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Winnipeg Beach synagogue marks 60 years

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At a time when many synagogues across North America are struggling to attract congregants to regular Sabbath services, the Hebrew Congregation of Winnipeg Beach has had to expand in order to accommodate everyone who comes out on a Saturday morning. This expansion, carried out entirely by volunteers, will be complete just in time for the synagogue's 60th anniversary celebrations this summer.

For many years, the synagogue, located on the grounds of Camp Massad on the edge of Winnipeg Beach, attracted a core group of summer cottagers comprised primarily of retired men and an occasional son or grandson. More recently, that core group has embraced an increasing number of women and younger adults, so on any given Saturday morning in July or August as many as 60 people show up for services.

Many of these regulars will be in attendance July 3 when the congregation opens its doors for its inaugural summer service and officially begins its anniversary celebrations. Generally, the Winnipeg Beach Congregation holds services every Saturday morning from the Canada Day to Labour Day long weekends.

The synagogue, or shul, is also used intermittently during the summer for special occasions like bar mitzvahs and baby-namings and as a place for people to say Kaddish. The Kaddish is the prayer for the dead that is recited for 11 months after a loved one's passing and once a year after that on the anniversary of the death.

When the Hebrew Congregation of Winnipeg Beach was originally established in 1950, it held services twice daily. Located on the corner of Grove Street and Hazel Avenue, the small wooden structure catered to a seasonal Jewish population that was both larger and more traditional than it is today.

As times changed, the services were pared down to once a day and eventually to once a week, on the Sabbath morning. In 2007, nine years after the congregation moved to the grounds of Hebrew-speaking Camp Massad, it began to offer an egalitarian service. It was at this point interest in the synagogue blossomed.

"The shul at the beach has become a welcoming place since it has gone egalitarian," says Phyllis Spigelman, who has spent summers at her Winnipeg Beach cottage for 45 years. "It is really haimish," she adds, using the Yiddish word to describe a place that is warm, welcoming and homelike.

Spigelman began regularly attending services three years ago in order to recite the Kaddish for her husband. "When I started to go to services I was welcomed warmly and it helped in the healing process that I was going through," she says.

This sense of community and of belonging is one of the small synagogue's main attractions. Over the years, several of its regular attendees have given up their summer homes but still drive to the beach every Saturday to participate in its services. These services, which include the chanting of the weekly Torah portion and other prescribed readings, are led by different congregants each week. Sometimes, staff members from Massad join in, enhancing the service with their energy and enthusiasm.

Although it is impossible to know if the synagogue's original builders imagined it would still be standing, and indeed flourishing, six decades after its grand opening, there is no doubt they would be proud.

"If they expected it or not, they would be very pleased that the synagogue is still operating after so many years and on a regular basis," says Laurie Mainster, who has been an active volunteer with the synagogue for more than 15 years.

As part of the anniversary celebrations, Mainster is ensuring the names of these founders, most of them deceased, will be recognized at the July 3 service.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2010 H13

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