Montreal Rabbi Ron Aigen balanced tradition and change

Rabbi Ron Aigen, who led Montreal’s Reconstructionist Synagogue, Congregation Dorshei Emet, since 1976, died suddenly this weekend. As his family, friends, and congregants struggle with this loss, we celebrate the many contributions “Rabbi Ron” made to the Jewish community, to Montreal and to the ongoing quest to balance tradition and change in our modern world.

Rabbi Ron was a leading Reconstructionist rabbi. This Jewish denomination, emphasizing congregational democracy and Judaism as an “evolving religious civilization,” encompasses a wide array of Jewish expression. Reflecting Montreal’s character, Ron’s congregation is more traditional, Zionist, Hebraic, Yiddish and French than most Reconstructionist synagogues. And he personally delighted in reaching out to many people and groups in the city.

Ron Aigen was born in 1948 in Brooklyn, N.Y., and came to Montreal in 1976.

A model modern rabbi, soft-spoken and gentle, with a perpetual smile and a twinkle in his eye, Rabbi Ron was the opposite of one of those stern, imposing, stereotypical old-world types. Watching him run a service was a joy. He frequently juggled the roles of rabbi, cantor and emcee, fluidly shifting from chanting to commenting to organizing. Glimpsed from one angle, playing a guitar or incorporating some New Age touch, he could seem very California. Glimpsed from another angle, praying devoutly in Hebrew or delivering a learned sermon, he could seem very St-Urbain.

His uniqueness was in fusing the rich Jewish civilization of yesterday with the complicated world of today.

As a rabbi to the left of many Jews in Montreal and to the right of many Jews in his movement, he occasionally had to perform a difficult balancing act. You could disagree with Rabbi Ron, but it was hard to dislike him. Politically, he had no trouble remaining a pro-Israel patriot while pushing for change. In this and so many other ways, he mirrored the Biblical prophets, being a loving critic who differed from the more strident ones who delegitimize and inflame.

Had he and his extraordinary wife Carmela, an ace Hebrew teacher who taught generations of young kids at the Akiva School, simply raised the lovely family they did, and nurtured their wonderful community, that would have been enough. But Rabbi Ron Aigen also built an international following. He took his delicate balancing act global, producing a widely praised – and broadly used – daily prayer book, the High Holiday prayer book, and Haggadah, the Passover reader.

His books were scholarly yet accessible, profound yet popular. The American Jewish newspaper The Forward praised Aigen’s Haggadah, saying: “If you are one of those Jews who want your Seder to mean something, to involve participants and to be connected to spiritual values, Wellsprings of Freedom is for you.”

Tragically, just weeks before the community was going to celebrate four decades of Rabbi Ron’s leadership at a dinner on June 2, many are now mourning his loss. He died Saturday of a stroke after suffering a heart attack about a month ago.

Ron Aigen was a teacher and leader, friend and pastor. His messages were rooted in Jewish tradition but ever-relevant, revering ritual not just for what it told us to do, but for the humanitarian values it gave us all about how to live good, meaningful lives. He will be missed.

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University.

Funeral services for Rabbi Ron Aigen will take place on Tuesday, May 10, at 10 a.m. at Congregation Dorshei Emet, 18 Cleve Rd., in Hampstead.