Synagogue is at centre of Jewish life in Peterborough

Cantor Leon Litvack on the bimah
Cantor Leon Litvack on the bimah

According to the Canadian census of 1881, there were two Jews then living in Peterborough, a town about 125 kilometres northeast of Toronto, known as the gateway to the Kawarthas district. Today the city has a population of about 78,000 people, of which, according to recent census tallies, some 300 are Jewish.

Despite the Jewish community’s relatively small size, it still boasts a landmark synagogue, Beth Israel, designed by noted architect Eberhard Zeidler and erected half a century ago in 1964.

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“Our synagogue is a beautiful structure, built for a community much larger than ours,” said Larry Gillman, the former Torontonian who has served as Beth Israel’s president for the last dozen years.

“We’ve worked very hard to keep the synagogue going and to keep it vital to the community.” 

With a membership of about 35 families, Beth Israel holds regular Friday night services, followed once or twice a month by communal Shabbat dinners in people’s homes. The approximately 100 people who attend High Holiday services each year do not come close to filling the roughly 300-seat sanctuary.

“The synagogue is the central point of Jewish life in Peterborough,” Gillman said, adding that “we’re getting more young children now.”

However, there’s no denying that, like most small-town Jewish communities across North America, numbers have been in slow decline since 1945.

Formerly Orthodox, the congregation became egalitarian roughly a decade ago, just one of several adjustments the congregation has made to remain viable in the modern age. (The synagogue still maintains a strictly kosher kitchen but allows “kosher-style” vegetarian food to be served in the building.)

Beth Israel made headlines around the world last month when it offered to share its prayer space with a local mosque that was seriously damaged by arson following the Paris terror attacks. But that was certainly not the first sharing arrangement the congregation has made.

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About ten years ago, Beth Israel signed an arrangement with the Unitarian Fellowship, a local non-denominational religious group that uses the building on Sundays and some weeknights.

“They’re not Christian, not Jewish, not Buddhist, and they respect all religions,” Gillman said. “They outgrew their building and were looking for a space. We agreed to partner with them and share space with them in our synagogue. The money that we get in rent helps us make up the deficits that we run, because we don’t have enough money to operate just based on our membership dues.”

Through a similar sharing arrangement, the congregation rents its space occasionally to select groups for meetings – “mostly not-for-profit groups, the Kiwanis music competition, and for elections” – and gains additional rental income by leasing use of its large parking lot to a nearby medical clinic.

“We’re trying to do innovative things to keep our heads above water,” Gillman said.

Beth Israel has also made a remarkable and mutually profitable arrangement with a Belfast-based cantor, Leon Litvack, who crosses the Atlantic each year to lead services in the sanctuary for the High Holidays.

A former Torontonian, Litvack discovered in recent years that his birth parents were from Peterborough and that he still has cousins there. A professor of Victorian literature at Queen’s University in Belfast, he has been leading the services at Beth Israel and serving as a pastoral and halachic adviser to the congregation since 2011.

“We needed a rabbi, and Leon, with his unbelievable voice, made himself available to us,” Gillman said.

“We have a community that has really fought hard to keep a Jewish presence here in Peterborough, and it means a lot of evolution,” he said. “I gave an address at Yom Kippur about how we’ve been through a lot of change and there’s going to be more change to come. We’re going to continue to evolve into the future.”