JG: So tell me how we came to have a Reform congregation in Vancouver.
JB: Well, we were sitting having dinner one night with my father and mother. And we said, “Well we really have to send these kids to religious school but we don’t want to send them to Schara Tzedeck because it’s Orthodox and we’re not and the Beth Israel is too big and too expensive. There should be another choice in Reform congregation.” So my father said, “Why don’t you start one?” Well, so Leon put an ad in the Jewish Western Bulletin: “Anyone interested in starting a Reform congregation please call Leon Berlow.” At the same time the Union of American Hebrew Congregations felt that this was a site quite ripe for a new Reform congregation. And so they scheduled their regional conference up here unbeknownst to us until we received a, we saw in the Jewish Western Bulletin some publicity. So we contacted them and we said, “Listen, we’re interested in getting this thing going. Do you want to meet with us?” So we went to the weekend and we met a few people.
And the other people who were involved right at the beginning were Peter and Cornelia Oberlander, and Hal and Leonor Etkin, and Harold and Marge Lando. Those were the three people who, Marge Lando had come from a Reform background in Seattle so she knew what she was talking about and I think the Oberlanders too. But most of us who started came from Orthodox backgrounds that just didn’t suit us anymore. And we started to talk to people in Seattle and they promised us to send a rabbi once a month so we could have services. We would have to pay for housing them in a hotel and feed them and they would send them free. They would give us prayer books, I mean they were old but it didn’t matter. They would also start us out with some school books because the school was incredibly important to us. We started the school in Marge Lando’s basement. Peter Oberlander taught, I can’t remember who else taught at that time. We started our services at the centre with our Torah, my great grandfather brought a Torah from Russia and it had been sitting under the bed actually for most of the time. And so we took out the Torah and I’m not sure where we got an arc, somebody lent us an arc. And we said we would start to have services at the Jewish Community Centre.
JG: Is this the one on 41st or the old one? Let’s see, they moved up to 41st in ‘60-something.
JB: Oh no, this was at the new one.
JG: So it was around the 60s, something.
JB: Yep, ‘65, ‘70, ‘67, something like that.
IN: So as it turns out, I’m the president of Har El and have been for about six months. And it’s fun. The problems are quite different. It’s a small congregation.
BB: Is it a younger congregation?
IN: It’s a younger congregation. It’s a small congregation. Only about 270 families as opposed to well, when I was president, probably over 800 at Beth Israel.
BB: Can they afford to sustain the synagogue?
IN: It’s very, very difficult. That’s the big problem. You know, Har El really needs at least 100 more members. We could, with 100 more members, we could service those members with the same staff, that is to say the same expense, and still have that extra revenue of another 100 members. And that would put us at a much firmer financial footing. But, you know, it’s hard to do. It’s the North Shore and…
BB: Well, the population is small to draw on.
IN: Population is smaller although we feel, certainly from census figures that there are a lot more Jews on the North Shore than are immediately obvious and…
BB: Do they wish to become involved though?
IN: Ah, well, that’s the question, that’s the question. We have to find them and we have to not only find them but we have to figure out what is going to draw them in. It can’t be the traditional stuff that a synagogue always does, you know, the services, all of that stuff. That they can get anywhere, you know, they can come into town if they want that, they can go to Beth Israel, they can go to any other place, they can go to Chabad. But we have to figure out what is unique about the North Shore Jews that will draw them in as a kind of a community centre or a centre of the North Shore Jewish community that Har El could become.
BB: That’s a whole different paradigm.
IN: Yeah, it’s different. I mean, it’s still a synagogue and there’s a school of course. What draws a lot of people in is, of course, the school, the North Shore Hebrew School which for people with young children that’s why they join. They can get the kids an education. But we want to go beyond that. We want to see if in fact there are people in the West End, younger people in the West End, who, it’s not that far away, you know, crossing over the bridge. It’s not so terrible. You know, they’re probably about half way between Beth Israel and Har El anyways if you’re down in the West End. So…
BB: How do you reach out? What are the strategies for reaching out?
IN: Well, that’s what we’re trying to figure out, that’s what we’re trying to figure out. We have a strategic plan task force in place now at Har El. We’re trying to come up with strategies to reach out, first out of all, to find out what our present members want out of Har El; second, what potential, new member might want from Har El; third, how we can provide those particular services, and needs, and wants within the financial parameters that we are able to afford.
BS: Describe your religious affiliation.
BS: Do you consider yourself a religious man?
FS: No I, I don’t consider myself religious, although I am observant. We are members of Or Shalom a, what is considered a Jewish Renewal community, where, I, it’s, yeah pretty well. Or Shalom, Jewish Renewal, which in this case it means a way of, to my understanding at least, at least this is what I find, a way of combining the spirit, the enthusiasm that, that we found in the Orthodox synagogue, that kind of close knit, ‘haimishness,’ the homeliness of the people along with a, with an understanding of what is happening with a more egalitarian, broad minded, acceptance of change as an important part of our lives and incorporating that into the life of our religious community. I, Or Shalom to me has always been more community, than rather an institution of religion and which is, and I think most people who attend feel the same thing.
CP: Now what activities did you participate in as a child?
RW: Well, I liked swimming, I liked riding my bike. When it came to sports at Kitsilano High I was in the semi-finals in the running broad jump, in four different items, so very active physically.
CP: Yes, I can see that.
RW: Certainly when it came to university because we lived on Cornwall Street near the pool and didn’t have a, I didn’t have a car, in order to get to university I had to hike from the beach right up to Broadway everyday and back again.
CP: That’s a hike up that hill [laughs].
RW: A lot of physical activity there, I can tell you.
RW: And later on I joined a carpool and it was better.
CP: Well, you’ve answered several of the questions I was going to ask you.
RW: As far as Jewish items are concerned I was active in Young Judaea at the time. I think I was president at the time. And participated in a lot of activities. Oh, I used to like tennis particularly. I played a lot of tennis in Kitsilano beach…
CP: Yes, of course.
RW: And at English Bay too.