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Synagogue remains in original North End neighbourhood

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Longtime member Saul Spitz.


Longtime member Saul Spitz. Photo Store

The North End neighbourhood that was once a rich and vibrant hub of Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish and other new immigrants has changed and much of that community has moved on.

Though many synagogues have departed from a North End that is often troubled by poverty, violence and other social problems, one historic synagogue has stayed put, close to its cherished roots, and is firmly planted in the neighbourhood that witnessed its beginnings.

"I joined in 1973," says Gary Minuk, following morning prayers in a tiny, narrow room of the Ashkenazy synagogue on Burrows Avenue. "It was packed then, you couldn't get a seat on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)."

The Ashkenazy synagogue was founded in 1921 by a group of immigrants from Lithuania. It took over an old Baptist church on the northwest corner of Burrows Avenue and Charles Street.

A fire destroyed the Orthodox synagogue in April 1945, but it was rebuilt by its members three years later on the same site. The current red brick building is now said to be the oldest synagogue in Winnipeg.

"Our rabbi, Avrohom Altein... came here around 1973 also," says Minuk.

Altein, 66, recalls that "already the neighbourhood had changed then." Raised in New York City, he also remembers Joseph Wolinsky, who was the president of Ashkenazy at that time. "He was a very wealthy, prominent man who gave to charities around the world."

There are a few people who are determined to keep it going, says the rabbi, one of them being longtime member and holocaust survivor, Saul Spitz. "A lot depends on him because he is the driving force there."

Minuk agrees. Spitz, 85, is also the president of the synagogue. "He opens it up every morning. He is a one-man show... he really keeps it going."

There were about 14 synagogues at one time in the North End, says Minuk. Today, he adds, this is the only one left in the North End. "It really is amazing that we're still going... if we didn't get this daily minyan (a minimum of 10 members) we couldn't keep going."

The two men lead the way through the large synagogue, proper, used only for High Holidays. The original upholstered pews dating from 1948 are still there. The original book easels are attached to the backs. A raised central bimah, or dais, stands in the middle of the room. "It faces east because when you pray you face east," says Minuk.

There is no traditional art in the synagogue as "in orthodox synagogues it is thought that such art might distract an individual from concentrating on their prayers," explains Gerald Minuk, also a longtime member and the brother of Gary.

It is an older generation that attends and there are few young people. Of its future, Rabbi Altein is philosophical: "Buildings are beautiful and there is a lot of history in it but the buildings are secondary to the people... but as long as it can continue, it should."


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2014 0


Updated on Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 9:35 AM CST: Fixed cutlines, changed headline.

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