Rabbi Dow Marmur passed away July 17 in Jerusalem at age 87. Photo from Holy Blossom Temple

The many lives of Rabbi Dow Marmur

  • August 5, 2022

“When I open my eyes in the morning, my tradition bids me to thank God for having restored me to consciousness. Nothing is owed to me. Not only life itself but daily living is a gift to be cherished, acknowledged and appreciated. The primary function of prayer is gratitude and celebration.”

Dow Marmur, rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto from 1983 to 2000, shared this wisdom of embracing each day on Earth as a present to be cherished in a column he wrote in 2015 for the The Toronto Star entitled, “The path of gratitude and commitment.”

A featured freelance columnist whose writing appeared in The Star for many years, passed away July 17 in Jerusalem. He was 87.

Born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1935, he was the only child born of Max and Cecilia Marmur. His parents were active in a Jewish working-class movement called Po’alei Zion, an ideology based on a combination of Zionist and socialist principles. His commitment to Zionism was lifelong. He served as first chair of the Arzenu, an international movement of reform Zionists. He also served as vice president of the Canadian Zionist Federation and executive member of the World Zionist Organization.

Rabbi Marmur only remained in Sosnowiec for a few years as he and his parents were forced to flee to the country’s Jaslo, and later Lvov, regions, to avoid being swept up in an early Second World War invasion by German forces. The family was deported to Siberia in 1940. When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, they found sanctuary in Uzbekistan.

One ray of light for Rabbi Darmur in the midst of years of turmoil was that he picked up several languages.

Following the end of the war, the family were repatriated to their Polish homeland. Rabbi Marmur’s 2004 memoir, Six Lives, describes his first life in Poland as his beginning, his second life in Russia as defined by exile, and his third in Sweden, starting in 1948, providing him refuge.

His years in Sweden let him study Swedish, English, German and Hebrew. Upon reaching adulthood, he enrolled in the University of Stockholm to study religion, particularly Judaism. In 1956, he married Fredzia Zonabend, who survived the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, during the Second World War.

England was the setting of Rabbi Marmur’s fourth of six lives. He studied at the Leo Baeck College for rabbi seminarians and graduated in 1962. He was already functioning as rabbi of the South-West Essex Reform Synagogue, and in 1969 transferred to the Alyth Gardens in London to be rabbi of North-Western Reform Synagogue.

Assuming the role of rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple positioned him as head of the largest Reform congregation in Canada. His nearly two decades of work in Canada was defined by support for social causes. He also wrote several more books, including Beyond Survival (1982), The Star of Return (1991) and Ethical Considerations on Social Inclusion (2002).

Rabbi Yael Splansky, who joined Rabbi Marmur at Holy Blossom Temple in 1998 as an assistant, shared thoughts about how Rabbi Marmur inspiringly transformed the temple in a eulogy picked up by The Canadian Jewish News.

Splansky said she admired the work of Rabbi Marmur during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s.

“Most people only spoke in whispers. But Rabbi Marmur and a mission-driven team of women at Holy Blossom got to work. They established support networks for people living and dying of AIDS and for their loved ones. They raised funds to cover medical bills and funeral costs. They created a third seder with its own haggadah. Most importantly, they turned the whispers of fear and shame into a full-throated call for dignity, humanity, and eventually justice and pride.”

Splansky also toasted Rabbi Marmur for instituting an Out of the Cold program at Holy Blossom Temple in 1997. Every Thursday from November to March, people with no place to go could visit for a hot meal, hospitality and fellowship.

“At the beginning, some congregants raised concerns; neighbours protested. But Rabbi Marmur and his partners held fast to the mitzvah, and decades later, the Out of the Cold program is a point of pride for the Holy Blossom community.”

Rabbi Marmur, who became Rabbi Emeritus upon retirement, also engaged with other faiths through ecumenical service and intellectually. Some of his intra-faith work with Catholicism included lecturing at the University of St. Michael’s College, and forging strong bonds with the Sisters of St. Joseph, particularly General Superior Sr. Mary Margaret Myatt.

In 2005, upon the passing of Pope John Paul II, Rabbi Marmur wrote an effusive tribute to the late Holy Father in the Globe and Mail titled “Thanks to him, we’re brothers.”

In the article, he praised the Pope for advancing Catholic-Jewish relations with symbolic acts and substantive declarations.

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