TORONTO — A plaque commemorating the colourful history of the Cecil Community Centre was unveiled last week as part of Heritage Toronto’s Jewish Heritage Plaque initiative.
Posing with the plaque commemorating the history of the Cecil Community Centre are, from left: Barry Weinberg, Eric Slavens and Helen Friedman. [Photo courtesy of Heritage Toronto]
This is the fourth plaque erected as part of the Jewish heritage project, following one at the Kiever Shul in Kensington Market; one at the original site of the Federation of the Jewish Philanthropies of Toronto, now the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto; and another honouring the Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Assocation, at the site of the current Miles Nadal JCC on Spadina Avenue.
The Cecil Street building is a monument to the changing demographics of the area around College Street and Spadina Avenue, said Rebecca Carson, communications director of Heritage Toronto, a charitable organization and city agency.
“We’re honouring the history of their support not just for the Jewish community but of Canada itself,” she said.
Eric Slavens, a Heritage Toronto board member, said the project started when he sought ways to raise awareness of Toronto’s Jewish history, leading to the series of plaques.
“The contribution of the Jewish community hadn’t been properly recognized in the city through plaques,” he said, adding that the goal was to mark places that shaped the city. Up next is the original Mount Sinai Hospital building on Yorkville Avenue, said Gary Miedema, co-ordinator of the Heritage Toronto plaque initiative.
Although the Cecil Community Centre is now owned by the City of Toronto, it began as the Church of Christ in 1891, and as per Heritage Canada’s policy, the plaque bears this name. It became the Ostrovtzer Synagogue in 1925.
In 1922, Israel Weinberg, who was in the fur business at the time, and David Sussman, who owned the Toronto Slipper Company, purchased the building for $22,000, naming it after Ostrovtze, their hometown in Poland, explained Barry Weinberg, grandson of founder and former synagogue president, Israel Weinberg.
They replaced the heavy bell tower with a dome, which is still a feature of the building today, Miedema said.
“Many of the leading cantors in America of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s performed and launched their careers at this shul,” Barry Weinberg said.
Helen Friedman, Israel Weinberg’s daughter, said she remembered the cantors performing at the shul on Sundays, after they had stayed with her family at their home on Grace Street.
She said the building had a huge emotional significance for her, recalling, for example, that when she was a child, food was left in a neighbouring home so that she and the other children could eat on Yom Kippur.
She was also married in the synagogue, on Sept. 12, 1943.
In 1966, the building was turned into the Chinese Catholic Centre, reflecting the changing community.
In 1978, it became the Cecil Community Centre and a home for the Chinese Interpretive and Information Services, now known as the Chinese Information and Community Services.
“I saw the beautiful building and I saw the opportunity,” said Ramon Tam, who was involved in the transformation of the building for the centre. “The city bought it and they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Activities now held there include classes for seniors and activities for kids. During elections, all-candidates meetings are offered where proceedings are translated for the Chinese audience.
Despite the changes, the building still retains remnants of its Jewish history. The chandelier has Stars of David, and at the entrance are marble plaques engraved with the names of the founders of the synagogue.
Barry Weinberg said his grandfather had stipulated in the original purchase agreement that even if the building was sold in the future, these Jewish symbols must remain to recall a time when it was a centre for the Jewish community.
“Only in a city like Toronto could we have one building representing so many cultures,” Slavens said.