By BERNIE BELLAN The Ashkenazie Synagogue at the corner of Burrows and Charles is Winnipeg's oldest synagogue and the last remaining of 18 synagogues which once dotted Winnipeg's North End. Now, like all the other synagogues that once existed contemporaneously with the House of Ashkenazie, it finds itself in a precarious position.
Unable to sustain a regular minyan and with a membership that is a mere fraction of what it once had, the few remaining members of the Ashkenazie are faced with a difficult choice: Either find a new use for the building or close it as a house of worship.
As a result, a group dedicated to finding a new purpose for this historic building has come up with an imaginative proposal that would see the Ashkenazie retain a core area for services, while reconfiguring the rest of the building into a “living” museum of Winnipeg's Jewish North End.
First, a little history (taken largely from a Free Press article published in 2014 and written by Religion reporter Cheryl Girard): "The Ashkenazy synagogue was founded in 1921 by a group of immigrants from Lithuania. It took over an old Baptist church on the northwest corner of Burrows Avenue and Charles Street.
"A fire destroyed the Orthodox synagogue in April 1945, but it was rebuilt by its members three years later on the same site. The current red brick building is now said to be the oldest synagogue in Winnipeg.
" 'This is the only synagogue that has a separation between the men and women, ' Gary Minuk (who was synagogue president at the time the article was written, and who remains in that position) says. A traditional Orthodox synagogue, it features a balcony that once provided seating for women. Today, there is a simple partition off to one side on the main floor separating women from men during prayers.
"One of the most well-known members was Joseph Wolinsky. A successful businessman, he founded the Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate in 1959 and was associated with many charities, philanthropic and educational institutions around the world.
The Free Press story also noted that during the period between the wars, the synagogue was Winnipeg's "prestige synagogue, graced by the presence of the city's chief rabbi, Israel Kahanovitch."
"The word Ashkenaz means Germany. It refers to Jews who are descendants of the Jewish people of Germany, central Europe and eastern Europe, including Poland and Russia. Ashkenaz also refers to a mode or custom of prayer."
With that glorious history in mind, as noted, a committee has been struck with the intention of saving the Ashkenazie.
Following are excerpts from a proposal that was sent to the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, which was written by Dr. Gerald (Yossi) Minuk, and which outlines the proposal developed by the steering committee dedicated to preserving the Ashkenazie Synagogue:
“As outlined at the meeting, the Ashkenazie is the last of 18 synagogues built in Winnipeg’s North-End at the turn of the 19th and early 20th century that still offers services at its original site. Unfortunately, the ability to continue those services is no longer tenable and rather than have the building sold or demolished as was the case with the previous 17 synagogues, the idea has been developed to reconfigure the Ashkenazie into a museum that commemorates all the previous synagogues and at the same time, continues to offer services to its regular attendees, museum visitors and staff.
“That the Ashkenazie will be celebrating its 100th year anniversary this coming 2022 is fortuitous in that it offers the ideal time for the synagogue to repurpose and continue to meet the Jewish community’s needs but in the proposed iteration, as a ‘living’ museum that captures and displays Winnipeg’s rich and famous Jewish North-End history, for the upcoming century.
“Essentially, our ‘vision’ entails the following: the main body of the synagogue would remain intact for daily and/or holiday services. However, the flanking pews would be converted into cubicles that contain narratives, photos and 3 dimensional items recovered from previous synagogues in the area, largely drawing upon collections and exhibits previously displayed by the Jewish Heritage Centre. If the memorabilia exceeds the space available, the flanking pews of the upstairs ladies gallery could be utilized for the same purpose.
“Certain cubicles would also feature former North-Enders who went on to national or international acclaim (ex. Monty Hall, David Steinberg, Sydney Halter, etc.) and computer stations that would enable visitors to look up old relatives and friends who were amongst the first immigrants to the North-End. Similar information would be offered for Jewish owned North-End businesses that helped contribute to the area’s economy.
“In addition, the Chedar-shaynee (anteroom to the main synagogue) would be repurposed as a small café, gift shop and washrooms. Depending on public feedback, the kosher kitchen and undeveloped downstairs area would be renovated and used for either hosting exhibits/seminars/events/dinners.
“In terms of moving forward, it should be noted that the executive board of the Ashkenazie Synagogue is completely supportive of this initiative (personal communication from its President Gary Minuk) and a steering committee (whose members have been cc’d) has been struck.
“As advised at last week’s meeting, proposed next steps would include approaching the Jewish Foundation, Winnipeg Foundation and Thomas Steel Foundation for seed money to hire an engineering firm, and if the building is deemed structurally sound, a museum designer and archivist to develop a formal budget. Thereafter, the Jewish community will be invited via the ‘Jewish Post & News’ publication to visit a website (tentatively entitled “An ASK About the ASH” ) in order to ascertain the level of community support; information on memorabilia whereabouts; suggestions as to which North-Enders and businesses might be profiled and opportunities for involvement/volunteering.
“Finally, regarding long term support, Heritage Winnipeg and the Jewish Foundation will be approached to supplement museum revenues, donations and private fund raising efforts.”
As part of the committee’s effort to repurpose the Ashkenazie, Dr. Minuk contacted The Jewish Post & News and asked, not only that we publicize the committee’s plan, but also include a link to a questionnaire whose purpose would be to gauge potential support for the plan to convert part of the Ashkenazie into a museum.
The questionnaire asks eight questions altogether, along with a final part that allows for comments of a general nature.
Here is a link to the questionnaire: tinyurl.com/4hpd4hky