By Janice Arnold Staff reporter The Canadian Jewish News
Laval resident Howard Gontovnick is trying to rally community support to get the city's first synagogue, Congregation Beth Abraham, declared a historic site.....
Gontovnick, who has written to the federal,provincial,and municipal governments about the issue, said he was told by Heritage Canada that the Beth Abraham does not qualify because the synagogue is not of national significance.
Beth Abraham located in a bungalow that seats about 100, was opened around 1940 in what was then known as Laval West. In the 1930s,the then rural area with its beaches was a popular summer getaway for many Jewish families who rented homes there.
The synagogue served summer residents till the mid-1970s and continues to be maintained, although it is only used now on the High Holy Days.
Gontovnick believes that the synagogue is an important landmark that is in danger of disappearing if not officially recognized.
"Its reminiscent of another period, of the shtietls in Europe" he said. "Its simple, modest, heimish...but its an old building falling apart."
Gontovnick,44,has lived in Laval's Chomedey district all his life.
A doctoral student in religion at Concordia University,he has written a short story of Laval's synagogues called Building Blocks of a Community. His ancestors were among the early Jewish settlers in what is now Laval, or Ile Jesus, north of Montreal.
His cousin, the late Michael Burgida and his wife Ethel, looked after the synagogue from the early '40s to the late '90s. Synagogue Leonard and Selma Himes also looked after it. Today, its principal caretaker is David Messer.
Beth Abraham was legally registered on Nov.15,1945, although it was used for some years earlier than that. In 1947, a major campaign was undertaken to renovate the building.
In the mis-'50s, the synagogue was remodeled a second time. Benches were brought in from the Chevra Mishnais and Milton synagogues in Montreal, and the congregation boasted two Torahs.
"Although there was never a permanent rabbi,each year someone was found to conduct the services,a situation continues to the present" Gontovnick said.
During the 1950s and '60s, Laval West had a kosher butcher and Grocery store. People frequented a small hotel and restaurant nearby called Cozy Corners to dance and socialize. The Roxy, a movie theatre, was owned by a Jewish family named Korman who had come from Val d'or he said.
By thew mid-70s, fewer and fewer Jews were summering in Laval West and the synagogue began opening only for the High Holy Days.
"Even with this big change, the membership of the synagogue continued strong," Gontovnick said. "Past residents returned yearly, often bringing children and grandchildren.
in his research material, Gontovnick quotes Beth Abraham member Ethel Burgida: "People enjoy themselves. Its like one big family coming together for a yearly reunion.
Gontovnick also quotes a 1993 radio interview with Michael Burgida in which he explained why he dedicated some 50 years of his life to the little synagogue. "I came from Europe and saw what they [the Nazis] did to the synagogues there and to the Jewish people, so I couldn't let go. As long as there are Jewish people to make a minyan...as long as there is a Jew around, and willing to come to the synagogue, it is my pleasure to keep it open.
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The first Jews of Laval, Russian immigrants, settled on Ile Jesus around the turn of the last century. The 1901 census shows that four Jews lived in the St.Martin district and two in St.Vincent de Paul.
In 1941 just after Beth Abraham opened, there were 175 Jews, the majority in Laval des Rapides. By 1961 the number had grown to 3,639, the majority in Chomedey. Ten years later, the community had jumped to 11,565 within Chomedey, which had become attractive to young families because of the lower cost of housing. (The many small towns on Ile Jesus merged into one city, Laval in 1965.
After 1976, the year that the Parti Quebecois was first elected, the community went into rapid decline, although many moved into Dollard Des Ormeaux, or other areas of Montreal Island, and not simply out of the province, Gontovnick said. The decline was offset somewhat by an influx of Sephardi Jews.
Today, Laval's Jewish Population - the latest census data from 2001 puts it at 3,781, down from 4,586 in 1996 - is no longer living exclusively in Chomedey. While the majority remain there, Jews in eleven districts. Ste Dorothee shows the most growth: the number of Jews there is up 205 in 2001 from 66 in 1996.
Despite its dwindling size, Laval is still home to seven Synagogues. The second oldest are the Young Israel (the largest) and the Shaar Shalom, a conservative congregation, which both date back to 1958. Others are The Chevra Mishnais Jacob Joseph(1967), Or Separade de Laval(1985), Sepharde de Chomedey(1990) and Centre Sepharde du Torah du Sablon(2000).
One reminder of the Jewish presence in the area is a small island in the Mille Iles River, off the St.Rose district, called Isle aux Juifs. Gontovnick discovered that a Jewish family with the unlikely name of Fraser lived there in the 1920s and '30s. Today it is part of a provincial park and wildlife reserve.
Gontovnick can be reached at 450-686-2440 or by e-mail at email@example.com
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