Temple honours past presidents and longest serving rabbi

February 2020
Steve Arnold

Hamilton’s oldest synagogue will honour its past presidents and longest-serving rabbi at a gala event March 28.

Past Presidents Future is a major fundraiser to honour the contributions of the 44 men and women who have led Temple Anshe Sholom over its 170 year history.

The event will also celebrate the 100th birthday of Rabbi Bernard Baskin, who served the synagogue for 40 years, until his retirement in 1989.

For the two men who now share the Temple’s primary leadership role, acknowledgement of the synagogue’s past presidents is long overdue.

“Volunteers are a unique group of people, but our presidents take on an entirely different kind of responsibility and we have never celebrated that,” said Yves Apel, who shares the presidency with Mark Levine.

“Being president is like a third-level Jewish ninja. It needs stamina, intensity and tact. There is no textbook, so you have to learn on the job,” he added. “It takes a really special person to step up for that and that’s who we are celebrating.”

Anshe Sholom, the oldest Reform congregation in Canada, has had 44 presidents over its history. The group has included four women, as well as doctors, several lawyers, business owners, real estate brokers, accountants and a pair of brothers who operate a dairy farm just outside the city.

“Until I assumed this mantle, I didn’t really understand how much work this is,” Levine added. “It’s almost a full-time job because we have to be hands-on managers, as well as strategy people.”

Anshe Sholom’s roots go back to 1850, almost two decades before Canada was even a country. That’s when Hamilton’s 13 Jewish families started gathering in each other’s homes to lay the groundwork for a communal life. They were all from Germany, and even kept their early records in the German language.  Most were merchants who had arrived in Canada looking for a life free from prejudice.

The group eventually named itself the Hebrew Benevolent Society Anshe Sholom of Hamilton. In 1863 the Jewish Congregation Anshe Sholom was incorporated.  The first synagogue was over a downtown store, but in 1882 committees were formed and money was raised for the first Temple on Hughson Street South. That building served until 1952 when it was replaced by the present structure on Cline Avenue North.

Edmund Scheuer, often called the Father of Reform Judaism in Canada, was the first president. He came to Hamilton in 1871 to join his brother-in-law Herman Levy’s jewelry business. In 1873 at age 26, he was elected president of the Temple and held the position for the rest of his 15 years in Hamilton.

Among the Temple’s 14 religious leaders are names such as Emil Fackenheim, who went on to a distinguished career as a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and Arthur Feldman, who was a scholar in his own right and a great personal friend of Sigmund Freud, stand out. The name towering above all others, however, is Bernard Baskin.

During his 40 years at the pulpit, it fell to Rabbi Baskin to lead the congregation through two building campaigns, periods of growth and decline and struggles to redefine the nature of Reform Judaism for a world unimagined by his predecessors.

Those struggles included wrestling with questions such as what degree of kashrut would be observed, whether men would cover their heads during worship, what roles the non-Jewish spouses of members would be permitted to play in the life of the Temple, and how to keep a younger generation interested in the faith of their parents.

Sponsorship opportunities and tickets for the March 28 event are available at PastPresidentsFuture.ca or by calling 905-538-0121. The Temple Archives Project will be revealed at the event.