1904-2004: A Century of Judaism in Owen Sound
While the sprawling suburbs of Toronto lay claim to most synagogues
in Ontario, none can match the versatility and tenacity of Owen Sound’s
Beth Ezekiel — Canada’s last small town synagogue.
There has been a Jewish presence in Owen Sound for as long as there has been a town here. At the turn of the 20th century, Owen Sound was a frontier boom town, fueled by a busy harbour and railhead that for a time was the major transportation link between western grain growers and eastern markets. Jewish merchants and tradespeople flee
ing the pogroms of Eastern Europe soon found their way to this thriving commercial centre, bolstering an already established Jewish presence here.
Owen Sound’s first Synagogue was opened in 1904 in a climate of both economic and cultural growth for local Jewish families. By the outbreak of the First World War, downtown Owen Sound was alive with Jewish-owned drygoods shops, clothiers and other businesses. At that time the synagogue was established with enough members to support a rabbi to lead regular services, and run the Hebrew school.
Both World Wars saw young Owen Sound Jewish men volunteer for service in the Canadian Army and Air Force. Some never returned. In the years between the conflicts overseas, the Jewish community grew even stronger as second and third generation Jews continued local family businesses and started new ones of their own.
On February 28, 1946 the current synagogue building was purchased for the sum of $7,000. Originally a church, this building proved ideal as a synagogue because of its eastern orientation. The alter and ark was purchased from a synagogue in Toronto and installed shortly after the building was acquired by the Owen Sound Jewish community. Named Beth Ezekiel, in honour of the person who became the driving force in the
establishment of the synagogue here, the building has been the religious and cultural centre of Owen Sound Jewish life for over half a century. It is now designated a building of historical significance.
Feast and famine
Owen Sound and its Jewish community prospered throughout the economic surge of the 1950s and 60s. The post-war baby boom swelled enrollment in the Hebrew school and a full-time rabbi took up residence the apartment on the second floor of the synagogue.
But soon Owen Sound was to feel the effects of changing economic circumstances. No longer a transportation hub, the city held fewer opportunities for young people. By the end of the sixties, higher education and better prospects routinely drew young Jews away from their home town to Toronto, where they remained to raise families and pursue careers.
With competition from two new malls opened in the seventies and eighties, and the big box stores of the nineties, downtown Jewish businesses dwindled. Enrollment in the Hebrew school shrunk, and the apartment above the shul fell vacant as the community struggled to find the resources to sustain a full-time rabbi.
Present day pride
Despite these challenges, Jewish-owned business continue to succeed in downtown Owen Sound. Three prosperous clothing stores can still be found on the main street, where their owners play prominent and respected roles in our synagogue, as well as the community at large.
Today the synagogue continues its century-long tradition as the Jewish cultural and religious hub of our community. Every week our Hebrew teacher makes the journey here to provide instruction for our young people, and the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) routinely draw capacity numbers to services led by an excellent cantor from Toronto.
Every few weeks finds another excuse for our little community to gather at the synagogue for a pot-luck meal and to observe the traditions of such festivals asSimkhat Torah, Chanukkah, Purim, and Shavu’ot. And every fall, amid much kibbitzing and a little chaos, we manage to erect a Sukkot where we shake the lulav, say the blessings, and eat some cake.
The next hundred years
At the beginning of this, the third century of a Jewish presence in Owen Sound, technology and economics are the two driving factors that will determine our future.
Owen Sound is emerging as a recreational centre in Ontario. Technology is making our careers more portable than ever. Together these two elements are already shaping our membership and strengthening our numbers.
More young Jewish professionals are forsaking city living for the simpler, safer lifestyle attainable in the Grey/Bruce region. Thirty years ago, merchants and independent businesspeople dominated our membership. Today, healthcare professionals and teachers are moving in to offset the effects of attrition. Meanwhile, e-commuting and electronic commerce is allowing entrepreneurs to set up shop wherever they wish. And Grey/Bruce has proved to be an attractive place to do so for some of our newest members.
The future looks bright for Beth Ezekiel Synagogue. With membership on the rise and tremendous goodwill from the wider community, we’re experiencing what can almost be called a Jewish renaissance here in Owen Sound. Our culture and our traditions make up for what we lack in numbers. And judging from how this community has weathered the ups and downs of the past hundred years, it’s a safe bet that it will be around for at least the next hundred.