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Allan Finkel

By BERNIE BELLAN
Allan Finkel was formally ordained as a rabbi only as recently as late June in New York City, but there wasn’t much time between his ordination and his assuming duties as the new rabbi at Temple Shalom – which was July 1st.
Having known Allan since our childhood days, I had more than the usual curiosity about what led him to enter into the rabbinate at the relatively advanced age of 65.
I sat down with Allan in his office at Temple Shalom one recent day to ask him about his varied career path and how he has now ended up becoming the rabbi of Winnipeg’s only Reform congregation.

 

 

 

 

Allan explains that he joined Temple Shalom 30 years ago - in 1990. “I was intermarried with three young children and a friend of mine, Jeff Frank, invited me to come to a Yom Kippur children’s service, in the afternoon, led by Rabbi (Jeffrey) Gale.
“They were using a book called ‘It’s Better to be Better’… and, after the service was over I turned to Jeff and said, ‘I think I learned more about Judaism this afternoon than I did in 12 years at Talmud Torah and Joseph Wolinsky’ (from where Allan graduated in 1972).”
Allan says that what drew him especially to Temple Shalom back then was “the emphasis on ethical living and how incredibly accommodating they were to intermarried families”. Ever since, he gradually became increasingly immersed in taking on an ever-larger role in the congregation.

Allan is the oldest of five children. His mother, Carmela Shragge, is a well-known Holocaust survivor, while his late father, Nathan, arrived here shortly before the Second World War. (Allan is actually named for his father’s brother, Avraham, who perished in the Holocaust.)
After graduating from Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, Allan attended the University of Manitoba, where he obtained his law degree.
“I practiced law for five years,” he says. After five years of practicing law, Allan decided that law wasn’t for him. As he says, “I was good at law; I just didn’t love doing it.” At age 29, he heard about an opening at the Manitoba Marathon and he became its executive director (a natural fit, since Allan has been a dedicated runner for most of his life).
That became the first of a series of interesting career moves. Looking back on all the different positions he has held with different organizations – all in the non-profit sector, by the way, Allan observes that he had “a talent for taking organizations that were failing and turning them around over time.”
Allan also holds an M.B.A. (from the U of M), which he obtained while he was running the Manitoba Marathon. (He stayed there for six years.)
He notes that he has had a history of leaving organizations when they “plateau”, saying that, at that point, he “gets bored with them.”
After leaving the Marathon, Allan moved into the health care field, where he worked with an organization known as Canadian Healthcare Telematics; then he was executive director of the Manitoba Fashion Association; most recently he was employed as a commissioner with the Appeals Commission at Workers’ Compensation.

As he talks about his career path, Allan takes me back to a period in his life that proved to have a profound effect on his attitude toward Judaism. Allan says that his family kept a kosher home and he, himself had been an active member in Cantor Benjamin Brownstone’s choir, participating in Shabbat services at the Talmud Torah synagogue all through his boyhood.
Following Grade 8, however, Allan says that he and five other boys went to a yeshiva in Toronto where they were studying Talmud all day long. But, Allan says, he realized that program wasn’t for him – and he asked his parents whether he could come home - after only two weeks in the program.
Looking back, he now realizes how understanding his parents were in agreeing to let him return to Winnipeg.
But, something else had happened to him, he says. “I went from being an excellent student to a desultory student.” Eventually, he adds, he found himself “walking away from the faith,” an experience, he notes, that was quite common among our peer group which, he also suggests, has something to do with wanting to shed the Eastern European “shtetl” mentality with which many of us grew up.

“I never stopped having a relationship with God,” he says, “but in terms of the Halacha”, Allan observes that he abandoned much of what he had learned as a boy at Talmud Torah.
“I kind of disconnected from my religion,” he says. “From my teenage years I was in kind of a desert for the next 20 years.”
It was when he was 36, as I described at the outset of this article, that Allan discovered Reform Judaism. What he found most compelling about Reform, he says, “is that it actually encouraged questions.”
“In my entire experience in the Jewish school system, the word “Reform” was not mentioned once,” he points out.

At this point in our interview, Allan actually took me through a brief history of Reform Judaism in Winnipeg, noting that at the turn of the 20th century, Reform Judaism actually had quite a strong foothold in Winnipeg. In fact, the Reform synagogue, known as “Shaarey Shomayim” had become so popular, he explains, that it had been luring away many younger members of what was then (and still remains) the largest congregation in Winnipeg: the Shaarey Zedek. (Allan adds another interesting tidbit of information: The Reform synagogue was located at William and Dagmar which, if you know your Jewish community history, eventually became the location of the Shaarey Zedek.)
“They merged the two congregations together,” he notes, which “explains why the Shaarey Zedek has been so liberal ever since.” (Later in our interview, he points out that the push-button ark at the Shaarey Zedek was actually a residue of that Reform influence within the Shaarey Zedek congregation.)

I ask Allan whether his involvement in Temple Shalom was immediate once he went to that initial service (which would have been around 1990) or was it more gradual?
He explains that he “did not realize for a long time that the Reform movement did not take the Torah literally.”
“We kind of grew up with the idea that ‘zot haTorah’ (this is the Torah) – that the Torah was a literal document – that’s how we were taught,” he says.
It was after taking a course taught by Rabbi Gale that Allan came to understand that the Torah was probably finalized around the 6th century B.C.E. (which would have been approximately 700 years after the time of Moses).
“Much to my surprise, I learned that there is a huge branch of Judaism that separated itself from that notion” - that the Torah was literally the word of God, he explains. “The Torah was written by a number of men – and one woman,” he suggests.
“I don’t want to sound sacrilegious,” he adds, “but the Torah seems like a poorly edited Word document – you see some stories showing up twice, but with different language”. He also notes that it contains many writing styles.
“Reform looks at the Torah as a sacred text,” Allan explains, “not as something literal, but as something with huge metaphorical value.”

He refers to the Torah portion that week, which deals with Abraham “negotiating with God” over the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah.
“It’s not about a literal negotiation,” Allan explains. “It’s about a moral dilemma; it’s about justice versus mercy.”
I note that I’ve been aware that Allan has been delivering “d’var Torahs” (sermons) at Temple Shalom for quite some time. (We’ve been publishing Temple Shalom’s weekly schedule of services in this paper for years, and the schedule lists lay members of that congregation who will be delivering the d’var Torah each week. By the way, although we’ve discontinued running “Synagogue News” each issue, we certainly are willing to publish the same kind of information, i.e., what will be spoken about from the podium during Shabbat services, for any Winnipeg synagogue, not just Temple Shalom. But – you have to send us the information; we won’t go looking for it.)

Allan says that he delivered his first d’var Torah in 2002. “The thing about Temple Shalom,” he explains, “is that we’ve had part-time rabbis ever since Rabbi (Michael) Levenson left, and it’s been required for members of the congregation to step up and deliver sermons.”
“What happened is some of us started doing that – and I got good at it,” Allan adds. “Much to my surprise, it was the first time since I was a teenager that I started to explore Jewish education again.”
“So, Temple Shalom switched from being a ‘shepherd-flock’ type of congregation to more of a collegial congregation,” he observes.

It was “around 2009,” Allan notes, “that my marriage ended. I started exploring my spirituality more. In 2013, I went into the Melton program; some of my friends were in there. I did the whole two-year program.”
(By way of explanation, the Melton program was designed by the Hebrew University and consists of students taking a minimum of 30 hours of text-based learning in four different courses taught by qualified instructors. The approach is non-denominational and there are no tests involved. The program does cost a fair bit to mount, however, including the cost of having qualified teachers. As a result, it has been offered only periodically in Winnipeg. The last year in which the Melton program was offered here was 2015.)

“Along the way” – around 2014, Allan explains, he began to have discussions with Len Udow (the cantor at Temple Shalom, who has also led services there many times and conducted life cycle events in the absence of a rabbi), “and Len asked me whether I had ever considered becoming a rabbi?”
“I laughed him off because I was 60 years old at the time and any possibility of becoming a rabbi would have involved a five-year seminary program,” Allan says he thought.

A couple of years ago, he continues, when Rabbi Bill Tepper was serving as an occasional rabbi for Temple Shalom, Allan was scheduled to lead a Friday night service. He proposed to the ritual committee of the temple that, rather than simply deliver a d’var Torah that evening, he actually read from the Torah, then deliver his d’var Torah.
In preparation, he began to study the “niggun” again – the musical tropes that accompany the reading of the Torah. Allan says that he so enjoyed reading directly from the Torah – and it was so well received by other members of the congregation, that he suggested it become a regular part of the Friday evening service on a monthly basis, and he took it upon himself to prepare the chanting of the Torah portion once a month. (He explains that he shortened the readings, doing three or four lines for each Aliyah rather than the entire reading.)

Allan says that in 2015 again, then again the next year that Len Udow persisted in asking him why he wasn’t considering becoming a rabbi? Allan says that his reaction each time was to dismiss the notion, but the third time around, he says, the woman who had become his girlfriend, Barb Neaman, happened to be there when she overheard Len asking Allan the question, and she said to him: “Why aren’t you looking at this?”
Barb, as it turns out, happens to be an occasional Torah reader at the Shaarey Zedek, and she told Allan about the program that both Anibal Mass and Matthew Leibl were taking online in something called the “Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute”, which was run by a rabbi by the name of Steven Blane.

Allan says he was aware that the program was non-denominational, but he wasn’t sure that taking this program would meet with the approval of other congregants, as Temple Shalom has had “a proud association” with the Union for Reform Judaism and the idea of taking a program in which students who would be coming from backgrounds quite different than Reform would also be participating might be objectionable to some members of the temple.
He adds that, even if he were interested in becoming a rabbi, he wasn’t sure what kind of rabbi he might like to be – whether it would “be for community-based purposes or educational or congregational”.
“It’s no different than people going into law school or medical school and not knowing what kind of lawyer or doctor they want to be,” he explains.

But, he did contact Rabbi Blane and “I interviewed him for about an hour and a half,” he says, and sometime after that, he also discussed the program with Matthew Leibl and Anibal Mass.
“What I got from them was something different,” Allan says. “There are a huge number of things that a rabbi does that have nothing to do with being at the front of a room – everything from life cycle events to pastoral care, to spiritual practice.
“When I interviewed for this program, Rabbi Blane saw that I already had a depth of experience,” he explains. “The fact that I had been a choir boy, had liturgical experience, could already read Torah, had led services, could understand Hebrew – it all made it much easier for him to say to me: ‘By the way, if you ever apply (for the program) you’ll be an immediate yes as a candidate.’ “
When he entered into the program though, Allan says “there were only 13 people in Winnipeg who knew he was going through the program.”
At the time he began the program, however, Rabbi Tepper was still the rabbi at Temple Shalom. Allan says in no way was he taking on the program “to become the rabbi at Temple Shalom.”

In fact, no one had any prior knowledge that Rabbi Tepper would be leaving Temple Shalom – which he didn’t announce to the congregation until this past April.
As for when Allan decided that he actually wanted to be a congregational rabbi, he said it was at the time of the “Tree of Life” shooting in Pittsburgh (October 27, 2018).
“Len and I were supposed to do the Friday night service” the Friday following the shooting, Allan explains. “We had this very light service planned – and then bang, the Tree of Life happens. I said to him, ‘I think we’re going to have to change our service.’ I wanted to keep the core of what I was going to do, but I wanted to recreate the service around what had happened. And something changed inside of me.”
There were many newcomers to that early November 2018 service, Allan says. And, after the service, he says, many of those people who hadn’t been to Temple Shalom before were asking of Temple Shalom members: “Is that your rabbi?”
Two weeks later, he says, he told the Temple president at that time (Linda Freed) that it would be okay to share with the entire board that he was studying to be a rabbi.

At that point, Allan told me something that I had never heard before: Every November and December, rabbis whose contracts would be expiring the next summer enter the “free agent market”, able to interview for new positions. The reason that it happens in November and December is that it allows the rabbis enough time to move and to make arrangements for their children to start school in a new city in the fall. Thus, most rabbis’ contracts begin on July 1st, he adds.
In Rabbi Tepper’s case, however, he didn’t actually make the decision that he didn’t want to extend his contract with Temple Shalom until just before his contract was set to expire. He had told the Temple Shalom board in April though that he “needed to be available in case an offer came forward” in Toronto.
(To be perfectly honest though, I had interviewed Rabbi Tepper in February this year, and it was clear to me that he wasn’t entirely happy with the situation in which he found himself, which was as a part-time rabbi in Winnipeg, while still living in Toronto with his wife and son. At the same time though, he was well aware that the congregation could not afford to offer him a full-time position.)

As it was, therefore, the timing worked out all right for both Allan and the congregation when Rabbi Tepper announced that he would not be returning as the rabbi, given that Allan had decided he was ready to be a congregational rabbi, even though he had no idea that Rabbi Tepper would be leaving. As he puts it, he “was the next person in line ” to serve as rabbi at Temple Shalom.
In addition to his just-completed training as a rabbi, Allan’s own experience having served on various committees at Temple Shalom has also stood him in good stead, he explains.

Having served as chair of the ritual committee at some key points in the congregation’s history, Allan was quite aware what the consensus within the congregation was on certain controversial issues, including allowing its rabbi to perform both same-sex marriages and mixed marriages. As well, Allan was part of the ritual committee when it planned the creation of a separate funeral section at Chapel Lawn Cemetery.
“So, I was already embedded in all these issues and I understood where the congregation stood Halachically,” Allan says. Having grown up in Winnipeg, he also had a good sense of the larger Jewish community, and of its demographics, which, he adds, gives him a better idea how he might be able to grow Reform here.
On that point, he makes the following observation about Winnipeg’s Jewish community and which group he’d like to target: “It’s not about the unaffiliated, it’s about the disaffiliated – the people who walked…That’s our market. I’m not after anyone in any other congregation. I’m after our generation (baby boomers) and our kids’ generation” who have lost their connection to Judaism.

I ask Allan how his congregation has reacted now that he’s been serving as its rabbi for a few months?
He says “there’s been a whole lot of love” - not just from within the Temple Shalom community, but from other parts of the Jewish community as well.
“When I had my installation, the two rabbis from Shaarey Zedek came, Rabbi Yossi (Benarroch, of the Adas Yeshurun-Herzlia Congregation) said he couldn’t make it because he was ‘shomer Shabbat’, and Rabbi Kliel (Rose, of Etz Chayim Congregation) said he couldn’t come because he’d have to walk an hour and a half each way, but the next week I was there with Rabbi Anibal and Rabbi Matthew for his (Rabbi Rose’s) service.”
“We are not in competition with each other. Every one of us has a distinct and beautiful brand of Judaism,” Allan suggests.
“All that we can offer people is that, wherever they’re on their journeys as Jews, is an open door, a warm welcome, and a safe home for them.”

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