It’s not exactly a liquidation sale, but all items had to go as Shaar Shalom Synagogue wound up operations after 44 years as a Conservative synagogue in Thornhill, just north of Toronto.
Shuls across the GTA and southern Ontario received Torahs, chumashim, siddurim, rimonim, Torah breastplates and other items, said Barry Barnes, president of Shaar Shalom.
The synagogue held its last day of services June 30 and sold its building a few weeks later, closing the sale on Aug. 31 after years of declining membership and the departure of clergy, which left it “unsustainable” as a going concern, Barnes said.
The shul’s demise also prompted the recruitment of former members by other Conservative synagogues. Adath Israel Congregation sponsored a small billboard on Bathurst Street and took out an ad in The CJN to urge Shaar Shalom members to consider it as their new place of worship. Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Pride of Israel and others held open houses aimed in part at attracting former Shaar Shalom members.
So far, Adath Israel’s outreach effort has proven somewhat successful, with 20 families joining the mid-Toronto congregation in just the last few weeks. New families were offered free memberships for 2016 and a 25 per cent discount in 2017, said Cari Kozierok, the synagogue’s executive director.
Kozierok, whose parents were founding members of Shaar Shalom, said “we feel for the members of Shaar Shalom and know how emotional it is for them to close their shul. We feel it was our responsibility to reach out and offer them a new home.”
Rabbi Jarrod Grover, spiritual leader at Beth Tikvah, said a number of Toronto shuls are reaching out to former Shaar Shalom members. “We’re making it easier for these members to transition to our congregation,” he said.
“I think all the synagogues are on the same page when it comes to ensuring that the Shaar Shalom members have somewhere to go and are not left without a shul,” he said.
A number of Shaar Shalom families have joined Beth Tikvah, continuing a trend that had been ongoing for a number of years, he added.
Losing members had been a factor in the demise of Shaar Shalom, Barnes acknowledged. Many of the members’ children had moved out of the area and joined synagogues closer to their new homes, or had not joined any synagogue at all. Along with the departure of their clergy, an aging membership and a mortgage of more than $500,000, the board, supported by the members, decided to close the shul for good, he added.
Once listed for sale, it didn’t take long to sell the building. The board received multiple offers and sold the facility to a numbered company for $8.7 million.
According to a letter sent to Shaar Shalom members, “After repaying the property mortgage… loans, lines of credit, legal fees and real estate commissions, there remains approximately $7.08 million for donations and operating expenses. We have arranged for office space and created an investment committee chaired by our treasurer that will be manging the funds in the interim.”
The shul’s board has decided to allocate the funds to Conservative shuls and other charitable organizations. “Synagogues in the city that attract our members will be getting a sum of money, based on the number of members they attract,” Barnes said.
“It’s inappropriate to discuss the amount,” he said, adding that future allocations would allow “Shaar Shalom [to] provide a legacy in Toronto that will help a broad base of synagogues and Jewish organizations.”
The idea is to help other Conservative synagogues remain sustainable while encouraging former members to continue their connection to the Jewish community. “Other funds will be distributed for specialized legacy purposes, to be administered on our behalf,” Barnes added.
Asked what sort of programs would qualify, Barnes said “any and everything that promotes connection to the Jewish community,” offering Birthright Israel as an example.
As for the synagogue’s portable property, it was distributed to other synagogues. Some of the items, which had been donated by families, went to shuls chosen by the donor families. The chapel, which included the Ark, seats, tables and doors, went to the Pride of Israel.
“Everything has found a home, except for the doors to the Ark in the main sanctuary,” which are now in storage, he said.
Shuls across the city received various items, as did houses of worship in Barrie (Am Sholom), Peterborough (Beth Israel) and Hamilton (Beth Jacob).
The City Shul in downtown Toronto, received one of nine Torahs donated or loaned by Shaar Shalom.
“They’ve been donated and dedicated in memory of loved ones and in honour of families. They have seen births and deaths and have lovingly passed from generation to generation,” said City Shul’s Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. “What a wonderful way of leaving a legacy from this congregation. What a beautiful journey, from one door closing to another just opening, from an organization at the end of its life to an organization just at the beginning of theirs. It’s an honour and a responsibility to safeguard such precious legacies.”