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Holy Blossom’s Ark & Israel’s Judicial Reform

Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple after construction in 1938. Photo by City of Toronto Public Archives.

When the Toronto Jewish Reform Temple, with the unlikely name “Holy Blossom”, was built in 1938, the congregation of upwardly mobile Toronto Jews was at the height of Reform’s anti-Jewish-tradition – no kippahs, a grand pipe-organ accompanied prayers, and there was little support for Zionism.  So they chose the non-Jewish society architects Chapman & Oxley to build a grand new Romanesque Revival-style house of worship, with an 1100 seat sanctuary, the first institutional building in Canada constructed with reinforced concrete. And they had their architects place the new synagogue’s ark, not at the East, so the sanctuary would be oriented towards Jerusalem, as is traditional, but – northwest.

Decades passed, generations came and went, and Holy Blossom, like most of Reform Judaism, evolved to become much more traditional and pro-Zionist. So seventy years after its construction, when Holy Blossom Temple needed to be substantially renovated to add assembly halls, a new entrance, etc. it was proposed that, as part of the reno, the whole sanctuary now finally be reoriented so that the ark would be located in the east.

There arose a spontaneous group of objectors to this proposal, (led by a world-famous professor of Jewish history at the University of Toronto) who opposed reorienting the sanctuary so that the ark would be (as in almost every synagogue) in the east.  They called themselves: “the traditionalists”! They said: at Holy Blossom, for two generations, the ark has always been in the northwest, and we want to preserve the tradition of our founders and forefathers.

L’havdeel l’havdeel – in Israel, there emerged a secular Ashkenazi elite, made up of the revolutionary East European Zionist pioneers who sought to build in the Old-New land a socialist Utopia; and German Jewish intellectuals, proud heirs to the Western European tradition and the Haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment, who founded Hebrew University, the Technion, the Israel Philharmonic, etc.  These two groups were the vanguard of the Zionist revolution in Jewish history, which rejected many of the intellectual structures built for Diaspora Jewish life, which had been largely religious. The efforts and ethos of this secular liberal Ashkenazi elite resulted in the creation of modern Israeli society. Although their accomplishments resulted in a revolutionary reorienting of Jewish history in the 20th century, in the contemporary Israeli context, they and their spiritual descendants think of their worldview as “traditionally Israeli”.

But now in Israel, after four indeterminate elections, there arose a narrow new majority, cobbled together in Netanyahu’s 2022 coalition: the expanding insular Haredi ultra-Orthodox community, who had long felt alienated from the secular society around them, with its liberal social views;  descendants of Edot HaMizrach, whose parents and grandparents came from Arab countries, who long felt marginalized and unrepresented in Israel’s elite institutions and power structures; Revisionist Herutniks, who long felt their right-wing views were belittled and repressed, as well as populist anti-liberal elements in the Likud; and the settlers, largely religious and often ultra-nationalist, who believed THEY were the true “traditionalists”, carrying on the Zionist utopian mission of indigenous Jews settling their historic homeland. Iin traditional Judaism, we call utopian Messianic).

These sometimes-disparate partners, each with their own collective grievance, and principally oriented towards the interests and concerns of their voters and their community, are in a loose alliance, united more in opposition to what they don’t like. But what many of them don’t like is Israel’s liberal secular largely Ashkenazi Supreme Court. What they want is to change the court system, academia and the media, to remove the old guard Ashkenazi elite and its secular, liberal worldview.  And the old guard say: WE are the traditionalists! We want to preserve the tradition of modern Israel’s founders and forefathers.

In the Israeli context, I count myself in the secular liberal camp of the Israeli Traditionalists. So I am encouraged by what happened at Holy Blossom Temple. After much discussion, the big renovation went ahead, and the chosen architects (who had also designed Jerusalem’s new City Hall) created a bold new entrance, a glass-enclosed atrium that really opened up the space, and they added all sorts of building improvements.  But they left the ark in its original place, and left the sanctuary oriented towards the northwest.

Demonstrators in Jerusalem against the proposed judicial reform march under the bridge that leads to Israel’s Supreme Court building. Feb 20, 2023.  Photo by B. Rubin
About the Author
Benjamin Rubin was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created NewHouseOfIsrael.net, a Zionist conceptual art project. Since retiring from the practice of law, he and his wife split their time between Toronto and Tel Mond. He has an abiding interest in Israeli contemporary music, the Golden Age of Hebrew poets from Andalusia, and the Muslim-Christian-Jewish convivencia of Spain. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, “Golden Age Travel”, about 12th century Hebrew poet and Arabic Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. Episodes of the series have been performed online at Limmud Festivals in Toronto, Boston, Seattle and Winnipeg. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021. www.ebenbrandeis.com