Although today there remain five synagogues in the northern section of the city, in Garden City and West Kildonan specifically, none of them is located, as the Ashkenazi is, in an area of the city once dubbed the New Jerusalem. And none of them, consequently, has roots that go quite as deep as those of the Ashkenazi, the oldest existing synagogue in the city.
The longevity of the Ashkenazi synagogue is an achievement in itself and clearly a testament to the devotion and resolve of its multi-generational congregants, volunteers and spiritual leaders. The synagogue, which burned down in 1948 and was rebuilt within the year, has managed against significant odds to consistently keep its doors opened in a neighbourhood that has essentially been devoid of a Jewish population for decades already. In the course of doing so, however, it has faced its share of challenges.
"Over the past 10 to 15 years, the synagogue has been the target of a large number of incidents of vandalism and anti-Semitic graffiti and other abuses," says Gerald Minuk, an active congregant at the synagogue for more than 20 years.
These sporadic incidents came to a head in 2006, when vandals smashed the orthodox synagogue's doors and threw bricks through about 30 windows.
In response to that disturbing incident, Minuk and his fellow congregants decided it was time for the synagogue to undertake some kind of educational outreach project within their immediate neighbourhood. They hoped that by educating area youth about Judaism in general and about the critical role the synagogue historically played in the development of the North End, they would increase the neighbourhood's tolerance and respect for the synagogue's presence.
"The synagogue has made a meaningful contribution to the neighbourhood in nurturing people from all walks of life who have made significant contributions to the North End," Minuk says. "It also has contributed by staying in the North End and engaging in dynamic interaction with the local ethnic populations."
These are important factors to consider, especially when over the years so many other institutions, businesses and people have abandoned that part of the city.
In order to get its message out, the synagogue hired two students in the summer of 2008 to conduct research on Judaism, the synagogue, and the North End, and develop a dynamic and interactive educational program for area schools. The program they created focused on basic Jewish history, laws and customs and the many accomplished Jewish Winnipeggers who had been involved in or positively influenced by the Ashkenazi synagogue.
This list included individuals representing a wide range of fields and achievements, among them entertainers David Steinberg and Monty Hall, former University of Manitoba president Ernest Sirluck, and president of the Friends of Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Aubie Angel.
While the original intent was for the summer students to actually present their program in various classrooms, that plan has now been changed. Instead, the materials they developed are being transferred onto DVD to make the project available and accessible to any number of schools and classrooms in the synagogue's neighbourhood, and even beyond.
Although there is no guarantee the DVD will have the desired effect, supporters of the synagogue are optimistic it will help to foster greater neighbourhood acceptance and understanding and finally halt years of hurtful vandalism and graffiti.
It is not likely the Ashkenazi synagogue will ever blend into its surroundings as it did so easily 80 years ago when it was just one of dozens of Jewish institutions in an area populated by thousands of Jews.
But since the synagogue has demonstrated that it has no intention of closing its doors or of moving, it would like to enjoy, as it did for so many years, the easy acceptance of its neighbours.