Examining Values at a Start-Up Shul

This week’s post is by Rabbi Sherril Gilbert, co-founder/co-spiritual leader of Montreal Open Shul and Executive Director of ALEPH Canada.

While there are numerous similarities between American and Canadian Jewish populations, there are also significant differences. For example, intermarriage is far more common in the United States than in Canada, the ability to read or speak Hebrew is much less widespread, and visiting Israel seems to be a lot less common.[1]

Since World War II, the story of the Jewish diaspora has been dominated by historical events and social processes taking place in both the United States and the former Soviet Union. Lost in the dominant narrative is the story of Canadian exceptionalism. Canada’s Jews are on the verge of becoming the second largest Jewish community in the diaspora, next in size only to the much larger American Jewish community. In short, evidence of Canadian Jewish population growth and resilience suggests the need for a modification of the dominant diaspora narrative.[2]

Therefore, it is through the lens of the uniquely Canadian Jewish experience – and particularly the Montreal Jewish experience – that I wish to respond to Rabbi Sid’s four propositions from his essay in  Jewish Megatrends and how my organization is (or is not) aligned with them.

Driven by a multi-denominational clergy collaboration and inspired by contemporary movements in Jewish spirituality, Montreal Open Shul (MOS) was born about two years ago. MOS is dedicated to creating and celebrating innovative and inclusive opportunities for contemplative and experiential Jewish practice, learning, and community building. Not bound by a particular location, we meet in yoga studios, the JCC, cafés, synagogues, homes, event venues and various religiously unconventional spaces around the city, bringing joy, spirit, song and celebration to places without a Jewish institutional presence. We try to be welcoming to the unaffiliated, those who only marginally identify as Jewish, as well as those looking to enrich their current Jewish experience and practices. 

To understand the needs of Canadian Jews, Jewish community professionals have invested much effort into identifying the elements that make up Jewish identity. A 2018 Environics Institute Survey of Jews in Canada found that Canadian Jews identified a specific set of elements that constitute “being Jewish.” These include:

  • leading a moral and ethical life
  • remembering the Holocaust
  • celebrating Jewish holidays
  • working for justice and equality in society
  • caring about Israel
  • being intellectually curious
  • being part of a community
  • having a good sense of humour.[3]

[1] Environics Institute – Survey of Jews in Canada 2018 https://www.environicsinstitute.org/docs/default-source/project-documents/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada—executive-summary.pdf?sfvrsn=77e82c2f_2

[2] Environics Institute – Survey of Jews in Canada 2018

[3] Members of the youngest cohort are much less likely than those in the oldest cohort to consider a sense of humour to be an essential element of Jewishness. This difference may be due partly to the depletion among young adults of Jewish humour’s richest reservoir—the Yiddish language, which was the mother tongue of nearly all Canadian Jews in 1931, but is spoken by just a few percent of Canadian Jews today. A second noteworthy difference is that younger Jews are considerably less likely than older Jews to consider caring for Israel an essential aspect of Jewishness, a trend that has been noted in the United States for some time.


Rabbi Sherril Gilbert is co-founder/co-spiritual leader of Montreal Open Shul and Executive Director of ALEPH Canada. With a graduate degree in in Human Systems Intervention, Sherril spends time wondering about how to bring diverse people and communities together in meaningful ways at the intersection of spiritual growth and social justice.

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