It’s a source of pride that the Beach Hebrew Institute has never closed its doors. Although the size of the Jewish community here has ebbed and flowed in the years since it was founded in 1920, this year the synagogue is celebrating its 90th anniversary.
The institute started out as a small synagogue with very few people and no profile in the community.
“Everyone really thought it was dead,” says Arie Nerman, past president of the synagogue. “But it was always open.”
A 1924 restoration added an upper gallery and stained-glass windows to the building, located near Queen Street East and Woodbine Avenue.
By the 1930s, anti-Semitism was rampant in the area. At the time, the Toronto Star reported that red and blue swastikas had been hung on the doors of the nearby Balmy Beach Club. But the Jewish community would still travel from Spadina Avenue to picnics in the area.
“Even though the signs along the boardwalk said ‘Dogs and Jews not allowed’, they still came,” Nerman says.
Between the 1940s and ’60s many community members moved northward and the synagogue had very little money in its budget. There were not enough members in attendance to hold services and there was pressure to sell, but by the mid-’70s enough Jewish families had moved back into the area to revive the synagogue.
A shift in the ’80s resulted in the orthodox practice giving way to a liberal conservative one, meaning that women were now considered equal and are counted in the Minyan, 10 people needed to begin religious services.
The synagogue is unique in that it has never had a rabbi.
“The members are basically the spiritual leaders of the synagogue,” Nerman says. “That’s been our mainstay.”
They still use the same prayer book that was produced by two members in 1979.
Nerman fondly remembers celebrating the synagogue’s 75th anniversary.
“We closed the street off, we took the Torahs and walked them down the street with the neighbours on their balconies.”
Another highlight was in 1982 when then-mayor Art Eggleton designated the building a heritage site. A series of guest lectures, a concert and a special service for members of the original families have commemorated the synagogue’s 90th anniversary.
For the past 12 years the synagogue has hosted an interfaith lunch program five days a week, run by vice-president Sharon Hershenhorn and other volunteers. Nerman says past bazaars and visits from high-profile Torontonians like David Crombie and Neil Young, combined with the lunch program, have opened the synagogue’s doors to the community.
“Everyone knows we’re there now.”
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