Seventy-five Years in Northern Ontario … and Still Here

By TOVA ARBUS

In October 2020, Beth Jacob Synagogue in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. will celebrate its 75th anniversary. Needless to say, our small community is quite excited about this milestone and has been planning a weekend-long celebration to mark the occasion.

Beth Jacob Synagogue in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

It would not surprise me to hear that many of you had no idea there is (or perhaps still is) a Jewish community in Sault Ste. Marie. Many hours away from any big city, we have to do without many of the resources and connections Jews have in larger places. With approximately 30 active families, we proudly wear the title “small but mighty.”

There has been a Jewish presence here since the mid-1880s, usually merchants of one kind or another who came from Russia, Poland and Germany by way of Montreal and Toronto. The Rosenstein and Rosenberg families were among the early arrivals. At one time, the Jewish population peaked at about 100 families in the 1950s and 60s.

The only ordained rabbi we had was Rabbi Beryl Fishman from 1931 to 1956. His son Alec led services for many years.

But children were encouraged to leave this small, isolated community in search of bigger and better opportunities, and many never returned.

Those of us who still here have watched families leave and membership decline; the average age of our current membership is over 50, and there are very few children. There is no longer an active Hebrew school, and even getting a minyan cannot always be counted on.

And yet, we are still here.

We are still here, living and worshipping as Jews. Here, in communities (Beth Jacob Synagogue serves both Sault Ste. Maries in Ontario and across the border in Michigan) where many of our neighbours and acquaintances are surprised by the presence of Jews, where people who have lived here their entire lives have no idea there is a synagogue.

It is not always easy. Kosher foodstuffs at the grocery store are practically non-existent and kosher meat must be imported. There are no Jewish community centres or schools, no programming of any kind, no real recognition by the broader community of Jewish holidays or festivals.

And yet, we are still here.

So what does it mean, really, to be Jewish in small-town Northern Ontario? It means that we hold those who are here very close. Congregation Beth Jacob has been our family and our centre since 1945.

We get together as often as we can for Shabbat services and to honour and celebrate holidays and festivals. We share food and prayer and togetherness. We support each other in finding a meaningful Jewish practice, despite the things we are not able to access. And we all work together to take care of the synagogue.

The celebratory weekend we were planning, along with many wonderful events, has been put on hold in light of COVID-19 precautions. Originally planned for October 2020, the 75th anniversary festivities will likely be pushed forward to the spring of 2021. Whenever it happens, we hope that former members will come back and join us for the milestone, recognizing the long history of survival here in Sault Ste. Marie, and once again filling the synagogue with Jewish life.

Some of the events planned include a theatrical adaptation of native son Morley Torgov’s A Good Place to Come From (if you haven’t read it, do) and an historic exhibit in partnership with our local museum. We have been collecting stories, photographs, and memories from people who grew up here, combing through archival collections and diving into the depths of the internet. It is not a small collection, and it is growing.

The Jewish community of Sault Ste. Marie might be small, isolated, and occasionally overlooked. We might have to work hard to be Jewish here. But judging from the expanding collection of photographs, artifacts, and stories, from the beautiful building that still stands, and from the strength of the community that it houses, Congregation Beth Jacob is most definitely still here.

Although a firm date is to be announced, watch for online celebrations on our website. Donations to our celebrations or to the upkeep of the synagogue can be made directly through our website, http://www.bethjacobssm.ca/

For a 360-degree view of the synagogue, visit https://synagogues360.bh.org.il/gallery/congregation-beth-jacob/

For more information, please email Tova Arbus at tova.arbus@gmail.com