Monday 21 September 2015

Legendary Local Rabbi Sidney Shoham passes away suddenly

As he sat  in his office overlooking Yitzhak Rabin Park in the Montreal suburb of Côte Saint-Luc a number of  years ago, Rabbi Sidney Shoham’s eyes grew a little misty as he discussed how much BethZion Congregation meant to him.

 “There are a lot of memories here,”  he told me. “We pioneered the concept of the suburbansynagogue in Montreal.  Others, I believe, followed our example.”
Rabbi Sidney Shoham

Rabbi Shoham, who died suddenly Sunday evening, September 20 was a living legend in the Montreal Jewish community. For decades he was front and centre with local community organizations, holding top positions locally and nationally. He also had the distinction of being the only rabbi to ever chair the Combined Jewish Appeal campaign, primarily because of talents as a superb orator.

I met Rabbi Shoham as a toddler. As a lifelong member of Beth Zion, I would see him when I attended Hebrew school at the synagogue and I had the honour of him being at the pulpit at my bar mitzvah. I sat at my seat during the High Holy Days each year mesmerized by every word he uttered.  He was often very controversial. And that is what his audience expected.

Rabbi Shoham was a “very young” 86 years old. It was shocking enough nine years ago this Yom Kippur to hear his announcement on Kol Nidre that he was retiring after 50 incredible years at the bima and to become rabbi emeritus.  His death does not seem real. This is a man who beat cancer. I saw him on numerous occasions in the last few weeks, at the benefit Cats Concert I organized and golf tournament I co-chaired. He was the picture of health. Ironically, his last public appearance was only hours before he died at home – attending the annual Beth Zion Cantorial Concert.

When Rabbi Shoham retired, a  synagogue executive member asked. “How do you replace a legend. He has been the only rabbi this synagogue ever had.”

The synagogue had to go through three rabbis to find his proper successor.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland the son of Rabbi Yechiel and Rebbetzen Ethel Shoham, Rabbi Shoham attended the  Talmudical Academy of Baltimore grade school and then went to Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin Rabbinical, Brooklyn, New York.  While studying in the Yeshiva, Rabbi Shoham attended  Brooklyn College at night and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in psychology.  Later, he attended graduate school at New York University, School of Psychology and continued his studies in Montreal at the Allen Memorial HospitalMcGill University where he furthered his courses in Pastoral Psychiatry. 

Rabbi Shoham arrived in Montreal in 1955 to visit his brother Gilbert, who was Rabbi of the Beit Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue on McKenzie.  While here, he met with an enthusiastic group of individuals anxiously waiting to build a new community in the western suburb of Montreal.  After discussions with the committee, several weeks later he was hired as the Rabbi of Beth Zion in the winter of 1956. Over the years he had been active with nearly every Jewish organization in the city, notably Combined Jewish Appeal, B’nai Brith and State of Israel Bonds.  Many Jewish organizations  held testimonial dinners in his honour. He  even hosted radio and television shows.

The synagogue itself began in a congregant’s home in 1952, four years before they hired Rabbi Shoham and moved into their present quarters on Hudson Avenue.

“There are a lot of memories here,” Rabbi Shoham, told me. “I have overseen five decades of torah studies, services, counselling, weddings, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. It’s like home to me.”

Rabbi Shoham recalled the early days of the synagogue. “At the time,” said the rabbi, “the park across the street from us had a baseball field. There were times when we did not have enough people for a minyan (10 men are required for prayer in the Jewish religion) so I’d go out to the baseball field and ask for a few volunteers. I was a pretty fair player myself and they wanted me to be part of their club. My message was simple. I’d join their team if they’d join mine. It worked.”

In fact, when he was young, Rabbi Shoham was considered a prospect for Major League Baseball.

From the 100 members it had when Rabbi Shoham arrived, that number rose at one time to more  than 1,000.

“To quote Hillary Clinton," said past president Eli Cohen,  “it  takes a village to build a community. And it's taken Beth Zion to help build the community. It is Rabbi Shoham who was innovative and who brought Beth Zion to the attention of the greater Montreal Jewish community.”

Funeral services will take place at Beth Zion Congregation in the main sanctuary at 10 am Tuesday, September 22, erev Yom Kippur. Shiva will be at 5703 Melling Avenue until 4 pm, Mincha at 3:30 pm.

To Rabbi Shoham's wife Jewel and  the entire family,  allow me to extend my deepest sympathies.


1 comment:

  1. Everything you wrote resonates with me. Even the baseball story. I played on the same team with him. It was the Cote St Luc police team. I was one if the volunteers for a minion when he fell short. By the way he was terrific player, very smooth and a swift base runner. A warm smile and charismatic personality