WINNIPEG — For Jewish Winnipeggers of a certain generation, the former Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall on Selkirk Avenue in North Winnipeg brings back memories of happy times.
The Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall [Myron Love photo]
For several decades, the hall – next door to Gunn’s Bakery, one of Winnipeg’s two kosher bakeries – was a centre for the Jewish community. It hosted synagogue services on yom tovim, as well as weddings, Yiddish plays and a variety of social events. However, in October, Congregation Etz Chayim – which inherited the building as a result of the merger of the Beth Israel, Bnay Abraham and Rosh Pina Synagogues in 2001 – sold the storied hall to a church group.
Jonathan Buchwald, Etz Chayim’s executive director, noted that over the last couple of years, revenue from bingo at the hall had fallen steeply, and it had also become increasingly difficult to find volunteers to run the bingo.
“It didn’t make sense to carry the building any longer,” Buchwald says. “We decided last summer to sell and found a buyer.
“It is the end of an era.”
The Hebrew Sick Benefit Association (HSBA) was founded in the early 1900s and became the largest of several mutual aid societies for Jewish immigrants to Winnipeg at a time before governments provided social services.
According to Allan Levine in his new book, Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba, the HSBA in 1907 purchased the former St. Gyles Presbyterian Church on Selkirk Avenue and transformed it into the Queen’s Theatre, a venue for Yiddish theatre that attracted the stars of North American Yiddish theatre.
Laurie Mainster grew up on Selkirk Avenue near the Queen’s. He recalls having a walk-on part when he was four years old. “My parents used to host some of the visiting actors,” he said. “A lot of local talent also blossomed at the theatre.”
With the onset of the Depression and the growth of an English-speaking generation of Jewish Winnipeggers, the theatre fell on hard times. After a fire in the mid-1930s, the HSBA rebuilt the hall and modernized it as a Jewish community centre.
Max Hochman recalled that the hall hosted a lot of Jewish weddings on Sundays (and non-Jewish weddings on Saturday evenings). Hochman’s father-in-law, Abraham Raber, operated the hall’s concession counter in 1950 until his death in 1976.
“He sold soups, corned beef sandwiches, chocolates and drinks,” Hochman said. “There was always a lot of activity. It kept him busy. Sarah [Hochman’s late wife] and I helped out wherever we could. We ran the coat check. Young professional groups held their meetings at the hall. Cards were also a big deal.”
Jack Raber, Max Hochman’s brother-in-law, recalls that stags were also popular for grooms. “There would be gambling, with some of the money raked off for the groom,” he said.
Mainster remembered High Holiday services that were led for a number of years by Cantor Jack Silverberg. “The HSBA Hall was the place to go,” he said.
The hall began to be used for bingo in the 1960s and, after the HSBA merged with the Ateres Israel (Mizericher) shul to form the Beth Israel in Garden City, money raised from bingo was used to help fund the Beth Israel’s operating expenses.
“It was only in the mid-’80s, when the Gambling Commission began monitoring gaming controls, that the bingo really began to make money,” said Sid Kasner, a longtime Beth Israel member who served as the first president of Congregation Etz Chayim.