WINNIPEG — The Chevra Mishnayes Synagogue in north Winnipeg celebrates its 100th anniversary in early November with an evening of dessert, dancing and schmoozing.
Some Chevra Mishnayes executive members are seen on the shul bimah: from left are treasurer Murray Greenfield, past president Grant Zipursky, secretary Leah Kneller, vice-president Rob Waldman. Absent is president Marshall Kneller.
“The evening is serving a dual purpose,” says Rob Waldman, the synagogue’s vice-president. “Not only are we celebrating our 100th anniversary, but we are also hoping to raise enough money to install an elevator in the shul. Our present building was built in the mid-’60s before access became an issue. It’s harder for some of our older people to go up and down the stairs.”
The Chevra Mishnayes has never had a rabbi or full-time paid staff. Still, the synagogue continues to flourish in spite of the steady decrease in the number of Jewish residents in north Winnipeg.
Waldman says the synagogue’s ability to keep on going reflects the strong sense of family and chevra that has always been fostered there. “To my mind, it’s all about continuity,” he says.
His family have been members since 1926, while current president Marshall Kneller is the fourth generation in his family to be part of the shul.
The congregation began in a house in the old north end in 1908, and a short time later, moved into its first building at Stella and Robinson, where most of Winnipeg Jewry lived at the time. In the early 1960s, the city expropriated the land for a low-cost housing development. Led by men such as then-president Dave Leven; Shia Steinberg (comedian David Steinberg’s father); Rob’s uncle, Bert Waldman; Pesach Coodin and Joe Margulius, the congregation rebuilt at its current location in Winnipeg’s Garden City area, where many members of the Jewish community were moving.
For 10 years, Leven served as president and daily minyan organizer. He would often pick up most of the men for the minyans. He was succeeded in his dual roles by Bert Waldman, who served as president and minyan organizer for 25 years. Also playing an important role in the synagogue’s life for many years were Jack Fishman, formerly of Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay; the late Jack Dubovsky; and Gerry Dorfman. In 1980, the congregation welcomed Gerry Daien as its cantor, a role he fills to this day.
In 1971, the members of another north end congregation, Ohel Jacob, closed its doors and merged with Chevra Mishnayes.
After ill health forced Bert Waldman to step aside in the mid-1990s, a number of younger members of the congregation – people in their late 30s and early 40s at the time – stepped forward to assume leadership.
“There is a corps of five of us who run the shul now,” says past president Grant Zipursky, Daien’s son-in-law. The group consists of Zipursky; Marshall Kneller; Kneller’s wife, Leah, who is secretary; Waldman; and treasurer Murray Greenfield.
“I’m sure that many of our shul members are unaware of how much the members of the executive do,” Waldman says. “We participate in the services, clean up after weddings and bar mitzvahs, and Murray and I just finished polishing the pews,”
Five years ago, the longtime Orthodox congregation voted to allow mixed seating. “It was a tough issue,” Waldman says. “We polled our members twice. We even contacted all the people who only come for yom tov. In the end, 70 per cent voted in favour of mixed seating.”
Three years ago, the congregation spent $50,000 to upgrade its kitchen with state-of-the-art appliances.
The congregation currently numbers about 100 members and member families. For yom tov, the synagogue consistently attracts about 250 people, including many younger families – it is the third largest congregation in the city in terms of holiday attendance. Capacity is close to 470.
Downstairs is the kitchen, a small chapel and an auditorium that can seat a maximum of 235 for life cycle events and synagogue functions.
“We have a lot of fun here,” Waldman says. “For many of us, the Chevra Mishnayes feels like an extension of our homes and families.”