upstairs bedrooms.  This served the Minyan well for over a year but the group eventually found it too expensive.  We met for the good part of a year in the old Shalom Gallery at the Jewish Community Centre, before moving to a house on Quebec Street where we stayed for two years.

The first life cycle event hosted by the Minyan was the Dewi Minden Bat Mitzvah held during 1980/81.  Dewi had shocked her secular parents by requesting that she have a Bat Mitzvah.  A mainstream shul was philosophically out of the question for them so they asked Hanna if she could organize a meaningful ceremony.  Hanna taught Dewi (as she would do for many subsequent B’nei Mitzvah) and the event was held at the Multicultural Centre on 7th Avenue.  The main meeting room was packed and the Bat Mitzvah was a highly moving and meaningful event.  The first Minyan wedding was held in December 1981 with Shoshanah and  Aryeh as bride and groom.  Because they had both recently converted to Judaism, dealing with the families was somewhat awkward.  But the wedding was a success largely because of the energy and spirit contributed by Minyan members.  That event was the first time that Hanna Siegel, Myrna Rabinowitz, and I performed musically together, a partnership that would lead to two albums.  Another artistic activity that developed around life cycle events was quilt making to recognize the birth of babies to group members.  These beautiful quilts were made by the women and became another important Minyan tradition during the early years.

Our first High Holyday services were held in September 1982.  Daniel had been serving as a once-a-month Rabbi for the North Shore Jewish Community and also led their High Holyday services.  A number of Minyan members observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there.  But by the summer of 1982 Daniel had become concerned about the lack of egalitarian practices there, so at a meeting in August he told the synagogue Board that he would lead High Holyday services only if men and women could participate equally.  To his surprise they declined.  We held an emergency meeting and decided to organize our own services even though we only had a few weeks to prepare.  We rented the Theological College Chapel at U.B.C.  I’ll never forget Barry Rabinowitz on a ladder high above the ground with Avi Dolgin steadying the base as the two of them covered a large cross with a tapestry made of sewn-together bedspreads.  Daniel and Hanna led almost the entire service.  One highlight was the Torah “discussion” on second day which was a rather irreverent dramatization of the Akedah featuring Avi as Isaac and Barbara Shumiatcher on the balcony as God.  We estimated that over one hundred people attended and we considered the services a big success.  Three years later High Holyday services were moved to the Talmud Torah in order to be closer to the centre of the community, and services rapidly grew in popularity.  Or Shalom provided High Holyday services that were meaningful to many people and also welcomed non-affiliated Jews, rejecting the widespread practice of selling tickets.  Several members of the North Vancouver community (Reva Malkin, Joi Freed, Faye Hassal, and others) joined the Minyan at that time and became active participants.

We had no formal administrative structure.  We held general meetings periodically and by 1981 we decided to have a permanent “chairperson” who would set the agenda and chair the meetings for approximately half a year.  The first chairperson was Batya Fremes.  From the earliest days the group decided that membership in the community would be by “declaration” rather than by payment of a specific membership fee.  Finances were always problematic but we were reluctant to set a mandatory fee.  Since Daniel had a full-time job at Hillel House, he and Hanna provided their time and energy virtually free.  Later, we were able to pay them a 20% salary.  After several years we decided we needed a name so we became Havurat Sim Shalom which in 1986 was changed to Or Shalom.

Sharing the responsibility of leading services was another key issue.  For the first two years Daniel and Hanna led virtually all services.  One Shabbat in February 1982 everyone in the Siegel household was sick and services had to be cancelled.  Daniel was frustrated because he believed that services would have proceeded without them if a few members had learned to lead.  Sharing leadership was a central principle for him and a few members gradually began developing skills.  Susan Shamash learned to read Torah and lead P’sukei d’Zimra and Daniel taught me how to lead Shaharit. Other members began to study Jewish wisdom and our discussions were often exhilarating.  Hanna Siegel, Myrna Rabinowitz, and I continued to experiment with new melodies and music became one of the key ingredients that bound us together.  Eventually, the three of us recorded two albums of original liturgical music and Hanna and Myrna have continued recording to this day.

During the mid-1980s the group continued to grow.  Hillel Goelman shared his deep understanding of Jewish knowledge and ritual.  Dina-Hasida Mercy and Susan Shamash were tireless and willingly led services on a regular basis.  I also led services frequently.  Myrna Rabinowitz’s music provided uplifting ruach.  Gloria Levi and Roz Kunin learned to lead services and read Torah while Leonard Angel prepared insightful Torah discussions.  Avi Dolgin, Ruth Hess-Dolgin, Barry Rabinowitz, Ron Laye, Estarisa Laye, Sheryl Sorokin, Alan Posthuma, Leona Pinsky, Steve Barer, and Hana Wosk performed a myriad of essential tasks.  We were a truly participatory community.

By 1987 it was no longer financially viable for the Siegels to remain in Vancouver and Or Shalom was still not developed enough as a community to be able to provide them with a reasonable income.  They left for New Hampshire that summer and we were left with the immediate task of providing High Holyday services.  Daniel made tape recordings of the entire service and several of us divided up the various sections and committed ourselves to learning them.  The services went off without a hitch and thereafter continued to grow.  For the next two years we functioned without a Rabbi.  Susan Shamash contributed countless hours as President (we finally outgrew “chairperson”) and Hillel Goelman was widely respected as our unofficial spiritual leader.  Dina-Hasida Mercy taught children of all ages.  I led services regularly and developed a course in davening skills which I offered for several years.  We relied on our own resources but found outside help when we needed it.  We brought in Rabbi Ayla Grafstein to provide rabbinical guidance and co-ordination during High Holyday services in 1987 and 1988, and we engaged the services of Rabbi Vicki Hollander of Seattle one weekend per month during 1988/89 to provide counselling and ritual advice.  Members came from as far away as Bellingham.  We had an adult education programme, started a small afternoon school, taught a handful of Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids, tried to reach out to members in need, initiated a bi-monthly newsletter Keren Or, and continued to nurture our love of Jewish ritual.

By 1989, after ten years, Or Shalom had become unrecognizable from the small informal group of friends that provided its beginnings.  It had grown to one hundred fifty members and swelled to a community of over five hundred on Yom Kippur.  Our budget was over $60,000.  But the lay leadership was becoming burned out and many members were looking for, as Avi Dolgin termed it, a more “full-service” shul.  The school and life-cycle events were becoming more important to many members.  We hired a Rabbi, part-time during the first year, and full-time thereafter.  Itzchak Marmorstein was with us for almost five years.  We moved to larger premises, a house on 28th Avenue, which we outgrew almost immediately.  Finally, in the early 1990s Or Shalom bought and moved into its own building at Tenth and Fraser.  In 1994/95 Hillel Goelman served as interim Rabbi for one year before Or Shalom hired Rabbi David Mivasair in 1995.

The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved.  Many  of us were discovering a Judaism which we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful.  We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters.  We were drawn together as friends and held together by inspired leadership.  What made it work was that we honoured the centuries old wisdom of the Jewish tradition while at the same time honouring our own creativity and insight as well as our commitment to deeply held political values such as gender equality, social justice, and peace.