Breathing new life into a small community
Alan Marcus, the president of St. Catharines’ Congregation B’nai Israel, is determined to breathe life into the small-town Jewish community by capitalizing on the influx of Jewish retirees to the area.
“I live in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I see a lot of Jews who are not members who either weekend here or have moved down here,” said Marcus, who has been the shul’s president since January.
“I’m trying to convince my congregants that we are not a sleepy, dying, small-town congregation. I hope I’m right,” he added with a laugh.
Marcus, who was born in Montreal, raised in Toronto and moved to Niagara with his wife about 20 years ago, became an active member of the 87-year-old synagogue about eight years ago.
Marcus said he sees the value in bringing together the 1,000-plus Niagara region Jews.
He said one of the biggest challenges he faces in his role as shul president is “overcoming the inertia because the older members just assume this is a dying congregation and assume that as everyone dies off, that will be the end of it.”
Over the years, many young families have moved away and as a result, Jewish-run businesses have also been lost, he said.
“Jewish farmers and small merchants have gone, but what we’ve gained are retirees and the knowledge generation that comes through Brock University and the medical complex.”
Set to open next year, a new state-of-the-art hospital being built in St. Catharines and affiliated with Hamilton’s McMaster Medical Centre, is attracting doctors and specialists to the area.
Marcus wants to reach out to the new Jewish Niagara-region residents who were attracted to the area either by the new hospital or the lower cost of living compared to big cities like Toronto.
“I’ve been telling people that we really need to pull out all the stops and create a community centre and shul that people will see as a reason for wanting to live down here,” Marcus said.
B’nai Israel member Miriam Gersho, who moved to Niagara Falls from Toronto in 1980 for a job, said she initially thought that when she retired, she’d move back to Toronto.
“But I fell in love with this place and I have no need or desire to go back.”
She said she feels fulfilled by the Jewish community in Niagara region, which was established when a German tailor moved his family to St. Catharines in 1855.
“When I lived in Toronto, I never paid much attention to the Niagara region. I didn’t know it had a vibrant Jewish community and so much to offer.”
And now, she added, others from Toronto seem to be catching on.
“We noticed that we’ve been getting new members from Toronto, and we’d like to encourage that to continue. Our membership is getting older and we’d like to welcome new people.”
She said although the Jewish community in Niagara consists mostly of retirees, there have been a few younger families who have recently chosen to settle there.
A young family that immigrated to Canada from Russia a few years ago chose to settle in Niagara Falls because of the more affordable housing prices compared to Toronto and because working from home was an option.
She said they also considered that the shul offered a Hebrew school program for their preschool age child.
The fact that Rabbi Eliyahu Courante, who has been serving the Conservative shul’s 150 members for the past 10 years, is young and Russian-speaking – he briefly served as the chief rabbi of Siberia and the Russian Far East – also appealed to them, Gersho said.
Gersho praised Marcus for his vision and drive to attract more Jews to become active through the shul and community centre, which are housed in the same building.
“What’s different about him is that he recognizes that a synagogue is more than a sanctuary, more that the services. He has wonderful ideas for living Jewishly.”
Perhaps the most drastic change on the horizon for B’nai Israel is a shift toward becoming an egalitarian shul.
“As of now, there are no women in the minyan, but we are very close to getting over that hurdle and that should make quite a difference,” Marcus said.
“Many people in the Niagara region are people who have intermarried, people who are Reform, who don’t join B’nai Israel because it’s not egalitarian. But we’re moving in that direction.”
Clearly, Marcus isn’t content to let the 110-year-old congregation die out.
“We have a group of people who are actively out there, looking for young people who they can attract to our Hebrew school, the JCC, and the modernizing of the rituals in the synagogue. I’m pushing on a lot of different fronts.”
For more information, visit www.jewishstcatharines.com.