Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shaarey Zedek has a long and proud history

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The first Jewish synagogue in Winnipeg, Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, was built more than 120 years ago on the corner of what is now King Street and Henry Avenue in 1889. Its 120th anniversary is to be celebrated in a soon-to-be released video.

Providing an urgently needed place of worship to the first immigrants here, the synagogue marked the very beginnings of a hope-filled community that was not without its many early struggles.

Jewish immigrants started to settle in Winnipeg as early as 1877. In 1881, there were about 21 Jewish families in Manitoba. The year 1882, however, saw more widespread immigration begin as well over 300 Russian-Jewish refugees fled persecution and violence in Russia to seek a better life.

Canada needed immigrants and the Jewish refugees from Russia needed a home. According to Jim Blanchard's book Winnipeg 1912, persecution forced more than half of the Jewish population of Russia's empire to flee during the three decades prior to the First World War.

The immigrants landed in Montreal from Russia and then travelled by ship across the Great Lakes to eventually ride the train to Winnipeg.

They immediately went to work to feed their families as labourers for the CPR, construction workers or ditch-diggers for little pay. Winnipeggers chipped in by donating blankets and mattresses, and offering temporary work.

Like other immigrants, the newly arrived Jewish people had no choice but to bed down the first nights in the city on the floor of the crowded and often dirty immigrant sheds. For lack of a synagogue, Sabbath services were conducted in the shed's noisy, cramped and unkempt quarters.

Because immigrants were allowed to stay only a few days there, the only other option was to move into crudely put-together shacks, crowded together in the rapidly swelling North End near the huge, smoke-filled CPR yards.

In the early 1900s, as the area kept growing, it was sometimes referred to by its inhabitants as mitzraim, or a place from which to escape. Polish, Ukrainian, German, Anglo-Canadians and others lived there also and endured the overcrowding, the lack of proper water and sewage systems, the unpaved roads and the diseases such as typhus that resulted from such conditions.

The Jewish settlers endured by faith and work and by filling these early days and nights with the hopes and dreams of freedom and of a better future for their families. With nowhere to worship, they used temporary synagogues set up in private homes or rented rooms as early as 1885.

In 1887 the congregations Sons of Israel and Beth finally came together to build a synagogue. The name, Shaarey Zedek, which means the Gates of Righteousness, was chosen in remembrance of a synagogue in Detroit. A lot on the corner of King and Common (now Henry) streets was purchased from William Gomez de Fonseca for $1,250.

Architect Charles H. Wheeler drew up the plans for the building, which was completed in December of 1889. Almost all of the Jewish community as well as many non-Jewish Winnipeggers turned out for the dedication March 20, 1890.

The Manitoba Free Press that year reported the Jews should be congratulated on their handsome brick synagogue. Designed with coloured glass windows, the synagogue contained one of the finest tabernacles in Canada, made of Italian and American marble.

In 1894, four hectares of land were purchased by the committee, in what is now West Kildonan, for the establishment of Shaarey Zedek Cemetery, which still serves the Jewish community today.

By 1911, the Jewish community had increased to about 8,934 people. Also, by this time, the immigrants had worked hard and there were lawyers, druggists, doctors, architects and business people in the community.

But things did not always go smoothly. Religious differences within the congregation led to the establishment of other synagogues, mostly in the North End. Such differences also led to a split but there was a unification of the Shaarey Shomayim and Shaarey Zedek congregations in 1913.

The Shaarey Zedek name was kept and the newer building, used by the former group on Dagmar Street, became the combined congregation's new home, serving them from 1913 to 1949.

By 1947, the congregation was too large for the Dagmar Street building and services had to be held at times in the nearby Playhouse Theatre. Also, during the 1940s much of the city's Jewish population had moved to the south end of the city.

Consequently, Shaarey Zedek began planning for a larger, modern synagogue to be built on Wellington Crescent. Designed by Green, Blankstein, Russell and Associates, it was built out of Manitoba Tyndall stone. It was designed to hold 1,500 members and completed in 1949.

The first Shaarey Zedek building on King Street was torn down in 1959 but the Conservative congregation first begun in the Prairie "wilderness" has survived to celebrate its rich and enduring history of more than 120 years.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2010 H13

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