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Rabbi Alan Green

Rabbi Green's Yom Kippur 5774 Sermon -Integrate Winnipeg's Synagogue Programs, With The Curriculum of the Gray Academy.

by Rabbi Alan Green, September 14, 2013

[Editor's note: I fundamentally agree with Rabbi Green about the need to inegrate the Gray academy program with the synagogues, and I have done an interview with head of school Rory Paul in this regard that will be posted next issue. Stay Tuned]


Remember last night’s discussion about the cup being half-empty or half-full?  I talked about some of Shaarey Zedek’s achievements and plans, as we begin to celebrate our 125th Anniversary.  I also reviewed some of the challenges facing us in the immediate future. 

A quick review of these challenges would have to include the following: High Holy Day attendance, down; synagogue membership,  down; synagogue demographics, aging; synagogue life-cycle events, down; income generated from life-cycle events, down.  Most significantly, we're now losing old members more quickly that we are gaining new ones. 

I also pointed out that functionally, I’ve never seen the synagogue work any better than it does right now.  But this performance peak seems not to have impacted, our declining numbers.  Clearly, something else is going on.

So, having articulated these challenges, the question before us is how do we respond?  Like the amusement park thrill riders in last night's example, we too have a choice to make.  We can face this challenge from a place of fear and paralysis.  Or, we can take it as an irresistible invitation to change.      

Today, I want to outline a way forward.  It’s certainly not the only way forward.  And inevitably, there'll be many different ideas about how we should proceed.  However, those who know me, know that I'll embrace whatever path this community chooses to travel.

And yet, since I’ve been thinking about this issue for a number of years--today, on Yom Kippur--the holiest day of the year--and my 60th birthday--I feel compelled to lay out my version of a possible future.  But first—some history.

Back in 1949, Shaarey Zedek established an in-house religious school.  I'll bet there are people here today who attended that school. And, no doubt, part of the reason you’re here today is because you spent a portion of your formative years in that school.

Then, in 1959 Shaarey Zedek established the Ramah Hebrew School, as a kind of south-end counterpart to the successful Talmud Torah day school, founded back in 1946. Now, with a strong Jewish day school under its wing, Shaarey Zedek, had a continuous stream of children feeding into synagogue programs.  There was also a cadre of young parents, focused on synagogue-related aspects of their children’s Jewish education. 

This translated into a strong children’s choir, Torah reading club, USY--and, as these kids grew up, eventual membership at Shaarey Zedek.   This is how successful synagogues continue to function across the continent today.

This strong identification of Ramah Hebrew School with Shaarey Zedek continued right up until 1997, when Ramah amalgamated with the Talmud Torah School and Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, to form the Gray Academy of Jewish Education.

It’s sad to say, but looking back now, it’s easy to see: this is the precise moment when Shaarey Zedek began to lose contact with its young children, and their parents.  I don’t think anyone intended for this to happen, and I don't lay blame for this at anyone's feet.  And clearly, there are social and cultural factors involved in this shift as well. Nevertheless, I see this profound disconnect between school and synagogue as a major contributing factor to the reality we face today.

And so it is, with all the wonderful things there are to say about the Gray Academy--and there are many—students of the Gray Academy generally graduate as strangers to the synagogue.  Again, I don't believe there's any blame to be assigned here.  It’s just a natural by-product of a Jewish school with little connection to Jewish religious life.

By now, the Gray Academy has graduated more than a full cycle of JK through 12th grade students.  And truly, this is something to celebrate. The Gray Academy, together with the Rady JCC, has succeeded brilliantly.  It has stabilized our community and even helped to stimulate its growth. 

Integrating the Rady Jewish Community Centre with the Gray Academy, established the Asper Campus as the vibrant center of Jewish life in this city.  At a time when Jewish programs are suffering reversals across the continent, this is a real tribute to those people of vision—people like Marjorie Blankstein, Sheldon Birney, Izzy Asper, Gerry Gray, Bob Freedman, and many others—who overcame all kinds of obstacles, to create a Jewish success story against all odds.

Now however, are we really surprised, after sixteen years of giving our children what amounts to a synagogue-free Jewish education, that we no longer want to hold our life-cycle events in a synagogue?  This is why I believe the solution to the decline of Winnipeg’s synagogues is fairly simple—although it may not be easy.  Some might call it a radical change.  Some might call it logistically unfeasible.  And some might call it simply undesirable. Nevertheless, here it is: integrate Winnipeg's synagogue programs, with the curriculum of the Gray Academy.

From the side of the synagogues, the advantage of this arrangement is obvious.  Because unless there's a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, it's very rare for children to be seen in a Winnipeg synagogue. But there are six hundred children found daily at the Gray Academy.

And such a move would really amount to nothing more than repairing the original breech between school and synagogue opened by the Gray Academy amalgamation in 1997.  As was the case with the Ramah school of old, the Gray Academy would then nourish the religious programs of the synagogues. But, it wouldn’t just be a one-way street.  Winnipeg synagogues would then also nurture the Jewish education of Gray Academy students. 

Right now, students of the Gray Academy may learn about Shabbat, Sukkot, and Shavuot.  However,  there's no laboratory component to this learning.  The result is that Shabbat, Sukkot, and Shavuot are rarely experienced by any Gray Academy student in real time. Judaism therefore remains an abstraction for the rest of the student's life.

But synagogue, and the practices associated with it, have been the very heart of the Jewish organism for the past twenty centuries.  The reason for this is very simple. Synagogue is where the values learned in one's Jewish schooling are made real.  They become part of a young person's life, and then get passed down to the next generation.  This is how Judaism has survived, and thrived for thousands of years.

However, as things stand now, I would say that Winnipeg synagogues actually have been set up to fail.  Again, I don't think anyone intended for this to happen.  But the fact remains: no synagogue separated from the education of its children can long survive.  And to continue to allow the sacred aspect of Jewish life to wither, is to put the whole future of the Winnipeg Jewish enterprise at great risk.          

The Winnipeg Jewish community is already blessed to have an excellent school.  It’s only a matter of restoring a critical, missing element--the organic connection to synagogue. I strongly believe that restoring this single, simple element will produce a tremendous win/win--for school, and synagogue, and the community as a whole.

It may be a new concept for us.  But one has to look no further than the most successful schools--and synagogues--across the continent.  There, you'll see how powerful the organic synergy between school and synagogue can really be.  The reality is that the greatest synagogues on this continent all have affiliated schools; and the most successful schools all have affiliated synagogues.  Isn't this what we deserve as well?

I put forth this idea for our consideration.  What we choose to do with it, is completely up to us. But know that whatever direction our community decides to take in the future, I promise to be there with you.

Wishing you and your families a Shabbat Shalom, and G’mar Chatimah Tovah—a sweet sealing for a new year of health, happiness, and fulfillment!  AMEN.

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