A synagogue lost then found

Alberta's Heritage Park is getting a new addition: a restored pioneer synagogue.

canada synag 88 224 (photo credit: Shel Bercovich )
canada synag 88 224
(photo credit: Shel Bercovich )
Calgary's heritage park is soon to be the second in North America to display a restored pioneer synagogue that will teach visitors about Jewish religion and culture. The idea was the brainchild of Irena Karshenbaum, a member of Calgary's Jewish community, who works for a small real-estate development company and is also a freelance writer. "The only other synagogue I know of that exists in a historic park in North America is in San Diego," says Karshenbaum, who proposed her idea to the board of directors of Heritage Park. "My initial 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." To implement her idea, Karshenbaum formed a volunteer group, called the Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society, and became the group's president. "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," she says. The Montefiore synagogue, which has an area of approximately 74 square meters, was built in 1913 by Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, who had come to Alberta fleeing persecution. The wooden structure was built on the farm of Jacob and Fanny Chetner and served about 30 Jewish families, not only as a synagogue but as a school and community center. It was named after Sir Moses Montefiore, an Italian-born Jewish philanthropist, and was built near the present day village of Sibbald, just west of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. Due to harsh farming conditions, including drought, hail and pestilence, most of the Jewish settlers abandoned the Montefiore colony by the 1920s. Some settlers moved to Calgary and Edmonton but most moved to southern California, where they became chicken farmers. "The synagogue was abandoned and during the Great Depression the government sold it around 1937 to a family for $200. It was moved to a small town in eastern Alberta and lived in as a two-bedroom house and kept in the same family for almost 70 years. It remained there until Emanuel Cohen tracked it down last year. Our society bought it for $55,000. The non-Jewish family living in it didn't know it had once been a synagogue," says Karshenbaum. Cohen, a 77-year-old real-estate appraiser, says that to find the synagogue he searched exhaustively through local school maps, museums and provincial archives, and spoke to many local residents. "I had been on the trail of that synagogue for the last 15 years, ever since I wrote my first paper on the Montefiore colony for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta," he says. "Wherever I went in the area, I asked residents for information about the synagogue and I kept my ears open to hear anything about it. Because I've been in the real-estate business for years, I was able to keep on it until I got enough information to track it down," he says. "When I finally found the synagogue we didn't tell anyone in the area that we found it and we didn't say exactly where it was located. We didn't want anyone to find out about it until we had it moved onto Heritage Park. We didn't want to chance that any of the locals or anyone else would try to burn it down or destroy it," Cohen says. According to Karshenbaum, there apparently "were lots of little synagogues on the prairies similar to this one but they have been lost. On June 11 of this year, the little synagogue's foundation was uprooted and the synagogue was put on a truck and it is now in storage. Since it's been moved, we are able to tell people that Emanuel Cohen found it in the small town of Hannah, Alberta, which has about 3,000 people." The town of Hannah is 215 km. northeast of Calgary and is known as "the Home of the Canada Goose." "Calgary is a city of a million people and has only about 8,000 Jews. Heritage Park has approximately half a million visitors a year. Most of the people who will go inside the pioneer synagogue will be non-Jewish and for many it will be their first time ever setting foot inside a synagogue," Karshenbaum adds. The society which Karshenbaum formed has launched a $1 million fund-raising campaign to move, restore and equip the Montefiore synagogue. She has committed many volunteer hours and her own resources to see this project through to its conclusion. "We have already raised more than half of this sum and need the remaining funding to be in place by the time we move the building this summer to Heritage Park. We are hoping that the Jewish community all over the world will support this unique project, which is such a positive way to educate people about the beauty of Judaism. This really is an important outreach program, certainly one of the most important that Calgary's Jewish community has ever undertaken," she says. Trudy Cowan, an experienced heritage and museum consultant, will oversee the restoration of the synagogue, which is expected to take a year. "Restoration work involves precise and exacting work by expert artisans. Visitors to the park will be able to watch and see how the slow process of restoration takes place," she says. "The synagogue building has an impressive amount of original historical content intact. The original siding is still there underneath a layer of stucco, so the building really speaks of its own history. 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 a copy of two books stamped Montefiore Hebrew Free Public Library." "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," says Cohen. The restored synagogue will be able to host small scale weddings and bar and bat mitzva ceremonies. Trained guides in costume will explain Jewish religion and culture to visitors who tour the synagogue. The synagogue is expected to be moved from storage by truck onto Heritage Park this summer. "We anticipate that the synagogue will be open to the public in the spring of 2009, which will be the 120th anniversary of the first Jewish family to settle permanently in Calgary, Rachel and Jacob Diamond. Their great-grandson, Bobby Libin, is the chair of our fund-raising committee," says Karshenbaum. www.littlesynagogue.ca