The historic Beach Hebrew Institute, commonly known as the Beach Shul, in Toronto’s east end is preparing a year of celebratory events to mark its 100th anniversary.
The festivities will kick off with a special centennial kiddush luncheon, following services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. But planning for the birthday bash started well in advance, with two members of the shul’s centennial committee – Dena Taylor and Sharon Hershenhorn – helping to lead the charge by sifting through old photos and digging into the synagogue’s history.
Hershenhorn said the congregation is Conservative Egalitarian. “We’re a warm community. We’re egalitarian and diverse. We march to our own drum. We’re Conservative, but we’re not members of any Conservative organization,” she said.
She explained that synagogue membership is made up of “120 units, single or families.” Seating in the small sanctuary is limited, due to fire regulations.
Formerly known as Beth Jacob Congregation, the Beach Hebrew Institute was originally Orthodox.
Taylor said they have quite a bit of information about the synagogue’s early history. The founding members were predominantly local merchants who lived in the Beaches neighbourhood, or people who owned cottages there.
She said they were meeting on Shabbat, but they outgrew their gathering space, so, in 1919, they purchased the Kenilworth Avenue Baptist Church, which was built in 1895.
Taylor pointed out that the shul did not use a Hebrew name because the congregation wanted to be discreet about its presence in the east-end neighbourhood, where anti-Semitism was growing increasingly more virulent.
Renovations were done in 1926 to make the front facade resemble a synagogue rather than a church.
There has been a Hebrew school on the premises throughout much of its history, Hershenhorn said, noting that this year’s enrolment is between 25 and 30 students.
Taylor said they found a memoir recorded for the Ontario Jewish Archives by Ben Ornstein, a man who grew up in the area during the 1930s, when the swastika clubs were very active and anti-Semitism was rampant.
“Ben Orenstein, who was a young boy at the time (in the 1930s), remembered some of his friends knocking on his door to ask him to join their demonstration against the Jews. When he indicated to them that he himself was Jewish, they replied that it was different – he was part of the neighbourhood,” Taylor said.
She said the synagogue flourished in the ’40s, but membership began to decline in the ’50s. “The ’60s was a low ebb in membership. There were only about 36 member families, but membership resumed its growth in the ’70s,” according to Taylor.
There was renewed interest in the synagogue when younger families began to move into the Beaches. “By the end of 1979, renovations for the synagogue’s 60th anniversary were completed and membership grew solidly upwards,” she said.
Hershenhorn moved to the Beaches in 1975 and joined the synagogue in 1987, when her daughter was seven. Taylor became a member in 2009, the year she moved from Thornhill, Ont., to Toronto’s Distillery District.
The sanctuary is named after Sam Tanenbaum, an Auschwitz survivor who came to Canada in 1948. He worked as an upholsterer, but led Shabbat services at the shul from the ’60s, until his death in 2009.
“He was our spiritual leader, but he never wanted the title of rabbi,” Hershenhorn said. “He was very modest. We only learned that he was a rabbi after his death, when his children, who also didn’t know, found his papers.”
Today, services are led by Cantor Moshe Saadon. The synagogue holds Shabbat services every Saturday at 9:30 a.m., along with High Holiday services.
It also holds events in its social hall, which is named after the late Arie Nerman, its former president. He was named the Beaches citizen of the year in 2005, for involving the synagogue in the social justice projects of the wider interfaith community in the area.
“Arie’s responsibility was for keeping the shul open and welcoming people,” Hershenhorn said. “He was openly gay. At the shul, it didn’t matter what your orientation was, or where you were from. If you came, you were welcomed.”