Obituary: Rabbi Howard Joseph led Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue for 40 years

Rabbi Howard Joseph, who led Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal, for four decades during which he succeeded in fostering harmony among its diverse members, died on Aug. 12 after a long illness.

He was also widely respected within the modern Orthodox movement, as well as in broader society for his interfaith work.

When the young New Yorker was entrusted with the spiritual leadership of the Spanish and Portuguese in 1970, he followed in the footsteps of Rabbi Solomon Frank, a towering figure in the Montreal Jewish community.

He was facing a congregation, founded in 1768, in rapid transition from having been predominantly Ashkenazi for many years, despite its origins, to a majority Sephardi. And that was not one community, but several, notably Iraqi, Lebanese and Moroccan, each with their distinctive practices.

Rabbi Joseph, who was Ashkenazi, from the start was “respectful and receptive to other traditions. He understood that there is more to Judaism than one’s nationality,” the synagogue website states. Upon his retirement in 2009, he was named rabbi emeritus.

He is being remembered for his open-mindedness, compassion, humility and deep scholarship.  The love he engendered among congregants did not fade over the years. Peacemaking is his most enduring legacy, his family believes.

“I still remember the day about 50 years ago when my dad came home thoroughly enthused from a meeting of the S & P search committee for a new rabbi and exclaimed, ‘We just interviewed a young American rabbi who has a fine mind, an engaging personality, and a kind manner, and brings with him a wife who is smart, charming and gracious. These two will make a dynamic duo,” recalled Mark Rosenstein.

“In the ensuring years, my wife Bluma and I learned just how prophetic were these words.”

The wife was Norma Baumel Joseph, a longtime professor in Concordia University’s religions department and an activist for Jewish women’s rights, as well as a former CJN columnist. They were married for 56 years.

Former synagogue member David Kaufmann, now living in Toronto, says Rabbi Joseph “led our synagogue with quiet diplomacy and wisdom, never an easy task with a diverse congregation” that wanted to maintain the traditions of the historic Spanish and Portuguese, established by British Jews, while welcoming new arrivals from the Middle East and North Africa.

“In very large measure, Rabbi Joseph was the catalyst for the growth and success of our synagogue, and his wisdom and quiet determination fostered a respect among the many communities that has withstood the test of time.”

After completing a master’s degree at Yeshiva University in Hebrew literature, Rabbi Joseph was ordained in 1964 at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary under Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Samuel Belkin.

Among his communal positions, Rabbi Joseph was chair of the Religious and Inter-Religious Affairs Committee of Canadian Jewish Congress, president of the Canadian Christian Jewish Consultation Committee, and of Christian Jewish Dialogue of Montreal.

He was a member of the Rabbinical Council of Canada’s beth din for conversion.

In 1973, he began teaching in Concordia’s then religious studies department as a visiting lecturer. He also taught over the years at the Université de Montréal, Université Laval, State University of New York in Albany, and Yeshivat Har-Etzion in Israel.

Rabbi Joseph was the author or contributor to a number of books, and wrote many articles.

He was a fitness buff and, in his day, was a standout on the synagogue’s baseball team. Jogging and swimming continued as favourite pastimes until he suffered a stroke almost 10 years ago.

Rabbi Marc Angel, author and retired after decades as spiritual leader of New York’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, eulogized Rabbi Joseph as “personifying the qualities of the ideal modern Orthodox rabbi.”

Rabbi Joseph, he said, was “distinguished by his wisdom, kindness, elegance, deep commitment to his congregation and society at large.”

Besides his wife, Rabbi Joseph is survived by their four children, Leora, Josh, Ami and Naphtali and their families.