Synagogue members mobilize to keep Shaar Shalom afloat

Shaar Shalom synagogue in Markham, Ontario GOOGLE STREET VIEW PHOTO
Shaar Shalom synagogue in Markham, Ontario GOOGLE STREET VIEW PHOTO

More than 100 years ago, when someone with a similar name had passed away, American writer Mark Twain noted with some relish that “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Members of Shaar Shalom Synagogue are feeling the same way after an announcement this month that the 44-year-old shul is set to close its doors June 30.

In a grassroots effort, some of them are trying to keep the shul operating.

At least two ad hoc groups are trying to find a way to keep the synagogue functioning, whether in its current location in the Don Mills Road and Steeles Avenue area, or in another venue, said longtime member Gerry Richler.


Richler, who emphasized he’s speaking for himself and not the synagogue, said “a group of concerned individuals” had gathered to find a solution to the shul’s problems.

“Simultaneously, other groups of people got in touch with other people” and now the groups have contacted each other. “Right now, people are trying to create some sort of structure, as well as identifying some possible alternatives to keep the congregation alive, whether in its present form or some other form.”

Richler, a member of the shul for more than 30 years who once sat on its board, said there are options other than closing.

“What is important now is to reach out to the membership, present various alternatives, and gauge the level of support for those alternatives,” Richler said.

On March 9, synagogue officials held an information meeting attended by more than 200 members. President Seymour Hersh told The CJN that with the departure of Rabbi Steven Schwarzman and Cantor Ben Silverberg, a drop in membership – from a peak of 555 members to 380 today – and demographic shifts in the neighbourhood reducing the nearby Jewish population, the shul planned to close its doors June 30.

Hersh clarified his remarks this week, saying, “The physical building is not sustainable at all.” However, that does not preclude keeping the synagogue continuing as an organization, he added.

“We have a team of people interviewing all the Conservative shuls to identify collaborative opportunities,” he said, “and another team looking at the value of the real estate, to assess the value of a potential sale.”

Hersh said synagogue officials have been receiving inquiries and suggestions from members about the future of the shul. Some are offering suggestions to keep it viable. Others are asking what will happen to its artifacts, such as yahrzeit plaques and Torahs.
Hersh said the next few months will be busy, with proposals being offered, and communications between members and shul officials.

It’s unclear what the synagogue’s eventual future will be, but he said proposals will be winnowed down and presented to members for a vote at the next annual general meeting, scheduled for either May or June.


Some members have already “come back to us with proposals, some in great detail,” Hersh said.

“Our intention will be to engage our members before the May or June time frame to make them part of the process.”

Sam Chaim
Sam Chaim

Sam Chaim is one member eager to find a solution. A member since 1981, he recalls attending services in the early days in rented spaces at Fairview Mall, a hockey arena and Seneca College.

Chaim, who has served as synagogue president and on its board, believes Shaar Shalom is more than a building. “We’re a family,” he said.

If the building can’t be saved, the congregation and sense of family among members can be retained, he believes.

“I don’t think it’s a fait accompli that the shul is going to close,” he said.

Richler also believes there are options, including merging with another synagogue. “There are people who normally don’t step to the plate who are stepping to the plate and looking for a solution,” he said.