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Anyone who has had the opportunity to spend time with Rabbi Alan Green knows how captivating his smile is – and how much it underlies the warmth that he exudes.

Probably one of the most popular rabbis ever to have lived in Winnipeg – let’s be honest: being able to survive 26 years as a rabbi in this town, where rabbis’ tenures have often been cut short by their boards, is no mean feat.
In the half hour that I spent chatting with Rabbi Green a few weeks back I wanted to probe his thoughts about his career here, how he’s come to regard Winnipeg over the years, and what he looks forward to doing once he and his wife Chaya leave the city in the not too distant future – for Fairfield, Iowa.

Now in his 26th year in Winnipeg – which Rabbi Green says has special significance as the number 26 is also the “gematria” (numerological equivalent for the Hebrew letters) for the name of God, i.e. the name which cannot be said, Rabbi Green has also spent “31 years in the rabbinate altogether” which, he also notes, is the “gematria for ‘El’ – the name of God.”
As you can see, Rabbi Green is big on numerology. I suppose that’s an especially handy trait to have when you’re a rabbi, as it can come in really useful when you’re trying to ascribe some significance to someone’s name.

In any event, I sat down with Rabbi Green in his study at Shaarey Zedek recently to go over many aspects of his career here, including his arrival over a quarter century ago to serve as the rabbi at the former Beth Israel synagogue, his eventually becoming the principal rabbi at the Shaarey Zedek 18 (“Chai”) years ago, and his impending retirement in 2018. Along with all that, we found time to discuss Rabbi Green’s being the honouree for this year’s Jewish National Fund Negev Gala.

This year’s Negev Gala honouree
After our brief foray into numerology, I asked Rabbi Green about the project to which he has attached his name for this year’s Negev Gala, which is a new museum of the Jewish people that is proposed to be built in Tel Aviv, and which is actually the brainchild of the Asper Foundation. Apparently it is not yet clear whether the museum will get the go-ahead from Tel Aviv municipal authorities. I wondered, therefore, whether Rabbi Green had any more knowledge of this project than what has been reported in various media so far, which is that the museum is hardly a sure thing and that, in fact, it has aroused a certain amount of opposition from certain Tel Aviv politicians (primarily, from what I was able to read in a Haaretz article about the project, because there already is a museum of the Jewish people called “Bet Hatfusot”, located at Tel Aviv University, also because “outside parties don’t usually decide how public land should be used and then try to obtain the local government’s approval; the standard procedure is that first the city approves plans, and then money is solicited from private donors”.)

Green admitted that he didn’t know anything about any controversy surrounding the proposed museum, saying that he was drawn to the concept behind this museum, which is to create something totally different marking the history of the Jewish people than has ever been done before: “I just saw the pamphlet, I loved the concept, I’m looking at Gail’s (Asper) track record; she’s already built one museum. I admire her for taking on an even bigger project in Israel. One museum in one lifetime is usually plenty.”
What appeals to Rabbi Green about this particular project, he said, was that “I love the idea that maybe we’ve emerged far enough out of the shadow of the Holocaust that we can start to have a different perspective on Jewish life from the museum point of view.
“We have lots and lots of Holocaust museums,” he suggested, “which is good and necessary…but I think now we’re far enough away that we can start to have a whole different perspective on Jewish life – that it’s so much more than expulsions and oppression and suffering and genocide, and we can start to focus on some of the amazing and brilliant contributions we’ve made to civilization down through the ages. There’s never been a museum like that.”

Aside from his having chosen the new museum in Tel Aviv as the project for which he would like this year’s Negev Gala to donate funds, I was curious about something else associated with the gala. I asked Rabbi Green: “Have you been approached to be the honouree before?”
I was surprised to hear that was not the case. “When Ariel (Karabelnicoff, JNF Executive Director here) approached me and said ‘We’d like you to be the JNF honouree this year, I was shocked actually. I hadn’t expected anything like that. Given that most of the honourees are in a completely different status in the community and rabbis in general are not recognized that way – I think the last time rabbis were recognized by the JNF was in 1983…That would have been Rabbi Rappaport and Rabbi Weitzman together.”
I asked whether Ariel had said why he was asked to be the honouree this year.
“I think that the board felt it was time that I was recognized,” Rabbi Green answered. - “partly because I’m not going to be around much longer.”

Radical changes at the Shaarey Zedek in recent years
The conversation shifted to changes that have been made at the Shaarey Zedek recently. I noted that I was working on a story about how few Jewish weddings were being performed in Winnipeg synagogues these days (which appeared in our last issue), also how many bar and bat mitzvahs were being held at venues outside of synagogues. I said that I had been told by Shaarey Zedek Executive Director Ian Staniloff though that there had been a resurgence in the number of bar and bat mitzvahs being held at the Shaarey Zedek.
“We’re doing much better with life cycle events these days,” Rabbi Green responded, “because we’ve completely revamped our Shabbat morning service. The b’nai mitzvah, which used to be three-hour affairs, are now two hours. The service is much more lively, there’s much more interaction and stimulation and relaxation. I think people want to have that kind of bar mitzvah celebration and that’s something you don’t necessarily get outside the synagogue.”

“By the way, I was told there was an Israeli bar mitzvah here this weekend,” I said.
“Yes,” Rabbi Green confirmed - “one of the new Israeli families.”
“Russian Israeli?” I asked.
“Yes”, he answered.

I asked what his impression was of the Russian Israelis who have come here insofar as their attitudes toward synagogue were concerned?
“Synagogue is not the first place they go to when they want to have a Jewish experience,” Rabbi Green admitted. “This family though had a breakthrough situation. They just decided they wanted to have a bar mitzvah in a synagogue for their son and they invited their friends. So they now know what a bar mitzvah at Shaarey Zedek looks like and feels like. The family was over the moon and everyone enjoyed it very, very much.”
Speaking of Russian Israelis who have been coming here en masse in recent years, I wondered what impressions Rabbi Green had of Winnipeg in terms of how welcoming our Jewish community is? I noted that the accusation is often leveled that our community is particularly cliquish and not all that welcoming to newcomers. It was only at the very end of our interview, however, that Rabbi Green commented about how comfortable a city he has found Winnipeg to be.
I asked him about his having come from Los Angeles – and the coincidence that he was trained by the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter, who also spent a good many years in Winnipeg.
“I lived in Los Angeles most of my life and I met Reb Zalman actually in Los Angeles,” Rabbi Green explained. “I studied with him at a distance and I had occasional in-residence sessions with him when I could get away from my job – as a student rabbi in L.A. At a certain point he decided that I was ready to go so he ordained me, but that was after several years.”

Congregation has pushed for more liberal attitudes
During the time that Rabbi Green has lived in Winnipeg, I noted that the Jewish population here had declined, but has evidently grown in recent years as a result of the large scale Russian Israeli migration here. Still, I observed that the steady decline in synagogue membership over the years has not been reversed.
“No, I think we’re in a period of transition certainly,” Rabbi Green suggested. “If you look at the other religions, they’re having the same thing also that we are. The liberals are in decline, the fundamentalists are ascendant. That’s true in Judaism also, but the pendulum keeps swinging. That’s what’s going on now. I think that our congregants – and our potential congregants, are calling for change. The Shaarey Zedek has begun to respond to that call for change. People need a different kind of service than we had for so many decades – and even for centuries. We’re finally starting to serve the needs of Winnipeg Jewry in a way that no synagogue has served them before.”

I noted that Shaarey Zedek has been the pacesetter in many ways, whether it was by adding a wing to the cemetery where non-Jewish spouses of synagogue members could be buried or by performing gay marriage ceremonies. I wrongly assumed, however, that Rabbi Green was also willing to perform interfaith marriages.
He corrected me, explaining that he doesn’t do that “and it’s not synagogue policy to do that. And yet,” he added, “Matthew Leibl, who is on staff here, does do interfaith marriages – outside of the synagogue”.
“If half of young Jews in this city are marrying non-Jews – that’s something we can’t ignore,” he said. “We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It would greatly profit us to be further involved in those relationships.”

“Is that a subject for discussion now among the board or the members?” I wondered.
“We haven’t started discussing it yet,” Rabbi Green answered, “but it’s coming”.
“I won’t ask either Rabbis Altein what they think about it,” I wryly noted.
“What do you think about it?” Rabbi Green asked me.
“I think it’s great,” I answered. “You either go with it or you suffer the consequences.”
“Yes, you have to march with the army you’ve got,” Rabbi Green suggested.
I said that when it comes to the future of the Jewish community in general, “I put a lot of stock in empirical evidence that shows what’s important to young Jews is so much different than what was important to even our own generation.” (Rabbi Green and I are both of the same generation, by the way, although to my mind he looks perpetually youthful, especially since he shaved his beard.)

“Autonomy is the new religion of this generation”
“What do you find in talking with young people? What areas of Judaism still resonate with them?” I asked.
“I find that young people are much, much more universal these days,” Rabbi Green said. “Their concerns about the Jewish future are much different than our concerns. A typical young person that I talk to feels that they should be free to marry whomever and it doesn’t compromise their Jewish identity. As far as raising the children, they have a relaxed attitude about that…There’s a tremendous concern about autonomy. Autonomy, I think, is the new religion of this generation.”
“There’s a positive side to this,” he continued. “In the past the boundaries that separated people and religions were so rigid the result has been a lot of ignorance, a lot of hatred, a lot of fear. This new generation is increasingly immune from that. They don’t see these boundaries and consequently there’s much less fear, much less ignorance, much more understanding – across all kinds of boundaries – religious, ethnic, and national – and that has a very positive aspect.
“The downside is we run the risk of all becoming vanilla. There aren’t going to be the different flavours, the different richness of different cultures and so on. And yet, I’m hopeful that this is just a rearrangement of the boundaries and not a destruction of the boundaries. It looks like destruction right now because they’re changing so rapidly and so completely. In the end, I think it will end up in a state of much greater peace, harmony and understanding across borders.”

I asked how accepting Rabbi Green thinks the Shaarey Zedek congregation has been of the changes that he’s championed, especially the radical change to the Saturday morning service.
“There wasn’t much change in the first ten years I was here,” he suggested. “The last several years – it’s like every change we made we were fearful about because we were worried about the kinds of ripple effects and so on.
“But the attitude of the congregation was: ‘What took you so long?’ We found, to our surprise, that the vast majority of our congregation is way ahead of our thinking on so many issues. They, I think, are pleasantly surprised, both in terms of policy and the way we’re doing services.”

“Would the most radical change have been the approach to Shabbat services?” I asked.
“That was certainly the biggest one for me,” Rabbi Green answered, “because we had our traditional element – the five percent that would come regularly for our services and our events – and they seemed to enjoy the service very much. So the change to our service would have meant that we risked losing them, with no guarantee that we were going to get anyone from the 95 percent.
“As it happens, the five percent mainly have held. They find that this new style of doing things is even better than what we were doing before, by and large. And, as far as the 95 percent goes, they’re not so participatory, but their attitude is one of admiration.”

I asked what the size of the Shaarey Zedek congregation actually is these days?
“I think we’re about 950” (units, which can be anywhere from a single person to a couple to a family, Rabbi Green explained).

I noted that Rabbi Lander is also about to leave his position at the Etz Chayim. “Boy, when he’s gone and you’re gone…we have occasional rabbis, we have fly-in rabbis…” Rabbi (Avrohom) Altein is already the longest-serving rabbi here, I added, yet as much as the Chabad movement here aims to be of service to the entire community, we’ve always looked to the rabbis at the Etz Chayim and Shaarey Zedek for leadership, so we’re about to experience even more momentous change, I suggested.
“It’s nice to have a sense of stability,” Rabbi Green agreed. “I hope that the Etz Chayim is able to find someone for that synagogue what Rabbi Lander has been doing. As far as the Herzlia synagogue goes – we need to have an Orthodox synagogue in this town and he (Rabbi Benarroch) is excellent. Hopefully he’ll become full time eventually.”

It occurred to me, after listening to Rabbi Green that, for the most part, his congregation was more progressive than perhaps he had himself believed to be the case.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We had kind of a distorted vision of the congregation because the people we were dealing with the most were the most traditional – and the most liberal, we seldom saw, except on high holydays and the occasional life cycle event. But the liberal element is very, very forward thinking. I think we’ve made a shift in their direction, which was the logical thing to do, but they have not yet caught on that maybe this would be an interesting and fulfilling place for them to be. The habit of so many previous decades is still holding.”

Was there any possibility of considering once again the relocation of the synagogue, with or without a merger with the Etz Chayim, I wondered?
“The building is very much loved by our congregation,” Rabbi Green explained. “That’s one thing we discovered from the merger talks. We have an incredible location here. I would say the architecture of the building doesn’t take advantage of the river view and, hopefully will one day do that.”

Future plans
As we came close to the end of our conversation, I asked Rabbi Green about what he will be doing when he leaves Winnipeg. I knew that he will be returning to the U.S. but I mistakenly thought he would be heading to Colorado, which is where the archives of his mentor, Rabbi Schachter, are located.
He laughed and corrected me, saying he was going to Fairfield, Iowa, although he gave me credit for a good guess.
“Isn’t that near where the ‘Field of Dreams’” in the W.P. Kinsella book (later a movie) was situated? I wondered - which would be an appropriate spot for a rabbi of Rabbi Greens’ mystical bent to end up.
“It’s not that far from the “Field of Dreams”, Rabbi Green agreed. (The fictional Field of Drams was actually situated in Dubuqe County, Iowa, which is only 158.9 miles from Fairfield. Fairfield is the home of Maharishi International University, the world centre for Transcendental Meditation, founded by the Maharishi Yogi.)
“I put out feelers to the university that maybe it would be good to have a chaplain for the first time and they were positive about that, but we don’t have a concrete plan in place yet.”

“Did you ever become a Canadian citizen?” I asked.
“Yes, I did,” Rabbi Green answered. “Actually, after I leave I’m hoping to be able to come back here for a month or two every year – of course, that will be up to the synagogue.”
“You have a fairly comfortable relationship with soon-to-be Rabbi Leibl,” I noted – so that shouldn’t be a problem.
“Oh yah - it’s more a matter of the budget,” Rabbi Green explained.
“Maybe you could get into sports announcing (which is what Matthew Leibl had been doing prior to his announcing his plans to study for the rabbinate),” I suggested, “and from that segue back into the rabbinate.”
“I bought my first Jets jersey this past week,” Rabbi Green noted.

“What about your wife (Chaya)?” I asked. “Is she going to be doing anything in Fairfield?
“To be determined,” he answered. “We bought a duplex and it’s unclear what we’re going to be doing with it. Maybe live in part of it – rent out part of it.”

“What about the triplets (Rabbi Green and Chaya’s children)?” I wondered. “Where are they?”
“The triplets are scattered to the winds,” he said. “Eve is in Duluth, at the University of Minnesota, where she has a position as professor of philosophy. Shoshana’s in Mountainview, California – in the Bay area. She’s a nurse and the mother of two kids. And Daniel’s at the University of Toronto getting his Ph.D in philosophy.”
They’re all 34 now, Rabbi Green added. “They were eight years old when we came to Winnipeg.”

As I got ready to leave, I noted this was the first time I had ever been in Rabbi Green’s study.
“It’s not the neatest study in the world, but it’s very comfortable,” he said.
“That’s one thing I want to say about Winnipeg actually,” he added. “It’s a very comfortable place, and once you get here you don’t really want to leave. I’ve seen so many instances of rabbis who did leave and regretted leaving and tried to apply to come back when positions opened. Rabbi Balser actually did make it back.”
I said to Rabbi Green that, apropos of his observation, the best line I heard about Winnipeg is “Winnipeg is a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit there!”

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