The Little Synagogue on the Canadian Prairie

How the Lost Montefiore Institute Synagogue Was Found and

Came to Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village

By Irena Karshenbaum, Founder & President, The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society

Jews Arrive in Alberta

The first Jews to settle permanently in the vast area that in 1905 would become the Province of Alberta tended to gravitate to the larger centres. In 1889, Calgary, already a bustling town in what was then the Northwest Territories, was in the midst of real estate speculation when the first of these settlers, Jacob Diamond, a Lithuanian immigrant, planted his roots there with his wife, Rachel (born Maria Stoodley).

Edmonton, 300 kilometres north of Calgary, is where Abraham and Rebecca Cristall settled in 1893, anchoring that town’s Jewish community.      

Location of some of the Jewish bloc settlements. Excerpted from Journey into Our Heritage by Harry Gutkin, p. 56.

Even though there were independent Jewish farmers working the land in various settlements across the young province, in places like Alliance, Acadia Valley, Cochrane, Rockyford, Okotoks, three Jewish bloc settlements emerged. All three were clustered in eastern Alberta. The independent Jewish farmers and the three bloc settlements — Trochu (1905), Rumsey (1907) and most importantly for our story, the Montefiore Colony (1910) — received assistance from the Asociación de colonización judía, with funds from Baron Hirsch’s bequest.

The clustering of the settlements occurred because Canada at the time espoused a bloc settlement policy. Sir Clifford Sifton championed this policy during his time as Minister of the Interior. The bloc policy allowed immigrants from the same ethnic group to settle near each other so they could create communities of support. Many ethnic groups formed bloc settlements — German, Mennonite, African American, Ukrainian and many others — Jewish included.

The Montefiore Colony

Jewish farmers harvesting on the Montefiore Colony. Credit: Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

In 1910, Bill Manolson and Louis Schacter filed for homesteads northwest of the village of Sibbald, located 5 kilometres east of the Saskatchewan border, establishing the Montefiore Colony. Twenty Jewish farmers soon followed.

        

Sir Moses Montefiore.

By 1914, the Colony had 53 residents. In 1916, the farmers decided that the colony was large enough that they needed a synagogue. To build the synagogue, they applied for and received a loan of $300 from the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA). They raised the remaining $1,200 from community members. Even though partial funding came from Baron Hirsch’s JCA, the colonists named their synagogue the Montefiore Institute, in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. Sir Moses was an Italian-born, British Jewish philanthropist who had passed away thirty years earlier, in 1886, at the age of 100.

: The Little Synagogue on the Canadian Prairie

The Montefiore Institute was built on a corner of farmland donated by Joseph and Feiga Cheterener (later shortened to Chetner). It was officially opened on August 17, 1916 to great fanfare. The  August 30, 1916, Oyen News  reported that the “feasting and merry making,” started at 2:00 pm that day and lasted until 4:00 am the following morning.

Yiddish book with stamp reading Montefiore Institute Free Public Library, found in abandoned synagogue in 1927 by David Zukerman (1922-2011). Credit: Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta. Scroll down at this link to hear Mr. Zukerman describe how he found the book in an interview recorded by volunteer Josh Barron of The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society.

The building served as a shul, a cheder (Hebrew school) and a community centre hosting dances and lifecycle events. It boasted a lending library believed to contain 1,000 books and it even served as a quarantine hospital during the Spanish Influenza.

According to historian Jack Switzer (1937-2012), the synagogue was built with the help of a father and son carpenter duo named Rootman, who were brought in from Calgary. It was painted yellow on the inside as well as the outside. The site also contained a two-room house for the rabbi. (There were three rabbis over the life of the synagogue.)

Children’s graves from the Montefiore Colony that were re-interred at the Edmonton Jewish Cemetery, in 1938. Credit: Archives Society of Alberta.

There was a small cemetery behind the synagogue, marked by a Magen David, the Jewish Star of David. Colonist, Israel Chetner, created this star as well as an identical star that was inserted into the building’s front gable.

        

Life on the Montefiore Colony

Life was vibrant on the Colony. The women formed the Montefiore Jewish Ladies Aid Society and raised money for the WWI war effort. The  settlers had their own Jewish Farming Cooperative and were active in the United Farmers of Alberta. By1920, the Colony reached its population peak of 77 people.

The star indicates the location of the Montefiore Colony within the Palliser’s Triangle.

The Montefiore Colony was located in the Palliser Triangle, named after John Palliser. Palliser had led an expedition to western Canada from 1857 to 1859, and had determined that the vast area, that would become southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan, was too arid and unsuitable for farming. But, Palliser’s recommendation did not deter the Canadian government from sending immigrant settlers to the area. This poor soil, plus the lack of farming experience among the majority of the Jewish farmers, caused many to fail. 

Montefiore Hebrew Club, founded in the Montefiore Colony in 1910. Photo taken in Los Angeles in 1937. Credit: Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta.

The Montefiore Colony was involved in mixed grain farming. By the late 1920s due to  droughts, bitterly cold winters and the exhaustion caused by back breaking labour the colony failed. The farmers had applied to the JCA for financial assistance, but the help arrived too late. By 1928, the Montefiore settlers had sold or abandoned their farms. They dispersed to Calgary and  Edmonton and even to southern California where they took up chicken farming.

By 1928, the Montefiore Institute was abandoned and stood empty. In the 1930s, it was sold to a local school board that used it to store grain. In 1940, it was moved to Hanna, a town 130 kilometres west, where it was converted to a family home. Its original use as a synagogue was not known by this family who thought they were living in an old church.  

The Montefiore Institute, 1925, Provincial Archives of Alberta #77.258/73.

The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project

I started The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project in December of 2005. I used my winter vacation to begin researching and writing a proposal to include a synagogue in the permanent collection of Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village. The idea for having a synagogue at Heritage Park came from an earlier conversation with a Volga-German friend, Greg Schell. One day he asked me why there wasn’t a synagogue at the Park and why don’t I take on such a project. The idea simmered in my mind for a few months. Old Canadian synagogues were not exactly part of my history, me being from the Former Soviet Union. But, I saw this project as preserving our collective Jewish history and something very important that needed to done. So, when I had the luxury of time over my winter vacation, I went to work.

A glimpse of Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary, Alberta.

Heritage Park is the largest living history museum in Canada. Overlooking the Glenmore Reservoir, the Park opened in 1964 with a collection of historic buildings and some replicas. It tells the story of how southern Alberta was settled. Over the years, Heritage Park broadened its story by acquiring additional buildings. Today, it includes St. Martin’s Anglican Church and Our Lady of Peace (Catholic) Mission. But, there hadn’t been any mention of a Jewish presence in southern Alberta, not in any exhibit or building.

Making the Project a Reality

In my proposal I made the case for including a synagogue at Heritage Park. As I was researching and writing my proposal, I was gathering volunteers and forming a working board with diverse skills. In June of 2006, I emailed the proposal to the General Manager of Heritage Park, Alida Visbach.

The original project proposal was to build a replica of the 1916 Montefiore Institute. We estimated the cost at CAD $1 million. Heritage Park insisted that The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society raise 90 percent of these funds before allowing the building on the Park property. The largest amount I had raised up until then was $5,000 for a local charity. My lack of experience did not deter me. 

The Little Synagogue on the move. Credit: Hanna Herald – Richard Pittman.

Soon after the Heritage Park Board approved the project, we found the original synagogue, the 1916 Montefiore Institute. This marvelous find changed our project from building a replica of the Montefiore Institute to moving and restoring the original building. 

The final cost of the project came to almost CAD $1.1 million. This included the building acquisition, moving the building, construction of the basement, program development, architectural design fees and a CAD $250,000 gift of an endowment fund to Heritage Park to be used for program support. Some items turned out to be more than our original estimate, particularly restoration costs as they were labour intensive, and some items turned out to be less or of no cost to the project as they were donated by Heritage Park, like furnishings. When I was speaking with Alida Visbach, who became the CEO of Heritage Park, she said to me that to maintain expenditures at only 10 percent over budget, was outstanding work. 

We were able to keep the budget in line because of the thousands of professional hours donated by highly skilled professionals. These volunteer hours that were critical to bringing the project to life were never costed into the budget. These services included: project management, administration and skilled labour. For example, volunteers built the benches, created the textiles and produced graphic design work, just to name a few contributions.

When considering what the volunteers contributed, the cost of the project was probably closer to CAD $2 million.

The Montefiore Institute as a family home in Hanna, Alberta.

How did we find the original synagogue? Based on research by local historian Jack Switzer  one of our board members, Emanuel (“Manny”) Cohen (1930-2020) had a hunch. In October of 2006, Manny drove to Hanna, about 200 kilometres northeast of Calgary. There he located a family home at 111 Third Avenue West that we believed was once the 1916 Montefiore Institute. And we were right. Manny contacted the owners. He learned that for years they had been trying to sell the building without success, and were still looking for a buyer. How lucky that the building never sold! 

The Synagogue is Moved and

Exterior Restoration Begins

Soon afterwards, Lorne Simpson of Simpson Roberts Architecture, a restoration architect working in Calgary, drove to Hanna. He confirmed that the wood was of such high quality, preserved by the dry prairie climate, the structure was like new and would be strong enough to withstand the move to Calgary.

The cut out for the Magen David, the Star of David, proving the building was indeed the Montefiore Institute.

        

In 2008, when we took possession of the building, the stucco was removed and revealed beautiful wood siding. It also revealed the cut-out for the original Magen David, the Star of David. This confirmed that we had bought the right building.

             

In the early morning hours of June 10, 2008, McCann’s Building Movers Ltd. began the work of removing the building from its foundation. This operation took most of the day. The following morning the building was transported to Namaka Farms, a feedlot near Strathmore, a town about 50 kilometres east of Calgary. There, over the next five months, the restoration crew from Historic Preservation Services made daily trips from Calgary to do exterior restoration work.   

Moving The Little Synagogue through Calgary the night of November 26, 2008. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum.

Finally, on November 24, 2008, the move to Heritage Park from Namaka Farms took place. The synagogue was accompanied by a police escort, with the help of a utility company that lifted utility lines when needed. Television crews, as well as a few Project board members in their individual vehicles, chased the Little Synagogue’s every move. The move through Calgary itself had to take place in the middle of the night so as not to block traffic.

At 4:00 a.m. on November 26, 2008, the Little Synagogue finally arrived at Heritage Park. A few hours later it was driven to its present location where a concrete foundation had been prepared by Homes by Avi, a homebuilder and major donor to the Project. McCann’s aimed the building onto the foundation and slid it into place, an operation that was completed within an hour.

The Synagogue’s Interior is Restored

The second phase of the restoration, of the interior, took place at Heritage Park between November of 2008 and May of 2009. The walls were constructed just where they had been originally. In the front portion of the building the kitchen that was also used as a cheder (Hebrew school) was recreated. The second room, the largest, returned to being a sanctuary and an extension was added to the back of the building to comply with modern building codes. The front wall of the building was removed and returned to being the original porch.

Snippets of green decorative relief that were uncovered in the ceiling of the Montefiore Institute. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum.

The floors were polished, the walls were finished and painted yellow as traces of yellow paint were found when the walls of the family home were removed. Along the perimeter of the ceiling, snippets of a green decorative relief were uncovered. Lorne Simpson recreated the design with the help of modern technology, which two volunteers, Simon Wroot and Marvin Levant, painted using a stencil. 

Furnishing the Synagogue and

Planning the Interpretation

Volunteers, David Ichelson (1937-2011) and Hal Joffe, built the benches and bimah (the podium from which the Torah is read) from a spruce tree donated by Dennis Cressman. Ladies from the Rimon Calgary Jewish Needlework Guild made all the textiles. Heritage Park donated furniture pieces like chairs, tables and bookcases along with two pot-bellied iron stoves. The large pot-bellied stove in the sanctuary was placed over the original burn marks from a century earlier. 

The Holy Ark with the Ark pediment and the Eternal Light symbolizing the ever presence of the Lord. The light is made of a metal can reflecting the pioneer life of the Jewish settlers. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum.

los Aron Kodesh, the Torah Ark, is not originally from the Montefiore Institute. It was built by Solomon Sack, around 1927-1928, for the Beth Jacob Synagogue in the Sonnenfeld Jewish Farming Colony in Saskatchewan. It ended up in the home of the Frohlich family of Edmonton. When the Frohlichs heard about the Project, they donated the Ark to the Montefiore Institute. Malka Sack, the mother of Solomon Sack, made the original parochet for this Ark, the curtain that covers an Ark. It is held in the collection of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary

Over the Aron Kodesh, we placed the Lion of Judah Torah Ark Pediment, made 1900-1910, which came from the Romanian B’nai Abraham Synagogue, that was located at 46 Charles Street in Winnipeg. Cyril Leonoff (1925-2016), who was a major force in the preservation of Western Canadian Jewish history, donated the Ark Pediment.

The Interpretation Committee developed an interpretation plan to guide the Heritage Park staff as they would be overseeing a building whose traditions were entirely new to them.

The Grand Opening Celebration

On June 28, 2009, over 2,000 people attended the grand opening celebration of the Montefiore Institute that began with a Torah procession bringing the sacred scroll to its new home in the restored synagogue. Credit: Ron Switzer.

Our gift to the Park also included a grand opening celebration — held on Sunday, June 28, 2009. The evening event began with a Torah Procession followed by over 2,000 people who were singing and clapping with joy. The Torah was carried by each of the five major donors to the project. Four Project Board Members carried the chuppah (the canopy that traditionally covers the Torah during a procession).

The crowd proceeded to the field in front of the Didsbury Bandstand for the evening program. This program was very rich. It included the singing of the Vice-Regal Salute y O Canada, speeches by dignitaries — including the representative of Queen Elizabeth II, The Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. Then, of course, there was the blowing of the shofar, and the ceremonial cutting of the ribbon. We sang Hatikvah, which expresses the Jewish yearning for a homeland and recited the Schecheyanu, the prayer that thanks the Lord for allowing us to reach the celebration of special moments. Once the official program was over, children and seniors sang together. People stayed to eat, socialize, and of course, visit the newly opened Montefiore Institute.

The grand opening celebration of the Montefiore Institute was one of the happiest days of my life.

The Little Synagogue Board of Directors and Dignitaries — author in white hat and white dress — on the porch of the restored Montefiore Institute on opening day June 28, 2009. Credit: Ron Switzer. 

The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project could not have happened without the generosity, dedication and commitment of over 60 volunteers who gave selflessly to this project, and the generosity of over 500 donors. This support included generous grants by the Government of Alberta.

And of course, this project could not have happened without the support of the Heritage Park board of directors and staff. They gave this special building a hearty welcome and have taken such good care of it all these years.

The Montefiore Institute at Heritage Park

Montefiore Institute at Heritage Park, Calgary.

Today, the Montefiore Institute is a very special place. With its yellow colour and white trim the synagogue is quite adorable. It has become one of Heritage Park’s most popular exhibits. Guests stay longer than in other exhibits as they engage in discussions about Judaism. The majority of the guests are not Jewish and it is often their first time entering a synagogue. As a volunteer interpreter, I have heard myself many guests commenting on how beautiful, peaceful and interesting they find the synagogue.

On the doorposts, both at the front and the back, Mezuzah casings, carved by Lou Faber (1935-2009) hold scrolls, donated by Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta. These scrolls contain the following biblical texts from Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13-21 to remind Jews of their obligations toward God.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of the heavens above the earth.

The Montefiore Institute

Becomes a Showcase of Jewish Culture

Author, Irena Karshenbaum, giving a Yiddish lesson in the Montefiore Institute in Heritage Park. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum.

The first room of the synagogue is the kitchen, which also served as the cheder (Hebrew school). The kitchen contains a kitchen cabinet with the words “milk” and “meat” written in Yiddish. Beside the kitchen cabinet is a chalk board with Yiddish words and their English transliterations. Beside the front window, is a table and chairs with small chalkboards where children learn to write their names in Hebrew and Yiddish.

        

The Sanctuary, Montefiore Institute, October 8, 2018. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum.

The Sanctuary contains benches in the middle, where the men sat, and along the walls, where the women sat. A raised bimah, or podium, is in the centre. Books in Yiddish, English and Russian, from the early 20th century, line the bookshelves. A table beside one of the windows contains a Shabbat display of an embroidered cover for the challah, the traditional sabbath bread, that conceals two (rubber) challah loaves, two Shabbat candle stick holders and a kiddush cup for the prayer over the wine to usher in the sabbath.  

The Ark Pediment and the Eternal Light. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum.

los Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, holds a Torah scroll from Czechoslovakia written in Kabbalistic form, believed to be about 250 to 275 years old. It is the oldest artefact in the Park. The Aron Kodesh is hidden behind a burgundy, velvet parochet. Over the Aron Kodesh hangs the Lion of Judah Torah Ark Pediment. A Ner Tamid, the light symbolic of the eternal presence of God, hangs from the ceiling with tiny holes shaping a Magen David, the Star of David. It is made from a metal can that would have reflected the economic hardships of the farmers. All of these items spark a conversation about Jewish traditions, history and culture.

Different interpreters have brought different skills and knowledge. One interpreter lived on a ranch in eastern Alberta and could speak from experience about early prairie life. Another interpreter discusses Gematria, and another speaks Yiddish. All are engaging storytellers.

Rabbi Menachem Matusof of Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta gives a talk on “How a Torah Scroll is Written” on July 21, 2019, part of the 10-year celebrations of the Montefiore Institute at Heritage Park. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum.

In addition to activities like challah braiding and crafts like decorating a paper Hanukah menorah or candelabrum, we have organized some special events. These have included a Klezmer (Eastern European Jewish folk music) concert in the Heritage Park Town Square, presentations by various rabbis about how a Torah scroll is written, school visits, and a full day of musical entertainment inside the synagogue. We even staged a reenactment of the 1916 grand opening celebration, with delicious birthday cake!

You can enjoy the Calgary JCC’s Klezmer Band music here.

The Little Synagogue shares the joys of Judaism with the greater community in simple ways, but its meaning and significance is profound, and a source of pride for the Jewish community of Calgary.

Frank Rakow and the Calgary JCC Klezmer Band, June 23, 2019 in the Montefiore Institute. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum. Listen to band here.
Akiva Academy visit to Montefiore Institute June 20, 2019. Credit: Irena Karshenbaum.

Next time you are in Calgary, please visit the Montefiore Institute — affectionately known as The Little Synagogue on the Prairie — at Heritage Park Historical Village.

© Irena Karshenbaum.

Irena Karshenbaum is the founding president of The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society and she writes. www.irenakarshenbaum.com

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