The Burke family at Beth Sholom (2011)

From the Beth Sholom Bulletin, Fall 2011

A memorable high point in the lives of Louis and Gloria Burke and family, as well as for Beth Sholom Congregation as a whole, was the testimonial dinner with Israeli government minister Menachem Begin that was held on April 29, 1974 to launch the annual Israel Bonds drive.

The honouree on that occasion was not Begin, who had not yet become Israel’s prime minister, but Louis Burke, then 40 years old, who was president of the congregation and had previously founded the Young Married Couples Club, headed the Bonds committee, and served as board chairman.

A lawyer in the law firm of Burke, Pancer and Bloom, Louis was married to the former Gloria Pancer, whose parents, Joe and Mary Pancer, had been among the seven founding couples of Beth Sholom. Louis and Gloria had four children — Michael, Howard, Cheryl and Debra — all of whom were active in the shul, attending religious services and Hebrew school.

If the 1974 tribute dinner marked the pinnacle of Louis’s years of service at Beth Sholom, a tragic low point was soon to follow. A year later he had the first in a series of serious heart attacks. He underwent a heart transplant in California in 1979, but his body rejected the new heart and he died soon afterwards at age 45.

Some three decades later, Gloria Burke and her son Michael Burke speak fondly of Beth Sholom and enthusiastically recount their memories of their experiences there with their respective parents and grandparents, and husband and father.

We met with Gloria and Michael in the latter’s home in the Eglinton-Bathurst area on a lovely summer evening, and spoke for more than an hour about their many memories of Beth Sholom and its congregation, starting from Gloria’s childhood.

The late Rabbi David Monson knew he could always count on Gloria’s parents for support, and the Pancers helped Monson start the congregation even before they moved to Glen Cedar Road from downtown. They installed a stained-glass window in the sanctuary in memory of their parents.

Rabbi Monson was terribly impressed both with Joe’s generosity towards the shul and with Mary for working tirelessly after the war to bring her nephew to Canada; a Holocaust survivor, he had been rescued from a pile of dead bodies. When Mary died — just six months after Louis — Rabbi Monson said in his eulogy for the five-foot-high lady that she “was never too little to do big things, and never too big to do little things.” The family used the phrase as an epitaph on her tombstone.

Gloria was in the shul’s first confirmation class (led by Rabbi Kirshenblatt) and was married in the sanctuary in 1958. The couple’s two older boys were born while they lived with her parents on Glen Cedar and Louis was still at law school. Later they moved to Briar Hill and Gloria had twin girls.

“Rabbi Monson knew everything about everybody,” Gloria said. “He was great, there was no question about that. He used to drop in on us if he was in the area. My husband had the greatest respect for him and he had the greatest respect for my husband.”

“My father used to take us to shul every Saturday,” Michael recalled. “We’d go to the junior congregation and as we got older we’d go the main service. I always liked Monson’s sermons; I found them thought-provoking. Sometimes they were about the parsha and sometimes they were about current events, whatever struck his fancy.” During his father’s presidency, Michael became president of the junior congregation and later belonged to the Sunday morning Tallis and Tefilin Club run by Rabbi Meir Gottesman, the Hebrew school teacher.

One year at a Chanukah banquet that Louis had organized, son Howard won the grand prize, a bicycle, in the raffle: Louis insisted that it be donated back to the shul to be raffled off. The Burkes met socially with other Beth Sholom couples and went with varius shul members to conferences of Conservative Judaism in the Catskills; Gloria participated in various Sisterhood activities. “We always had a fantastic time,” she said. “The shul parties were a lot of fun. The people were great to be with and many were like family to Lou and me. I have so many fond memories of those times.”

Michael too has many pleasant memories of the synagogue, including the day Menachem Begin came to dinner and delivered the after-dinner remarks. “He gave an unbelievable speech — I mean he had me sold. I remember saying to my Dad, ‘I want to take my savings and buy Israeli Bonds.’ What an orator he was!”

He also recalled that his siblings Howard, Cheryl and Debra took roles in a synagogue theatrical production, You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. All four Burke children had their respective bar- and bat- mitzvahs at Beth Sholom. More recently, Larry Shilling trained both of Michael’s sons for their bar mitzvahs and Michael and his sons played hockey with Rabbi Aaron on Saturday nights.

“Beth Sholom will always have a special place in my heart,” said Gloria, who is still a member. “The rabbi and cantor are the best, and I enjoy being there and hearing them. They continue the standard of excellence that Rabbi Monson and Cantors Rosenberg and Bagley set when Louis was alive and active in the shul.” ♦

© 2012