TORONTO — The Kiever Shul was the place where Pinya Balsky, an immigrant from Ukraine, found community.
“He was drawn to the shul, because he was lonely,” recalls his daughter, Polly Soloway, 96. “He went to the shul for the companionship of the other men.
“I remember when the shul was being built. He stood outside and watched the workers lay each brick. That was his recreation.”
That domed red brick building at the corner of Bellevue Avenue and Denison Square, a designated heritage site, has been a landmark in Kensington Market for 85 years. But the Kiever congregation, the Russian Congregation of Rodfei Sholem Anshei Kiev, has actually been in existence for 100 years.
On June 24, the shul marks its centennial with a special Sunday service. It’s one of several events in the works for the shul’s 100th anniversary. Plans are also being finalized to honour Cantor Pinchus Gutter – he’s been leading services there for 25 years – and longtime president, David Pinkus, who’s been at the helm of the synagogue since 1979.
In fact, Pinkus was recently named a Jewish Community Hero by the Jewish Federations of North America for his dedication and years of service to the Kiever.
He says the shul was more than a place of worship: it was also a communal centre where landsmen from the Kiev area formed friendships and helped one another.
Since many of the male congregants made their living selling food, business relationships were forged there as well, Pinkus explains.
While his parents, Izzie and Mollie Pinkus, were founding members and Izzie helped out financially, they were not “involved in shul politics,” he says.
But Alexander Gershman, father of Bess Friedman, was very active in the leadership. Bess Friedman remembers his friendly rivalry with Pinya Balsky: every year, the two men vied for the presidency of the shul.
“His [Balsky’s] wife was my mother’s best friend,” says Friedman, 83. “We’d have family picnics together. The women would be chatting away, and the men wouldn’t talk to each other.” But all was forgiven by Yom Kippur.
Of course, no shul president has served longer than Pinkus. He says he was asked to take on the presidency to defuse some conflicts on the board and because he lived near the shul. He had actually been on the board intermittently for about 15 years before becoming president 33 years ago.
Many people credit him with keeping the Kiever operating these last three decades. He says he took on this responsibility because he felt it was important to preserve the shul so younger generations could appreciate the Toronto Jewish community’s roots in Kensington Market.
After the majority of congregants moved north along the Bathurst Street corridor in the 1950s, the Kiever’s maintenance was neglected and it fell into serious disrepair by the mid-’70s.
Pinkus says he was part of a group spearheaded by the late historian Stephen Speisman, “with the foresight to preserve the synagogue. Shuls were being destroyed all over the place. They said it was time to save the shul.
“They picked the Kiever because they thought they could get a government grant for a historical site.”
Others in the group included the late Sol Edell, Cyril Troster and architect Martin Mendelow.
In this first phase of renovation, the windows were repaired, doors were replaced, the basement was gutted and the bathroom and kitchen were renovated.
In reality, the physical maintenance of the building and its modernization has been a work-in-progress since 1981.
A modest and discreet person, Pinkus has quietly raised funds and overseen the extensive renovation of the shul.
The plumbing, heating, and electric wiring have all been updated. The floors and benches were refinished, the bathrooms and kitchen have been renovated twice, air conditioning has been installed, the yard has been landscaped, and wrought-iron window covering with the Star of David and a matching fence now adorn the property.
When prodded, Pinkus acknowledges that his training as a mechanical engineer and his decades of service on local hospital and community agency boards equipped him to manage the renovations and raise money for the various projects.
When he took over the presidency back in 1979, Pinkus reorganized the finances with assistance from his brother Max, 99, the shul’s treasurer for many years.
“The synagogue operated like a business on Spadina,” Pinkus recounts. “It didn’t have money to operate for a full year, so it borrowed money from the bank until September when it could sell High Holiday tickets to defray the bank loan.”
He says he built up a membership and collected dues so he “wouldn’t have to go running to the bank.”
Along with managing the finances and renovations, Pinkus has been looking after the membership, cemeteries, bar mitzvahs and other life-cycle events, as well as all the ongoing physical upkeep of the building.
He says it has also been his responsibility to maintain the continuity of the traditional service. “The mandate of the shul was Orthodox. I think I have carried that out.”