As the city of Saint John, N.B., prepares to tear down the former Shaarei Zedek Synagogue, longtime congregation board member and president Norman Hamburg reflects on the fond memories of what he now calls “a shell”.
The synagogue was sold to the city for $500,000 in 2008 as part of a downtown renewal project, after congregants realized the building was too large for its use and too expensive to retain.
Saint John city council voted last week to declare the building, at the corner of Carleton Street and Wellington Row, surplus land and is reportedly looking for someone to tear it down.
“Saint John called Shaarei Zedek home for 90 years, since [the former Calvin Presbyterian church dating to about 1871] was bought in 1918,” said Hamburg, president through a couple of terms and determined to give up the gavel this year.
“We were 250 to 275 families strong in the 1950s and early 1960s, but have dwindled to about 40 families. We have a wonderful new building now, and it’s perfect for our needs.”
Hamburg, in his 70s and a life-long Saint John resident, admits the old shul building has outlived its use.
“The plans the city had for that area have not materialized, and the building continues to deteriorate. It’s costly for them to heat and maintain it. Yes, it’s part of our heritage, but we’ve moved on. We took out the things we wanted – some of the seating, the bimah, which we re-built in our new synagogue, the Ark – and we’re operating comfortably.”
He stressed that it’s time for the old shul building to go. “No one’s interested in it. It’s just a shell.”
“I think if all the publicity that it’s had, and the chance that people have had to look at it and look at alternate uses for it have not produced anything, then just keeping it, hoping somebody comes along, doesn’t make sense,” Hamburg said.
He traced some of the history of the congregation, noting that the city had two small shuls in the late 1800s and early 1900s, after an initial influx of poor eastern European immigrants opened one Orthodox shul and wealthier western European newcomers opened another. As the poor became more affluent, both factions saw the benefits of merging into one congregation in 1918 as Shaarei Zedek, an Orthodox congregation that became Conservative in the 1950s.
The building seated 550 people, 330 on the main floor and 200 or more upstairs. The shul filled to overflowing on High Holidays in the ’50s and ’60s.
An adjacent building was purchased in 1951 as a community centre, with classrooms, meeting areas and a small 35-seat chapel.
In 1986, the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum became part of the site and today is located at the new synagogue on Leinster Street.