As the Beach Hebrew Institute marks its 100th anniversary, it prepares for a different Passover celebration

The Beach Hebrew Institute held its its 100th anniversary concert early in March. The concert, One Hundred Years of Jewish Music In Toronto, took place on March 8. Photo by Wally Hucker.

By MARGARET DORE

The Beach Hebrew Institute on Kenilworth Avenue just south of Queen Street East, and affectionately called the BHI, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

As one of the festivities to mark this, in early March we presented a program of One Hundred Years of Jewish Music. Everyone sang along with The Jewish Family Choir to the words from Kohelet/ Ecclesiastes Turn, Turn, Turn; it felt like a joyous acknowledging of the accomplishments of generations of the Toronto Jews who founded, sustained and left to us the BHI.

With its warm lighting, simple adornment and perfect acoustics, the little building felt vibrant and very much alive.

Today, of course, like every other place of gathering in the city, and the country, our schul/synagogue is closed, dark and empty. This begs the question: is it dead?

I hear the words a time to be born (and) a time to die . . . a time to laugh and a time to weep . . . a time to dance and a time to mourn with markedly different emphasis today.

Perhaps it is that very quality which makes such words holy. In them, we overhear the hopes, fears and prayers that people have felt and expressed for thousands of years. What is new, is that those fears, hopes and prayers are now ours.

When the crisis of this virus is past and we all reopen our doors, only the open-heartedness that built and sustained our temples, churches, synagogues and mosques will have ensured their survival as meaningful places to gather.

This year, our celebrations of life and hope will look very different from those past.

Those of us who observe Passover or Easter in the coming days will experience this as difficult.

So let’s focus on what is most essential, most fragile and resilient: the human spirit.

The famous Jewish toast, “To Life/ L’CHAIM!” encapsulates well our gratitude for the gifts of life and of each other in this community. It expresses our commitment to hope and our determination to live faithfully.

At the Passover seder meal, we are always reminded that every person there must feel as if they, personally, were liberated from slavery.

The goal is that when we celebrate our freedom most joyously, we also feel most keenly the oppressive experiences which narrow people’s lives and create so much preventable suffering. To the extent that we can do this, we will never allow anyone’s humanity to be diminished and we know that no one is really free until we all are free.

At the BHI, we look forward to the time when we are again home to Shabbat services that are conservative in style and egalitarian in practice.

We are an open, inclusive congregation where women and men participate fully and our lifestyle choices are respected. We have a wonderful cantor but no rabbi, and members of the congregation organize services, lead prayers, give devars (sermons based on the Torah), and we participate fully in the Beach Interfaith Community lunch program.

Of necessity, all of our lives are more closely circumscribed now. We will find new, creative ways to take care of ourselves and our community, and particularly those most susceptible to suffering. We will survive as a community.

Yes, this year Turn, Turn, Turn will find a place among the old familiar favourites sung around the Passover table.

But first: L’CHAIM!

Please note that I am grateful to Dr. Dena Bain Taylor for sharing her soon to be launched book, 100 Years at the Beach: A History of the Beach Hebrew Institute 1919-2019. Advance orders available at discount until 30/4/2020. Contact info@beachhebrewinstitute.ca


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