Since moving from the United States to Winnipeg three years ago, Joanne Seiff and her husband Jeff Marcus have been searching for the perfect synagogue for their young family. They have attended services at four different congregations so far but did not feel any of those met their needs or concerns.
Now Seiff believes she has found the answer to her prayers.
That answer is The New Shul, the first new congregation to be established in Winnipeg in a decade.
The New Shul will be a centre for Jewish thought, creation, learning, prayer, volunteerism, ethical living and diversity. Scheduled to open for the High Holidays this September, the synagogue will hold Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the Fort Garry Hotel, and then move to the Caboto Centre for weekly Sabbath services during the rest of the year.
The egalitarian congregation is being organized by Winnipeg lawyer Laurelle Harris Pinsker and a board of directors made up of a cross-section of local Jewish community members. Rabbi Lawrence Pinsker, husband of Harris Pinsker, will join the congregation as the founding rabbi and spiritual leader in September. He is under contract as the associate rabbi at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue until the end of August.
While Harris Pinsker acknowledges The New Shul may draw away some members from other, established synagogues, she emphasizes the intent of the fledgling congregation is not to be divisive or competitive with other places of worship. Rather, its primary mission is to attract the 75 per cent of Winnipeg Jews who do not attend High Holiday services and who are not affiliated with any local synagogue.
The New Shul hopes to accomplish this by being welcoming and inclusive.
"The congregation is committed to maximum inclusion by Jews and their families, irrespective of race, sexual orientation, gender, age, geographic or cultural background," says Harris Pinsker, who is a Jewish convert and of Trinidadian and Franco-Manitoban descent.
"The New Shul will welcome everyone," she adds, "including Jews by birth, Jews by choice, interfaith, single, gay, couples, straight, lesbian, bisexual, families, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and atheist Jews."
A few of Winnipeg's synagogues have made an effort in recent years to welcome diversity, Harris Pinsker says. This included the Shaarey Zedek this winter becoming the first conservative congregation in Canada to sanction a same-sex marriage under its roof.
"But the culture of inclusion" Harris Pinsker says, "has yet to evolve from the dynamic of 'us' welcoming 'them' to being one in which we all welcome each other."
The New Shul's commitment to embracing diversity, as well as the newness of the synagogue and Rabbi Pinsker's involvement in it, is what attracted Joanne Seiff to the congregation.
"We are looking forward to being part of a community from the beginning so that we can help build what we would like to see in a synagogue, and we're interested in being part of a diverse, intellectually thoughtful Jewish community," Seiff says. "We hope to help build a place where we will feel welcome, comfortable and that will meet the needs of our family."
As well, she says, she is familiar with and likes Rabbi Pinsker's particular approach to learning, praying and celebrating Jewishly.
At The New Shul, this approach to learning and liturgy will reflect the needs of congregants and the principles of modern Jewish living.
Calling itself post-denominational, the congregation will not be affiliated with any one movement in Judaism. Instead, in order to best provide for the spiritual needs of his constituency, Rabbi Pinsker will borrow what he considers to be the most meaningful and appropriate traditions from orthodox, conservative, reform and reconstructionist Judaism. Pinsker was trained as a reconstructionist rabbi but has been a pulpit rabbi in conservative congregations most of his career.
Precisely how all of this borrowing and merging of tradition will look and sound will become evident on the morning of Sept. 17, when The New Shul opens its doors in downtown Winnipeg for its inaugural Rosh Hashanah service.