Edmonton synagogue led by husband-and-wife rabbi team

Edmonton Journal, October 24, 2015

As parents of five daughters, Daniel and Batya Friedman have a busy household. With the oldest girl being 14 and the youngest just two months, their family calendar is jammed. But many of those activities take the family right to Dad and Mom’s place of work: Beth Israel in Edmonton’s west-side neighbourhood of Wolf Willow.

Since 2002, the young couple have been the spiritual leaders of Beth Israel, Edmonton’s oldest Jewish congregation, which opened its first synagogue in 1912. The Friedmans, both aged 39, are the congregation’s rabbi and rebbetzin, a husband-and-wife partnership that is traditional in modern orthodox Judaism.

While women are ordained as rabbis in more liberal branches of the Jewish faith, the rabbi in an orthodox congregation is always male. But feminism has fostered a stronger role for the rabbi’s wife, known in Yiddish as the rebbetzin. “You see the rabbi and rebbetzin actively working together in orthodox congregations,” explains Batya.

“The spiritual leadership in a congregation involves both male and female aspects and couples complement each other, depending on the strengths and weakness of each,” Batya says. She and her husband are both involved in teaching faith education classes, pastoral care and counselling.

The rabbi leads synagogue worship in the orthodox tradition, but the Friedmans emphasize that synagogue activities are only one expression of faith, that Judaism is an all-encompassing way of life.

Daniel and Batya both take part in interfaith events in the city and are strong supporters of dialogue among Edmonton’s diverse faith communities. “We believe that’s the strongest way to have an impact on tolerance, through education,” says Batya, recalling her recent participation in an iftar meal during Ramadan, exploring fasting traditions with Muslims and Christians.

“Judaism doesn’t proselytize; we’re not looking to convert people to Judaism,” says the rabbi. “What we do want to do is to positively influence the world around us, in terms of being a voice of morality and a voice of reason.”

With six synagogues in the city serving approximately 5,000 members, it isn’t always easy to work together. But Batya Friedman has pulled 14 Jewish women’s groups and the Talmud Torah School into a partnership for a women’s health forum Nov. 15. It’s open to the public and intended to raise awareness on challenges such as breast cancer, diet and mental health.

Edmonton’s Jewish community is small by North American standards, but Daniel Friedman says conversions are boosting numbers in his congregation. Since there is no intermarriage in modern orthodox Judaism, conversion is required for a non-Jew to marry a Jew at Beth Israel.

Locally, the rates of conversion to the Jewish faith are very high, says Rabbi Daniel. “It’s no small feat to convert to Judaism; it can take anywhere from 12 months to three years. We need to know they’re completely committed.”

Daniel Friedman is past-president of Jewish Family Services and chair of the National Holocaust Monument Development Council, a government body that shows “Canada is at the forefront of combating intolerance everywhere,” he says.

“Jewish Family Services is very active in Edmonton. People often mistake from the name that our clientele is Jewish, but it’s like Catholic Social Services, the idea that this is our mission to serve the larger community where there is need. We want to be there for all residents of the city.”

Beth Israel has been the target of racist graffiti and hate several times, the most recent being an incident investigated early in 2015 by Edmonton Police Const. Daniel Woodall, “who was a great friend of the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Daniel. “He was killed trying to protect us.”

The congregation viewed Woodall as their friend and advocate as he worked in the EPS hate crimes unit. When he was shot on a doorstep in the nearby Ormsby neighbourhood in June, “he was investigating a lead on the hate crime against our synagogue,” Batya recalls sadly.

Despite that tragedy, Rabbi Daniel praises Canada’s record on racism, noting it has among the lowest incidence of hate crime in the world. “We’re very blessed to live in a country that tolerates Jews like never before in history and is a great supporter of the State of Israel,” he says.

Daniel is originally from Australia and met Batya in New York when he was studying for his master’s degree in Jewish studies. They married in 2000 and came to Edmonton two years later. Their home is right across the street from the synagogue. “Edmonton is a great place to raise a family,” he says.

Beth Israel has 250 households on its membership rolls and likes its unofficial branding as “the family shul.” Daniel smiles as he describes noise and activity on Saturday mornings when children and their families converge on the synagogue “for the best kids programs in the city.”

Young members especially get into the big festivals in the Jewish calendar, such as Hanukkah, celebrated on ice when the menorah takes centre ice at the West Edmonton Mall Ice Palace and draws a huge crowd of skating congregants. Hanukkah will also involve children bringing gifts to patients at local hospitals.

Fostering the values important to healthy family life are a key part of Beth Israel’s mission, says Batya. Her own family life undoubtedly serves as a model for her girls, as she balances home and synagogue duties along with work as a financial analyst. She recently earned her MBA from the University of Alberta, but gave up her job with CIBC Wood Gundy when the new baby arrived.

“I think they’re proud to be children of spiritual leaders,” says Batya of their daughters, who seem to have embraced the synagogue as their second home.