There’s an old joke about a shtetl in the Russian Pale of Settlement with a population of only 100 Jews but 125 synagogues – and every Jew in the village was a synagogue president! It’s only a joke, yet it gets to the heart of the passionate and often divisive religious questions that permeate modern Jewish history, everywhere from Minsk to Manitoba.
Since the mid-18th century, when Moses Mendelssohn and other like-minded intellectuals formulated the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and launched the great debate about what it means to be a Jew in the western world, Diaspora Jewish communities have been torn apart on issues of religious observance and ritual.
In the early 1880s, this contentious dispute was played out on the Canadian prairies in Winnipeg, then a frontier city with a total population of about 26,000. That number included less than 1,000 Jews, most of whom had arrived from the Pale in 1882 and 1883. Apart from not being able to speak English, their most distinguishing feature was their poverty. Yet, given the significance of the synagogue in Jewish daily life, within a short time, Winnipeg had a dozen synagogues.
There was the Beth El Synagogue, established by the handful of English Jews – the community’s so-called aristocracy – who wanted to show that Jews could be part of mainstream society. At the synagogue’s inaugural service on July 11, 1884, Rabbi Joseph Friedman from Montreal delivered the sermon in English, setting the tone and style of the city’s first Reform service. For good measure and to display their true Anglo-Canadian spirit, the congregants sang God Save the Queen before the prayers had concluded.
These Reform rituals proved too much for some of the more Orthodox members of the new synagogue, who departed to form their own congregation, which they called Beth Israel.
Not to be outdone, several groups of Russian Jews established their own, more traditional-style synagogues as well. There was Anshay Roosia (People of Russia) above a soap factory on Henry Street, headed by young clothing merchant Ben Zimmerman, a Russian Jew who came to Winnipeg after living in Philadelphia. There was also a small synagogue called the “Milchige,” since everyone, from the president of the synagogue on down, were milkmen. Yet another was the Shtall Shulach or “Little Stable Synagogue,” so named due to its location beside a livery barn.
With so few Jews in the province, it was clear that Winnipeg’s small community could not sustain so many synagogues. Finances and common sense had to take precedence over religious principles. The result was various mergers during the latter part of the 1880s.
Winnipeg’s vibrant and diverse Jewish community reached its peak in the early 1960s with a population of about 19,400, along with many synagogues, kosher butchers and schools that catered to every Jewish ideology on the spectrum. Not every Winnipeg Jew was religious, but nearly every Jewish family belonged to a synagogue. At some synagogues, you had to book a bar or bat mitzvah five years in advance.
But times have changed. The city’s Jewish population has declined to less than 15,000, and as is the case for Jews everywhere, belonging to a synagogue is not as important as it used to be. Partly it has to do with the expense of membership and High Holiday seats, but mostly it is about the secularization and assimilation of Jews into Canadian society.
In Winnipeg, this has meant a drastic reduction in the number of synagogues. A decisive moment occurred in 2002 with the merger of three Conservative synagogues into the Etz Chayim Synagogue. Now, the Etz Chayim and Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, established in 1889 and the city’s largest Conservative synagogue for many years, are exploring the possibility of a merger. Both synagogues have older buildings that require costly upgrades, as well as dwindling and aging memberships. Both, too, have been fighting an uphill battle to make their institutions more relevant in the lives of their members.
Historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.