Montreal’s ‘synagogue without walls’ opens its doors to everyone

From left, Rabbi Sherril Gilbert, Cantor Heather Batchelor and Rabbi Schachar Orenstein, the founders of the Montreal Open Shul. (Janice Arnold/The CJN)

A trio of Jewish clergy from different denominational backgrounds are bringing to the Montreal community the joy and spirituality that they feel is missing among the religious options currently available.

The three are attempting to form a congregation that is egalitarian, inclusive and participatory, without dispensing entirely with clerical leadership.

Cantor Heather Batchelor, Rabbi Sherril Gilbert and Rabbi Schachar Orenstein launched the Montreal Open Shul (MOS), a “synagogue without walls,” a year and a half ago, with little more than a website. They want to reach Jews of all ages for whom regular synagogue services are not right, or who are seeking to expand their experience of Judaism through non-traditional devotion and fellowship.

In its initial year, the “post-denominational” shul brought its Shabbat services and other programming to “unexpected places,” such as a yoga studio, a park, a café and private homes.

This year, the trio is partnering with other organizations, including synagogues, where they are introducing alternative services.

Batchelor, a native of Minneapolis and a graduate of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary who came to Montreal in 2010 to serve as cantor at the Reconstructionist Congregation Dorshei Emet, is today a freelancer.

We share a feeling that this is a calling.
– Rabbi Sherril Gilbert

Rabbi Gilbert, who grew up in the Orthodox Beth Zion Congregation in Côte-St-Luc, Que., was ordained in the Jewish Renewal movement, which is both progressive and traditional, and started the B’nai Or Community Shul at the YM-YWHA in 2012.

Rabbi Orenstein, who has Orthodox smicha, served the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue for almost 12 years and was the assistant rabbi at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim before spending some years in Vancouver.

Rabbi Orenstein leads Shabbat services that incorporate meditation, gentle yoga and music at different locations. Rabbi Gilbert leads monthly Friday night services at the Y that help people connect to the Divine through music, laughter and learning, followed by a potluck supper. Many who feel marginalized within the community have found a place at these services.

Batchelor’s New/Old Shul, which meets monthly at the Y on Saturday mornings, is traditional, but has a modern vibe. Participants read from the Torah (in Hebrew), which is often the first opportunity they’ve had in their lives to do so, and the davening is “more spontaneous,” Batchelor said, adding that they “are attracting an amazing mix of people.”

As often as possible, the three co-lead these services.

“We are not asking people to pledge allegiance (to MOS),” Rabbi Gilbert explained. “Our most important role is to act (as) a portal to Judaism.”

Batchelor elaborated by saying that many Jews “do not see Judaism as a spiritual practice, but as more of an obligation, not something you do for your own soul.”

We are bringing together people who might otherwise not meet.
– Rabbi Schachar Orenstein

Rabbi Orenstein said that, “People say to us they never knew Judaism could be so much fun.… Or, ‘finally, I’ve found a community where I can just be myself.’ ”

MOS is offering its first High Holiday services at Shaare Zedek Congregation on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30, and Yom Kippur, Oct. 8-9.

The Rosh Hashanah programming includes yoga, singing led by jazz vocalist Ayelet Rose Gottlieb and a panel discussion featuring philosophy professor Jordan Glass. It will also feature Rabbi Orenstein’s 14-year-old daughter singing Kol Nidrei.

The entire package costs $90 and includes two meals, “the least expensive in town,” said Rabbi Orenstein, and no one will be turned away if they can’t pay.

On Sept. 22, MOS will be teaming up with Shaare Zion Congregation and its clergy for an “Elul Urban Retreat,” a day set aside to “refresh, reflect and renew.”

For Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, MOS is partnering with the Mile End Chavurah to host Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman, pioneers of the Jewish Renewal movement in the United States, at the Y.

MOS has received some grants from Federation CJA, but relies largely on donations to cover its costs. Collaborating with synagogues and other groups allows it to stretch its limited resources.

We are attracting an amazing mix of people.
– Cantor Heather Batchelor

“Each of us comes with a certain following,” said Rabbi Orenstein. “We are bringing together people who might otherwise not meet. Those who are traditional are being exposed to the non-traditional, and vice versa. There’s a cross-pollination.”

At this point, MOS is a “labour of love,” from which the three derive much gratification. They enjoy a collegial relationship as equals, a model that’s not generally found in bricks-and-mortar shuls, they say.

“We share a feeling that this is a calling, that we have no choice but to … do it with love,” said Rabbi Gilbert. And it’s fun, added Rabbi Orenstein.