Copyright Mark Blinch
The Toronto Star headline seemed almost comically anachronistic: “Holy Blossom Temple official appoints a female as senior rabbi”.
But that was the news in Toronto last month as Canada’s largest reform temple named Rabbi Yael Splansky, 43, as its spiritual leader — a first for a major congregation in Canada’s largest city.
“While there are many female rabbis leading smaller congregations or working as associates at large temples,” The Star noted, “the larger synagogues with the bigger congregations and incomes were out of reach.” Holy Blossom serves 2,000 families.
The announcement from Holy Blossom makes official a role Splansky had occupied for more than a year; she’s been employed by the temple since 1998. Splansky will inherit a synagogue in transition. A major renovation is set for its 1938 building in north Toronto, and Splansky plans to expand programming to embrace all life stages, almost literally from cradle to grave.
The Forward’s Michael Kaminer caught up with Splansky, a mother of three boys, from Toronto.
**Michael Kaminer: How have you felt about the news coverage around your appointment? That Toronto Star headline caught my eye. **
Yael Splansky: They say, “All press is good press.” I am grateful for any invitation to call attention to synagogue life in general and to my synagogue in particular. The headline caught my eye, too, of course. I would like to be known by more than my gender, but in a traditional Jewish community like Toronto, the decision to appoint a woman to this senior position is newsworthy.
As the Star pointed out, your appointment is a first for a “major Jewish congregation” in Toronto. Why do you think it took so long?
Jewish immigration to Canada came later than to the U.S. Being closer to the European experience means the entire community leans toward tradition. That’s true for the Reform movement here, too. Holy Blossom Temple brought the first woman rabbi to Canada in 1980, Rabbi Joan Friedman. I imagine she had many hard days then, but by the time I came to town in 1998, no one blinked. Thanks to that first generation of women rabbis, I can focus on the work at hand. Today Toronto enjoys the leadership of many wise and strong rabbis who are women. None are (yet) serving Conservative or Orthodox synagogues.
The Canadian Jewish news also said you’re aiming to “stabilize” the shul. Is that a fair portrayal?
The headline was half the quote. The last two years, our task has been to “stabilize” the congregation. Now our task is to “mobilize.”
You’ve got big plans, including a major renovation. Can you tell us about that?
Holy Blossom Temple is Toronto’s first synagogue, founded in 1856. That means our congregation is older than Canada. Our current building went up in 1938. Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who later went on to be President of the Reform Movement, inspired the necessary funds even in the midst of the Depression.
The building has some of its original luster, but is in desperate need of repair and restoration. The most transformative feature planned by our world-class architects, Diamond-Schmitt, will be the glass atrium. Rabbi Eisendrath often used Biblical imagery of light when he spoke about Judaism’s mission, and yet, the building itself is quite dark. The open atrium with its vaulting glass roof will inspire an open spirit within the community, too.
You told the Star, “All of the public work that we’re doing and the mortar and brick work we are preparing for is being matched by a more private, more communal and intimate way of connecting.” Can you explain the last part?
The bar has always been set high here. Congregants are now demanding relevant Judaism that is attentive and heartfelt, serious and joyful. Our Campaign for Youth Engagement clarifies that parents want the synagogue to be a partner in raising their children. Our congregational survey shows that grown children want the synagogue to be a partner in caring for their aging parents. We take these responsibilities very seriously. More than any other Jewish institution it is the synagogue which can provide meaning and meaningful connections to one another and to our God.
Our banner reads: “Renewal of Space and Spirit.” We need both.
Is there some kind of kinship among female rabbis who lead big congregations? Do you confer with your colleagues about their challenges and successes?
Yes, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York has been a good colleague to me this year. My own sister-in-law, Rabbi Felicia Sol of Bnai Jeshurun, also in New York, is a constant sounding board. And just last week I attended a two-day seminar for Reform Rabbis in new positions. There I met women on their way to head up large congregations from Seattle to San Antonio. Apparently, this year marked a kind of tipping point. God willing, this story won’t be newsworthy for much longer.
You’ve been at Holy Blossom Temple for 16 years. Was this appointment at the back of your mind from day one?
When Rabbi Dow Marmur interviewed me for the Assistant Rabbi position, he explained that he’d be retiring two years later and the hope was I’d become the Associate Rabbi. “Does that frighten you?” he asked in his deep voice. All I knew then was that I wanted to begin my rabbinate in a large congregation with a top-notch staff and a robust program. I didn’t know then that Holy Blossom would provide me with opportunities to grow for so many years to follow.
You come from a long line of rabbis. Can you give us a snapshot?
My great grandfather, Rabbi Maurice Lorge z”l, was a professor of religion at a women’s college in Mainz, Germany. After graduation in 1936, my grandfather, Ernst Lorge, was given a one-way ticket on the Queen Mary. Rabbi Leo Baeck sent him to study at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He went back to Germany, wearing the uniform of a U.S. army chaplain. These experiences led him to march with Dr. King in Selma, to serve on President Kennedy’s interfaith commission, to lead his Chicago congregation with a powerful voice.
My father, Rabbi Don Splansky, is what is called “A Rabbis’ Rabbi.” He never forgets a person’s name nor what he’s read. More than a dozen rabbis and cantors and Jewish educators have come from his Boston-area congregation. That’s a living tribute to his compassionate and scholarly rabbinate. His ongoing research is in the area of Targum, Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible. He’s up every morning before dawn, in his reading chair.
These three rabbis and their wife-partners who also contribute effective leadership to their respective communities are my heroes and role models. Their influence and inspiration run very deep within me.