Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Israel celebrates its 90th anniversary with the flavour of nine different decades

Guests at Congregation Beth Israel's 90th anniversary celebration

Congregation Beth Israel, Vancouver’s oldest Conservative synagogue, celebrated its 90th anniversary, with members grateful to be back in-person.

And while past fundraisers have been more formal events, the organizers decided to make this year’s a bit more light-hearted.

“We decided to do the 90th anniversary a little bit different than other past galas because a lot of people haven’t been out in years. So, we decided to make it a more social gala,” said Dale Porte, the gala chair and one of Beth Israel’s board members.

The celebration, held on June 12, featured a band playing music from each decade, while guests enjoyed decade-themed cocktails. There was no keynote speaker to ensure people would be socializing the whole night. Photos and articles of Beth Israel from its beginning to the present day were on display.

Due to the pandemic, in 2021 Beth Israel’s annual gala was celebrated virtually. This made this year’s gala all the more important, as it was the first one held in person.

“I just hope that the pandemic is mostly behind us and people can come back and feel safe and come to minyan, come to services. We can have more get-togethers and just bring this in and go back to life and back to normal,” said Porte.

Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, who has been at Beth Israel since 2006, also feels being able to be together in-person is an important part of this gala.

“Like every other organization in the world, whether Jewish, non-Jewish, synagogue or non-synagogue, we’ve all gone through a tumultuous couple of years,” said Rabbi Infeld. “We are Congregation Beth Israel, and at the heart of part of our name is congregate. So, we are delighted for the first time in a couple of years to be able to gather together in person.”

In addition to bringing Beth Israel’s community together, the gala serves as an important fundraising event for the synagogue. “Every synagogue needs to do a little bit of fundraising in order to ensure the financial vitality of the institution, in order to be able to ensure the mission, of course our mission being that of bringing Jews closer to God, Torah and Israel,” said Rabbi Infeld.

In 1932, Beth Israel began as one of the first Conservative synagogues in Western Canada at a time when synagogues in the region were mostly Orthodox. Rabbi Infeld believes this history helped the synagogue resonate with Vancouver’s Jewish community.

“Ninety years ago, by aligning ourselves with the Conservative movement and creating an alternative space to ultra-Orthodoxy in the city, I think the synagogue was able to introduce the early stages of egalitarianism and a more liberal approach to Jewish life, which connected better already at that point with the Jewish residents in the city,” he said.

“Those ideas of acceptance and welcoming, of course, have evolved over time as well, which we’re very proud of.”

The congregation met for several years at the city’s Jewish Community Centre. In 1949, they purchased a site and dedicated a synagogue at 27th Avenue and Oak Street.

By 1989, women had become full participants in ritual life and Beth Israel was the first major Canadian Conservative synagogue to become fully egalitarian, according to its website.

The synagogue was rebuilt and re-dedicated in 2014. It still sits on the same site, which was purchased for $3,500 in 1944.

Congregation Beth Israel in Vancouver

Today, Beth Israel has 680 member families and is western Canada’s largest Conservative congregation.

In addition to celebrating the past 90 years, Rabbi Infeld sees this gala as an opportunity to look to the future of Beth Israel and how it will continue to grow.

“I can see a very positive future for Beth Israel related to a very positive future for the Vancouver Jewish community and, of course, doing that in a relationship not only with individual other partner agencies, but with the entire Jewish community.

“It’s an exciting time to be Jewish in Vancouver.”