The Beth Isaiah Synagogue on Surrey Street has been a centre for the Jewish community in Guelph for nearly a century and its congregation is responding to a changing world.
“Historically the synagogue has been orthodox, sort of more observant,” said Beth Isaiah congregant and board member Maya Hammer. “In the more orthodox service the women would be separate.”
Hammer and her family joined the congregation two years ago and represent a new generation that hopes to reinvigorate the synagogue’s significance and grow its members.
“It has become a little more liberal in that now men and women sit together for services,” she said. “So, it is still orthodox/conservative but the congregation is dwindling as many people have grown old in age and many people have moved away.”
A special Shabbat Dinner on June 21, organized by four Jewish groups in Guelph, welcomed congregates from across the city.
“Tonight is a very unique occasion,” said Hammer. “It is a Guelph Community Shabbat and we are uniting all the Jews in Guelph to come out for a lovely Shabbat dinner. Four Jewish groups in Guelph are co-sponsoring and co-organising the event; Congregation Beth Isaiah, Chabad of Guelph, The Guelph Schmoozers and the Shabbatniks.”
The event had traditional and modern significance.
“We are sort of in a transition period and we are really excited about hosting this event and hopeful that this is a sign of more events to come,” said Hammer. “We want Beth Isaiah to be a congregation that is inclusive and accessible to meet the needs of all the Jews in Guelph.”
The Beth Isaiah Synagogue was built in 1949 to serve a growing and vibrant Jewish community. The first official congregation was formed in 1907 and at the time services were held in members’ homes and other locations.
In 1925, they purchased a home at 47 Surrey St and adapted it for services. The congregation continued to grow over the following decades and in 1949 they tore down the old home and built a beautiful new synagogue on the property.
It was named Beth Isaiah in memory of Isaiah “Sidney” Acker, a congregation member who was killed in action in 1942 during the Second World War while serving with the Royal Canadian Armed Forces.
The dedication is recorded on a commemorative stone at the entrance to the synagogue and on the opposite side of the entrance is a stone dedicated to former congregation president Henry Wolfond 1872 -1947 and his wife Bella 1873 – 1939.
A large plaque inside the synagogue next to the stairs lists all of Beth Isaiah’s founding members.
“Right now, there is no Rabbi,” said Hammer. “So, the services are lay led. I joined the board last summer because at the annual general meeting we talked about the dwindling membership and how we could be relevant and accessible for Jews of Guelph in 2019.”
The synagogue is designed to serve all the spiritual needs of its congregation. They hold Shabbat services every Saturday morning as well as Hebrew school and Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies on Sunday morning.
“We want to tap the community for their input and hopefully we get people to join committees to drive the change,” said Hammer. “Maybe we would become two congregations under one roof - one more orthodox and one more liberal egalitarian. This is the only synagogue in Guelph and that is why we really want to be respectful of everyone’s level of observance and create a space that works for everyone.”
The Community Shabbat Dinner attended by nearly 100 people seemed an ideal way to honour tradition and welcome change.
“Shabbat is every Friday night from sundown to Saturday at sundown,” said Hammer. “Traditionally on Friday night you have a dinner. You bless the challah, the braided egg bread, you bless the wine and light the candles to welcome Shabbat.”
Everyone gathered under one roof and sharing a ritual meal was a unifying experience.
“We are really hopeful since this is such a fantastic building and since there are a number of Jews in Guelph that we can transition and maybe in the next two or three years become a synagogue for the people of Guelph,” said Hammer. “That’s why this Friday night is so exciting. What a great way to sort of start this idea of unifying the Jews of Guelph. Whether you are observant and whether you are less observant, why can’t we work together?”
To learn more about the Beth Isaiah Congregation visit www.guelphsynagogue.ca