Giving peace a chance
The rise of anti-Semitism and increasing frequency of hate crimes directed towards
Jews in larger centres has had a sobering effect on Jewish communities everywhere.
In Owen Sound the Jewish community is acutely aware of the dangers posed by hate-mongers and holocaust deniers. We share the anguish of Jews in larger communities, seeing their homes defaced and cemeteries desecrated. We recognize that Jews have long been targeted by a particularly destructive element in society. But we also know that not all interaction between Jews and the wider community is laced with hate.
Jews have lived, worked and grown up in Owen Sound for generations. They have run businesses here, owned shops here, been employed here,
raised families here, and even been elected to city council here. Some have adopted this community as their home, others were born into it. One thing everyone who has spent time in Owen Sound agrees with is the fact that in all the years of a Jewish presence, there has been no evidence of any ill-feeling or animosity towards the Jewish population.
While proud of our faith and heritage, Jews tend to be self-conscious when it comes to interacting with the larger (i.e.: non-Jewish) community, especially in a small centre like Owen Sound. For most of our history here, Jews have maintained a low profile, quietly observing our culture and traditions, while keeping the synagogue and the Jewish population off the radar of the wider community.
Until recently the wider community paid little attention to its Jewish side. Most Owen Sounders were dimly aware of a synagogue building, and many knew Jews or were acquainted with them through business or social connections. But for over one hundred years the Jewish presence went largely ignored in this town of 21,000 people on Georgian Bay, and the Jewish community was content with state of affairs.
All that was to change in early 2002 when it was discovered that the synagogue was in urgent need of major structural repairs. By time a contractor was called in, the only thing supporting the main floor were the heating pipes running along the basement ceiling. We were advised that the floor was in immediate danger of total failure and that unless quick action was taken, the building would be condemned. Estimated cost: $35,000.
Owen Sound’s Jewish community faced some tough choices. Fewer than fifteen families remained, and we faced the very real prospect of closing the synagogue for good. But our stained glass window project was already underway and there was a renewed sense of pride in the little synagogue. It was too important to lose.
An immediate appeal went out to members, past members, and the Jewish community. The Dedication service for our windows in June 2002 drew old friends and family from far and wide. It was a tearful, emotional event the likes of which our community had never seen before, and the uncertain future of the synagogue made it particularly bittersweet . The generosity of this small group of people who had a stake in the synagogue went a long way towards offsetting the cost of repairs, which by completion, had risen to more than $40,000. But more was needed to secure the future of the synagogue.
After much discussion and a little soul-searching, it was decided that Beth Ezekiel would invite the Owen Sound community to a fundraiser offering a glimpse of Jewish life and culture. We were about to emerge on the local radar and had no idea what to expect.
In a matter of days after going on sale, more than 200 tickets sold at $40 each, filling two performances to the synagogue’s capacity. Local businesses and individuals stepped forward as sponsors. Radio and newspaper reports heralded the importance of the event, and a mainstreet bookstore stocked books on Jewish life and culture, and dedicated its entire front window to a display of Jewish artifacts and household items. The near-collapse of the synagogue had forced a reluctant Jewish population into the spotlight, and Owen Sound greeted us with enthusiasm and generosity.
Good times, goodwill
The first Rhythm & Jews, took place on October 29, 2002. Our very own klezmer band, led by one of our members headlined the show and was joined by two professional Jewish storytellers, also members. We invited a cantor up from Toronto to sing some Jewish hymns, and during intermission, guests had the opportunity to sample Jewish cooking provided by our members. It was truly a community event, and the outpouring of goodwill that spun from it was overwhelming.
Roman Catholic priests, church ministers, city officials, and Owen Sounders of every faith were in attendance. The consensus was that Rhythm & Jews was among the most enjoyable events the city has seen for a long time.
In the wake of Rhythm & Jews, cards and donations poured in from churches, community groups and well-wishers. The local newspaper devoted a full-page editorial praising the courage of the local Jewish community and emphasizing its importance in a centre the size of Owen Sound.
The following week we staged our first open house in order to give people who couldn’t get tickets to Rhythm & Jews the opportunity to see the inside of the synagogue. More than 300 people passed through our doors.
By the end of the year nearly $30,000 had been raised to save the synagogue, including $5,000 from the City of Owen Sound. The Jewish community was back on its feet and here to stay. Owen Sound had demonstrated in very real terms that our existence here is important to the community as a whole, and this new understanding has led to ongoing gestures of goodwill and support.
Owen Sound Links
Strong ties, deep roots
In 2002 Rhythm & Jews marked a turning point for Beth Ezekiel, and our congregation has grown stronger, and larger, thanks to the renewed sense of pride we have in who we are, and the place we now hold in our community…
- For the past four years the City of Owen Sound has invited Beth Ezekiel Synagogue to participate in its Doors Open event, during which local sites of cultural and historic significance of were opened to the general public. More than 400 people visit the synagogue during the two-day program. According to feedback forms received by the City, Beth Ezekiel is among the most popular and best enjoyed sites on the tour.
- The City of Owen Sound contributed 50 per cent towards the cost of exterior improvements to the building carried out during the summer of 2003. The improvements included a fresh coat of paint, custom-made shutters, and a banner for the front of the building. It was the Jewish community’s decision to install the banner, which was designed to match the ones on our main street. We chose Community as its theme to salute Owen Sound for its ongoing support.
- In the summer of 2003 the Owen Sound Communities in Bloom committee honoured the synagogue with its Marigold Award for best kept religious institution.
- During the holiday season the synagogue reciprocates in a small way by hosting the Festival of Lights concert featuring the Gypsy Jive Band (our klezmer ensemble), who adapts some traditional holiday melodies with a uniquely Jewish sound. These performances fill the synagogue to capacity.
- In October, 2004, Beth Ezekiel hosted its second Rhythm & Jews event. Once again the local community demonstrated its support with two sell-out performances.
- April, 2006: The synagogue hosts Lachan, The Toronto Jewish Choir at Knox United Church.
- November, 2006: Grey Roots Museum opens L’Chaim: The Story of Beth Ezekiel Synagogue focusing on Jewish history, life, and culture in the area.
A lesson for our children
Our ties to the larger community continue to strengthen. The city’s Catholic high school makes a visit to Beth Ezekiel a mandatory requirement of their religious studies curriculum. We regularly conduct tours and talks at the request of organizations ranging from Cub Scouts to First Nations groups. Every year the synagogue sponsors the installation of a menorah as part of the City’s Festival of Northern Lights display, and every year we lay a wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day. In addition to Jewish causes worldwide, we regularly make donations to local community groups including the Women’s Centre, the Grey-Bruce Regional Health Centre, the local Salvation Army, the Legion, and ministries that help the needy, to name a few.
The bond we share with the local population has given our little community a renewed sense of pride in who we are. It has demonstrated that Jews and non-Jews can live together in peace. But most importantly it has taught our children that being a Jew is something they can feel good about. And that is perhaps the greatest gift any community can give.