Yossi Sapirman is going out on a high note.
Few pulpit rabbis can boast (though he doesn’t) of the kind of dramatic growth his synagogue – Beth Torah Congregation – has seen over his time in the pulpit.
When “Rabbi Yossi,” as he’s often affectionately called, took over at the Conservative synagogue on Toronto’s Glenbrook Avenue in 1998, there were fewer than 200 family members. And he was barely into his 30s.
When he and the congregation parted ways a few weeks ago, there were roughly 500 member families – a number that has held steady over the last decade.
For a synagogue on Dufferin Street near Lawrence Avenue West– off the beaten Jewish path of Bathurst Street – the growth has been enviable.
How did it happen? To be sure, young families moving into the area and innovative programming changed the dynamic, but the congregation “grew itself because we saw ourselves as family,” Rabbi Sapirman told The CJN. “And that created a warm, welcoming, comforting place.”
The growth and dynamism of the congregation did not go unnoticed. Rabbi Sapirman became a kind of hip, unconventional go-to guru for local media eager to know how a house of worship and its congregants can reinvigorate themselves.
“A shul that rocks,” gushed the Globe and Mail in 2004. “At Toronto’s Beth Torah, they do things a little differently.”
Rabbi Sapirman “is a fantastical blend of P.T. Barnum and Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof,” offered the National Post last autumn, when Beth Torah was planning a razzle-dazzle High Holiday Zoom service.
The rabbi is hoping to translate that novel approach to his new position as “Founder/Visionary” of Living Jewishly, an outreach group he founded in 2016. Offering blogs, podcasts, events, and educational programs, its role is to “take the traditions of Jewish spirituality and translate them into contemporary messages,” according to its website.
Examples have included Rabbi Sapirman hosting an online seder for 100 families. For Shavuot, a digital brunch program entitled “Revelation and Relationships” is being offered. The non-profit group is also offering Hebrew school, a bnai mitzvah class, and social action projects, such as connecting teens and seniors as penpals.
“It was always my goal to move onto there,” Rabbi Sapirman said.
The trigger was the pandemic.
“As things developed through COVID, I was intensely engaged with the congregation from the moment it happened,” he said. “I didn’t miss a single week of sermons. We were online. I found myself more and more distant from the pulpit. There were the members, the building, and the operations of the shul. I just found it overwhelmingly difficult to continue in that role.”
As the pandemic ground on, “I began to think of what it would look like when we got back, and I realized, ‘this is the time for me to do the things I think the future holds, as opposed to the present.’”
With a paid staff of six, Living Jewishly is non-denominational. “It’s not a collective of people who are politically or religiously similar,” he explained. “It’s really about finding your own Jewishness, which is essentially my journey and, I guess, the journey of many people with me at the shul.”
The idea is to build “meaningful, relevant and intentional Jewish living.”
During COVID, one program that offered Hebrew school classes was designed to take pressure off synagogues. Families paid for the classes, not their synagogues.
Born in New Jersey into an ultra-Orthodox family, Rabbi Sapirman recalled his father’s involvement in the outreach groups Ohr Somayach and JEP (Jewish Education Program), “where the philosophy was ‘many questions, one answer’ or ‘specific answers.’
“Many of those answers are within us,” the rabbi said. “We just need to be acknowledged that our intentionality and meaningfulness are authentic.”
At 53, he’s still on the young side, and he now has more time for his eight-year-old daughter.
“I’m not going to say I was burned out,” he said. “The lure of something like Living Jewishly made me realize that I didn’t want to continue what I was doing.
“It’s been hard for me because it wasn’t the easiest departure. (But) I feel I had to do that for me, for what I consider to be my next iteration. It’s a dream I had, and I had to follow that dream.”