Museum exhibit celebrates Canada’s last small town synagogue

By Barbara Kingstone
Owen Sound, ON – On the walls of the gently lit exhibit hall old family photos reminisce, while descriptive panels tell of a community determined to preserve its culture, religion, and values in this small town on the picturesque shores of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. It’s a story as old as the Jewish People: a story of faith and the pursuit of peace.

Glass display cases hold household items, ritual objects, prayerbooks, and children’s toys offering silent testimony to the vibrancy and tenacity that is as much a part of Jewish life here as the sacred Judaic text that gave rise to the world’s three largest monotheistic religions.

At the centre of the hall stands a sacred Sefer Torah scroll – the Five Books of Moses hand-inscribed in ancient Hebrew – that has been in use in Owen Sound for more than a century. It is partially unrolled inside its display case to reveal the Ten Commandments, written as they have been passed down through the generations directly from the hand of Moses.

L’Chaim (To Life): the Story of Beth Ezekiel Synagogue is a sensitive look at how one community prevailed over attrition, and rescued a small town synagogue from the brink of collapse.

Beth Ezekiel Synagogue has the bittersweet distinction of being Canada’s last small town synagogue. It remains in Owen Sound, which is by far the smallest community in Canada to still have an active synagogue, as the final reminder of an institution that was once a familiar fixture in small towns across this country.

The exhibit, which was more than two years in the making, celebrates a remarkable story of determination, tenacity, and faith. It tells of Jewish pioneers and the contributions they made to the local community. It tells of a burgeoning congregation enjoying religious life and observance free from the persecution that dogged its founders in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. And it tells the story of a synagogue on the verge of collapse, seemingly destined to follow dozens of other small town Jewish communities into oblivion.

But this story takes a happy turn. Today Beth Ezekiel enjoys unprecedented revitalization with growing membership, renewed optimism, and the will, not only to endure, but to succeed in the face of relative cultural isolation.

Jeff Elie, President of the synagogue, says the effort made by the museum to tell this story reflects the support and goodwill shown by the local community towards its Jewish neighbours for more than a century. “I think what sets us apart from other Jewish communities that have disappeared is the way the local population has accepted the notion of a truly pluralistic society,” he says. “Here ethnicity and multiculturalism is embraced, not feared.”

According to Petal Furness, Heritage Interpretation Coordinator for Grey Roots Museum in Owen Sound, the exhibit is a lesson in religious and cultural freedom. “L’Chaim offers a rare glimpse into a community determined to survive against all odds, and provides inspiration for those of us who value cultural and religious diversity in Canada’s relatively homogenous heartland.” Furness adds that the exhibit has a feel-good appeal for visitors of all ages, and of all faiths.

For non-Jewish visitors L’Chaim offers insight into an ancient culture and religion. Artfully designed descriptive panels trace the history Judaism from its beginnings in the time of Abraham, through to the exodus from Egypt, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago and the resulting rise of the modern synagogue.

For Jewish visitors the exhibit puts things into perspective by vividly demonstrating that Judaism can survive, and even thrive outside large urban centres. It highlights a rare example of how the old-world shtetle shul (village synagogue) influenced the development of Jewish communities in North America, and how the form can still be found in a dwindling number of small rural centres like Owen Sound.

L’Chaim, the Story of Beth Ezekiel Synagogue is scheduled to run through to the end of 2008. It will be supported by a printed Gallery Guide, and educational programs for schools and community groups.

Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada (pop. 21,000)
Owen Sound is a smooth blend of urban and natural attractions. Clear blue water, relaxing beaches, and a bright sky are set against lush green valleys and rugged limestone cliffs. Hidden delights – sparkling streams and waterfalls, secret gardens of exotic ferns and rare orchids along inviting trails – are all close to the conveniences and amenities of a thriving Ontario town.

Owen Sound location, Google Maps