The Jewish Nomad: Finding the shul that fits me in 2022

Ilana Zackon went winter camping near Parry Sound, Ont., to escape the chaos of 2021.

As a little girl, my experience going to Congregation Beth Tikvah, an Orthodox synagogue in Montreal, involved sneakily escaping the main sanctuary and running around in the basement with my siblings, cousins and friends.

I remember darting across the checkered tile floor, playing hide and seek in any unlocked room, stealing black-and-white cream-filled cookies from the kitchen, trying to sneak past the coat check workers and hide inside whatever was hanging from the racks, running through the fire escape which we called “the secret passageway.” (We also once set off the fire alarm, whoops.)

But sometimes there was an organized youth program, in the chapel, next to the main sanctuary. 

We learned songs and the parasha of the week. Jewish trivia answers were rewarded with “Shabbos bucks” to redeem for prizes. I also fondly remember learning the three parts to “Baruch Hagever,” complete with hand motions, which we then sang for everyone on the bimah.

The grown-up congregants appreciated how us wild kids spent the morning under supervision—based on the lack of noise complaints.

As you might have picked up on by now, I didn’t pay much attention to the formal synagogue services. During those years, just being in the building created enough of a Jewish connection.

But during the summers of my youth, I attended a modern Orthodox sleepaway camp. And at Camp Massad, every morning began with davening. 

As we recently learned about myself, I had a talking problem, and many a camp counselor shushed me when I tried to whisper to my bunkmates during the longer Shabbat morning sessions. It was either that or giving shoulder massages or playing silent games on our hands.

Despite my need for social attention and distraction, this camp davening—and the songs designed to participate in its structure—was where I felt most spiritually connected to the practice of prayer. 

There’s something unique and special about a bunch of young people singing ancestral tunes in unison. Jewish music is inherently soulful. At times, the melodies can be gut-wrenching.

Those were the melodies that stuck in my spirit, many years later, during an initial Shabbat dinner in Vancouver.

On my first week in town, I went to a board games night, organized through Axis Vancouver at the awesome nerd bar, Storm Crow. (They have a life sized Tardis, it’s dope!) And there I was invited for my first Friday night with some locals.

It had been so long since I’d participated in a gathering with Jewish hymns, known as zemirot—and, even more significantly, with Jewish people around my age.

During the Kiddush, a blessing over wine that precedes the meal, I could feel my eyes swelling with tears. 

I tried to hide my emotional reaction, but realized I had been deeply missing my religious link.

Then, they proceeded to sing a song that really reminded me of Shabbat ending at camp with the Havdalah candle ceremony: “Acheinu”. I hadn’t heard it in so long and that emotional depth touched the very essence of my soul.

After that dinner, I began to attend Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel, the local Chabad synagogue close to my home in Kitsilano, to show up for dinner with that same crew.

At the Kollel, most people my age would skip the davening part and just head to the table.

But sometimes I would go early on my own. I wanted to try praying after a period of distance from consistent Jewish practice.

I’d walk over early and stand on the other side of the mechitzah with three women who were two or three times my age.

It was also an opportunity to contemplate my feelings about praying—and I made the mistake of reading the English side of the pages. It seemed alien to me, as a reminder that the beauty and depth of ancient Hebrew liturgy doesn’t translate well. 

Being in the space, however, with the tunes and the very jolly and emphatic Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu, I managed to catch that soul-tickling experience of the previous dinner. Something opened up in me over those weeks. 

But the connection to prayer remained elusive until I left Vancouver..

I previously heard of the Toronto Partnership Minyan before moving across the country last fall. And, even though it doesn’t have a fixed location in the city core—lately, it’s been bouncing around the Bathurst and St. Clair area—I had a strong feeling it could be my place.

Turns out I was right.

TPM fulfills my desire to connect to a community of like-minded younger people who deeply appreciate the singing, text, community and ancestral togetherness, in a fashion that matches my grown-up progressive values.

Seeing modern Orthodox women read from the Torah is exceptionally moving. I’ve even gone up a few times for an aliyah, an experience I never had in my life before this shul. That tingly excitement, knowing I can publicly contribute to the practice of praying, makes me excited to go, and feel part of something greater than myself.

I’m still uncovering my relationship with davening. But I think I’m off to a good start.

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So far, I’ve enjoyed two other modern Orthodox shuls in Toronto:

The Kiever: Located in Kensington Market, the city’s original Jewish neighbourhood, Rabbi Eli Cohen davens with so much ruach and kavanah. The space is intimate and its walls are covered with gorgeous Jewish art, which adds to a special and moving environment. Fun fact: It’s one of the oldest congregations in Toronto, founded by Ukrainian immigrants in 1912.

Beth Lida: This pretty little shtibl near Bathurst and Eglinton has my pal, Joshua Schwartz, as its spiritual leader. He’s a wonderful thinker and speaker who makes Judaism both accessible and meaningful for everyone who attends. (Also, they broke out the board games during a recent Shabbaton.) The synagogue also offers a number of free online classes.

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The latest podcast I’ve been bingeing

A show worth hearing on mental health has a familiar name at the helm: Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown, which is co-hosted by Toronto native Jonathan Cohen.

Armed with the neuroscience PhD she received before returning to TV on the Big Bang Theory—and now as a host on Jeopardy—she’s also one of the rare modern Orthodox Jews in show business.

The final 2021 episode featured Canadian Jewish comedy icon Howie Mandel, who opens up about dealing with ADHD, anxiety, depression and OCD. His candid honesty about how he’s learned to cope is refreshing and inspiring. 

Mayim spends a lot of time kvelling about how he was once the only Jewish comedian she knew who wasn’t over 80.

Mental health awareness is a big part of my own art and life, so it helps to have a podcast on the topic that’s actually fun to listen to. Guests have ranged from Los Angeles rabbi Steve Leder, to Mayim’s fellow former child stars like Jonathan Lipnicki, Danika McKellar and Molly Ringwald, to recurring “Bevisodes” featuring her mom.

Going into 2022, there’s already a year of episodes to hear before the next Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown comes out Tuesday.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai

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