Monday, 15 October 2012

Jewish community celebrates former synagogue

Former congregants of the Shaarey Tzedec reunited for one final service. Many found their old assigned seats.
For the first time in a quarter of a century—and for the last time—the sounds of Hebrew prayers filled the sanctuary of the former Shaarey Tzedec Synagogue (103 – 17th Avenue SE) yesterday.

When it opened in 1959, Shaarey Tzedec was the largest and most modern Jewish congregation in the city. It was built adjacent to the old House of Israel Building (102 – 18th Avenue SE), the city’s original Jewish community centre. The Jewish community had acquired the property for both buildings in the late 1920s. Before 1959, the future synagogue site was used in the winters as a skating rink for Jewish children.

For many years, the Beth Israel Synagogue (literally, “House of Israel”) met in the community building. In the late 1950s, the Beth Israel relocated to a new site on Glenmore Trail and changed its affiliation from Judaism’s Orthodox movement to its Conservative stream.

The new Shaarey Tzedec, by contrast, remained in the city centre and remained Orthodox. However, the congregation distinguished itself as “Modern Orthodox” by allowing family seating and doing away with a mechitzah—a divider—between men’s and women’s sections.

In the mid-1980s, after nearly three decades as separate congregations, the Beth Israel and Shaarey Tzedec amalgamated as the Beth Tzedec Synagogue. The new congregation met in the old Shaarey Tzedec while the Beth Israel was largely demolished and replaced by the present structure. Later, the 17th Avenue synagogue and 18th Avenue community building were sold. The Shaarey Tzedec became a church, the Centre for Positive Living; the House of Israel was remodeled into the Lindsay Park Place condominiums. The former synagogue went on to serve as a church for almost as long as it had been a synagogue.

This year, the former Shaarey Tzedec building was sold and is now slated for redevelopment.

For weeks, I’ve been working with an ad hoc committee that included Ron Singer, a director of the Cliff Bungalow-Mission Community Association, and Zena Drabinsky, the secretary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta, to organize a farewell event, for which the owners provided access and support.

From 3:00-6:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 14, the doors of the former Shaarey Tzedec were open to former congregants and other interested people, who included members of the Jewish community, residents of Cliff Bungalow-Mission, and those who were interested in the building—a beautiful 1959 example of Modern architecture designed by the local firm Abugov and Sunderland.

Some 250 people attended and listened to a series of speakers. Many of the former congregants sat in their old assigned seats, following the traditional Jewish custom for the high holidays.

Laura Pasacreta, a culture and heritage consultant with Donald Luxton & Associates Inc. gave an architectural tour of the building and then spoke to the assembled crowd in the prayer hall.

Aron Eichler, the longtime ritual director, shared his memories of the synagogue and the personalities involved.

Saundra Lipton gave a sneak preview of the upcoming program at the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta’s AGM on October 29, which will feature memories of the Shaarey Tzedec.

Judy Parker talked about her 1959 wedding, the first held in the then-unfinished synagogue.

Lastly, the floor was open for people to share their own memories.

After a brief intermission, Rabbi Shaul Osadchey and Ritual Director Leonard Cohen of the Beth Tzedec Synagogue commenced the daily Mincha (afternoon) prayers at 6:00 p.m. Again, former congregants found their old seats, and some 60 or more participants joined Cohen and Eichler in traditional Hebrew prayer.

Rabbi Osadchey and Cohen spoke warmly about the former congregants’ obvious affection for their old synagogue, which had a second life as the Beth Tzedec for a short period in the 1980s.

Cohen concluded the service beautifully. “The late Israeli songstress Ofra Haza,” Cohen remarked, “sang ‘There are people with a heart of stone, and there are stones with a human heart.’

“What brought the love to this community, and the heart to this community, was all the people worshiping here.

“The final psalm that we sang tonight, ironically, was the song of dedication of the Temple [in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE].

“Nonetheless, it was appropriate,” Cohen added. “Just as we remember and commemorate the Temple, a building that hasn’t been around for many years, we hope to continue remembering and commemorating that which was most important and beloved to everyone here.”

Following services, the group filed into the foyer to enjoy a snack that included gefilte fish and pickled herring. They sang spontaneously and toasted the old building with Scotch and kosher wine. Many people lingered late into the evening, savouring the final moments that they could spend together in an old familiar place.
Participants enjoyed traditional fare and toasted the former synagogue.

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