Faced by a range of challenges – from shrinking membership to existential questions of identity – the character and nature of many small, regional Jewish communities across Canada are being reshaped, sometimes with fateful consequences.
For some of these communities it’s a dour exercise in survival, while for others it’s a period when long simmering issues are at last being addressed. Then, extraordinarily, there are those who see the reshaping of their community as a time of opportunity.
One such community is Saskatoon, where, at the city’s main synagogue, Congregation Agudas Israel, something remarkable is taking place.
With a family membership of just 100 and a Jewish community of about 500 (the city’s population is of 270,000), the synagogue has launched a campaign to raise $3-million to expand and renovate its facilities. The projected plan, besides attending to the rejuvenation of an aging structure, will include a new library, a new mikvah, installing a “more welcoming and contemporary bimah” and a Jewish museum that will serve all Saskatchewan.
By taking this action, Congregation Agudas Israel is following in the steps of its forbears, who sought renewal some 60 years ago when the congregation moved from the site of an Orthodox synagogue and Hebrew school to its current address, and decided to affiliate itself with the Conservative movement. The synagogue’s accomplishments over the years across, which span a comprehensive Jewish agenda, have been of a magnitude far greater than its size.
A major factor in explaining the community’s success is where it’s located. Congregation Agudas Israel’s distinctive profile has emerged from a lively and meaningful relationship with the city of Saskatoon – a city that is open, pluralistic and overwhelmingly welcoming. The congregation has done so seamlessly, as proud Jews, who, as in the words of the famous Rabbi Jonathan Sacks celebrate “the dignity of difference,” which is their faith and heritage, and make an inordinate contribution to the civic culture of their city.
Leaders of the Saskatoon Jewish community have contributed greatly to the general community. Events such as the Hadassah, Congregation Agudus Israel’s Silver Spoon Dinner and B’nai Brith’s Silver Plate Dinner are massively supported by the wider Saskatoon community. Perhaps most noteworthy is the community’s commemoration of Yom Hashoah. Hundreds typically attend this event, which usually features an address by a survivor, at Agudas Israel. For the last two years, the keynote speaker for the event has also spoken at a local Catholic cathedral, with the event attended by over 2,000 schoolchildren.
Of all the reasons that help explain the success of the Saskatoon Jewish community, the most relevant is also the least complicated: The Jews of Saskatoon love their wider community. This is crucial. Without the profound emotional and spiritual links that Agudas Israel alumni maintain with their mother community, the $3-million renovation campaign would never have been launched.
Dr. Steven Goluboff, editor of the congregation’s award winning, bi-monthly bulletin, explains: “It is obvious that our small congregation cannot come close to raising the funds that would be required for this project. Only through appealing to our Agudas Israel alumni will it be possible to realize this dream. Over the decades and after early formative Jewish experiences in Saskatoon, many have left to make their mark in cities from Vancouver to Toronto and Montreal and everywhere in between, in the US and in Israel.”
That Congregation Agudas Israel rose to such a challenge at a time when decisive action was needed will resonate for the generations that follow, and will be its finest legacy. Could there be a better illustration of a community fulfilling this pledge, expressed so succinctly in the Talmud: “As my ancestors planted for me so do I plant for those who will come after me”?
Dov Harris lives in Toronto and is retired from UIA Federations, where he was responsible for small communities. He worked with the Saskatoon community for 25 years.