TORONTO — Shomrai Shabbos Chevrah Mishnayos is celebrating its 120th anniversary, making it the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Toronto and likely Canada.
To mark the occasion, there will be a fundraising dinner Nov. 17 with guest speaker Rabbi Avraham Twerski, honouring the shul’s spiritual leader Rabbi Yacov Felder and his wife, Raisy, as well as 10 congregants: Bentzion and Miriam Heitner, Harry and Shirley Marder, Moshe and Lea Reichmann, Rochelle Reiter, Bonny Silver, and Jack and Ann Weinbaum. Funds raised will support shul programming.
The synagogue, which recently underwent a major renovation, has been at its current location on Glengrove Avenue West for 40 years, said dinner chair Aaron Wagschal.
The renovation includes an expanded social hall, completed just over a year ago, and a new beit midrash that will allow more programming for men, women and youth to take place, Wagschal said.
As well, a mikvah that will be open Friday evenings – a rarity in the area – is under construction and is expected to be opened in the spring.
Shomrai Shabbos, with about 350 member families, is “an active member within the Toronto Jewish community,” Wagschal said, citing a long history of outreach including Toronto’s Orthodox beit din for gittin (rabbinical court for Jewish divorces) and the Kashruth Council of Canada, which was strongly associated with the synagogue and Rabbi Gedalia Felder, the current rabbi’s father, who was spiritual leader from 1951 until his death in 1991.
The synagogue’s newest initiative is Netzach, created to foster harmonious marriages and home life. The shul also has a number of gemachs that provide things such as yom tov necessities, food throughout the year, and funding for members buying homes in the neighbourhood.
“That speaks to the theme of the dinner – building the Jewish community brick by brick,” Wagschal said.
The shul serves the full spectrum of the Orthodox community from wearers of kippot srugot (crocheted kippot) to shtreimlach, he added.
Former president Harry Marder, 81, a member since he arrived in Canada in 1949, says Shomrai Shabbos is “a very warm congregation.”
He remembers the senior Rabbi Felder as a man with a warm personality who respected Jews of all religious affiliations – and who also served as his shadchan, having gotten to know Marder’s wife’s family when he served the Jewish community in Brantford, Ont.
The younger Rabbi Felder, 49, is well-liked and has been instrumental in building up the shul, Marder said.
Rabbi Felder, the current rabbi, said the congregation is diverse in terms of age and background, but that “there’s no divisiveness. There’s a sense of unity and friendship and working together both for the benefit of the shul and organizations within the community.
“Although the shul is 120 years old, it still remains strong and vibrant… and it continues to play a pivotal role in the community at large,” the rabbi said.
He said the original founders “probably wouldn’t believe it” if they could see the shul and the Toronto Jewish community today. “I think they would be amazed how from humble beginnings… they planted the seeds, and they continue to blossom over 120 years later.”
The original congregation, known as Shomrai Shaboth Anshei Estreich Minhag Sefard, was established by a group of Galitzianer immigrants and was first housed in various locations on Richmond Street.
In 1899, a permanent home was purchased on Chestnut Street, in a building with a women’s balcony and seating for 100 men. The shul moved to the corner of Brunswick and Sussex Avenues in 1933.
Rabbi Yosef Weinreb served as the shul’s first rabbi for more than four decades, until his death in 1942, and the congregation was without a spiritual leader for almost a decade afterward.
“We’re continuing from Rabbi Weinreb and my father, and building upon the foundations that they laid – the ideals and the values they set up,” Rabbi Felder said.