On leaving Shaarei Shomayim, Rabbi Chaim Strauchler reflects on modern Orthodoxy

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler

When Rabbi Chaim Strauchler began as senior spiritual leader of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in the summer of 2008, he saw the job as primarily to care for congregants, “to be there for them in their time of need, and to shepherd them through the ups and downs of life,” he said in an interview at the time with The CJN, “but also to inspire them, and to be a catalyst for personal growth and for family growth as well.”

Mission accomplished, one might say, now that Rabbi Strauchler is winding up his duties at the Glencairn Avenue synagogue by the end of July. After that, he, his wife Avital and their five children, aged seven to 16, are off to Teaneck, N.J. where the rabbi will lead Congregation Rinat Yisrael, a modern Orthodox synagogue with 400-plus family members, known, he explains, for its high-level Torah study and devotion to “very careful” prayer.

The soft-spoken Rabbi Strauchler, 44, weighs his words carefully when giving reasons for beginning this newest chapter in his life. “You take opportunities. You think about your children. You think about your career and how to do the most you can to do good work,” he told The CJN recently.

At 13 years, he becomes the second-longest serving senior rabbi in Shaarei Shomayim’s 90-plus year history.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he grew up as one of four children in a modern Orthodox family in West Orange, N.J. So for him, working in Teaneck, about 25 kilometers away, is “a homecoming.”

When he assumed the pulpit, Shaarei Shomayim had 840 “member units.” Today, it’s 650 family members. While he understands a need to express synagogue membership in “units” or families, Rabbi Strauchler prefers to see individuals. As he recently wrote to the congregation, there are 1,988 neshamot (souls) at the synagogue.

On his watch, he said the modern Orthodox shul grew its younger numbers and was able to stabilize amid challenges. One of them was to prove that modern Orthodoxy, with its talent for balancing observance with modernity, was still viable.

There was a belief that modern Orthodoxy could not survive with challenges from the right and left, Rabbi Strauchler recalled—“that the centre could not hold. That’s was very much not the case. People in the end want to stand up for what they believe in.

“We found out as a congregation that if we do what we’re supposed to do in terms of creating great programming, we are engaged in people’s lives. People want what Judaism has to offer.”

He’s a great proponent of modern Orthodoxy, a term he believes reflects a basic Jewish issue: That modernity has always been present in Judaism and can bring many advantages.

“It also brings many challenges,” he said when he took over the pulpit at Shaarei Shomayim. “In the modern age, you can choose. You can choose to be Jewish, you can choose not to be Jewish. That did not exist before the modern era.”

He recalled meeting with the synagogue’s board during his tryout weekend in 2008. “I was asked how I defined modern Orthodoxy. I replied, ‘modern Orthodoxy is Judaism. We never reformed or counter-reformed. We live a Judaism engaged with the world.’”

He offered an example: “If the Rambam were alive today in Toronto, he would daven at Shaarei Shomayim.” Someone in the room laughed. The rabbi responded, “if we do not believe this now, we must work to create the shul of which we believe it to be true.”

Some of that work has been achieved over his term, he said during this exit interview with The CJN, “but there’s more to be done.”

An alumnus of Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Har Etzion, and Oxford University, he was a premed science student, following in his parents’ footsteps, before switching to English literature. In 2001, he became the first YU graduate to be awarded Oxford’s prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. The rabbi has two master’s degrees, one in theology and religious studies from Oxford, and one in Bible from YU.

He experienced a pivotal event three years ago having nothing to do with his rabbinic duties: A bicycle accident caused a serious head injury, hospitalization and surgery on both arms. But it produced good vibes.

“The amount of love and caring I experienced both in my community and beyond was something that was tremendous, something that gave me strength,” he recalled.

He leaves “a wonderful community,” impressed by how Toronto Jewry can pull together in times of crisis, and appreciative of having formed relationships with rabbis of all denominations and leaders of other faiths. Following the shooting at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 that left six dead, Rabbi Strauchler addressed a local mosque, whose imam called the rabbi to offer sympathies after the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue the following year.

“There are a lot of really good people here.”

COVID presented challenges but also highlighted “just how halakhah makes people stronger and how Jewish life is really needed when times get rough.”

As for pulling up stakes, he believes that in the course of a rabbi’s career, “you build relationships, and those don’t disappear.”

The best is yet to come.

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