Jewish Archives acquire rabbi’s records

TORONTO — Rabbi David Monson – the founding rabbi of Beth Sholom Synagogue, who died in July at age 91 – began keeping a daily “diary” in the late 1940s.

Ellen Scheinberg, director of the Ontario Jewish Archives, holds a portrait of Rabbi David Monson and one of his early marriage register books, both part of a recent donation by his daughter, Judith Waldman. [Frances Kraft photo]

The hardcover books, which detail his daily appointments and include clippings and brief notes, provide insight into the rabbi’s life and the life of Toronto’s Jewish community in bygone days. Recently, the rabbi’s daughter, Judith Waldman, donated the diaries and other Monson memorabilia to the Ontario Jewish Archives.

 “They’re really fascinating,” said archives director Ellen Scheinberg, referring specifically to the diaries and marriage registry books, which date back to 1939.

The page-a-day diaries were available only in New York,  and “whoever was [travelling]” would bring them for the rabbi every year, recalled Waldman in a phone interview.

She said her father – who began his career as spiritual leader in northern Ontario communities and from 1939 to 1943 at Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation – liked to cut and paste quotes into the diaries. “He probably used them for a sermon later on. I couldn’t find all his sermons, but the archives got what I could find.”

As well, she said, he kept notes on single men and women he met so that he could make matches between them.

“We’re fortunate to have this collection here,” Scheinberg said, adding that some rabbis have taken local records with them when they moved to another community. There are other journals in the archives’ collection, but “not too many” from rabbis.

“And Rabbi Monson was such a popular rabbi,” Scheinberg added. He was known as “the people’s rabbi,” a designation that appears on at least one award that is in the collection.

A founder of the former Northwestern Hospital, Rabbi Monson was involved with many organizations and institutions, most notably Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

His marriage registry books are “important genealogical records” that include details not found in a ketubah, such as the brides’ and grooms’ home addresses, occupations, and their mothers’ maiden names, Scheinberg said.

Leafing through an early marriage registry, Scheinberg noted that one bride was listed as a divorcee, a rarity in those days.

Even the older registries are not likely to appear online,  because they contain personal information about people who may still be alive, said Scheinberg. However, she noted, “we can provide information to direct relatives.”

Items that have been donated to the archives are preserved in acid-free folders and boxes and kept in an environmentally controlled environment.

During an interview last week, a few items from the Monson collection shared space on a large table with an x-acto knife, small mallet, pliers and screwdriver – tools that would be used by volunteers to release some of the donated documents from their existing frames.

Waldman gave a total of 10 boxes to the archives. She hopes the donation will enable people to learn from her father’s life, she said. “He was such a community person, the community should also benefit.”

Other items of her father’s are going to Beth Sholom, and to York University’s Centre for Jewish Studies.

Previous donations can be found in the Library and Archives of Canada, where Scheinberg was trained and worked for 10 years as an archivist. There is a also a display case dedicated to Rabbi Monson’s stint as a Jewish army chaplain as part of a Jewish War Veterans’ display at the Lipa Green Building.