New senior rabbi seeks to stabilize Holy Blossom

Rabbi Yael Splansky

Last month’s appointment of Rabbi Yael Splansky as the next senior rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple is “significant but not unique,” she believes.

More significant in the context of Holy Blossom per se is the direction in which the historic synagogue will move under her leadership.

The largest Reform congregation in Canada and one of the largest in North America, with 2,000 member units, Holy Blossom has faced recent challenges, including the 2012 departure of the temple’s longtime tenant, Leo Baeck Day School’s south branch, which is now in its own building.

As well, there was controversy over both the proposed re-orientation of the sanctuary, which currently doesn’t face Jerusalem (as do those in many other shuls), and the upcoming retirement of Rabbi Splansky’s predecessor, Rabbi John Moscowitz, who began a three-year, pre-retirement sabbatical in 2012.

The past two years have been a time of stabilization, Rabbi Splansky said in a recent interview, citing congregational surveys that included “grassroots conversations and thousands of cups of coffee.”

Among her priorities is Holy Blossom’s “Renewal Project,” a long-awaited renovation launched in a 2000 “vision statement” by Rabbi Moscowitz. Phase 1 is slated to begin this fall, after the High Holidays. The sanctuary will be restored in Phase 2, but it won’t be reoriented so that congregants pray facing Jerusalem. (Details on the project are available at

The board’s announcement about Rabbi Splansky’s new role praised her intellectual rigour, personal warmth, and deep understanding of the synagogue’s place in the community.

In a broader context, she is one of several women to be appointed senior rabbi of a large congregation in the past year. Also, two years ago, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow became the first woman in Canada to lead a synagogue of more than 1,000 families when she was named senior rabbi of Montreal’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom.

In 1980, Holy Blossom itself became the first Canadian congregation to hire a female rabbi. An Orthodox shul that became Reform in the 1920s, Holy Blossom was founded 11 years before Canada itself, Rabbi Splansky noted.

By the time she started in 1998 as an assistant rabbi straight out of Hebrew Union College, “no one blinked” about hiring a woman.

A 43-year-old married mother of three boys, Rabbi Splansky is also a fourth-generation Reform rabbi whose great-grandfather was a classmate and friend of Rabbi Leo Baeck’s.

But there was never an expectation that she would follow in the footsteps of her father, Rabbi Donald Splansky, now a rabbi emeritus in the Boston area, even though women began to be ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 1972.

In retrospect – given her former youth group presidency, experience at Jewish summer camp and major in Jewish studies as an undergraduate – her career path was obvious.

“I thought it was this great revelation, but once I started coming out to friends about it, they said, ‘Yeah, of course.’”

In addition to her usual duties at Holy Blossom, Rabbi Splansky edited the synagogue’s new prayerbook, Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, and she is immediate past chair of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto.

Most recently, for the past year, she has served as Holy Blossom’s acting senior rabbi, overseeing the transition following the beginning of Rabbi Moscowitz’s sabbatical. Her installation date has not yet been set, but Rabbi Splansky said her work as senior rabbi starts immediately.

She’s particularly excited about the atrium that will be created as part of the renewal project’s first phase, which is expected to take about 18 months to complete.

Rabbi Splansky likes to refer to the atrium as “the living room for the congregation.”

It’s intended as “the meeting space, the gathering place, the place where people hang out and linger,” she said. “The way the building is configured, there are all these narrow hallways. It’s hard to bump into people, and it isn’t particularly inviting.”

As well, she noted, “What we’re doing in space and mortar and brick is all about what we’re doing in matters of the spirit – finding meaningful, joyful Judaism. No one should make the mistake of thinking we’re just sprucing up the place.”

Rabbi Splansky said she misses the “pitter patter” of Leo Baeck’s presence in the building, even though the temple has its own religious school and early childhood centre, which expanded to include two-year-olds after the day school left.

The upside of the school’s departure is a new ability “to breathe back into our own space.”

Rental income from the school had been factored into the renovation budget, but “strong commitment” by lead donors to the project’s campaign  – which is currently being “ramped up” – is compensating, she said.

Another consideration is that the building, which dates back to 1938, is older than many GTA synagogues that have their own aging-building issues. “We’ve had a really tough winter,” the rabbi said. “We need this [renovation] for basic infrastructure, and to meet the needs of coming generations.”

Reflecting on challenges in her rabbinic career, she said, “To go into this work, you have to be a bit of a dreamer, and so we set our aspirations high, and by definition, you’ll always fall short of that… But that’s what spurs us on.”