Obituary: Rabbi Dow Marmur, 87, led Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple—and described himself as having lived six lives

Rabbi Dow Marmur (Credit: Holy Blossom Temple)

Rabbi Dow Marmur, a respected scholar and activist who served for 17 years as spiritual leader of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, Canada’s largest Reform congregation, died in Jerusalem on July 17. He was 87.

Known by congregants for a stentorian speaking style, perhaps acquired by serving pulpits in England, and for punctiliously starting programs on the precise stroke of their advertised time—to the consternation of latecomers—Rabbi Marmur was a prodigious writer, teacher and advocate who lived his Reform Jewish principles by implementing initiatives at his temple despite early resistance.

His peripatetic life took him from war-torn Poland to Siberia, Uzbekistan, back to Poland, Sweden, England, Canada, and finally, to his beloved Israel. As his daughter Elizabeth eulogized at his July 18 funeral in Har HaMenuchot, in the hills of Jerusalem, “my dad had an accent from no one place.”

She recalled an atypical father, one “with no discernible hobbies,” who didn’t barbecue or tinker in a garage. “My dad was a scholar, a mentor, a leader. My dad had presence and substance. He was as stern as he was soft. He was as demanding as he was forgiving. My dad wasn’t like other dads. (He was) a workaholic and a homebody.”

Among the six books he authored was 2004’s Six Lives, a memoir reviewed as “a testament to one Holocaust survivor’s indomitable spirit and deep need to serve the Jewish people.”

The work cited his belief that there are two kinds of rabbis: “dog” rabbis and “cat” rabbis. Dog rabbis thrive in a life of service, whereas cat rabbis are best suited to a life of scholarship. “And like a cat with many lives, Dow Marmur survived harsh, life-threatening circumstances during and after the Second World War.” His six lives and their significance were: Poland: Beginnings; Soviet Union: Exile; Sweden: Refuge; England: Vocation; Canada: Challenge; and Israel: Homecoming.

He was born in 1935 in the southern Polish city of Sosnowiec, nearly a quarter of whose residents were Jews. He was the only child of Max and Cecilia Marmur, both active in the leftist Po’alei Zion movement. His father worked as a factory foreman.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, the clan shifted eastward to the town of Jaslo, then further east to the Lvov region in Ukraine. But in 1940, they were deported to Siberia. Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, they found refuge in Uzbekistan, where they remained until they were repatriated to Poland in 1946. As a result of the meanderings, young Dow picked up several languages.

He added Swedish to his arsenal when the family moved to Gothenburg, Sweden in 1948. There, he began studying religion at the University of Stockholm in 1956, the same year he married Fredzia Zonabend, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto.

According to Canadian Jewish historian Frank Bialystok, Rabbi Marmur felt unfulfilled at university, so he and his bride decamped for London, where he entered Leo Baeck College and studied under several luminaries in the Reform movement. He was ordained in 1962 and was already serving as spiritual leader of South-West Essex Reform Synagogue in Ilford. In 1969, he became rabbi of North-Western Reform Synagogue in Alyth Gardens.

In 1983 came a job offer he couldn’t refuse: Senior Rabbi at the storied Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, home to an outsized figure in the Reform movement, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, who had earlier become the congregation’s senior scholar.

Rabbi Marmur “was both traditionalist and pragmatist, teacher and preacher par excellence,” wrote the late Irving Abella in a brief history of Holy Blossom. “His major concern was adult education—when teaching his congregants the value of Reform Judaism, his emphasis would be on the noun, Judaism, not the adjective, Reform.”

Under Rabbi Marmur, adult learning became a priority, Abella wrote. “Though he found his early years at the Temple ‘challenging,’ (he) was widely respected for his erudition, appreciated for his willingness to discuss personal theology, and admired for his successful efforts in making services more traditional and meaningful.”

For the Temple’s current senior rabbi, Yael Splansky, it was “thrilling” to watch Rabbi Marmur guide the congregation “to do what was right.”

In her eulogy, Rabbi Splansky, who was invited by Rabbi Marmur to be his assistant in 1998, recalled three examples. Under his leadership, Holy Blossom established Out of the Cold, a program that welcomed the homeless.

“Every Thursday evening, the hungry, the homeless, and the lonely were invited guests for a warm meal, warm hospitality, and a good night’s sleep,” Rabbi Splansky recalled. “At the beginning, some congregants raised concerns; neighbours protested. But Rabbi Marmur and his partners held fast to the mitzvah, and decades later, the Out of the Cold program is a point of pride for the Holy Blossom community.”

In a similar vein, in the 1980s and early ‘90s, when the AIDS epidemic was raging and young Jewish men were dying, “most people only spoke in whispers. But Rabbi Marmur and a mission-driven team of women at Holy Blossom got to work. They established support networks for people living and dying of AIDS and for their loved ones. They raised funds to cover medical bills and funeral costs. They created a third seder with its own haggadah. Most importantly, they turned the whispers of fear and shame into a full-throated call for dignity, humanity, and eventually, justice and pride.”

He was also involved in interfaith and intra-faith work, and offered not mixed messages but challenging ones, Rabbi Splansky explained.

For example, he called for intellectual honesty in Reform Judaism and the autonomy of the individual. At the same time, he insisted that “the needs of the community must take precedence over the needs of the individual.” He delivered this “counter-cultural” message consistently in sermons, in writings, and in one-on-one counseling.

“While the congregation was sometimes reluctant to receive this message, they accepted his stance and yes, they admired him for it. Dow often said with a smile, ‘They thought they were getting an English gentleman, but what they really got was a Polish Jew.’

“Slowly and steadily, Rabbi Marmur brought Holy Blossom Temple to its place on the traditional wing of the North American Reform movement,” Rabbi Splansky eulogized.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein recalled that Rabbi Marmur helped guide her career, starting when she worked with him at Holy Blossom. He was the first person she consulted when she decided to start City Shul, in downtown Toronto.

“Dow Marmur was my first and most important rabbinic mentor, my unwavering champion and advocate in those difficult first years in Toronto in the 1980s when being a female rabbi here was still suspect and exotic. He shaped my entire rabbinate, and his insistence on scholarship, excellence, and preparation was my benchmark,” she said.

Benjamin Maissner, cantor emeritus at Holy Blossom, said Rabbi Marmur helped him become a “rounded” hazzan “beyond the pulpit and the musical aspect of my skills. His stature at the pulpit next to me, his delivery of sermons and prayers, only helped me dive deeper into the depth and the inner meaning of the prayers. He helped me and the congregation to achieve higher spiritual levels in getting closer to the Almighty.”

Rabbi Marmur had some great slogans, as Cantor Maissner recalled: “We Jews laugh with one eye and cry with the other” and “There is one kind of Judaism: The right one.”

An ardent Zionist, Rabbi Marmur served as the first chair of Arzenu, the international movement of Reform Zionists; president of Arza Canada; vice-president of the Canadian Zionist Federation; and on the executive of the World Zionist Organization.

Rabbi Marmur “was a champion of progressive social causes in Canada and Israel, where he remained sympathetic to the peace movement,” noted the Reform Jewish Community of Canada in a statement.

The group noted that he founded the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, which seeks to build bridges between Poles and Jews. 

Rabbi Marmur retired in 2000. At first, he and his wife divided their time between Canada and Israel, and later moved there permanently. In 2000, he served one year as interim executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and wrote regular opinion columns for The CJN, the Toronto Star and other publications, and occasionally gave lectures.

Rabbi Marmur is survived by his wife Fredzia; children Viveca, Michael and Elizabeth; and grandchildren Miriam, Nadav, Gabrielle, Leone, and Ethan.