Timmins Torah finds new home in Toronto

The thought of having a beautiful, 100-year-old Torah tucked away in a dank storage room in Timmins, Ont., didn’t sit well with Michael Feldman, the leader of Timmins’ now-tiny Jewish community.

Ezra Tanen, centre, takes the Torah donated by Michael Feldman out of the ark for Torah reading at TanenbaumCHAT

But he also didn’t want to lose a Torah that has been a part of his family since it was donated by his late grandparents, Joseph and Sheva Martin, in 1938 to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

“The Torah… was not being used. We thought it was such a waste. To me, it was almost sacrilegious. We had a Torah and it was kept in storage,” said Feldman.

Now, through United Israel Appeal of Canada (UIAC), the Torah, which had not been used in almost 40 years, has found a home at  the Vaughan campus of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy.

Feldman explained that since the B’nai Israel Congregation, the Timmins synagogue, closed in the early 1970s due to a decrease in the town’s Jewish population, the Torah was kept in a warehouse owned by the Feldmans.

Although the Timmins Jewish community today is made up of about 15 families, the community has a rich history that dates back to the turn of the 20th century.

The Jews of Timmins arrived in the early 1900s to build railroads that reached the silver mines, lakes and forests. Feldman’s grandparents and great-uncles were involved in the contracting and forest work that accompanied the development of mines.

The Martins first arrived in Kruegerdorf, Ont., in 1900 from Russia to work the land and the railroad before they moved to the larger metropolis of Timmins around 1920.

In 1928, the B’nai Israel Congregation was founded and by the early 1930s, the Jewish community had a synagogue.

“In its heyday, Timmins boasted around 150 or 160 families,” said Perry Romberg, director of campaign and regional community services for United Israel Appeal of Canada.

He said the Jewish population peaked around the 1950s.

“The successful Jews started to move out when their kids went to university – it’s the usual story.”

When Romberg travelled to Timmins two years ago and met with Feldman, he made a special discovery.

“I spent a couple days there, met with the community, and then Michael says, ‘I want to show you something very special,’” Romberg recalled.

“He had this box that looks like a treasure chest, that he basically created himself. We open it up and he says, ‘This is a sefer Torah that my grandparents, Joseph and Sheva Martin, donated to the community in 1938 to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.’”

The Torah was used regularly while there was an active minyan at the shul, but since the closing of the synagogue, the Torah has been in a warehouse storage room that Feldman owns.

“At one point we had four or five [Torahs] when I was a little boy, but they were given away, and I don’t even know where they are, personally,” Feldman said.

After noticing that the Torah was still in very good shape, Romberg and Feldman discussed the possibility of finding an institution that could make use of the Torah.

Feldman said he ultimately decided to give the Torah to UIAC on the condition that if anyone linked to the Jewish community in Timmins was celebrating a family simchah, such as a bar mitzvah, that they would have access to the Torah.

“We let it be known that they could always borrow it for a special occasion as long as it’s given back and looked after,” Feldman said.

“The Torah was checked by a sofer, who determined that the Torah is at least 100 years old and brought over from Europe,” Romberg said.

“It cost several thousand dollars to make it kosher again and to fix it up.”

Romberg said he thought the northern branch of TanenbaumCHAT would be a good fit for the Torah and made arrangements with Paul Shaviv, TanenbaumCHAT’s educational director, and Rabbi Moshe Yeres, the vice-principal.

“It’s kept at the TanenbaumCHAT campus, and they take it on their Shabbatons, usually to Camp George,” Romberg said, adding that the Torah has been kept at the Jewish high school since October.

“At least it’s being put to use, it’s not in storage and it’s a mitzvah that people who don’t have a Torah can use it,” Feldman said.

Romberg said he was touched by the Torah’s resurrection.

“To have seen the last sefer Torah in a community that was lying in storage in a warehouse in Timmins to come alive again, be fixed up and be used by Jewish youth, to me, is a very emotional thing,” he said.

“What has this sefer Torah witnessed in its life? Coming from somewhere in Europe, across to the mining town of Timmins and now to this beautiful new building at CHAT – it is a real life cycle event in many respects.”