Coming of age for Canadian Jews: Jewish seminary set to open in Catholic institution

 — Nov. 25, 201125 nov. 2011

The first mainstream Jewish seminary in Canada “will be an important part of Judaism’s future in this country,” says Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum of the Canadian Yeshiva & Rabbinical School

Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum marvels at the idea that the first mainstream Jewish seminary in Canada will be housed inside a Catholic school of theology and be part of seven Christian schools that comprise the Toronto School of Theology.

“I have never heard of a situation like this in the world in which a Jewish seminary is among Christian theological schools and seminaries,” said Rabbi Tanenbaum, president of the recently founded Canadian Yeshiva & Rabbinical School.

“The creation of this school really marks the coming of age for Canada’s Jewish community. It’s a sign of our maturity and will be an important part of Judaism’s future in this country.”

The school, which will be officially launched at a ceremony Sunday on the University of Toronto campus, will be housed inside the University of St. Michael’s College, on St. Joseph Street, a school renowned for its graduate program in Catholic theology.

Professor Ann Anderson, the school’s president and a Catholic nun, sits on the rabbinical school’s board and was instrumental in bringing the Jewish seminary to the campus, Rabbi Tanenbaum said.

Rabbi Tanenbaum retired from congregational life in Toronto two years ago and since then has put his energy into creating a Jewish seminary, something that has been a longtime dream of many Canadian Jewish leaders.

Canada’s Jewish population is about 350,000 but because of geography, there was never the impetus to have a home-grown training ground for Canadian rabbis, he added.

“In Great Britain, you have six seminaries, but the Jewish population is smaller than ours. That’s because in Britain, they are more isolated. Here, it is very simple to go to the rabbinical schools in the U.S.”

As a result, Canadian Jews who want to be rabbis usually go to New York, Cincinnati or Israel for training ­ and many never make it back to Canada. Not having a seminary here has also led to the majority of rabbis in Canada being American.

That has been seen as a problem on multiple levels, many observers note.

At its most basic, Americans will not understand they are in a different culture and miss the kind of links, such as an obsession with hockey, that can create bonds between rabbis and young students. Others have pointed to Canadian Jews being more conservative in their beliefs than American Jews.

Rabbi Tanenbaum, who was born in Erie, Pa., but is now a Canadian citizen, said that having Canadian rabbis is important for the health of the country’s Jewish community and preventing assimilation.

“We have always looked to the United States to see what Judaism in Canada will look like in 10 to 15 years. But when we see things that we want to avoid ­ such as the high rate of intermarriage ­ we’ve never been able to do it. And why is that? Because we continue to bring our top religious leadership from another country.”

The new rabbinical school will follow a form of the religion known as Classic Judaism ­ a decision that will make it distinct from the American Jewish experience.

In the United States the three main branches are Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Classic Judaism, he said, follows the European Judaism of the 1700s in which those denominational differences were absent.

“We don’t think the struggle between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox is a good thing for Jewish life. We believe that it is destructive. There’s reasons why during the Enlightenment these groups began but it is important to go back to when Jews were just Jews.”

The school will not have female rabbis though women will be able to attend and receive a degree in Jewish theology.

The opening of the seminary comes at a time when some see attendance at synagogues dropping.

But Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Calgary said that would not preclude opening a seminary now.

“Even if that’s the case the effort to produce home-grown rabbis is something of value for Canadian congregations,” said Rabbi Voss-Altman, who said attendance in Calgary is declining. “Besides, having Canadian rabbis could have a positive impact on the Jewish community and help bring people back. How many young people decide not to become rabbis because they can’t afford to go outside the country for training?”

The linking of the rabbinical school with Christian institutions fits with a greater trend of Christians seeking out the roots of their faith through Judaism and the Old Testament. Pope Benedict has made it a large part of his teaching to emphasize the Jewish roots of Catholicism.

The yeshiva is now operating and acts as a place for the Jewish community to learn more about their faith. The actual rabbinical school will open at the earliest in September but it could be later, Rabbi Tanenbaum said.

Alan Hayes, director of the Toronto School of Theology, said moving from just Christian schools to a multi-faith milieux completes a process started in the 1960s.

After Vatican II Catholic schools were allowed to share space with Protestants, which took place very quickly in Toronto, he said.

He believes that the interaction between Jews and Christians will enrich the experience of both groups.

“Christian study of the Old Testament tends to be historical where as Jewish interpretation tends to be more theological and richer. That could be a big help to all of us,” Mr. Hayes said.

“Jews and Christians often study many of the same things but they don’t always talk to each other. This will be a place for people to meet. We still have a lot to learn from each other.”

Posted: Nov. 25, 2011 • Permanent link:
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