The following appeared as a column of mine in The Jewish Tribune (www.jewishtribune.ca) 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 Hospital – McGill 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.”