Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Congregation a staple of High Holiday offerings

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Sharon Bronstone had no intention of founding a new congregation. After four years serving as the president of Beth Israel Synagogue in Garden City, and four years negotiating a merger of her synagogue with two other Winnipeg North End congregations, Bronstone was tired.

But her phone kept ringing.

"We came from a small family-friendly congregation and what I quickly realized after the merger is that I wanted for myself, my family and my friends a return to a similar spiritual environment," Bronstone recalls. "This feeling was accentuated by the many phone calls that I received from friends and former fellow congregants who desired the same experience as me."

So Bronstone, a longtime community volunteer, sat down with a few other like-minded individuals in 2003 and organized alternate High Holiday services for that fall only. About 50 people, mostly the organizers' family and close friends, attended those services.

A decade later those one-time-only services have grown to accommodate almost 200 people and, as Congregation Shir Tikvah, have become a staple of the Winnipeg Jewish community's High Holiday offerings.

As a High Holiday congregation, Shir Tikvah meets only during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the one day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which fall this autumn on Sept. 17 and 18. Yom Kippur follows 10 days later, on Sept. 26. Both holidays begin at dusk the evening before.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews worldwide reflect on their actions in the past year and seek teshuvah, or repentance, for any wrongs that they may have committed. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also known as the Days of Awe, and are among the holiest days in the Jewish faith.

Typically, about 4,000 individuals, or a quarter of the Winnipeg's Jewish population, attend High Holiday services annually. These services are held in each of the city's Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues, and at a few alternative venues as well.

Congregation Shir Tikvah's liturgical services -- traditional, conservative and egalitarian -- take place in a small ballroom of a local hotel, but the space, during the holidays, boasts all of the trappings of a traditional synagogue. These include an Eternal Light, a shofar or ram's horn, Torah scrolls, and numerous copies of a carefully selected holiday prayer book called a Machzor. This particular Machzor is used by Shir Tikvah because it emphasizes English transliteration and commentary, factors that encourage a sense of belonging that, Shir Tikvah's founders believe, is sometimes lacking in larger congregations.

"One of the nice features of our services is that any of our congregants are welcome to participate in any aspect of our services," says David Bloomfield, one of the congregation's co-founders.

This participation is encouraged by Shir Tikvah's lay rabbi, Adam Bronstone, who returns from Florida to his hometown of Winnipeg each year to lead services at the congregation started by his mother.

"I keep coming back, and keep wanting to come back to lead services because Shir Tikvah is my High Holiday home, and the congregants are my family," the younger Bronstone says.

"We are able to truly include all of our congregants into the service so that the service is theirs, and not mine, or my fellow clergy. I always hope that the clergy are able to not only inspire and provoke during the High Holiday services, but serve as both service leaders and fellow congregants."

The effectiveness of this approach is evident in the fact that 10 years after Shir Tikvah was established, it has retained its original congregants and attracted many new ones as well.

"It almost seems impossible to believe that what was supposed to be a one-time service has lasted a decade, and is still going strong today," says Sharon Bronstone.

"Even with new people joining us each year we have still maintained the family-friendly atmosphere that I was looking for in the first place."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 J13

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