Synagogues

Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the synagogue was and still continues to be the community centre, the house of study, and the house of prayer for the Jewish people. However, a synagogue building is not necessary for prayer. Services may be conducted provided there is a knowledgeable leader and, for the orthodox, a minyan, that is a quorum of ten Jewish men over the age of 13. On the other hand, the Conservative and Reform movements accept a minyan of ten Jewish men and women. Another important part of a religious service is a Torah scroll on which the Five Books of Moses are inscribed; some early settlers brought Torah scrolls with them to their Saskatchewan homes.

Sparsely settled Saskatchewan necessitated ingenious solutions when no minyan was available. A Lipton colony pioneer, for example, on learning that one of his parents had died, went into the forest to say kaddish, the prayer for the dead; the forest became both his minyan and his congregation. When possible, a minyan met in people’s homes: for the high holidays, Jews from scattered small towns and villages would gather in a home or in a Jewish farm colony to celebrate and pray. When it was not possible to attend a synagogue, some would choose a central location to meet for services in a rented hall, a theatre and, later, even a curling rink. For example, during World War II, the Jewish people from Neville, Admiral, Vanguard, Cadillac, Tompkins and Herbert joined the Jews of Swift Current who had rented the Masonic Lodge hall; occasionally they hired a religious leader from Regina to lead the services.

Sometime before 1885 the Jewish farm colonists of “New Jerusalem” constructed the earliest known synagogue in Saskatchewan. Eventually synagogues were built in Canora, Edenbridge, Estevan, Hirsch, Yorkton, Kamsack, Lipton, Melfort, Melville, Moose Jaw, North Battleford, Prince Albert, Regina, Rosthern, Saskatoon, and Sonnenfeld. The Kamsack synagogue was completely destroyed by a cyclone and rebuilt 1944. Synagogue buildings in Saskatchewan tended to be small, modest wooden structures. Because Saskatchewan Jews in earlier days were orthodox, the women sat at the back of the building while the men sat in the front; or a curtain separated the male and female members of the congregation. In a few of the buildings there was an upstairs women’s gallery.

The Jewish population in Saskatchewan’s rural areas as well as its smaller centres has dwindled considerably over the years. Once-active communities no longer exist, and their synagogues have either been destroyed over time or stand unused. One exception is the Edenbridge farm colony’s synagogue: in 1976, through the efforts of descendants and relatives of original Jewish settlers, the provincial government declared the restored building, the cemetery, and the forty acres of forested land on which they stand a Regional Historic Site; the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation maintains the site.

In 1919, one of the province’s more attractive synagogues was built in Saskatoon at the cost of approximately $12,000. The structure, of Greek design and approximately forty by sixty feet, had the finest plumbing available. A newspaper reported that the upstairs consisted of a large auditorium with a semicircular gallery above; the seats and furnishings were made of oak. This synagogue is no longer in use by Saskatoon’s Jewish community.

At the present time there are two synagogues in Saskatchewan: Beth Jacob in Regina, and Congregation Agudas Israel in Saskatoon. Beth Jacob is an unaffiliated member of the conservative movement. A group belonging to the Reform movement also meets at Beth Jacob from time to time. Congregation Agudas Israel is affiliated with the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism. Shir Hadash, which seceded from Congregation Agudas Israel, is an unaffiliated conservative congregation in Saskatoon.

Anne Feldman