Posted Sept. 16, 2022 By MYRON LOVE It would seem that it is finally happening. After “at least a decade” - in the words of Congregation Etz Chayim board member and spokesperson Avrom Charach – of talking about it and considering different options, north Winnipeg’s largest synagogue has taken a concrete step forward in relocating to the south end.
The “for sale” sign outside the 70-year-old building went up last weekend.
Congregation Etz Chayim was formed 20 years ago from the merger of the Rosh Pina, Bnay Abraham and Beth Israel congregations – at the time the three largest congregations in the North End. With the Jewish population in our city rapidly declining in the West Kildonan/Garden City neighbourhoods and increasing at the same pace in River Heights, Tuxedo and related areas south, the leaders of the three congregations felt that merger was the practical way to ensure one strong Conservative congregation in the North End.
The new congregation carried on services at the former Rosh Pina building. The Rosh Pina, founded in 1893, was our community’s second oldest and second largest congregation (after the Shaarey Zedek) and had been at the current location since 1952.
Even with the merger, membership has been declining slowly but steadily over the past 20 years as older members have passed away and the shift south has grown apace.
Charach reports that 80% of Etz Chayim’s membership now lives south. For young families who belong to the congregation, the number is approaching 90%.
It is not only the fact that the majority of the congregation now lives south that is driving the decision to relocate to that area, Charach points out. “After 70 years, our building needs a lot of work,” he notes. ”We think it makes more sense to spend the money where most of our members are living instead of where we are now.”
(Contrary to rumour, Charach adds, Etz Chayim is still “financially viable”.)
The plan, he says, is to purchase and renovate an existing building - or rent temporarily if need be until a suitable building can be found. “All options are on the table,” Charach says.
The goal is to find a location within a 10-minute drive of most of the shul members. That would be a location accessible to River Heights, Tuxedo, Lindenwoods and Charleswood.
“Our Relocation Committee has an idea of what we would like to spend on a new building,” Charach notes. “We also have a fair idea as to how much money we may be able to raise from among our members. We hope that what we receive from the sale of our building will cover most of the cost of buying and renovating our new building.
“We would like to be in our new home by next summer – in time for next Yom Tov.”
Charach, who works in property management, estimates that the current building should sell for up to $10 million. “Our committee is considering all possible scenarios, including the possibility that we can’t get the price we want,” he says. “We have contingency plans should that be the case.”
He adds that the size of the projected new synagogue building is not as important as may have been the case in the past. “We learned during the pandemic that the actual physical space isn’t as important as it used to be,” he points out. “Over the last two years of Covid-related restrictions, we carried on with the minimum ten we needed for a minyan while livestreaming our services. It looks like, in future, a growing number of shul members will choose to watch services from the comfort of their homes - with fewer actually attending in person.”
There is one additional factor that has to be considered in the sale of Etz Chayim’s building and property. That is the presence of the Rosh Pina Co-op on the property. The co-op – which was completed in 1991 - was the last of four low-cost seniors’ apartment blocks that were built adjacent to synagogues – the others being the HSBA Hebrew Sick Gardens (beside the former Beth Israel Synagogue) built in 1971, the Beit Am (beside the former Bnay Abraham Synagogue) which opened in 1972, and Shalom Gardens, next to Temple Shalom, which was completed in 1987.
(The goal originally was to provide low cost housing for Jewish tenants who would hopefully take advantage of living close to the sponsoring synagogue and attend services regularly. However, as the Jewish population in the North End has steadily declined, the number of Jewish tenants in the Hebrew Sick Gardens, Beit Am and Rosh Pina Co-op has dwindled to very few.)
As Charach points out, under the terms of the arrangement with the Rosh Pina Co-op, while the congregation retained ownership of the land, it doesn’t own the co-op.
“We would be able to sell the land,” he says, “but the co-op’s lease doesn’t expire until 2030. The co-op ownership would be a separate negotiation between the co-op management and whoever buys our building and land.”
He reports that while a few members may be unhappy to see Etz Chayim leaving the North End, almost everyone has responded positively to the decision.