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November 2006

A Tribute to Rabbi Sidney Shoham

The following appeared as a column of mine in The Jewish Tribune ( about Rabbi Sidney Shoham's retirement. Rabbi Shoham will go down in history as a legendary figure in Côte Saint-Luc.

How to Replace a Legendary Rabbi?

As he sat in his office overlooking Yitzhak Rabin Park in the Montreal suburb of Côte Saint-Luc a few years ago, Rabbi Sidney Shoham’s eyes grew a little misty as he discussed how much Beth Zion Congregation meant to him.

“There are a lot of memories here,” he told me. “We pioneered the concept of the suburban synagogue in Montreal. Others, I believe, followed our example.”

Rabbi Shoham is a living legend in the Montreal Jewish community. For decades he was front and centre with B’nai Brith Canada, holding top positions locally and nationally. He also has the distinction of being the only rabbi to ever chair the Combined Jewish Appeal campaign, primarily because of talents as a superb orator.

I met Rabbi Shoham as a toddler. As a lifelong member of Beth Zion, I would see him when I attended Hebrew school at the synagogue and I had the honour of him being at the pulpit at my bar mitzvah. I’ve sat at my seat during the High Holy Days each year mesmerized by every word he uttered. He was often very controversial. And that is what h is audience expected.

Eventhough he is now 77 years old, I was still surprised and a bit saddened to hear his announcement on Kol Nidre that he was retiring after 50 incredible years at the bima and to become rabbi emeritus. A synagogue executive member told me the search is now on for Rabbi Shoham’s successor. “But how do you replace a legend?” he asked rhetorically. “He has been the only rabbi this synagogue ever had. I expect we will have to look to the United States. It won’t be a quick or easy process.”

The rabbi had expressed a desire to retire for some time. Born in Baltimore, Maryland the son of Rabbi Yechiel and Rebbetzen Ethel Shoham, he attended the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore grade school and then went to Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin Rabbinical, Brooklyn, New York. While studying in the Yeshiva, Rabbi Shoham attended Brooklyn College at night and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in psychology. Later, he attended graduate school at New York University, School of Psychology and continued his studies in Montreal at the Allen Memorial HospitalMcGill University where he furthered his courses in Pastoral Psychiatry.

Rabbi Shoham arrived in Montreal in 1955 to visit his brother Gilbert, who was Rabbi of the Beit Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue on McKenzie. While here, he met with an enthusiastic group of individuals anxiously waiting to build a new community in the western suburb of Montreal. After discussions with the committee, several weeks later he was hired as the Rabbi of Beth Zion in the winter of 1956. Over the years he has been active with nearly every Jewish organization in the city, notably Combined Jewish Appeal, B’nai Brith and State of Israel Bonds. Many Jewish organizations have held testimonial dinners in his honour. He has hosted radio and television shows.

The synagogue itself began in a congregant’s home in 1952, four years before they hired Rabbi Shoham and moved into their present quarters on Hudson Avenue.

“There are a lot of memories here,” Rabbi Shoham, said. “We pioneered the concept of the suburban synagogue in Montreal. Others, I believe, followed our example. I have overseen five decades of torah studies, services, counselling, weddings, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. It’s like home to me.”

Rabbi Shoham recalled the early days of the synagogue. “At the time,” said the rabbi, “the park across the street from us had a baseball field. There were times when we did not have enough people for a minyan (10 men are required for prayer in the Jewish religion) so I’d go out to the baseball field and ask for a few volunteers. I was a pretty fair player myself and they wanted me to be part of their club. My message was simple. I’d join their team if they’d join mine. It worked.”

From the 100 members it had when Rabbi Shoham arrived, that number now stands at more than 1,000.

“To quote Hillary Clinton," said past president Eli Cohen, “it takes a village to build a community. And it's taken Beth Zion to help build the community. It is Rabbi Shoham who was innovative and who brought Beth Zion to the attention of the greater Montreal Jewish community.”

Rabbi Schecter and Mr. Mergler

A dinner honouring the memory of the late Rabbi Dr. Myer Schecter, the longtime chaplain at the Jewish General Hospital took place Nov. 27 at Or Hahayim Synagogue in Côte Saint-Luc. Rabbi Schecter had another connection to Côte Saint-Luc, as the spiritual leader of the synagogue at the Manoir Montefiore at the corner of Cavendish and Mackle. In recent weeks I have received a lot of correspondence from one Peter Yonghong Yu, whose daughter Xin Ben was the subject of the highly acclaimed National Film Board of Canada documentary Mr. Mergler’s Gift (2004). It tells the story of a 77 year old man dying from colon cancer who takes on Xin Ben, a newly arrived immigrant from China, as his final student. Mr. Mergler lived in Côte Saint-Luc most of his life. He was my music teacher at the former Wentworth Elementary School on Mackle. Peter says he got to know Rabbi Schecter well as he visited Mr. Mergler in hospital. They remained in frequent touch until the rabbi died a year ago. The rabbi was supportive of the film project, assisted the family plan their travels for Xin Ben’s concerts outside of Montreal and worked with them as they tried to find jobs.

Peter recalls vividly the day he and his daughter met Mr. Mergler. “On Saturdays our family always went to church,” he says. “My daughter liked church music and wanted to learn to play piano. We bought a piano in July 2002. One reason we bought a piano is because we think it is necessary to use music to praise God. Moreover, it is parents’ responsibility to cultivate children’s learning desire. but neither my wife nor I knew how to play. A few weeks later, one beautiful Saturday afternoon, my daughter and I came back from church by bicycle . My wife Anna came back by bus. We didn’t go home on the path we usually took and we came to a park we hadn’t visited before. Xin Ben wanted to play, so I found a bench where an old man was sitting. We said hello and began to talk.

"Are you Japanese?" he asked me.

"No, I am Chinese," I answered.

"I had a Chinese student once. I taught her piano," the old man said.

I told him Xin Ben had begged us to buy a piano, but that we did not know how to find a teacher. He asked her how old she was and which songs she liked. He asked her to sing a song for him. He was friendly, though he didn't tell us much about himself apart from his name: Daniel Mergler. He said to call him after Labour Day.

“My wife took Xin Ben to her first piano lesson on September 15. Mr. Mergler had scheduled a one-hour lesson, but he found my daughter had musical talent and gave her a two-hour lesson. We wanted to pay for the extra hour, but he said it was his pleasure. He lived simply, no big house, no car. But he had a lot of books and two pianos in his small home. He really loved music, the piano and children. He had many gifts from his students on his pianos. They were beautiful and came from all over the world. On the walls were photos of his students, and portraits of many great composers.

“Mr. Mergler not only taught Xin Ben piano, he told her stories about composers like Mozart and Beethoven. He wanted her to be able to play the notes, but also to understand the music. She was never tired, even after two hours of lessons. She looked forward to seeing Mr. Mergler every Sunday. When she learned skills, they sang a couple of new songs in a sight-reading book. He played beautiful pieces for her, just to let her know music is a wonderful world. He taught her Für Elise by Beethoven, Allegro by Mozart, and Ave Maria by Schubert. He opened her eyes and ears to music, and now her heart is blessed with its sweet sound.

“In April 2003, Mr. Mergler called. He was in hospital because of cancer. We wanted to visit him, but he asked us not to bring Xin Ben. He wanted her to remember him playing piano. He was so weak that moving even a little bit was hard for him. When he told us of the seriousness of his illness and how he came to hospital by dialing 911 himself, we could not hold back our tears. He said he loved our daughter but could not teach her anymore because he was dying. He had a gift for her, a statue of Beethoven that he had received when he was nine years old. We took it from a closet in the ward - it was so precious that he had brought it to the hospital with him. We gave him a card made by Xin Ben, and he gave us one for her. On one of my visits, I asked Mr. Mergler what teaching Xin Ben meant to him. He replied that teaching her every Sunday had helped him fight his cancer by allowing him to forget his sickness, that every week he couldn't wait to see Xin Ben, and that she brought a light to his last days. His condition deteriorated fast and the cancer spread, but his mind was always clear. He even arranged an introduction to another wonderful piano teacher, Alexander Solopov of McGill. When he learned that Mr. Solopov had accepted Xin Ben as his pupil, he was so excited . One week latter, Mr. Mergler passed away on May 25,2003 at the age of 77. Mr. Mergler had no relatives and had never married. He had almost no personal possessions. We received one piano and a lot of books as gifts given by his best friend and his landlord.

“The first time I met Rabbi Schecter was in May 2, 2003, a Friday afternoon at the ward of Mr. Mergler in the Jewish General Hospital. Later, when the rabbi left he sasid to me: ‘This rabbi is a very nice person, He has a open mind and is kind to every person. He lent me good books and helps me a lot. The second time I met Rabbi Schecter was one week later at my small apartment with the woman who would direct Mr. Mergler’s Gift, Beverly Shaffer. They asked my daughter some questions like how we met Mr. Mergler. The third time I met Rabbi Schecter was in Sunday morning of May 25, 2003. I went to hospital about 9:50 a.m. Mr. Mergler was sleeping, so I put flowers on the table and waited at the door. After a few minutes, Rabbi Schecter came and told me he had passed away before I arrived. My tears came out. Rabbi Schecter’s sad expression showed that he lost a good friend. Rabbi Schecter had collected a lot of books that he lent to Mr. Mergler.

The fourth time I met Rabbi r Schecter was three days later on at the funeral of Mr. Mergler. About 80 people were at Paperman & Sons in Montreal. In the morning, I woke up early and wrote a letter to Mr. ergler. On the way to the cemetery, we shared the same car with Rabbi Schecter, Beverly Shaffer and Brahms E. Silver who is a social worker. They talked about Mr. Mergler like a friend.

The fifth time I met Rabbi Dr. Schecter was on September 1, 2004 at the Imperial Theatre at the world premiere screening of ‘Mr Mergler’s Gift’ at the Montreal World Film Festival. He was very excited to see the film. We didn’t talk too much because of some interviews. The sixth time I met Rabbi Schecter was three months later at another screening for the film, this time at the Jewish General Hospital. Rabbi Schecter lit the candles and everybody stood up and sang a Hebrew hymn, and then he introduced the film. The last time I met Rabbi Schecter was nine months later at his office. I told him that we needed to apply for a Canadian passport to cross the border because Xin Ben would have a concert following the screening the film at the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. He was very happy to assist with our application and signed the papers for us. He said that he had a connection with the Jewish Community in Toronto and he wanted to help organize a concert with screening of the the film there, Two month later my wife brought our resumes and met him in his office. He was happy to introduce my wife to his wife and he went together with Anna to Human Resources and left our resumes there. We are so thankful! He was very sick at that time but still cared for others. Rabbi Schecter died in on December 13, 2005 at the age of 76 after a courageous battle with cancer. In recognition of his outstanding qualities and dedicated service as a chaplain at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital for 25 years he received the first-ever JGH Humanitarian Award just two months before he passed away. He was a champion of compassionate care, and had helped develop the idea behind the NFB documentary about my daughter.

Lang, Greenspon and Butler Contribute Experience

The current Côte Saint-Luc City Council has been in office for more than a year now. One of the most positive things we did upon being sworn in was to open up the doors of our standing committees to citizens in the community. In the past, these bodies consisted primarily of councillors and staff. Only the Planning Advisory Committee (PAC), then known as the Town Planning Commission (TPC) sought the participation of citizens with expertise in this field. With the mayor and each councillor holding different portfolios, we have the opportunity to start up standing committees. While the citizens who have agreed to step forward and work with us all boast impressive backgrounds, three stand out in particular: Bernard Lang, Harold Greenspon and James Butler.

Bernard Lang was the mayor of Côte Saint-Luc for 22 years. Prior to that he was a city councillor. While he retired from municipal politics a decade ago, he attempted a comeback in the 2005 election and ran against Anthony Housefather. I have a long history with “Mayor” Lang. No, he is not the present-day mayor. But just as they refer to President Clinton, President Carter and President Ford in the United States, it is difficult to address someone as “Mr.” Lang when he held the mayoral post for so long. I go back many years with Lang, notably to my years as the Côte Saint-Luc beat reporter for The Suburban, The Monitor and briefly The Weekly Herald. We have never lost contact. He may be 81 years old, but the arrival of his first grandchild – Dylan- six years ago rejuvenated him. He is the youngest and most fit looking 81 year old I know. Soon after his crushing defeat more than a year ago, he began calling me at least once a week. He was not bitter. It was clear that he chose to run again because of his undying love for the city. He questioned me on various decisions of the city, but out of general interest and concern that the right thing be done. As time went on I sensed a genuine support for the current council. He and Mayor Housefather began to speak. At the VE Day ceremony in May, Mayor Housefather acknowledged Lang in a very positive way. Afterwards, Lang thanked him warmly. When we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Eleanor London Public Library, Lang was profiled prominent in the special edition of our Courier newspaper. He was also brought on stage and saluted by Mayor Housefather at our ceremony. It was on that night it became clear to me that we needed to find a place for him at the committee level. And what better place than the library, a facility he is chiefly responsible for building. I spoke to Councillor Steven Erdelyi, who holds the library portfolio and to Director of Library Services Tanya Abramovitch and they were both very enthusiastic about my idea to add him to the committee. Mayor Housefather agreed as well. To have someone with his experience, knowledge, expertise and history around the table is a distinct advantage for us. This is not the best municipal library in Quebec for nothing. We want to keep it that way. After spending almost $1 million in renovations, adding a café, signing agreements with Hampstead and Montreal West, and introducing non-resident fees, we have a lot of work to do where the library is concerned.

Harold Greenpon was a city councillor for 25 years, serving District 2. He was my immediate predecessor and endorsed my candidacy. Harold is a chartered accountant and gained everyone’s respect and admiration as the head of the finance and audit committee. He also oversaw the parks committee. Very soon after the 2005 election he was in fact the first citizen officially invited to join a committee – the audit committee. He also maintained his chairman of the Maison Fleurie competition. As we build our 2007 budget, Harold’s presence around the table is a plus. Oh yes, he is also a member of my Toponymy Committee. Since one of goals is to bring in new revenue through naming rights, we need a finance guy like him to turn to.

James Butler was the city manager for 36 years. He retired just prior to the forced merger with Montreal in 2001, but continued to attend borough meetings. When Councillor Allan J. Levine was handed the urban planning portfolio, he wisely reached out to Butler to become part of PAC. Butler accepted and as council grapples with important zoning issues and proposals from the Cavendish Mall for demolition we need someone like him around the table.

Councillor Portfolios A Good Idea

When Mayor Anthony Housefather took office he introduced the city’s first ever portfolio system. Essentially, the eight member council serves as the equivalent of a cabinet of ministers: myself, corporate identity, communications and inter-community relations; Sam Goldbloom, traffic and seniors; Dida Berku, finance, the environment and the Cavendish extension; Steven Erdelyi, library, culture and special events; Allan J. Levine, urban planning; Glenn J. Nashen, public safety; Mitchell Brownstein, public works and engineering; and Ruth Kovac, recreation. The mayor oversees human resources and all matters related to the agglomeration council. I believe that it is because of this formula that the local electorate has the most proactive council in the city’s history. Each of us chair a number of committees. So, in addition to dealing with the many issues that come our way from district constituents, we work on important projects that will benefit the community at large. I have personally been occupied with the staffing of our communications department, the relaunch of the Côte Saint-Luc Courier newspaper and our website, the introduction of a monthly newsletter (Côte Saint-Luc Capsule), regular press releases, toponomy (the naming of streets, parks, facilities etc) and relations with community groups. On the toponomy/sponsorship front I have some significant objectives for 2007. The portfolio system works well because there is a point person for every issue. It is also very motivating. That is because I think each of us wishes to “make things happen.” We are “proactive,” not “reactive” and I believe that has been demonstrated to the population, particularly those who attend our public council meetings.

Park Avenue

As the Côte Saint-Luc city councillor responsible for Toponymy, I have been watching with interest the controversy which erupted in Montreal over Mayor Gérald Tremblay's unilateral decision to try and rename Park and Bleury Avenues after the late Robert Bourassa. First of all, let me say that something should have been named after Bourassa years ago by virtue of the number of years he spent as Quebec premier. I was not particularly fond of how he handled our language laws. Over time, his actions may have done more to contribute to the cause of sovereignty. That being said, I wonder why Montreal took 10 year after Bourassa's death to get around to naming something after him. The residents and merchants of Park Ave. are furious with the mayor. And justifiably so. Perhaps a little consultation was in order before simply presenting a motion at council. He put his local councillors, particularly Helen Fotopolos, in a horrible position. Now the mayor is promising a free vote. Many from his own party will vote against his proposal. He should drop the matter completely. Stay with Bleury and let that be the end of it.

Cavendish Extension

On October 30, 2006, the City of Côte Saint-Luc held a public information session at City Hall to inform residents on the status of the Cavendish Blvd. extension project and to encourage residents to contact their provincial representatives to ensure the Quebec government helps fund this important project. All of my life I have been hearing about this potential extension. The words from former mayor Bernard Lang still ring in my ears: "We don't need it, we don't want it, we can't afford it!" Yes, I have reservations. I do not want to see Cavendish become a highway. But the reality is this extension will occur one day, whether we like it or not. When the former Parti Quebecois government announced in 2000 that the extension would take place, it seemed to accept our city's wishes that there be an "indirect" route. They even set the wheels in motion to have a Project Bureau established. This group has been busy gathering data, studying traffic simulations and environmental issues and conducting technical feasibility of route options . It is more clear to me than ever before that we cannot cannot sit back and refuse to play a role. Otherwise we risk having something we do not want imposed upon us. The City of Saint Laurent always wanted this extension to happen. So has the City of Montreal. Saint Laurent is now a Montreal borough. Clearly, theif influence on this issue is greater than ever before. Some people asked me why we held a public information meeting. Why not? While there remain many unanswered questions, I am pleased with how this evening went. Mayor Anthony Housefather and Councillor Dida Berku provided an excellent overview. It was, in fact, a historic evening. Never before has Côte Saint-Luc ever held a public meeting on this subject, Never before have the mayor and all eight councillors come out in favor of the project. We now await word from the Project Bureau technical committee and its specific recommendations, which we will respond to accordingly.

What is the Cavendish extension?
The Cavendish Blvd. extension project is a road construction project. The exact configuration of route is still be determined. The project aims to:
Create north-south link from Côte Saint-Luc to Borough of Saint-Laurent
Create east-west link to Décarie Blv