Bill Weissmann to be honoured
Set to receive Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Advancement of Interreligious Understanding
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He may be comfortable with sounding the shofar on Jewish high holidays, but retired lay clergy Bill Weissmann seems a bit uneasy blowing his own horn.
“I’m not a front-and-centre kind of person,” explains the former shamas at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, who will be recognized next month for 25 years of working as a bridge-builder and goodwill ambassador.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Weissmann receives the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Advancement of Interreligious Understanding at a ceremony at Government House.
“He was just there for people of all different backgrounds, and it seemed the award was designed for him,” explains friend and former colleague Bonnie Robinson of why she nominated Weissmann for the award.
Retired since late 2022, the Romanian-born Weissman started working at the synagogue after a career as a physical education teacher, sports administrator, lottery corporation employee and instructor of college-level entrepreneurship courses. Initially he connected with the synagogue after his father died, attending the daily prayers to say the mourner’s Kaddish, joining the choir and later the board.
“I began to attend services and opened my mind to what the mourning process was about,” he recalls of that time.
Later he was hired as shamas and invited to blow the shofar or ram’s horn for the high holidays, something he continued for decades.
“Really what I was is a facilitator,” he says of his work.
“When you translate shamas, it means ‘caretaker.’”
A shamas is also the name given to the tall candle in a Hanukkah menorah, sometimes referred to as a helper candle.
In the role of shamas, he led high school students on synagogue tours, explained Judaism to university students, and welcomed visitors to services, ensuring they had a place to sit and understood how to follow the Hebrew prayer book.
“I learned just to automatically call out pages,” says Weissman, 73, of how he helped people during the service.
“That little thing is a huge thing because people know where you are. It’s small, but it’s inclusive.”
He made a huge impression on high school students visiting from nearby Westgate Mennonite Collegiate when he explained the meaning of a prayer shawl and phylacteries — leather boxes containing sacred texts, worn on the arm and forehead — and then inviting questions on Judaism, recalls principal James Friesen.
“He would slowly wrap the phylacteries, explaining the process in detail, then he would don his prayer scarf, commenting on the meaning of the tassels, finally he would say, “And now I’m all ready to… play baseball? No, I’m ready to pray,” explains Friesen of how Weissmann engaged students.
As well as explaining the symbols and tenets of Judaism in an accessible way, Weissman excels at making connections between Judaism and other traditions, says Rabbi Alan Green, who worked with Weissmann for nearly two decades.
“Maybe Bill’s most important achievement was to exemplify, in his person, the way a modern Jew (and by implication, modern Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, humanists, and so on) should be in our world: strongly identified with who we are, while affirming the diverse identities of everyone around us,” says Green, who moved to Fairfield, Iowa, after retiring from Congregation Shaarey Zedek in 2018.
In addition to welcoming visitors to the synagogue, Weissman, son of Holocaust survivors, also conceived the idea of opening the annual reading of the Holocaust scroll to people from the community, a move that has involved more than a hundred people over the years.
“He felt that it was very important for the neighbours of the synagogue to be involved in reading from the scroll together,” says Friesen, who was invited to read a portion one year.
“I recall talking to him after the service and how moving it was for him as a Jewish man, and for me as his Christian neighbour.”
Overall, he transformed the synagogue into a space that welcomes people from all traditions, a legacy that inspires Rabbi Anibal Mass when he has lead tours. Right now, the Wellington Crescent synagogue is closed to visitors while renovations are underway and staff work from temporary offices at Temple Shalom on Grant Avenue.
“I was so impressed when I first met him because I never met someone in that position (before) who was so friendly,” says Mass.
Weissman plans to keep on welcoming folks to his sacred space, but this time as a volunteer. After a few months away from the synagogue, he hopes to return in spring to attend daily services, and perhaps even lead some workshops on shofar techniques. Although he’s known for blowing the shofar at high holidays and public events, he’s still humble about his skills on the instrument.
“I’m just glad to get a sound out that is consistent, and I don’t mess with it,” he says.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.