Temple Sons of Israel Synagogue on Whitney Avenue in Sydney, N.S., will be a busy place on the last weekend of July.
Hundreds of people are expected to fill the sanctuary and reception hall when the Conservative shul celebrates its 100th anniversary. Past congregants from Israel, California and other American centres, as well as Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and other communities across Canada, have already confirmed their attendance at a celebration that will bring memories, joy and tears (of happiness, of course).
In its heyday of the post-World, War II 1950s, Temple Sons of Israel had a membership of almost 500, drawing from a Jewish population of close to 900 from across Cape Breton Island.
As has become common in smaller Canadian communities, members moved to larger centres, the youth exited for university and careers, and membership dwindled. Today, the Sydney shul draws between 12 and 17 to weekly Shabbat services from a membership of about 60 Jewish members on the Island. Temple Sons of Israel is the only synagogue left of four (the now-shuttered Glace Bay, New Waterford and Whitney Pier shuls) that were active in the 1950s.
“There’s excitement in the e-mails and calls we’re getting about the anniversary reunion,” event co-chair Alan Nathanson said. “People are looking forward to coming home to celebrate our history. We feel there are not many more opportunities to hold an event of this magnitude.”
The committee has planned a Friday night Shabbat service and gala dinner on July 29, a Shabbat service and deli buffet kiddush the next morning and a brunch on Sunday.
“It’ll be an opportunity to have food, which is the real reason Jews get together,” joked Alan, whose brother, Stephen, is also co-chair.
Alan added that many of the attendees were also students at Sydney Academy, a high school that’s having a reunion on the same weekend.
“Our reunion and that one will give people a very good reason to come home,” he said.
Stephen Nathanson is the historian of the community. His records show Temple Sons of Israel was formed in 1915, a year after the women of the community of about a dozen families organized the Israel Auxiliary, a forerunner of the later shul sisterhood.
“The men, not to be left behind, purchased a local Baptist church in 1916. The new shul, with a Rabbi Brownstein as its first spiritual leader, was dedicated in 1919,” he said.
The congregation was originally Orthodox, but Stephen Nathanson said there was discontent.
“Many wanted to be more liberal, but it took years for the women to come down from the balcony, for the siddur to be changed and for Rabbi Kenner to accept change, too,” he said.
The building was renovated in 1961 under longtime congregant Jack Yazer’s presidency. There had been a few rabbis, but by then, the shul was under the leadership of Rabbi Israel Kenner, who served from 1927 to 1972.
There has not been a permanent rabbi since 1986, but Rabbi David Ellis, who does chaplaincy work throughout the region for the Atlantic Jewish Council, officiates at major holidays and celebratory events, visits the sick and conducts funerals.
The 298-seat sanctuary is expected to be full July 29 and 30, and the social hall, with auxiliary rooms for more, will seat about 300 for meals.
“It won’t be the last hurrah – we’re going to be here for a while yet – but it will be a chance for people who haven’t been home for up to 50 years or more to see each other and celebrate the memories with those of us who are keeping the community going,” Stephen Nathanson said.