Rabbi uses booze, technology to spread Jewish thought

Political pundit David Frum, left, takes part in a Spirits and Spirituality podcast recording with Rabbi Avi Finegold and Tommy Schnurmacher.

Every month, Rabbi Avi Finegold settles in at a table in a different Montreal-area microbrewery and waits. Sometimes only a handful of people join him; on other occasions, he has a full house.

This is Beer & Bible, an unconventional adult education series offered by the Jewish Learning Lab (JLL), which Rabbi Finegold initiated four years ago to fill what he saw as a gap in Jewish education.

As the name suggests, JLL is about experimentation – a term a little edgier than innovation – in reaching people of any age who want to explore Judaism in all its facets.

Participants in these evenings sample a selection of craft brews while discussing themes in the Tanakh, and sometimes the refreshments.

Beer & Bible evenings are publicized on social media and no reservations are necessary. The next one will be at HELM Microbrasserie in Outremont, Que., on March 6.

When it first started, JLL offered classes in donated space in Mile-Ex, but Rabbi Finegold found that there was more interest in one-off programs at moveable locations. He recruits other educators, as needed, and collaborates with community organizations, notably the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM) and Moishe House. The Jewish Community Foundations provides financial support.

JLL was founded with busy younger people in mind – a demographic Rabbi Finegold felt was being overlooked.

He wanted to take adult Jewish education out of the synagogue and other institutions, and make it non-denominational and non-dogmatic.

“I didn’t want to say, ‘This is what these rabbis said and this is what you should believe.’ I am not there to tell people what they should do. But I do have some knowledge, and they can take that knowledge and apply it to their own life. But I’m not providing the answers,” he said.


Rabbi Finegold, 41, returned to his native Montreal in 2013 with his American wife, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, who had accepted a post at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. She was in the first graduating class of a new modern Orthodox program that ordains female clergy.

Rabbi Finegold left Montreal in 2004, not long after being ordained by the late Rabbi Joshua Shmidman. He went to Boston on a teaching fellowship and, after marrying, continued his graduate studies in divinity at the University of Chicago.

Despite his Orthodox upbringing – he went to school at Yeshiva Gedola – Rabbi Finegold is comfortable with the spectrum of Jewish identity and not afraid to be challenged. “It’s clear there are many ways to be Jewish,” he said. “There’s no monopoly on that.”

What he discovered back in Montreal was that what adult Jewish education existed tended to be “preachy.”

Among the JLL programs coming up is an “open mic seder.” This will be held before Passover, when “everyone will be invited to tell a story, share an idea or sing a song,” rather than simply follow a script, he said.

JLL is also running a lecture series featuring Rabbi Allan Nadler, the former dean of Jewish studies at Drew University in New Jersey, on influential émigré rabbis in Montreal at the MJM, where Rabbi Finegold leads Not Too Shabby Shabbat services, a 45-minute devotion for young adults in a hurry.

Spirits & Spirituality co-hosts Tommy Schnur-macher, left, and Rabbi Avi Finegold, centre, speak with Rev. Graham Singh for the Jewish Learning Lab’s new podcast.

Continuing on the imbibing theme, JLL launched a podcast series called Spirits & Spirituality last fall that teams Rabbi Finegold with Tommy Schnurmacher, who has more than 40 years’ experience in broadcasting, more than half of those as a morning talk-show host on CJAD.

Their calling card reads: “Provocative conversations on faith and life over cocktails.”

Eight 40-45 minute episodes have been released to date, each featuring a different guest who’s recorded live, usually at a bar. Aimed at a broad audience, the discussions are not confined to Judaism, but to faith in a universal sense.

The most recent episode features Gad Saad, a Concordia University behavioural scientist and host of The Saad Truth podcast, in a conversation that ranged from masculinity, to multiculturalism, to feminism.

Earlier guests included American author Nathan Englander, whose most recent book is the Pulitzer-nominated What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, sex therapist Laurie Betito, host of CJAD’s nightly program Passion, and Canadian-born pundit David Frum.

Rev. Graham Singh, an Anglican priest who repurposes empty churches, has also been on, while Thomas Dowd, auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal, who’s referred to as the “Facebook Father” for his pioneering use of social media (he was the first Catholic priest in Canada to start a blog), is a valued partner.