Culture, Global, Uncategorized

Little Synagogue on the Prairie

In Alberta, an organization, in partnership with the local government, has tracked down, will restore, and is moving a small – 800 square feet – synagogue across the prairies to Calgary. Originally built in 1913, near the present location of Sibbald, Alberta, the building served as a synagogue, Hebrew school, library, and community centre for the small Montefiore colony of mostly Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants who had come to the prairies to try to make it as farmers.
According the the society’s research, most of the colony’s members moved to Calgary, Edmonton, or California during the 1920s, abandoning their small community due to harsh farming conditions (read: poor soil and extreme winters). During the Depression, the government sold the synagogue to a family; that family eventually moved the house with them to another eastern Alberta location, but kept the home for over 70 years.
Little Synagogue on the Prairie has purchased the house, and is fundraising to restore it now.

“We are hoping that the Jewish community in Canada will support this unique project, which is such a positive way to educate people about the beauty of Judaism,” Karshenbaum says. Trudy Cowan, a heritage and museum consultant, will oversee the synagogue’s restoration.
“The building has an impressive amount of original historical content intact,” she says. “We have been able to access the original ceiling behind the drop ceiling that was added. The tops of the original windows are still there. We can even see they had a separate little library, and we have two books stamped ‘Montefiore Hebrew Free Public Library.’”
Cohen says that the “front of the synagogue had a Magen David, which is gone, but the amazing thing is that the nail holes for it are still there.” [source.]

The synagogue will be open for visitors – mostly tourists, but they hope weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs will be held there too – in the spring of 2009, to coincide with the 120th anniversary of the first Jewish family settling in Calgary. The synagogue will be located in Calgary’s Heritage Park, making it the second North American historic park to contain a synagogue.
While I think this is a great historical project, and I’ll make sure to check it out on future visits to Calgary, I don’t know how keen I am about one aspect:

Tour guides in costume will explain Jewish religion and culture to visitors to the synagogue.

Having seen the recent fake payos and beards, and heard the horrible fake accents, on House and Law & Order SVU, I’m hoping they do a really good job with those costumes… Or scrap the idea and have regular, contemporary people giving the tours.

4 thoughts on “Little Synagogue on the Prairie

  1. Good point about the clothes, Feygele. We certainly don’t want it to be cheesy. Let me know if you have any suggestions for how to make the tour more authentic and not a hollow representation. Thanks for posting this about our community – we’re pretty excited about it!

  2. Wow! My hometown right here on my blog, and I had no idea. Man, I feel out of the loop. As for the costume idea, forget about it. Check out the photos the historical society has of nineteenth century Alberta Jews. They weren’t wearing gabardines and peyot. They look like any other settler families in bonnets and stetsons.

  3. Ilana,
    My fear over costumes was based on a “historical” event I once attended in Winnipeg. Despite the photos showing regular prairie settler clothing from centuries gone by, the actors were all in fake chassid costumes. I’m sure if you avoid this, it won’t look “cheesy.”
    Good luck!

  4. I find this history very interesting. Being originally from South-Eastern Alberta, I have always wondered how many people in that area have Jewish decent. Medicine Hat, in my opinion, seems to have alot of Jewish ancestory, even though the people there are not really aware of it. If you look at the surnames of the population there, you will notice it. My grandfather was of German-Jewish decent, His family migrated first from Argentina then into the United States and then into Alberta. Even though I am not a practising Jew, I am very proud of my Jewish ancestory.

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