27 February 2008

Canada: Little synagogue on the Prairie

A pioneer synagogue in Canada will be moved to a historical park in Calgary, according to the Canadian Jewish News.

“The proposal was to build a replica of a synagogue that we knew had existed in the Montefiore colony of Jewish immigrants who had settled in Alberta in 1910. We had a photo of the Montefiore synagogue, but assumed the building itself no longer actually existed,” says Karshenbaum, who is the president of a volunteer group she founded, The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society.

“After the project was approved by Heritage Park, one of our board members, Emanuel Cohen, who was born on a ranch in eastern Alberta, did a lot of research and actually found the Montefiore synagogue that we were proposing to replicate,” says Karshenbaum.

The Montefiore synagogue, which is approximately 800 square feet, was built in 1913 by Jewish immigrants from Russia and eastern Europe. It served about 30 Jewish families, not only as a synagogue but also as a school and community centre, and was built near the present-day village of Sibbald, just west of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

Due to harsh farming conditions, most of the Jewish settlers abandoned the Montefiore colony by the 1920s. Some settlers moved to Calgary and Edmonton, but most of them went to southern California, where they became chicken farmers.

The synagogue was abandoned and sold to a family during the Great Depression, physically moved to a town in eastern Alberta and used as a family home for nearly 70 years. Emanuel Cohen rediscovered it last year and the society bought it for $55,000. The family had not known it was once a synagogue.

For 15 years, Cohen had searched local school maps, museums, archives and spoke to residents to try to find the building. He got started when he wrote a paper on the Montefiore colony for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Albert. Karshenbaum says there were many little prairie synagogues like this, but that the others have been lost.

Calgary has some one million residents, among them about 8,000 Jews, and Heritage Park draws some 500,000 visitors each year. Most who visit the synagogue will not be Jewish.

The JGS of Southern Alberta has launched a fundraising campaign, to raise one million dollars, to move, restore and equip the historic Montefiore synagogue. Some $400,000 has been raised. Karshenbaum, who founded the society hopes the Canadian Jewish community will support the project, which will be restored by consultant Trudy Cowan.

“The building has an impressive amount of original historical content intact,” she says. “We have been able to access the original ceiling behind the drop ceiling that was added. The tops of the original windows are still there. We can even see they had a separate little library, and we have two books stamped ‘Montefiore Hebrew Free Public Library.’”

Cohen says that the “front of the synagogue had a Magen David, which is gone, but the amazing thing is that the nail holes for it are still there.”

Small weddings, bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies are envisioned in the building, and costumed tour guides will explain Jewish religion and culture to visitors.

It will open in the spring of 2009, coinciding with the 120th anniversary of the settlement of the first Jewish family in Calgary - Rachel and Jacob Diamond. Bobby Libin, their great-grandson, chairs the fundraising committee.

For more information, click here.
For two stories on the project, click here and here.

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