SAINT JOHN, N.B. — “Ya’amod re-vee-ee,” intoned the gabbai, calling up the next aliyah.
Shaarei Zedek Synagogue in Saint John, N.B.
Then he added what you don’t usually hear in a Shabbat Torah service.
“Ontario,” he called out.
Then, what seemed like half the congregation ascended to the bimah. Like a sea of red plaid, they surrounded the Torah.
The red plaid refers to the kippot that were specially created for this day, bearing the provincial tartan of New Brunswick. Wearing them proudly, a reunited Saint John Jewish community was called up for aliyot in groups by the geographic regions where they now reside.
The swarm of Ontarians comprised the largest contingent to make the physical, as well as symbolic, ascent of returning home to say shalom – goodbye – to the venerable building of Shaarei Zedek Synagogue, their hometown’s one and only shul.
The service was part of a three-day reunion held over the August long weekend that saw more than 150 former Saint John Jews arrive from all over Canada and the United States, and from as far away as Australia. The reunion was one last hurrah before the closing of their beloved shul.
The historic building had been the epicentre of their close-knit, small-town communal lives for generations.
Located just blocks from the Saint John Harbour, Shaarei Zedek was sold recently to the city of Saint John. The deal also included the adjacent Saint John Jewish Historical Museum, which before 1986 served as a Jewish community centre and Hebrew school.
Both buildings will cease operation in November and are slated for demolition to make way for an urban renewal project.
Since the 1950s and 60s, Saint John’s Jewish population has dwindled from 300 families to 30 today. Despite strong emotional ties to the building, the unwieldy overhead costs and the challenge of attracting a minyan led to the inevitable decision to sell.
“We knew the path we were on,” said Dan Elman, the gabbai who has led prayer services ever since the community lost it’s ability to support a full-time rabbi 25 years ago.
“We knew we had to make a choice, and as a board and as a congregation, it was hard to come to terms with our emotions. But [selling] was the right thing to do.”
Erected by local ship builders in 1865, the building first served as a church. Saint John’s Jewish community, which dates back to 1858 with the arrival of tobacconist Solomon Hart, took possession of the structure in 1919 following an influx of eastern European Jews and the amalgamation of two earlier synagogues.
Shaarei Zedek became regarded as Atlantic Canada’s most beautiful shul.
At first an Orthodox congregation, it later became Conservative egalitarian. But throughout its history, it provided a spiritual centre for a flourishing Jewish presence in New Brunswick’s port city.
“My grandson is a sixth-generation Saint Johner,” said Senator Ermine Cohen, who was part of the reunion planning committee. “We were blessed to grow up in what was considered the golden years of the synagogue in a huge community that had everything.”
The shul was more than merely a place of worship. It was the cultural hub for youth groups, drama clubs, sports teams, and significant family and community milestone life events.
In fact, “because we had only one shul, we’ve always considered everyone here today as extended family,” so, family events became community events, Elman said.
“For years, our bar mitzvahs were famous everywhere, because everything was cooked and baked in the synagogue’s kosher kitchen,” Cohen said.
“The women would plan menus a couple months in advance, everybody taking responsibility for her specialty, whether it was sweet and sour meatballs, lokshin kugel, tsimmis, or strudel.”
That scene was recreated at the reunion. For days beforehand, the community’s women busied themselves in the vestry and kitchen, including Cohen and former Nova Scotia lieutenant governor Myra Freeman, both Saint John natives.
“It was unifying, because everyone owned a little bit of this weekend,” Cohen said. “This was their simchah.”
The turnout for the reunion weekend exceeded all expectations.
“You have no idea how wonderful it is seeing an empty shelf of prayer books,” Elman said, referring to the unusually full Shabbat sanctuary.
He added, “I noticed people looking around, upstairs and down, pointing and saying ‘This is where Bubbie used to sit, or so and so sat in those rows.’”
“And that’s why there were so many tears today,” Cohen said. “Because although people have been removed for 25 years and longer, it was like they’d come home and they’re losing their shul. They probably belong to another synagogue somewhere else, but they consider this home.”
Referring to the reunion’s theme, “Shalom Shaarei Zedek,” Cohen pointed out that shalom has two additional meanings, other than goodbye. “It means peace, in that we were all in agreement that this was the path we had to take.”
It’s also a greeting ,and the expat Saint Johners returned just in time to greet the newly purchased building that will replace their shul.
It’s a former funeral home, just a few blocks away, where Shaarei Zedek has held funerals in recent years. Smaller and more affordable, it will meet the community’s changing needs.
To help with moving and resettling costs, renowned Maritime artist Herzl Kashetsky donated his painting of the interior of Shaarei Zedek for auction.
In one of the more climactic moments of the weekend, the painting sold for $19,000. It’s believed the purchaser will want it hung in the new shul.
If the weekend was bittersweet, Cohen focused on the sweet.
“We have a new lease on life,” she said, citing developments that could bring new members to the Saint John Jewish community: growth of the local Irving oil refinery, a new power plant, and a new medical school, all currently in the works.
Striking an optimistic tone, she reflected on the difficult decision to sell and move forward.
“It was part of a legacy from our parents, our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers to go on with a Jewish presence in Saint John.”