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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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Last shul in downtown Ottawa sells building

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Beth Shalom Synagogue [Michael Regenstreif/Ottawa Jewish Bulletin photo]

OTTAWA — Congregation Beth Shalom is on the move again, this time quite literally. Having accepted an offer from a local developer to buy its valuable downtown Ottawa property because it can’t afford to maintain it, the congregation will now have to decide where and when to move.

In a 142-24 vote on Nov. 6, shul members approved the sale, which closes in March.

The offer from condominium builder Claridge Homes was for $15 million, with a possibility that the price could increase by up to $9 million if the city allows the developer to increase the site’s density, the Ottawa Citizen reported.

The money will go toward finding a new location and erecting a new building, likely in suburban west Ottawa.

As the oldest congregation in the city – an amalgamation of the two earliest congregations, Adath Jeshurun and Agudath Achim – the 350-family Beth Shalom has faced its share of challenges over the past few years as demographics and synagogue attendance practices have changed.

Having been an Orthodox congregation until a decision in 2003 to offer mixed, “family seating,” the congregation hoped that the new arrangement would attract new members. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. In addition, the Orthodox rabbi and cantor at that time both left the synagogue. Eventually, after being unaffiliated for several years, the congregation joined the Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues.

In 2005, the congregation embarked on a major refurbishment project, hired a new rabbi and introduced new programs, all in an effort to increase membership and bring people back downtown from the suburbs. By 2008, with the renovations complete, the congregation celebrated with a festive 50th-anniversary party.

Architectural designer Murray Cohen told The CJN at the time: “I have been a member of the shul since 1954. I was brought up on York Street. I think that architecture is like literature and art, part of our culture. I was proud to participate in creating a design that will satisfy the vision today and, hopefully, last another 50 years.”

Now, only three years later, a number of factors led to a decision to sell the property and move to another location. The present building was, until a few years ago, occupied by both Beth Shalom and the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) as well as the offices of the former Ottawa Vaad Ha’ir and various other Jewish communal offices.

When the JCC moved to the new Jewish Community Campus in Ottawa’s west end in 1998, the synagogue opted to stay put. That left it with a great deal of vacant space, which it rented out to various tenants.

Synagogue president Ian Sherman, whose family is among the congregation’s founding families and who is now serving his third two-year term as president, said, “We have an 81,000-sq.-ft. property that frankly is too big for us. We are a landlord for a significant portion of the property. We want to be in the shul business, not the property management business.”

A development task force, chaired by Brent Taylor, made a recommendation to the shul’s board of governors to sell the property and relocate the congregation.

Although there is a certain amount of nostalgia for the current shul building and not all members are happy with the decision, Sherman noted that there was an 85 per cent approval rate to proceed.

 “The emotions of doing what we are going to be doing are as intense for me as they are for anyone,” Sherman said. “This is my life. My 52 years of shul life has been spent at Beth Shalom, but it is the right thing to do, the right time, and an incredible opportunity to capitalize on our value.”

The next phase of finding a new location and actually moving will take from 30 to 48 months. “In the meantime, it is business as usual,” Sherman said.

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