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Agudas Israel Synagogue / Jewish Community Centre

The history of the Jewish community of Saskatoon is an important part of Saskatchewan’s story. The early Jewish settlers were a very diverse group of people, primarily from Eastern Europe, and ranged in beliefs from freethinking communists to ultra-Orthodox. In 1912, the first simply constructed synagogue was built; by 1920 its members had developed a set of principles embodied in a constitution. This achievement gave official recognition to a second synagogue, built to conform to the Orthodox practices of its members: the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) was situated on the eastern wall; the reader’s platform was in the centre of the sanctuary, surrounded by pews of solid oak; men prayed in this main area, while women congregants prayed in an upstairs semicircular gallery; the Mikvah (Ritual Bath), a kitchen and a social hall on the lower level. Many activities catering to the needs and interests of the Jewish community were coordinated by the Saskatoon Jewish Community Budget: these included the Jewish cemetery located on the old Battleford Trail and established in 1913; the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society); and the Talmud Torah (Hebrew School), built in 1928.

The synagogue was the vibrant heart of the Jewish community through World War I, the Depression, the trials of World War II, and up to the present. World War II, in particular, had a profound effect on the Jews of Saskatoon: 111 men served in the armed forces, out of a Jewish population of 700. In the early 1950s there was a rapid increase in the size of the Jewish community, and most Jewish families moved to the east side of Saskatoon. The synagogue and Hebrew School were no longer conveniently located. The result was the purchase of property on 10th Street and McKinnon Avenue; the Saskatoon B’nai Brith Lodge #739 funded this purchase and continues its support. The sod-turning ceremony took place on May 15, 1957, and the first service was held in 1958; Mayor Sidney L. Buckwold, the first and so far the only Jewish mayor of Saskatoon, cut the ribbon at the official opening ceremony. Religious services in the new facility no longer separated men and women; the sanctuary and social hall were located on the same floor and could be separated by moveable partitions; classrooms, library, a boardroom, and Mikvah were all located on the lower level. This synagogue/centre was designed to serve religious, educational and social needs.

In 1964, the congregation was affiliated with the United Synagogues of America and officially recognized as an adherent of the Conservative branch of Judaism. It is still a member of the United Synagogue (of Conservative Judaism) and is today fully egalitarian: it was among the very first synagogues to elect, in 1979, a woman president. In 1998, Congregation Agudas Israel celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its present building, together with the Jubilee year of the state of Israel, and produced a commemorative volume entitled L’Dor V’ Dor: Heritage and History.

In March 2000 a schism occurred in the congregation: a number of members chose to leave Agudas Israel and to form a new congregation. For the first time in almost a century, there were two Jewish congregations in Saskatoon. In April 2002, someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the synagogue’s lower level, starting a fire that totally destroyed the Rev. David Avol Memorial Library. Fortunately no lives were lost, as the building was unoccupied at the time. There was a great outpouring of outrage at this event but also overwhelming support from the general Saskatchewan community as well as individuals and organizations across Canada and the United States. The library reopened a year later.

Gladys Rose

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