Congregation Dorshei Emet was founded by Rabbi Lavy Becker in 1960. Born in Montreal to Russian immigrant parents, Lavy Becker attended McGill University. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he became a close disciple of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Lavy had previously founded two other synagogues in Montreal, the Orthodox Young Israel Synagogue of Montreal in 1921 and the Conservative Congregation Beth-El in Town of Mount Royal in 1951.
Over his long life, Lavy held many positions as a rabbi and community worker. Highlights include serving in 1945 as a Director of Displaced Persons Camps in Germany for the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC); serving as president of Allied Jewish Community Services (Federation CJA) in Montreal; serving as chair of Small Communities for World Jewish Congress; founding the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations; and serving as National Executive Committee Chair of Canadian Jewish Congress. He also served as the first Chairman of the Board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.
In 1960, Lavy Becker placed an ad in the Montreal Star, inviting people to a meeting to join together for High Holy Days. From this group, The Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal was incorporated as the Reconstructionist movement’s first congregation in Canada. The founding members worshipped in a variety of locations, until in 1967 the original habitant-style building on Cleve Road in Hampstead was completed. In those early years, the congregation functioned more like a havurah. Lavy volunteered to lead services and speak occasionally on Shabbat mornings, leaving members many opportunities to organize and lead services, give Divrei Torah, and plan their own communal dinners, activities, or study.
In 1976, the congregation hired Rabbi Ron Aigen, one of the early graduates of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as the first professional clergy. The congregation, which had just completed an extension to its 1967 building, grew over the next several decades from under 180 households to over 350. Along with the growth of adult study groups, youth and children’s programs, and many cultural events, the congregation’s committee structure and office support staff also grew. Lavy Becker continued to inspire and provide congregational leadership, until his death in 2001.
In 1999, Rabbi Ron led the congregation in undertaking a new state-of-the-art building, which would serve not only as prayer space, but also as a cultural and community centre. Standing on the same site as the original building, the new building was inaugurated in 2002. The building’s design reflects the innovative nature of Congregation Dorshei Emet. It is one of the few synagogues in North America, and the only one in Montreal, to have soundproof children’s activity rooms overlooking the sanctuary with the service piped in via speakers, so that parents and their children may play while still participating in the service and feeling included.
The downstairs EMET gallery hosts exhibitions by Jewish artists throughout the year. The building is handicap accessible, with ramps and elevators for those with mobility challenges, and listening devices in the sanctuary for those hard of hearing. It also includes single stall bathrooms and changing tables for all genders. It has hosted Shabbat and holidays, celebrations, art exhibitions, film launches, world-renowned musicians, classes, visiting dignitaries, and lectures of topical import over the years.
In 2009, in celebration of the upcoming Jubilee year of the congregation, Dorshei Emet commissioned a new Torah for everyday use, to replace older, damaged, and quite heavy Torahs in the synagogue’s ark. Spearheaded by Jeremy and Joyce Becker, “Torat Imeinu”–Torah of Our Mothers–sought to further the congregation’s commitment as Reconstructionists to gender egalitarianism. It broke new ground, recognizing that while women have become rabbis, cantors, and even mohelot–performing ritual circumcision, there had never been a Torah in Canada scribed by a woman. The congregation commissioned soferet Jennifer Taylor Friedman, one of the world’s few female Torah scribes, to complete the first female-scribed Torah in Canada, and only the third in the world.
Tradition teaches that if you write a single letter of a Torah, it is as though you had written the whole Torah yourself, and if you write a Torah, it is as though you received it directly from God at Mount Sinai. Therefore, congregants were invited to participate in the Torah’s creation both by fiscal sponsorship and by personally writing a letter, with Jennifer’s help. Almost 400 congregants participated in this way. The result was a lighter Torah that could be lifted by men, women, and b’nei mitzvah alike, and one that had the full participation of the congregation itself. The new Torah was joyously welcomed with song, dance, and celebration on May 16, 2010.
Today, the congregation is approaching 500 households and continues to inspire those same values that the founders envisioned: participatory Judaism and the creation of a warm, caring community.