For my Celebrate Toronto articles series I am continuously searching for people who are making positive contributions in the neighbourhood and building the community in unique ways. During my brief tour of the Beach, Gene Domagala introduced me to the Beach Hebrew Institute, a religious institution that has been in existence in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood since 1920. I wanted to learn more about this institution so I contacted Arie Nerman, the President of the Beach Hebrew Institute, and a good friend of Gene Domagala.
Arie invited me to come over and join him on a Wednesday morning which would allow me to also see the drop-in program in action, a program that offers a free warm lunch to disadvantaged people in the neighbourhood. Punctually at 10:30 am I entered the premises and met Arie, a distinguished gentleman in his early seventies. He started to fill me in on the history of the Beach Synagogue: during the 1890s the Kenilworth Avenue Baptist Church was erected on these premises and opened in 1895. Around 1908 the congregation moved to a larger church on Waverley Road and the old church stood empty for a while and was even used as a warehouse and as a community centre.
The Beach Hebrew Institute
In 1920 finally the building was purchased by the Beth Jacob congregation which started to hold Orthodox prayer services in the now refunctioned synagogue. Even the orientation of the building was changed in order for the gable to face eastwards. Arie explained that this was a small congregation and in 1935 it was composed of about 35 families. The 1920s and 1930s were a difficult time for the Jewish community as anti-Semitism had been sweeping across Canada. The word “synagogue” had deliberately been left out of the name of this religious building.
The Beth Jacob congregation stayed until the 1940s and then moved away and left essentially no trace. Over the years various congregations fluctuated in size and they had no rabbi. During the 1960s the Jewish community in the Beach began to dwindle as its members moved further north in the city. Yet a handful of members remained; many of them were small business owners who had upholstery shops or grocery stores.
Arie Nerman, Beaches/East York Citizen of the Year 2005
Arie Nerman himself joined the congregation in the 1970s, right around the time when there was talk of the building being sold. Arie originally was a non-observant Jew and it took him about two years to even find out that there was a synagogue in the Beach. Once he joined the congregation he decided to become more involved. Together with several members of the congregation and with the blessing of the elders they did some fundraising to ensure the continued existence of the Beach Hebrew Institute.
No repairs had been done for eons, and Arie took over the congregation when there was $40 in the treasury. The congregation was still orthodox and a devoted group of members set about to make some changes. They made changes to become a conservative congregation which meant that members of the opposite sex were allowed to sit together. A few years later the congregation changed again to become liberal conservative. Ever since then women and men have equal status in the synagogue.
During the 1980s and 1990s major repairs were undertaken as a result of extensive fundraising efforts. Letters were sent to every Jewish business in the city, and bazaars were held whose proceeds were dedicated to the restoration fund. Arie explained that the furnace needed to be replaced and now the building actually has two new furnaces. The roof had to be repaired, the floors had to be painted. The original stained glass was restored at a cost of about $15,000. Fans were added which were later replaced by a central air conditioning system. All the fixtures were paid for by the congregation.
The beautifully restored synagoge
Today, the building is in good shape and the congregation’s fiscal state is in order. The membership at the Beach Hebrew Institute today encompasses about 130 families and about one third of the members reside in the Beach triangle. Others come in from Scarborough or Cabbagetown. One Jewish family is still living on this very street, a few doors away from the Synagogue.
Arie refers to the Beach Hebrew Institute as the “People’s Synagogue”. The congregation participates in all the services and during high holidays they bring in a cantor to lead the service. One of the community’s elders, Mr. Tanenbaum, a Holocaust survivor, is the spiritual mentor and guide for this community.
Arie’s goal has always been to become an active part of the wider community and today he participates in various interfaith initiatives and is part of the ministerial meetings that are attended by ministers of various churches in the area. Arie Nerman is the co-founder of the Beaches Interfaith Community Outreach Committee, a local interfaith group that includes the Presbyterian, Anglican, United, Roman-Catholic, Mennonite and Baptist Churches, whose primary initiative is a drop-in program that is held daily at a different location. This program offers a hot, nutritious lunch to the homeless, unemployed individuals, welfare recipients, individuals with mental challenges and low-income residents in the neighbourhood.
Arie and one of his volunteers, Celia Gould