The ultimate aliya

Meet the Jerusalem Great Synagogue’s new director-general, Rabbi Zev Lanton, who recently moved here from Montreal.

Rabbi Zev Lanton (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Zev Lanton
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Zev Lanton has expressive brown eyes.
And when he talks about his new job – director- general of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue – they light up through his spectacles.
“This is the nexus of everything I love,” he says, in the melodic voice of a cantor, as we sit in his new office at the back of the synagogue. “Coming here was like a full circle for me, because the synagogue was built in honor of the six million martyrs of the Holocaust and those who gave their lives in the establishment and defense of Eretz Yisrael. My parents and in-laws were Holocaust survivors and my father-inlaw fought in Israel’s War of Independence.”
His eyes darken as he talks about the connection between the Holocaust and his work at the Great Synagogue on King George Avenue.
“It represents Am Yisrael Hai and Mishoah letekuma, the phoenix rising out of the ashes. My son’s bar mitzva was here, and when I was here for my first Shabbat after we made aliya, a year ago, it was packed full. The cantor, the choir, it was just amazing.
“When I came to this synagogue, it was the fulfillment of something in my heart, that I could be part of something that shows Am Yisrael Hai Begadol [the nation of Israel lives in greatness], because this is the Beit Haknesset Hagadol [the Great Synagogue].”
FOR LANTON, an accomplished educator from Montreal, living in Israel with his wife, Peggy, and two of his four children is the realization of a dream.
He had promised Peggy before they were married that they would move to Israel. “When I was studying in university and working as a synagogue youth director, I met this young woman who was studying in Bar- Ilan [University] who had come home to Montreal for a vacation and we fell in love,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “She said, ‘I will marry you if you promise that we will make aliya.’ I said, ‘Okay, we will,’ but I didn’t commit to when, so it took a while. For our honeymoon, we went to Bar-Ilan University, to ulpan.”
In August, the Lantons returned to Israel after Peggy’s mother died. The Jerusalem Great Synagogue’s Rabbi George Finkelstein had just announced that he was retiring but continuing to serve as ritual director, and the synagogue’s chairman of the board, Asher Schapiro, approached Lanton to assume the role of director-general.
“Asher said, ‘Are you ever going to settle in Israel?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I could do it, if the right thing came along.’ In one week, I met all the players I needed to meet, and that was it. Previously, I was working as an executive life coach and I was at a point in my entrepreneurial life when things were beginning to speak to my pocket. When I made aliya I needed to find ‘a place,’ but I also needed to find ‘my place.’ One thing was missing – I had always served in a kahal [a community]. And thus this job speaks to my heart.”
His eyes dance as he describes one of his passions: hazanut (cantorial music). “I especially love hazanut; there is nothing more inspiring to me. I have officiated from the pulpit since the age of 16 up until this year. Now that I’m at the Great Synagogue, I’m looking forward to listening to the world-famous Chief Cantor Chaim Adler and the choir.”
Asked what the job of director-general entails, Lanton’s eyes dart upwards: “It’s a very broad job. The Great Synagogue has a huge public profile. It has permanent seats for the chief rabbis, the president and the prime minister.
“The existing mission of the shul is based on hessed, with programs such as Shabbat meals with 200 lone soldiers and Seders for those who cannot make [them] on their own, on the dissemination of knowledge, with the lecture series by people like Daniel Gordis, there’s a kollel here every single day with hundreds coming to study Torah, and when our simha hall is renovated, we will go back to having a kiddush after services to bring people closer together.
“It’s the place for tourists to come visit. We are a center not just in Jerusalem, but for Israel and the Jewish world. There’s going to be a program here on the Israeli elections. I have a group of 200 children coming tomorrow for their Humash ceremony and their induction to Torah study.
“There is a resurgence in hazanut, in Jewish liturgy, one of the hallmarks of the shul, and people come especially from Jerusalem, from throughout Israel and from all over the world just to hear the hazan and the choir. “What is a shul? It’s a house of assembly; it brings people together, and on any given Shabbat you will see the entire spectrum of Jewish observance in attendance. Kippot srugot, black hats, shtreimels, as well as non-Jews... All are welcome!” Asked what his plans are for the future, his eyes light up again.
“As we say in Yiddish, ‘A gast far a veil zeht far a mile’ [a guest for a while sees for a mile]. So when you bring in new eyes into a place, you begin to see new things happening.
“What are my concerns? I’m looking at the demographics of the shul, and I see young people at services, but the challenge now is to bring them into the leadership of the synagogue.”
His eyes become more serious, and he raises his eyebrows.
“I’m looking at the shul, which is 30 years old, and it’s built on its fantastic reputation, but where is it going to be 30 years from now? “My biggest challenge right now is creating a campaign, ‘The Jerusalem Great Synagogue – for now and forever.’ One of the things we need to do is secure the synagogue in terms of its budget, which is a million dollars a year. Right now we have approximately 1,400 seats and membership is only NIS 500, which meets only a fraction of the budget, and thus we rely heavily on philanthropy to sustain the synagogue, which offers so much without charge to the Jewish community.
“We have been blessed with the support of several foundations and some very special philanthropists as well as the ongoing generosity of our founder members and supporters. But these are not always renewable resources and we need to be able to ensure that the shul will be here in 30 years from now.”
LANTON WAS born in Montreal in what he calls “Mordecai Richler country.” As a young boy, he studied at a Jewish day school, Mercaz Hatorah, and then continued his studies out of town at Ner Israel Rabbinical College.
“I’m a child of Holocaust survivors and I think that had a great influence in terms of my whole sense of being. Yesterday, I was conducting a tour of Holocaust survivors here, and it was one of my most moving experiences. This synagogue was built in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. I lost a brother and a sister, grandparents.
I remember my mother waking up in the middle of the night, screaming ‘Politsiya!’” The Holocaust, he says, was like “a pink elephant in the room.”
“Nobody ever spoke about the Holocaust in my home. My father lost a son and a daughter, aged three and four, and yet he never stopped smiling. He was the most optimistic and happiest person you ever saw. That was his most outstanding characteristic and that was what he was most known for.”
His father was from Belz, and his mother from the distinguished Hirshprung rabbinic family in Cracow.
“It was the chief rabbi of Montreal, Hagaon Rabbi Pinchas Hirshprung, who brought her back to life after the Holocaust and introduced her to my father and, as they say, the rest is history.
“My parents were of very modest means, but for Jewish education there was always money. My father started off by working in a foundry. All my clothes and toys were hand-me-downs, and every year at Seder, I asked my father for a bicycle for the afikoman. And every year, he had always saved a little piece of matza in his pocket, and he said, ‘I’ve got my spare piece so you can’t bargain for an extravagant gift of a bike.”
“One year, I think I was in grade four or five, I said, ‘Dad, I want a set of English linear translation Humashim.’ It was an investment, not as much as a bike, but it was an investment, and he said ‘first day of hol hamoed, we’re going to buy it!’” Initially, Lanton’s dream was to be a doctor, but after doing his pre-meds, he took a summer course in education, and his new life course was set.
“It was a life-changing experience. I said this is what I wanted to do! So I went to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and took a second degree in education. At the same time, to pay my way through school, I began a career in the local synagogue as a hazan.
“Hazanut was not something strange to me, because I began singing solo at five years old in the choir at one of the most prominent shuls in Montreal. Then by an act of God, my father was fortunate to get out of the foundry and became a hazan for 36 years, serving the community with tireless dedication. So I was blessed to have had a great role model who continues to serve as my inspiration today.”
Lanton completed a diploma in education, then rabbinical studies, and received his smicha, or ordination, on the day of his son’s pidyon haben (redemption of the firstborn, at the age of 30 days).
“My Rebbe, Hagaon Rav Hirshprung, who taught me one-on-one for five years, gave me an envelope. I said, ‘Rebbe, how can I take a check from you?’ He said, ‘It’s not a check, open it! It’s what you want.’ “I opened it up, and it was the letter of the smicha. I’ll never forget that moment. It was very, very special.”
Lanton received his rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Montreal and his master’s degree in educational administration from McGill University and AIC. He served as principal for more than 20 years at the Hebrew Foundation School of Montreal.
“How did this happen?” he asks himself, his eyes reflecting on his glasses, which he has now taken off.
“Interestingly, I served first as a youth director in one of the synagogues in Montreal. It was a tiny shul, and then I decided I needed to do something big with my life. It was hazanut that called out to me. I saw an ad for the largest Orthodox congregation in New England looking for a hazan. I was 20-something years old. I sent them a tape, they called me for an interview, and I became the hazan of Congregation Kadima in Massachusetts.
“I did this for two years, and then the principal left the local day school, and they asked me to be the interim principal. My passion for Jewish education was ignited. I asked the synagogue if I could do two full-time jobs, and I ran the school for six years. Then I got a call from the very same synagogue where I had served as youth director asking if I could come back to the day school they had now built.
“I ran that school for the next 20 years, and it became one of the top schools in North America. It was modern, Orthodox, centrist, Zionist, but people were not necessarily shomrei shabbat [Shabbat observers]. It gave me a tremendous opportunity to do kiruv, to really create opportunities for family education, ways of reaching out to people, to create innovative educational modules, and it was extremely satisfying.
“I have a great love for technology and one of our congregants happened to be one of the first people to be an Internet provider in Montreal. He helped create the infrastructure and we were voted one of the top 30 schools for integrating technology in education in Canada. We also created all sorts of programs for the gifted [and] disabled, and were one of the pilot schools in the world for Tal Am, the Ivrit-in-Ivrit curriculum.
“We were one of the 12 pilots in the world for Tal Am, and it’s now used in over 500 schools worldwide, including in the former Soviet Union.”
Lanton was very much involved in Israel advocacy, and served for 10 years on the Canada-Israel Experience Committee, which gave rise to Birthright.
Lanton says his and his wife’s dream of making aliya was never forgotten.
“Israel was always in our DNA, and I felt when I was running this school that I was fulfilling that mission.
Our children were raised as being strong Zionists, but we kept on postponing our aliya, mostly because of our aging parents. When I sat at the last negotiation with my school, I gave them a time line saying I have a mission to make aliya.
“You can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. I promised my wife we would make aliya, and it was time to make good on that promise.”
They had planned to come to Israel in 2009, but this was delayed when first his father-in-law and then his mother-in-law took ill.
“In the interim, I came here a few times, but nothing was clicking. I was here every summer teaching and had so many connections in my network, but zero, it wasn’t on the cards. So I went back to university and got an accreditation in coaching. Things were a little bit rocky. “Nevertheless, like Nahshon, we decided to take the plunge in August 2011. We started flying back and forth every month for my mother-in-law, and my consulting business, and lived like that for a year, back and forth on a plane.
“This summer, unfortunately, my mother-in-law passed away; but she waited until she saw pictures of my daughter’s Sabra son that I sent to her. And that’s when Asher called me for a meeting at the Great Synagogue.”
It is clear, from the tears welling in his eyes, that he adores the place. Lanton has, he says, finally found his permanent home.
“Jewish people have always felt comfortable talking in shul, and you ask why? It’s called Beit Haknesset, which has as its root the word bayit [home]. You feel at home.
“I now have found my true home in Eretz Yisrael and in the Great Synagogue. By the way, I think there is less talking in this shul than anywhere else because the hazan and the choir are simply inspirational.
Come visit and find out for yourself!”
Rabbi Nahman’s mezuza
For Rabbi Zev Lanton, there are many artifacts housed in the Jerusalem Great Synagogue “which represent what the shul stands for.”
These range from the iron gates outside dedicated to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and to those who sacrificed their lives for the State of Israel to Rabbi Nahman of Breslov’s mezuza.
In the early 19th century, a wealthy butcher presented Rabbi Nahman with an exquisite chair, and the revered rabbi loved the gift; he sat in it every day.
After his death, the rabbi’s disciples kept the chair in his memory, and it was given a special place next to the ark in the local synagogue, where it remained for decades.
When the Nazis invaded, a dozen descendants of Rabbi Nahman’s disciples each took a piece of the chair and, before fleeing, they pledged to meet again in Jerusalem, where they would reassemble the chair.
And that’s what happened. Today, in the Breslov Synagogue in Jerusalem, you can see Rabbi Nahman’s chair next to the ark.
In 1985, Breslov hassidim asked Israeli artist Catriel Sugarman to restore the remnants of the chair, and Belle Rosenbaum, a prominent collector of Jewish art, asked him to create a mezuza for her collection from the discarded fragments.
The Breslovers rejected the request at first, but eventually agreed to allow Catriel to design the mezuza, which is now on display together with many others in the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.
“The story of Rav Nahman’s mezuza speaks to me because there were 12 pieces that were brought together, and where were they assembled? In Jerusalem. Everything comes together here,” Lanton says.
“Like the story of Rav Nahman’s mezuza, we each hold a piece. And now we’re coming to the Israeli elections, so I’m going to put this pitch in. One of the beautiful stories that Elie Wiesel tells is about someone running around the synagogue asking, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ And the rabbi says, ‘Great question! Why spoil it with an answer?’ To which Elie Wiesel adds, ‘What unites us is the questions. What divides us is the answers.’ “In Israel we have so many different solutions.
Every party represents something else. I think that what this synagogue represents is what Daniel Gordis spoke about in the synagogue some weeks ago: the big tent, in which we each have a piece.”
“Maybe it’s not the same piece. You’re holding the leg, or the arm, or the back. But you cannot make a bracha on an etrog or a lulav until you bring all the four species together.
“The afikoman on Pessah which we split in half comes together with the little child who reunites everything. It’s all about creating Jewish unity.
“My vision for this community, my challenge, is to create a sense of kehila, even more than it is today, where everyone feels comfortable, where we’re all in the big tent together.”