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Not Written in Stone

Daniel J. Elazar
Michael Brown
Ira Robinson

Part II: Analysis and Discussion

Signs of the Times: Changing Notions of Citizenship, Governance, and Authority as Reflected in Synagogue Constitutions

Michael Brown

Texte intégral

1Since the 1960s, the norms of citizenship (that is, membership) and governance among Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel have been undergoing substantial transformation. The pace and nature of the change, though, have varied according to local factors and type of organization. Broadly speaking, Jews have become increasingly secularized. Nonetheless, religion has remained the bottom-line determinant of Jewishness; almost all Jews continue to believe that adherence to another religion disqualifies a person from being considered Jewish. Disagreement is widespread, however, about what qualifies a person to be considered ‘Jewish.’ Longstanding modes of governance and attitudes towards authority have not disappeared from the community. But in these areas, too, change has been occurring for some time.

  • 1 The terms ‘intermarriage,’ ‘interfaith marriage,’ and ‘mixed marriage,’ are used here interchangea (...)

2In the main, variations in attitude and policy have been sparked by developments originating outside the Jewish community. These include: the long-term waning of the power and influence of religion in the increasingly secular societies of the West-a phenomenon particularly noticeable among Jews-and the more recent revival of religious traditionalism among Christians, Muslims, and Jews; the breakdown of longstanding ethnic barriers leading to a rapidly rising intermarriage1 rate; the emergent women’s movement; and the general acceptance of democracy as the most appropriate form of communal government. The commitment to democracy is connected to the shift of world Jewry’s demographic centre to the English-speaking countries, as a result of migration and the Holocaust.

  • 2 For a survey of the growth of intermarriage and its effects on American Jewish practices and polic (...)

3Intermarriage has resulted in the appearance of two virtually new, interrelated phenomena: Jews who marry non-Jews but do not convert to another faith; and non-Jews who become affiliated with the Jewish community through marriage. Many in the latter group consider themselves members of the community but take no formal steps to acquire citizenship (in other words, to convert to Judaism). Other questions stemming from intermarriage relate to the nature of the conversion or naturalization process and the authority of individuals or organizations to administer it.2

4The women’s movement and the adoption of democratic communal governance have also engendered far-reaching changes. The women’s movement has challenged women’s limited citizenship and participation in the governing process of the Jewish community. Democracy has undermined the authority of the rabbis, who, according to tradition, had inherited the mantle of (now indirect) revelation following the end of the prophetic era.

  • 3 Suggestive and informative discussions of historical and contemporary developments relating to the (...)

5In general, synagogues have responded slowly and rather reluctantly to societal pressures. As the community organizations most resistant to alterations in citizenship or naturalization criteria, they have preserved traditional lines of authority more successfully than others. They remain, to a great degree, repositories of hallowed communal values and customary modes of behaviour.3

6That is not to say that religious institutions have been impervious to the influences affecting other communal organizations. They, too, have experienced changes, albeit more gradually. In fact, synagogues may be among the most accurate barometers of long-term, irreversible trends, simply because innovation occurs there at a moderate pace. Also, because most synagogues have trans-national affiliations but are nonetheless autonomous, their practices reflect both Zeitgeist and local custom.

7Usually, constitutions record those precepts and norms about which compromise cannot be entertained, at least at the time of formulation. They are revised only infrequently, often to give sanction to developments that have already taken place and sometimes to inhibit developments that threaten to occur. Up-to-date synagogue constitutions, therefore, are likely to be especially reliable indicators of the extent, depth, and permanence of shifts in the organized Jewish community.

The Context

  • 4 See, for example, Exodus 2:21-22; Ruth 1–4; Nehemiah 13:23-31; and other passages. Much has been w (...)

8The concept of Jewish citizenship, although not static, was relatively straightforward until the eighteenth century. In the biblical period, membership criteria for the Israelite nation do not seem to have been clearly demarcated, nor did they excite much discussion. In fact, a great deal of what we know must be inferred from the treatment of non-Israelites as recorded in the Bible. The Book of Exodus (12:38), for example, reports a large number of non-Israelite hangers-on who left Egypt for the Holy Land under the leadership of Moses. The biblical term for them is the pejorative ‘erev rav,’ meaning ‘rabble.’ Yet, however they were looked upon by the emerging Israelite nation, this mixed multitude apparently assimilated into the host group without much difficulty, since they are not referred to again. Biblical traditions seem to indicate that membership in the group was usually determined by paternity, although affiliation with the Jewish nation – following an interval of residency – may have been sufficient for naturalization.4

  • 5 For reviews of the development of Jewish approaches to conversion, see David Max Eichhorn, ed., Co (...)

9By rabbinic times, different and firmer membership criteria had been established. Jewish citizenship now had to be acquired formally in one of two ways: being born of a Jewish mother or undergoing a rather precisely outlined process of conversion.5 All male Jews were endowed with the same rights and privileges (with some minor exceptions connected to the descendants of the ancient priesthood and to converts and their descendants). All female Jews were endowed with the same rights and privileges (again with some minor exceptions connected to converts), although not the same ones bestowed upon males. Generally, rabbinic law considered citizenship inalienable.

10As with most ancient and medieval societies, Jews reserved leadership positions for males, although a few women, most notably Deborah, the political and military leader (‘judge’), succeeded in breaking the gender barrier in biblical times (Judges 4-5). During the post-biblical period, the conduct of public religious ceremonies and the exercise of authority in ‘secular’ and religious affairs were almost always reserved for males. Women were permitted a muted voice, if any, in the governing process.

  • 6 See his The Foundations of the Jewish Polity, Working Paper No. 33 of the Workshop in the Covenant (...)

11In theory, ‘secular’ authority (keter malkhut, in the terms of Daniel Elazar)6 in the biblical period was derived from God and exercised by judges, kings, and prophets deemed to have been chosen by God. By late antiquity, even though Jews continued to view God as the ultimate, if indirect, source of authority, the actual leadership role had passed to the rabbis. Over time, lay leaders acquired power and came to share governance with the rabbis, sometimes easily, sometimes less easily. Oligarchic/theocratic communal administrations were the result.

  • 7 As is the case herein, Jews from Arab and other non-Western countries are often referred to as ‘Se (...)

12In the mid-nineteenth century, secular conceptions of Jewishness began to emerge in Europe and North America, although not to any great extent among Jews in the Muslim world.7 As a consequence, the fabric of traditional attitudes towards citizenship, governance, and authority began to fray, although earlier notions retained their currency in many religious and secular institutions. Especially in New World communities, Jews came to believe that democracy, which was serving them well in dealing with their non-Jewish neighbours, should also obtain within their own community. In earlier generations, God was believed to speak through prophets and rabbis. Now, however, vox populi, vox dei. And for many, vox populi alone sufficed, even in the synagogue.

  • 8 Many early reformers declared circumcision and baptism to be outmoded rituals, in effect, abolishi (...)

13Beginning in the late eighteenth century, in response to the challenge of Jewish emancipation, new, ‘enlightened’ approaches to Jewish religious law and practice began to emerge, contributing to the decline of the rabbis’ power. In an increasingly secular and plural community (again with the exception of the Jewish communities of the Muslim world), the appropriateness of a universal naturalization process (conversion) with a traditional religious character no longer seemed self-evident. Reforming groups and individuals initiated changes in the process of conversion, and conversions ceased to gain automatic recognition. A small number of radical religious reformers came to advocate the complete elimination of formal conversion as a qualification for citizenship. They suggested or even stated explicitly that one might join the people of Israel simply by marrying a Jew or by being born either to a Jewish father or a Jewish mother or even by a simple declaration of faith.8

14Another result of the emancipation process was that women attained significant influence and a measure of equality in many spheres of Jewish life. In Europe, communal change in this area came very slowly; in Canada and the United States, it was more rapid. In North America by the late nineteenth century, women’s organizations had become powerful forces in Jewish community life. By the 1920s, the National Council of Jewish Women, with primarily secular aims such as social action, and Hadassah, with its Zionist orientation, had become arguably the most vibrant Jewish institutions. Regnant social norms, however, ensured that women would continue to be largely excluded from the governing bodies of both religious and secular communal institutions, except, of course, for those groups which restricted their membership to women.

  • 9 The first woman rabbi, Sally Preisand, was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute o (...)

15This was certainly true of the synagogue, the flagship institution in Diaspora communities. There, women’s participation continued to be circumscribed, although by the First World War, North American synagogue sisterhood groups and women’s auxiliaries had assumed a key role in the religious life of the community. Although mixed seating for prayer was uncommon outside North America in the 1920s, there it had become the norm for Reform and Conservative Jews, and it was not unknown among the Orthodox. All denominations, however, denied women full participation in the governance of synagogues, to say nothing of a leadership role in public prayer services, the most frequently held communal ceremony. Only in the 1970s did it become possible for women to serve as rabbis and cantors in some denominations.9

16Until well into the post-Second-World-War era, then, traditional norms of citizenship prevailed in those diaspora Jewish communities where Jews were free to organize their communal life, although long accepted notions of authority had begun to change much earlier. By the 1960s, women were marginally more welcome as leaders and participants in the Jewish body politic than in the past, but older attitudes still prevailed to a large degree. By mid-century, there were, however, signs pointing to more radical transformations in the future in all three areas.

17The locus of this study is Canadian Jewry, which in some ways is a microcosm of Western Jewry and in other ways a unique case. Two features shared by Canadian and American Jewry are the primacy of religion in Jewish identity and the denominational division of practicing Jews into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist congregations. In general, Orthodoxy is the most traditional religiously and Reform the least so, with Conservativism in between and the few Reconstructionist synagogues sharing similarities with both Reform and Conservatism. In Canada, as in all other contemporary diaspora communities, association with the community is voluntary, and membership must be made appealing to attract and hold constituents. Consequently, synagogue constitutions set out few requirements for citizenship and stress instead the rights of citizens (that is, members).

  • 10 For a survey of the development of Reform in Canada, see Michael Brown, “The Beginnings of Reform (...)
  • 11 On the emergence of the Sephardic community in Montreal in recent years, see Shahar and Schnoor, S (...)

18The unique features exhibited by Canadian Judaism in the late twentieth century are several. Canadian Jewry is of relatively recent origin. Its roots extend back to the mid-eighteenth century, but over half of its members are of post-Second-World-War provenance, and the ancestors of most of the rest came to Canada after 1900. Holocaust survivors and their descendants and Jews from Arab countries, Israel, and the former Soviet Union are a distinct and significant presence. Although it is a sizeable community, Canadian Jewry is only about one-fifteenth as large as that of the United States, and it is overwhelmingly concentrated in two cities, Toronto and Montreal. Canada’s self-image is that of a rather conservative, low-key nation in which innovation tends to be greeted more sceptically and tradition better respected than in the United States. Reform Judaism got a very slow start in Canada; there were but three Reform congregations in the country as late as 1953. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has exhibited more vitality and staying power than in the United States.10 A fifth religious grouping has become a noticeable force in the Montreal community (less so in Toronto): traditionalist Sephardim. Mostly of recent North African origin, they share some characteristics with the majority Ashkenazim (Jews of central and eastern European provenance) but exhibit some distinctive styles of religious practice and organization.11 Finally, Canada’s regional variations are, to some extent, reflected in religious institutions. Several congregations in Montreal, Toronto, and British Columbia exhibit features characteristic of their region; some synagogues in areas with a very sparse Jewish population display attributes peculiar to them.

Citizenship Criteria and Rights

  • 12 The 1903 constitution of Adath Israel Synagogue in Toronto and the 1922 by-laws of Montreal’s Refo (...)

19Until recently, citizenship in Canadian religious institutions was a fairly simple issue. For nearly two centuries following the establishment of organized Jewish life in Canada in 1768, most synagogue constitutions invited the membership of all Jews without qualification other than age and good character. Almost everyone agreed that the criteria for Jewishness were the traditionally accepted ones. Few, if any, congregations demanded conformity in practice or belief as a qualification for membership. For example, the 1871 bylaws of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Congregation-then still a nominally Orthodox synagogue-offered membership to all “persons of the Jewish faith” at least eighteen years old; thirteen years later, the revised bylaws declared the rolls open to “any Israelite.”12

20As religious and ethnic loyalties have diminished and interdenominational conflict in the Jewish community increased, a few synagogues have attempted to demand ideological conformity from their members. An example is the 1991 Constitution and By-laws of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation of Montreal which restrict membership to persons of the “Orthodox Jewish faith.” An oddly contradictory provision in the bylaws suggests, however, that, in effect, the congregation does not practice its Orthodox convictions. The clause permits a person “married outside the Judaic Torah Law” to apply for membership, provided he was “born of... and... continues to profess the Jewish faith.” Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and Congregation Chevra Kadisha-B’nai Jacob are Orthodox congregations that have retained an open membership policy. Their bylaws (1992 and 1987 respectively) still offer membership without further qualification to any person of the Jewish faith who is of good character.

21Intermarriage and, to a degree, the openness typical of a democratic and pluralistic society brought about the breakdown of consensus regarding citizenship and inspired the development of new constitutional formulations of the concept. Although intermarriage is generally considered to be a recent problem, constitutions indicate that it was becoming a concern in some congregations as early as the 1930s, when only a few Jews married out. Toronto’s Congregation Shearith Israel Anshei Lida is a small Orthodox synagogue situated on the edge of an upscale neighbourhood that since the 1940s has been populated by many Jews. The synagogue constitution of 1933-when few Jews lived in the area and most of those were rapidly acculturating-stipulated that only those married according to the laws of Moses and Israel were eligible for membership. Another 1933 constitution, that of Ottawa’s working-class Sons of Jacob Congregation, also Orthodox, provided for the suspension of any member who married “out of the Jewish faith” (that is to say, a non-Jew).

22As interfaith marriage became more common after the 1960s, the approach to Jewishness as a sine qua non for citizenship has diverged widely in Canadian synagogues. Some Orthodox congregations have tightened their membership guidelines to ensure that the synagogue not be perceived to sanction intermarriage and that people calling themselves Jews do, in fact, conform to the traditional criteria of Jewish citizenship. In Reform congregations, the tendency has been to expand the notion of citizenship and, in some cases, to eliminate altogether the requirement of Jewishness. Some Conservative congregations have followed the lead of the Orthodox. Most, however, have refrained from dealing with the issue through constitutional provisions.

  • 13 The present study does not include small ultra-Orthodox congregations of which there are quite a f (...)

23Examples of the defensive posture in the Orthodox community are illustrative.13 Congregation Beth Shalom in Ottawa is a synagogue that was created through the merger of Adath Jeshurun, once the premier congregation of the national capital, and Sons of Jacob. Its 1992 by-laws hold membership open to “any person who according to Halacha [that is, traditional Jewish law] is a Jew [and]... of good character.” The 1994-95 draft constitution and by-laws of Toronto’s Anshei Lida Congregation mandate that members be “born of [a] Jewish mother or converted to Judaism according to Halacha.”

  • 14 The 1994 General By-law of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto and the 1991 bylaw of Kehillat (...)
  • 15 The 1987 constitutions of Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation and Beth Jacob V’Anshei Drilz Synagogue (...)
  • 16 Constitution, n.d.

24Many Orthodox synagogues have adopted constitutional articles which call for the expulsion of members who intermarry. Two Toronto synagogues have adopted or proposed provisions requiring the ousting of the entire family of any male or female member or dependent child who intermarries regardless of whether the person converts to a faith other than Judaism.14 Most congregations, however, consider a person who has intermarried to be no longer a member of his or her own family, thereby allowing other family members to retain their synagogue membership.15 The 1971 and 1989 constitutions of Congregation Beth Tefilah of London, Ontario, declare that members “married not in accordance with traditional Jewish Law... shall forfeit all rights and benefits of the Congregation.” Toronto’s suburban B’nai Torah, a congregation not usually considered to be at the liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum, requires only that a “person... not married in accordance with the Orthodox Jewish Law shall consult the Rabbi who shall determine what action, if any, is necessary.”16

  • 17 Abir Yaacob does not have ‘members’ but ‘regular participants.’

25Abir Yaacob Congregation, an affiliate of the Sephardic Kehila Centre opened in 1997 in Vaughan Township adjacent to Toronto, has an unusual attitude to intermarriage, which may reflect the attempt of the Sephardic community to maintain an Orthodox approach to Judaism while remaining inclusive. The constitution states that only Jews “born to a Jewish mother, or... converted... by a reputable orthodox Bet Din [rabbinical court], recognized by the Sephardic Rabbinate of Ontario” are eligible to become “regular participants.”17 Anyone “who marries not within the precepts of Halacha, shall lose his or her privileges of a regular participant [sic].” If, however, someone does marry outside the law, the “Haham [rabbi] shall then determine whether he or she [the born Jew] can receive the privileges of a guest [that is, limited participation].”

26Responses to intermarriage in the Reform community are quite different and more varied. Although they do not define the concept, a number of Reform congregations have retained Jewishness as a requirement for membership in their most recent basic law documents. As is the case with the Orthodox, several Toronto Reform congregations are among the most traditional with regard to membership qualifications (Holy Blossom and Temple Sinai, both of them very large, and the smaller Temple Emanu-El, for example, in their constitutions of 1992, 1994, and 1993 respectively). The 1990 Constitution and Bylaws of the very small Regina congregation, Temple Beth Tikvah, restrict membership to “Jewish person[s] or any person undergoing a recognized conversion program.”

27Most Reform congregations, however, now allow non-Jewish spouses to become members. A few, such as Congregation Iyr Ha-Melech in Kingston, Ontario, have gone much further, bringing about a radical revolution in the concept of Jewish citizenship, a shift without precedent in post-biblical Jewish history. The 1993 constitution of the Kingston synagogue opens membership to “any person over 18 years of age who... seeks to be associated with the Jewish faith,” echoing the language of the 1967 constitution of Temple Israel of Ottawa. Interestingly, the latter synagogue has moved away from radical inclusivity; its 1993 constitution reserves membership for Jews.

  • 18 The 1982 constitution of Temple Har Zion in suburban Toronto, the 1987 by-laws of Temple Beth Ora (...)
  • 19 The 1987 by-laws of Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton, also cited in n.18 above.
  • 20 For example: the 1980 and 1991 by-laws of Temple Emanu El-Beth Sholom, Montreal; the 1992 constitu (...)
  • 21 Founded in 1973, the temple had limited membership to Jews in its original constitution and by-law (...)

28Reform congregations have adopted various attitudes to the rights of non-Jewish members. Some synagogues deny them the vote and/or the right to hold office18 or the privilege of participating in certain religious rites.19 By the 1990s or earlier, however, many other congregations were offering unrestricted membership to some non-Jews,20 thereby making it possible, in theory, that synagogue officers, as well as participants in religious services, might not be Jewish. One of these is Temple Solel in Mississauga, a populous western suburb of Toronto with a small Jewish population.21

  • 22 For a thumbnail summary of Conservative norms, see The Summary Index of the Committee on Jewish La (...)
  • 23 Barry A. Kosmin, comments, in “Symposium-What We Have Learned,” in Jack Wertheimer, project direct (...)

29Official Conservative movement policy regarding non-Jewish relatives of Jewish synagogue members is almost as restrictive as that of Orthodoxy; synagogue membership is barred to non-Jews.22 Recent poll data in the United States, however, suggests that while most “Conservative congregants endorse halakhah, [they]... also believe in patrilineal descent for their own grandchildren,” many of whom do not have a Jewish mother and are therefore not Jewish according to halakhah.23 As a result, most Conservative synagogue basic documents sidestep issues arising from intermarriage and non-halakhic conversions. Recent constitutions of Conservative congregations, such as Beth Tikvah (Constitution and By-Laws of 1989), one of Toronto’s most traditional Conservative synagogues, Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek (General By-Law of 1982 amended to 1991), and Shaar Shalom Congregation of Halifax (Articles of Association revised in 1992), retain the simple and once universal membership requirement: persons “of the Jewish faith.” Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto makes no explicit mention of Jewishness at all in its 1988 constitution (amended to 1992).

  • 24 Presumably, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement.

30Burial rights for non-Jewish children and spouses of synagogue members is one of the potentially thorny issues not addressed in most Conservative constitutions. There are, however, a few exceptions, such as the constitution adopted in 1993 by Congregation Beth El in Vancouver, stipulating that only Jews may be buried in the synagogue cemetery. Another example is the constitution of Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria, British Columbia, from the same year. It also states that burials are “not [to] be conducted at the cemetery other than in accordance with the Rites and Customs of Conservative Judaism as interpreted by the Committee on Law of the Rabbinical Assembly of America.”24

  • 25 Summary Index, 9:13.

31The contradictory tensions affecting Conservative congregations attempting to occupy the middle ground of Judaism, as well as the pressures felt by congregations in small or outlying communities, are clearly manifested in the constitution of the venerable Victoria synagogue. So, too, are the differences between Conservatism and Reform on the one hand, and Conservatism and Orthodoxy on the other. Emanu-El is one of the oldest congregations in Canada; its building, erected in 1863, is the oldest synagogue structure in the country still in use as a synagogue. According to its constitution, membership is open to “any adult dedicated to and following the Jewish faith,” and, as noted above, the congregation adheres to the norms of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly of America. It flouts those same norms,25 however, by allowing non-Jews to join. Its constitution states that, if a family “includes an individual who is not of the Jewish faith, this person shall be a member, and with the exception of voting privileges and eligibility for election to office, the person shall be entitled, within the limits of Jewish Law, to the privileges of membership.”

32As might be expected, Toronto’s Darchei Noam, one of Canada’s few Reconstructionist congregations, straddles the fence between the Conservative and Reform movements. Its 1989 bylaws, as well as the proposed revisions from 1997, limit “full voting” membership to persons “of the Jewish faith as defined by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association... Associate Memberships” are, however, “available to non-Jewish spouses of Voting Members” (underlining in original). Associate (that is, non-Jewish) members have the same rights as voting (that is, Jewish) members, except that they may not vote at synagogue meetings, be elected to office, or purchase burial plots (there is no mention of who may actually be buried), and they may not take a leadership role at worship services.

33Congregation Dorshei Emet, the Reconstructionist synagogue of Montreal, is the other major Reconstructionist congregation in Canada. Its 1994 constitution states that the “non-Jewish spouse of a member may be welcomed into the synagogue... but shall not be entitled to membership in the congregation.” The Montrealers also deny membership to any person refusing to grant a spouse a get (bill of Jewish divorce). Interestingly, Dorshei Emet couches its treatment of non-Jewish spouses in biblical language, calling him (or her) ‘Ger Toshav’ (a non-Jewish sojourner). This is the only constitution to use traditional Jewish terminology (albeit in an innovative way) in its membership regulations.

  • 26 See also the 1909 declaration of incorporation of the Orthodox Congregation of the House of Jacob (...)

34In almost all segments of the community, changing ideas about appropriate gender roles have added to the complexity of notions of citizenship no less than the new diversity of Judaism. All the early constitutional documents either limited membership to men or placed severe restrictions on women members. The case of Holy Blossom, Toronto’s first congregation, which was established in 1856, is illustrative. Although it was nominally Orthodox until the 1920s, Holy Blossom was less traditional in the nineteenth century than many other synagogues; its 1894 constitution permitted “widows or unmarried ladies” to become members of the congregation. No mention was made of married women, however, who were presumed to affiliate through their husbands’ membership. The dues of individual female members were fixed at forty per cent of the rate for males, and women were entitled to a similar proportion of rights: “all the privileges of membership, with the exception of taking part in... Congregational meetings.” Despite the relative openness of its constitution, women were barred from positions of power at Holy Blossom. The 1914 and 1936 bylaws of Ottawa’s Orthodox Congregation Adath Jeshurun stated unambiguously that membership was open to “any male person of the Jewish faith.”26 The 1922 bylaws of Montreal’s Reform Temple Emanu-El used gender-neutral language to describe the terms of membership, but elsewhere elaborated the rights of “wives of members,” thus making it clear that only males were considered members.

  • 27 1987 constitution, Beth Avraham Yoseph.
  • 28 Ibid.

35Most constitutions of the 1980s and 1990s consider both men and women to be members with full voting rights. (A few Orthodox synagogues, such as Beth Avraham Yoseph, a large congregation in Thornhill, a suburb of Toronto, allow only one vote per family unit, although it may be “cast by an[y] adult member.”)27 Reform synagogues have all permitted women to participate fully in the prayer service, although most constitutions deal with this question through the use of gender neutral language rather than explicit statements. Orthodox synagogues do not permit women to lead public prayers. Constitutions generally do not state this explicitly; instead, they stipulate that “all services shall be conducted in accordance with traditional Orthodox practice” or similar wording.28

36This is another area of congregational life that most Conservative synagogues refrain from addressing in basic laws. As late as 1997, Conservative congregations in Montreal and Toronto were following Orthodox practice with regard to women and public prayer with the notable exception of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Synagogue, which claims to have the largest membership of any synagogue in the world. Frequently, Conservative synagogues in western Canada and the Maritime Provinces, such as Congregation Shaarei Zedek in Saint John, New Brunswick (Constitution of 1964 amended to 1992), adopted Reform practice with respect to women and the prayer service, responding, in part, to the exigencies of Jewish life in smaller communities.

37Some small-town congregations have maintained their typically Canadian traditionalism in spite of the difficulties. The constitution of Congregation Tiferes Israel in Moncton, New Brunswick, adopted in the early 1990s, reaffirms the “traditional Orthodox” approach of the synagogue and stipulates that it be led by “an ordained Orthodox Rabbi.” In its 1909 Articles of Incorporation, Congregation Agudas Israel of Saskatoon, then the only synagogue in a small community (approximately 175 families), defined the goal of the congregation as “promoting the Orthodox beliefs of the Jews among its members [sic].” In 1958, a new building was erected, and the Act to Incorporate of that year stipulated that “as long as there be a sufficient number among its members,” the old building should be maintained with “Jewish Orthodox religious services therein.” Worship in the new building, however, would be as “prescribed by the [Conservative] Rabbinical Assembly of America, and followed by conservative [sic] synagogues in Canada.” The 1984 Consolidated Bylaws provided for virtually complete equality of men and women in the worship service. That provision of the bylaws was repealed, however, at a general meeting in 1987, and the congregation reverted to more traditional practice.

Governance and Authority

38The issue of authority has several facets. It refers primarily to the relationship between the rabbi and the membership or their elected representatives. A second aspect of authority is the extent to which the members of a congregation attempt to ensure the permanence of their vision of Judaism and Jewishness through the insertion of ‘poison pill’ clauses in their basic laws, to borrow a term from the corporate world. A third issue, which involves both authority and governance, concerns qualifications for lay leadership, especially, but not exclusively, the role of women in the governing structure.

39According to traditional notions, as explained earlier, the rabbis’ authority comes from God. Theoretically, then, the rabbi should have final authority in his or her synagogue. Rabbis are protected from collegial interference by the concept of mara de-atra or ‘house rabbi,’ which inhibits colleagues from interfering with one another. Ideas of democracy, however, present a challenge to rabbinic authority, as does the economic power of laymen, although the latter phenomenon is not unique to modern times. Especially in North America, where Jewish communities have no formal hierarchical structure recognized by law, one might well expect power sharing between clergy and lay people, if not control of the clergy by the laity.

40In fact, from the earliest period of settlement, the prevailing mode of rabbi/lay-leader relationship in North America has not been power sharing, but control of the rabbis by the lay officers and boards of synagogues, sometimes at a distance, sometimes directly. This pattern results, in part, from the congregational model of organization and its concomitant, the absence of centralized authority. The rabbi is appointed by the board of governors or by the congregation at large and may be dismissed by a vote of one or the other body. His or her performance is invariably subject to the review of the board. Consequently, almost all constitutions limit the rabbi’s role to ‘religious’ matters. The rabbi is not to interfere in the financial affairs of the synagogue or in its management. He or she may attend board and committee meetings at the pleasure of the board, although attendance at worship, ritual, and education committee meetings is often required. Almost never is the rabbi given a vote at such sessions. (This does not mean, of course, that individual rabbis are unable to exert considerable influence on their flock. They do so, however, not through the exercise of constitutional right, but largely through personal charisma, moral suasion, and superior acquaintance with sacred lore.)

41The 1991 constitution of Toronto’s Orthodox Kehillath Shaarei Torah serves as an example. It delineates the parameters of the rabbi’s ambiguous competency:

All questions relating to the interpretation of Torah law (including... the conduct of congregational services, Kashruth, the observance of the Sabbath and all other holy days and all other matters treated in the Shulchen Aruch [sic])... shall... be determined by the Rabbi after consultation with the Religious Committee.... The Rabbi’s decision on any such matter shall be final.

42The language of the documents is often fuzzy, although the intent is quite clear. The 1974 constitution and bylaws of Mississauga’s Reform Temple Solel are characteristic. The rabbi is accorded “the overall responsibility of implementing the spiritual objectives of the Congregation.” On the other hand, the constitution directs him to “seek the advice and guidance of the Board of Directors or of any specific committee or committees which may be set up for this purpose, to determine the views of the Congregation and the most effective way of discharging his duties.” In the new bylaws for Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue drafted two years later, the rabbi is described as “the spiritual head of the Congregation” and instructed to “direct [its]... religious, educational, spiritual and pastoral life.” But the language of this Orthodox constitution is almost identical to that of the Reform Temple Solel: the rabbi is to “consult with the Parnas, the Executive Committee and Board to determine the views of the Congregation and the most effective way of performing his duties.” Both congregations expect the rabbi to minister with one eye on God and the other on the synagogue trustees. The Kehillath Shaarei Torah constitution cited above expects the rabbi to consult with the religious committee before making decisions even when those decisions are within his stated area of authority.

43The constitutions of the more traditional congregations reserve to the rabbi a somewhat larger degree of autonomy than those of less traditional synagogues. Yet even they preserve the supremacy of the membership through its elected representatives, the board of trustees. The 1988 constitution of Toronto’s Conservative Adath Israel declares the rabbi to be “the definitive interpreter of Jewish Law and tradition for the Congregation... [and to be] responsible for the observance of Kashruth on the premises and at functions of the Congregation.” He is only a “consultant” or “resource person” to committees of the congregation, however, and he is engaged and subjected to periodic review by the members in a general meeting. Similarly, the 1992 bylaws of Ottawa’s Orthodox Beth Shalom Congregation declare the rabbi to have “final authority with respect to matters of Halacha.” He is, however, accountable to the board of governors which hires him and reviews his performance regularly.

44Two congregations in Toronto and one in Montreal are interesting exceptions to the prevailing mode of rabbi/congregation relationship. One is the Sephardic synagogue, Abir Yaacob, where the 1997 constitution appears to insulate the rabbi from lay interference. The document declares the incumbent rabbi, “an inspiration to great deeds in the service of HaKadosh Baruch Hu [the Holy One Blessed Be He],... Rabbi in perpetuity.”

45The other anomalies are the Reconstructionist congregations in Toronto and Montreal where power sharing between clergy and congregation is legislated. The 1994 constitution of Montreal’s Dorshei Emet makes the ‘Rabbi or Rabbis’ voting members of the Executive Committee. At Toronto’s Darchei Noam, the proposed 1997 bylaw revisions declare “the relationship between Rabbi and congregation... [to be] a covenant through which each party undertakes the obligation of working together in the service of God and the Jewish people.” A sub-committee of the Executive Committee, called the “Rabbi Liaison Committee” [sic], is established to “work with the Board, the Rabbi, and the synagogue membership to establish and review annually a list of goals and priorities for the synagogue as a whole.” The committee is to meet regularly “to monitor progress toward their achievement” and is to “provide the primary evaluation of the Rabbi and the congregation and their relationship.” But the Rabbi Liaison Committee may “not carry out performance reviews of the Rabbi,” although such reviews, “if and when required,” may be undertaken by another committee (underlining in original). Darchei Noam is the only Canadian synagogue to use a traditional Jewish theological/political concept (covenant) to define the relationship between rabbi and congregants.

46If most synagogue constitutions limit the authority of the clergy by stipulating hiring and review by the lay officers, they also limit the power of lay people. The Montreal Reconstructionist congregation limits officers to three terms of two years each in any one position. The imposition of constraints with regard to constitutional amendments is a more commonly used method of limiting congregants’ power.

  • 29 An exception is the 1993 Constitution and By-Laws of Congregation Beth Israel in Vancouver. Accord (...)

47Older constitutions and the majority of newer ones, as well, require a two-thirds vote of the membership for amendment.29 Some recent constitutions of Orthodox congregations, most notably in Toronto and nearby cities, make amendments dealing with core issues (chiefly, the role of women in the synagogue and ritual practice) much more difficult. The constitution of Petah-Tikva Anshe Castilla, adopted in 1987, asserts that “services shall be conducted according to the ritual as is practiced by the Sephardim (Minhag Tangiers) equivalent in structure to the North American concept of Orthodoxy.” While other provisions are subject to amendment or repeal by two-thirds of the members voting, “the religious concepts” of the congregation are not “subject to any change... whatsoever so long as 6 members in good standing wish to abide by them.” The 1994 draft General By-law of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation allows amendment by three-fourths of the board of governors if ratified by two-thirds of the members present at a congregational meeting. Provisions relating to the religious practices of the congregation and the role of women in its governance, however, require the agreement of ninety per cent of the board of governors and ninety per cent of the members voting at a congregational meeting. The 1971 constitution of London’s Beth Tefilah Congregation forbids the amendment of any provision relating to religious practice, if five members of the synagogue object. The 1994-95 constitution and bylaws of Toronto’s Beth Lida Congregation require the approval of 100 per cent of “the entire membership in number vote” for change to be instituted in the religious practices of the congregation. Montreal’s Orthodox congregations exhibit more responsiveness to the democratic wishes of their rate payers and have retained the two-thirds rule even regarding religious practice.

48Here, too, Toronto’s Sephardic Abir Yaacob Congregation is an extraordinary exception. It is governed like the private, family synagogues once common in the Muslim world, and its constitution reflects none of the democratic features exhibited by other Canadian synagogue constitutions. The document declares that the “Congregation will not enter into a relationship of membership with its participants,” that it will have only “regular participant(s)” and “guests” with defined privileges but no voting rights whatsoever. There is no provision for amendment. Not only is the rabbi appointed “in perpetuity,” as noted above, “the builder, founder and benefactor... is President in perpetuity of the Sephardic Kehila Centre” and its synagogue. From “time to time, as and when he deems appropriate, [the president] shall appoint an Advisory Council, with a Chair, to assist him in running the day to day affairs of the centre.”

  • 30 These terms are now often used interchangeably to refer to synagogue members who have assumed resp (...)

49With regard to qualifications for lay office holders, most Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist constitutions, as well as most pre1950 Orthodox documentrs, consider all male members as equally eligible. The 1933 constitution of Ottawa’s Sons of Jacob barred from office members “previously convicted for any criminal offence,” but other synagogues apparently considered the ‘good character’ requirement for membership sufficient to cover such cases. More recently, some of the Orthodox synagogues have instituted observance requirements for certain office holders, especially the parnass and gabbai,30 who have responsibility for the conduct of prayer services. Sometimes, members of the religious, cemetery, and kashruth committees are also required to be observant. For example, the 1995 constitution of Congregation Beth Ora in St. Laurent, a suburb of Montreal, requires the parnass to be “observant of the traditional laws of the Sabbath and Kashruth.” The General By-law of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, amended to 1994, is even more specific, declaring the parnass and gabbai “eligible for office only if observant in the traditional laws of the Sabbath and Kashruth in accordance with the tenets of traditional Orthodox Judaism.” No such obligations are placed upon the president or other senior officers. The 1983 constitution of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Toronto stipulates that members of the Religious Committee, including the Parnas[s], shall hold office only if, “in the opinion of the Board, [they] are qualified... [by virtue] of their religious background, strict observance of the commandments and knowledge of the sephardic [sic] traditions.” A bylaw enacted a year later reflects the realism characteristic of many Sephardic leaders. It states that the parnas[s] and gabbai “when practicable, shall be eligible for Office only if observant in the Traditional Laws of the Shabbat and Kashruth in accordance with the tenets of Traditional Orthodox Judaism” (italics added for emphasis).

50One qualification for synagogue office holders that has been almost universally modified in recent years is gender. In fact, with regard to governance in general, there have been radical shifts in the role of women in almost every congregation of every denomination. When membership was limited to males, elected office was, by definition, denied to women, although some synagogues reserved a seat on the board for the president of the sisterhood, albeit not always with a vote. (An interesting exception was Temple Emanu-El in Montreal. Its 1922 bylaws permitted “wives of members in good standing... to serve on the Board.”)

  • 31 By-Laws of the Corporation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews Shearith Israel of Montreal, 29 November (...)
  • 32 Constitution, Beth Ora Congregation, St Laurent, Quebec (Montreal), 1995.

51Once women gained the constitutional right to full membership, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and at least two Orthodox synagogues, the Spanish and Portuguese and Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, both in Montreal, enshrined full access to all elected offices in their constitutions.31 Many Orthodox synagogues, however, particularly in the Toronto area, even in their most recent constitutions, have excluded women from some offices and/or placed limitations on the number of women trustees. (It may be noted that, while Jewish law can be interpreted to bar women altogether from congregational office, there is no clear halakhic justification for partial restriction, references to “Orthodox Jewish Tradition and Custom”32 in constitutions or glosses notwithstanding.)

52Some examples of Orthodox approaches to the question are instructive. The 1995 constitution of Congregation Beth Ora in St. Laurent (Montreal) permitted women to be elected secretary, treasurer, or trustee for youth, but not president, vice-president, or parnass; it limited women’s participation on the board of trustees to one-third of the members. A 1994 amendment to the General By-law of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim eliminated the constitutional provision barring women from occupying more than thirty per cent of the positions on the board of governors. It retained, however, the prohibition against women being “eligible for election and/or appointment as Senior Officers [president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer] of the Congregation” and against their being “permitted to hold the position of Chairman or co-Chairman of the Religious Committee, the Cemetery Committee and/or the Minyan Committee.” The 1987 constitution of Toronto’s Beth Jacob V’ Anshei Drilz Congregation mandated the inclusion on the board of governors of three representatives of the congregational sisterhood, but declared that except for them, “the Board of Governors shall consist exclusively of males.” The 1991 bylaw of Toronto’s Kehillath Shaarei Torah stipulates no qualifications for officers other than gender. Its board of directors is to have eleven members “not more than 40% of... [whom] may be women.” Should women candidates receive sufficient votes to qualify for a greater number of board positions, the women with the lowest number of votes are to be disqualified and their places taken by men with the next highest number of votes. Women, moreover, are not “eligible to be the President, a Vice-President, Secretary or Treasurer of the Congregation”; and they may not hold more than forty per cent of the seats on the executive committee. As with other issues, the ‘modern Orthodox’ congregations of Toronto are among the least liberal with regard to women and governance.


53It is clear that, since the 1980s, Canadian synagogues have devoted considerable attention to their constitutions. This activity would seem to reflect the interest in constitutional legislation sparked by the patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982 and the subsequent enactment and development of the Charter. As noted, only two congregations-the Reconstructionist synagogues in the country’s two largest cities-have attempted to any extent to frame their basic laws in Jewish terms. These congregations can be located towards the less traditional end of the religious spectrum. That in organizing themselves, they have turned, in some measure at least, to the Jewish political tradition shows that, whatever the degree of their orthodoxy, they are grappling with their Jewish heritage in ways that more traditional congregations are not. (That the Reconstructionists are heirs to the philosophy of Mordecai Kaplan, who viewed “Judaism as a civilization,” may have something to do with the tone of the Reconstructionist constitutions.)

  • 33 A comparison with the preceding two decades can be drawn from Evelyn Kallen’s useful comparison of (...)

54More specifically, the Canadian synagogue constitutions of the last two decades demonstrate extensive modifications to the notions of citizenship and governance prevailing in Canadian synagogues. For the most part, the new approaches mirror shifts in behaviour and belief which have occurred in other Jewish communities all over the world and among non-Jews as well. With the exception of one Sephardic congregation in suburban Toronto, change is reflected in the constitutions of all mainstream Canadian synagogues from the most traditional to the least, in all regions of the country, in small towns and big cities.33

55Alterations to practice and belief have not been uniform, nor have they been identical to those in the United States and other countries. Allowing for local variation, it can be said that the constitutions of congregations of all denominations and groups point to a somewhat more traditional attitude towards Jewish life than is the norm in counterpart American congregations. This should not be unexpected in Canada where, as noted earlier, most people tend to respect the weight of the past somewhat more than do Americans. Canadian Jewish traditionalism may also reflect the fact that Canadian Jews are ‘closer to the boat’ than their American cousins. They are more in touch with the ‘old countries’ from which they emigrated more recently than the Jews of the United States, which closed its doors to immigrants just after the First World War. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the new millennium, almost all Canadian synagogues are at least somewhat more open to the participation of women in the life of the congregation and more democratic in their approach to governance than earlier. Some Orthodox synagogues have hedged their inclusion of women with limitations beyond those mandated even by a strict construction of halakhah and have assumed a defensive posture regarding ritual practice, although the latter issue is only briefly discussed in the documents examined. It may be suggested as a general rule, that congregations that consider themselves to be defenders of tradition have tended to become more restrictive and exclusionary in an assimilationist milieu; congregations that view change as a positive principle have tended to become more inclusionary. That, however, does not change the overall picture.

56Intermarriage in Canada is one issue that has sparked very divergent constitutional responses related both to local factors and to people’s commitment to Jewish tradition. Reform congregations have tended to become more inclusive, undoubtedly in an attempt to keep intermarried couples within the Jewish fold. Some Reform synagogue constitutions have broadened the criteria for citizenship in ways that have no precedent in Jewish history or custom. Orthodox congregations have assumed an exclusionary posture. Conservative congregations have retained inclusive language in their constitutions (that is, “membership open to all Jews”), while most maintain a traditionalist, exclusionary stance against non-Jewish participation in synagogue life.

  • 34 As is well known, Reconstructionism was founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who had studied both at Y (...)

57The most restrictive constitutional regulations, relating both to the participation of women in the life of the synagogue and to the democratic process, have been adopted by Toronto congregations. An outstanding exception is the Reconstructionist Darchei Noam; its constitution endeavours to establish a collaborative working arrangement between the rabbi and the congregation. It may be conjectured that that document reflects both the small size of the congregation and the communitarian or havurah atmosphere of the late 1960s, which formed the backdrop for the growth of Reconstructionism.34 Other Toronto synagogues-Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Sephardic, although not necessarily those of the suburbs-have retained conservative constitutions. One Sephardic synagogue, many of whose members are first-generation Canadians, has arrogated total control of affairs to the rabbi and the president, neither of whom can be removed from office. This congregation seems untouched by the spirit of democracy and inclusion now reigning in Canada. Otherwise, the least liberal Toronto synagogues are those of the ‘modern Orthodox’ trend. Apparently, their congregants feel most vulnerable to current fashion, in part, perhaps, because many members of those congregations are not observant Jews. But even observant, modern Orthodox Jews, unlike members of ultra-Orthodox synagogues, are in regular contact with gentiles in many settings and essentially share with them a common culture. In Toronto, the multicultural society is highly accepting of Jews; assimilation is not difficult.

  • 35 A very useful examination of the inter-relationship of Jewish identity and synagogue membership in (...)

58Some outlying suburban Toronto congregations have reacted differently to the area’s easygoing ambience. There, and in urban neighbourhoods where the Jewish population is small and scattered, some congregations have adopted radical constitutions that welcome non-Jewish membership in the synagogue. Such constitutions suggest that Jews may have relocated to certain areas in order to escape the more rigid requirements of congregations located in the city’s core Jewish areas. In part, too, of course, the documents reflect the exigencies of Jewish life in places where there are few Jews. Interestingly, however, the constitutions of small-town synagogues located far from any major Jewish community vary as widely in their openness to women and to non-Jews as those of synagogues in larger centres.35

59To a degree, Montreal remains binational and bicultural, not multicultural; ‘ethnics’ (that is, everyone not of French or British ancestry) are still outsiders. Ethnic tensions in Montreal tend to reinforce particularism, and the general society is less open than in Toronto. There is less danger of assimilation in Montreal than in Toronto, and most Orthodox synagogues-modern or otherwise-have not legislated defensive strategies. Two of the Montreal Orthodox synagogues are the most liberal of their denomination with regard to membership and women’s rights, although local factors should be noted in both cases. Among the members of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, are many professional and academic men and women who are accustomed to equality in most aspects of their lives and who mix freely with gentiles. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue is the oldest congregation in the country and, to a degree, affects a patrician air of being above the contemporary fray. Perhaps more to the point, the wife of the rabbi is well-known as a leader of the Jewish feminist movement in North America. Her husband and many members of the congregation support her in these activities.

  • 36 Although now somewhat dated, the description of the Vancouver Jewish community in Daniel J. Elazar (...)

60It is undoubtedly not accidental that two Conservative congregations with explicit constitutional prohibitions on the burial of non-Jews in their cemeteries are located in British Columbia. The west-coast community tends to be more highly assimilated than Jews elsewhere in Canada. The intermarriage rate is especially high, and many Jews are unaffiliated with the community. In British Columbia, tradition is always under siege, and traditionalists may well feel the need to enact constitutional safeguards.36

61Constitutions, of course, relate only a chapter of the story. From the documents alone, one cannot tell what, in fact, is done, only what the fundamental law of a particular synagogue community stipulates. But the documents do indicate what principles are endorsed by congregations sufficiently to be given binding, legal form. At the least, they reflect the basic common values of the group at the moment of their writing. As such, they are valuable historical documents, accurate – if limited – signs of the times.


1 The terms ‘intermarriage,’ ‘interfaith marriage,’ and ‘mixed marriage,’ are used here interchangeably to mean the marriage of a Jew with a non-Jew who has not converted to Judaism.

2 For a survey of the growth of intermarriage and its effects on American Jewish practices and policies, see Peter Y. Medding, Gary I. Tobin, Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Mordechai Rimor, “Jewish Identity in Conversionary and Mixed Marriages,” American Jewish Year Book 92 (1992): 3-77.

3 Suggestive and informative discussions of historical and contemporary developments relating to the synagogue in North America can be found in Jack Wertheimer, ed., The American Synagogue (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

4 See, for example, Exodus 2:21-22; Ruth 1–4; Nehemiah 13:23-31; and other passages. Much has been written on this issue. An older, but still very useful, discussion is that of Yehezkel Kaufman in his The Religion of Israel, Moshe Greenberg, tr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), especially pp. 206, 300-01,451.

5 For reviews of the development of Jewish approaches to conversion, see David Max Eichhorn, ed., Conversion to Judaism: A History and Analysis (New York: KTAV, 1965); Joseph R. Rosenbloom, Conversion to Judaism: From the Biblical Period to the Present (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1978); Robert M. Seltzer, “Joining the Jewish People from Biblical to Modern Times,” in Martin E. Marty and Frederick E. Greenspahn, eds., Pushing the Faith: Proselytism and Civility in a Pluralistic World (New York: Crossroad, 1988), pp. 41-63.

6 See his The Foundations of the Jewish Polity, Working Paper No. 33 of the Workshop in the Covenant Idea and the Jewish Political Tradition (Ramat Gan, 1991), pp. 26-28.

7 As is the case herein, Jews from Arab and other non-Western countries are often referred to as ‘Sephardim,’ a term properly applied only to those whose families originated in the Iberian Peninsula.

8 Many early reformers declared circumcision and baptism to be outmoded rituals, in effect, abolishing the traditional naturalization process. A more contemporary example is the American Reform synagogue cited by Daniel Elazar in his essay elsewhere in this volume. The constitution of that congregation opens membership to “any person who accepts the teachings of Judaism and is of good character.” A similar case is that of Temple Solel in suburban Toronto, cited in this essay. Its constitution allows non-Jewish spouses and children to take full part in religious services and to be elected to any synagogue office.

9 The first woman rabbi, Sally Preisand, was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972, although Tehilla Lichtenstein served from 1938 to 1973 as spiritual leader of the Society of Jewish Science, a fringe group in New York City. Lichtenstein had no ordination. See, Paul E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, eds., Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), s.v. ‘Preisand, Sally,’ and ‘Lichtenstein, Tehilla.’

10 For a survey of the development of Reform in Canada, see Michael Brown, “The Beginnings of Reform Judaism in Canada,” Jewish Social Studies 34 (October 1972): 322-42.
A discussion of the relative strength of the denominations in the United States can be found in Bernard Lazerwitz, J. Alan Winter, Arnold Dashefsky, and Ephraim Tabory, “A Study of Jewish Denominational Preferences: Summary Findings,” American Jewish Year Book 97 (1997): 115–37.
For a discussion of the relative strength of denominations in Montreal and a comparison with Toronto and the United States, see Charles Shahar and Randal F. Schnoor, A Survey of Jewish Life in Montreal, Part II (Montreal: Federation of Jewish Community Services of Montreal, 1997), pp. 4–9.

11 On the emergence of the Sephardic community in Montreal in recent years, see Shahar and Schnoor, Survey, pp. 4–5. Unfortunately, the sample of Sephardi synagogues herein is small. It includes three Toronto congregations and Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel. As noted in Jay Eidelman’s essay elsewhere in this volume, however, Shearith Israel was the first congregation established in Canada, and it is not a representative Sephardi congregation. For many years, it was

12 The 1903 constitution of Adath Israel Synagogue in Toronto and the 1922 by-laws of Montreal’s Reform Temple Emanu-El employ similar language. Adath Israel, now one of Toronto’s largest synagogues, began as an Orthodox congregation most of whose members were of Roumanian origin. It is now a suburban Conservative congregation. Emanu-El, established in 1882, was the first synagogue in Canada to be founded as a Reform synagogue. Several of its founders were immigrants from the United States.

13 The present study does not include small ultra-Orthodox congregations of which there are quite a few in Toronto and Montreal. Many of these synagogues do not have formal constitutions or their by-laws are standard documents designed merely to meet legal registration requirements. Many – perhaps most – of their members, moreover, endeavor – often successfully-to maintain a large measure of isolation from the gentile world and from the larger Jewish community.

Montreal’s leading synagogue, the patrician congregation of the community. Its membership has always included a significant number of Ashkenazi Jews. The 1920 constitution of the Congregation Agudas Israel of Saskatoon asserts that the congregation was established “to maintain... a Judaism according to the Sephardi principles.” The document was printed in Yiddish and English, and it is very doubtful that the congregation was, in fact, Sephardi. More likely, its members were of Hasidic origin and prayed according to the Hasidic Sfard Rite.

14 The 1994 General By-law of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto and the 1991 bylaw of Kehillat Shaarei Torah in suburban Toronto. Both of these congregations are thought of as modern Orthodox. Both have an upper-middle-class membership. Many members of both are not strictly observant in their Jewish practice. The latter congregation has a large number of members who came to Canada from South Africa.

15 The 1987 constitutions of Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation and Beth Jacob V’Anshei Drilz Synagogue in suburban Toronto. The membership of these two synagogues includes people who define themselves as modern Orthodox. Few of their members fall into the category of ‘non-practicing Orthodox,’ that is, people who affiliate with an Orthodox synagogue for whatever reason, but are not traditional in their Jewish practices.

16 Constitution, n.d.

17 Abir Yaacob does not have ‘members’ but ‘regular participants.’

18 The 1982 constitution of Temple Har Zion in suburban Toronto, the 1987 by-laws of Temple Beth Ora Congregation in Edmonton, and the 1990 constitution and by-laws of Temple Beth Tikvah in Regina, for example.

19 The 1987 by-laws of Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton, also cited in n.18 above.

20 For example: the 1980 and 1991 by-laws of Temple Emanu El-Beth Sholom, Montreal; the 1992 constitution of Temple Solel in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto; the 1978 by-laws of Temple Shalom Congregation in Kitchener-Waterloo; the 1995 constitution of Congregation Iyr-Ha-Melech in Kingston; and the 1981 constitution and by-laws (amended to 1991) of Temple B’nai Tikvah in Calgary.

21 Founded in 1973, the temple had limited membership to Jews in its original constitution and by-laws of 1974. Persons “married not in accordance with Jewish law” were directed in that document to “consult the Rabbi who” would make “recommendations to the Membership Committee.” By the time its new constitution was promulgated in 1992, policy had changed.

22 For a thumbnail summary of Conservative norms, see The Summary Index of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (New York, 5754 [1994]), passim.

23 Barry A. Kosmin, comments, in “Symposium-What We Have Learned,” in Jack Wertheimer, project director and ed., Jewish Identity and Religious Commitment (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1997), p. 57.

24 Presumably, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement.

25 Summary Index, 9:13.

26 See also the 1909 declaration of incorporation of the Orthodox Congregation of the House of Jacob in Calgary.

27 1987 constitution, Beth Avraham Yoseph.

28 Ibid.

29 An exception is the 1993 Constitution and By-Laws of Congregation Beth Israel in Vancouver. According to that document, no special majority is required for amendment. This may reflect the more democratic ambience of western North America.

30 These terms are now often used interchangeably to refer to synagogue members who have assumed responsibility both for maintaining decorum and conducting worship services. Earlier, however, especially in Sephardic congregations, the gabbai assumed such responsibilities, while the parnass looked after secular congregational affairs. In some Sephardic congregations, the president is still called parnass.

31 By-Laws of the Corporation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews Shearith Israel of Montreal, 29 November 1992, amended 1 December 1993; Constitution and By Laws Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, n.d.

32 Constitution, Beth Ora Congregation, St Laurent, Quebec (Montreal), 1995.

33 A comparison with the preceding two decades can be drawn from Evelyn Kallen’s useful comparison of three synagogues in one Toronto neighbourhood, one Reform, one Conservative, and one Orthodox, in her Spanning the Generations Canadian Social Problems Series (Don Mills, ON: Longman Canada, 1977), pp. 61-152.

34 As is well known, Reconstructionism was founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who had studied both at Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Kaplan’s theology and the liturgy that reflected it were rationalistic and humanistic. It is a curiosity of history that the movement Kaplan founded began to grow quickly in the late 1960s after it had been taken over by people with neo-romantic, communitarian leanings. Interestingly, in 2002, despite its cooperative model of rabbi/lay leadership, the Toronto congregation dismissed its rabbi following a period of some acrimony.

35 A very useful examination of the inter-relationship of Jewish identity and synagogue membership in smaller communities can be found in Sheva Medjuck, Jews of Atlantic Canada (St. John’s: Breakwater Books, 1986), pp. 82-106.

36 Although now somewhat dated, the description of the Vancouver Jewish community in Daniel J. Elazar and Harold M. Waller, Maintaining Consensus: The Canadian Jewish Polity in the Postwar World (Lanham, New York, London, and Jerusalem: University Press of America and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 1984), pp. 385-419 can serve as a useful introduction to Pacific Coast Jewry. For the early period, see Cyril Edel Leonoff, Pioneers, Pedlars, and Prayer Shawls: The Jewish Communities in British Columbia and the Yukon (Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1978).


Professor of Humanities and Hebrew at York University where he directed the Centre for Jewish Studies from 1995 to 2001. His most recent book, Jews and Judaism in Canada: A Bibliography of Works Published Since 1965 (1999-2000), was written and compiled in collaboration with Richard Menkis, Benjamin Schlesinger, and Stuart Schoenfeld

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