Toronto Synagogues Have History
Synagogues have been the foundation stone of Jewish communities throughout Jewish history.
Biblical religion of the ancient world was focussed on the sacrificial rituals of the Tabernacle in the desert wanderings and then the First Temple built by King Solomon subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. We think that this absence of a physical temple for worship led to the beginnings of verbal prayer recitation during the Babylonian exile. This was based on the Biblical verse (Hosea 14:3) וּֽנְשַׁלְּמָ֥ה פָרִ֖ים שְׂפָתֵֽינוּ׃ – “Instead of bulls we will pay [The offering of] our lips.” Upon the return to Zion (app 515 BCE) and the establishment of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, prayer seems to have remained a part of the overall worship ritual, likely in the form of recitation of Psalms. Formal prayers which developed into the traditional canon of Jewish prayer, the Siddur, developed during the Second Temple Period. This is well documented in the Dead Sea Scrolls literature, the Mishna and the Talmud.
Since sacrifice of animals was generally relegated solely to the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews who found themselves exiled at a distance established local synagogues and incorporated the verbal prayers into their communal rituals rather quickly.
We have evidence of synagogues, even some structures still standing today, which go back to 585 BCE (Djerba, Tunisia), 3rd Century BCE, Elephantine, Egypt, 2nd Century BC in Modi’in, Israel and many more.
In Hebrew, the synagogue is known as ‘Beit Ha-Knesset’ or House of Assembly which is also the source meaning of the Latin ‘synagoga’ and the Greek ‘sinagein’ (to bring together). Later, in medieval Germany, the name ‘shul’ was popularized reflecting the aspect of synagogue life devoted to study of Torah and Rabbinic Literature.
Extant synagogues around the world reflect the importance of both the structure and the institution for Jewish communities. There is much evidence for significant effort and expenditure for synagogue buildings. In the synagogues throughout the centuries, interior walls were decorated with lavish murals and floors with detailed mosaics. The Dura Europas synagogue in Syria as well as the Beit Alpha synagogue near Beit Shean, Israel are examples. The Dura Europas synagogue has been destroyed in recent conflicts in Syria. The Beit Alpha Synagogue mosaic was incorporated into the design the Beth Tzedek Synagogue in Toronto.
Clearly, the synagogue served as a community hub for all things important to the Jewish community. It was likely the second structure built to establish a Jewish community after the ritual bath.
Contemporary Jewish history also shows how important the local synagogue has been. When Jews moved to Toronto en masse after the Russian pogroms beginning in 1881, they continued this tradition of synagogue building. By the turn of the 20th Century, synagogues proliferated in downtown Toronto. Many synagogues began with their communities meeting in storefronts and private homes. Many of these were initially in ‘The Ward’, between today’s Bay St. and University Ave. As Jews established themselves in the city, they moved west toward Bathurst St. Kensington Market was established and became the centre of Jewish Toronto until mid-century.
Several synagogues established in the early 20th Century survive today.
Established in 1927 by Jews from the Kiev area of Ukraine, The First Russian Congregation of Rodfei Sholem Anshei Kiev stands at Dennison and Bellvue Avenues.
The Minsker Shul was established by Jews who had come to Toronto from Minsk, Russia even before their Kiever brethren. Founded in 1912 it was begun in a storefront inside Kensington Market. The current building stands on St. Andrew Street.
The Shaarei Tzedec Congregation, known as the Markham St. Shul was established in 1902. It stands today at the corner of Markham and Ulster streets.
The First Narayever Congregation catered to the emigrants from Narayev in eastern Galicia. Since 1943 this congregation has been meeting in their own building at 187-189 Brunswick Ave.
Each of these synagogue locations currently serves synagogue and ritual needs of small communities in downtown Toronto.
The Narayever is currently the most active synagogue in Toronto’s downtown core and the only downtown Toronto synagogue enabling women to participate fully in services.