One of Montreal’s most historic synagogues is celebrating an important anniversary. The Shaar Hashomayim is putting on a major concert this week to celebrate its 100th year at its iconic Westmount location.
“It’s just going to be a reunion of people who love making music together and love being together,” said Cantor Gideon Zelermyer, before heading into a rehearsal.
The gargantuan musical performance will include the Shaar’s own choir and a 16-piece orchestra.
“Our synagogue choir is the best synagogue choir in the world. And that is a fact, not an opinion,” said Rachel Kohl Finegold, the Shaar Hashomayim’s Associate Rabba,
They don’t want to unveil the visually-stunning setup yet, but it is indeed grand and elaborate.
Music has long been a major part of the institution’s identity. Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar choir have performed at the United Nations General Assembly, and took home a Grammy in 2017 for their participation in Leonard Cohen’s song “You Want it Darker.”
“It was special for the entire community. Each week we have people here who are members of Leonard Cohen’s family, we have people who went to school with him, grade school, high school,” Zelermyer said.
Cohen and his family have close ties to the synagogue’s history.
“Leonard Cohen’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both not only presidents of this community, but builders of this congregation and so much of the Jewish community of Montreal,” said Rabbi Adam Scheier.
The story of the synagogue runs parallel with the story of Jewish people immigrating to Montreal from Europe.
“In 1846 our congregation was founded, and it moved as it grew from building to building to building, until finally they they built this amazing space,” Scheier explained. “This was, at the time, the crown jewel of the Jewish community of Canada.”
The current building became the home of the synagogue in 1922. Bible verses inscribed on the walls by the original builders will be the basis for the concert.
“That phrase over there says, ‘you shall love the lord your God,” Scheier said, pointing to an inscription in the main sanctuary. “This phrase says ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’” he said pointing to another.
“That’s the balance. We want to be faithful stewards of our religious traditions, and we want to be inclusive and open and welcoming.”
Shaar Hashomayim prides itself on being inclusive.
“We’re always looking out to think about ‘who can I bring inside? Who can I help feel welcome,’” said Kohl Finegold.
The synagogue has welcomed multiple heads of state and government. Both Pierre and Justin Trudeau have spoken from its pulpit. Former Israeli president Shimon Peres once visited too.
“For me, the meaning is also in the small moments, and to think of how many people celebrated their special moments here, how many people sang and danced in this space, how many people mourned their loved ones and shed tears, whether it was sorrow or of joy,” said Scheier, adding that those moments are what truly gives meaning to the space.
The celebration concert featuring both Grammy and Tony winners goes Thursday night.
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