Origins of the First Synagogues Project

By Robert Burley (Professor, School of Image Arts, Ryerson University)
and Ellen Scheinberg (Director, Ontario Jewish Archives - A Department of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto)

In 2002, Ryerson professor and photographer, Robert Burley, began photographing downtown Toronto synagogues built before 1930. Burley’s photographic survey, Instruments of Faith: The First Synagogues of Toronto, explored six small neighborhood shuls that were created by Eastern European immigrants in the early part of the twentieth century. His goal was to investigate a part of Toronto’s architectural heritage that had been largely ignored. He felt that the buildings not only reflected the culture and history of Toronto’s Jewish population, but were also touchstones for issues ranging from the impact of immigration on the city to anti-Semitism and the evolution of a culturally diverse population. Further, Burley was attracted to the simplicity and beauty of these structures, created with the limited financial resources of the early immigrant communities.

His research led him to the history of the Kensington Market area, where four of the six synagogues are located. He subsequently developed an interest in the role this neighborhood played in the lives of the immigrant community and consulted what little literature was available in order to investigate this topic. This, in turn, led him to the Ontario Jewish Archives, which has the largest holdings of synagogue records in Canada. The Archives’ collection offered a wealth of historical materials that provided some rare insights into the history of these buildings as well as the community that constructed them. After meeting with the Director of the OJA, Ellen Scheinberg, the two decided to strike up a partnership in the form of this virtual exhibit. Soon thereafter, they applied for a contribution agreement through Canada’s Digital Collections, and in the fall of 2003, received word that the project was accepted for funding. Soon thereafter, five capable young people were hired and commenced work on this display in early December 2003.

The primary role of this exhibit is to use the Web as a means of providing the public with access to these beautiful historic synagogues -- through text and images. The Web was also viewed by Burley and Scheinberg as the perfect vehicle to tell a story by blending the old with the new – relying on recent photographs taken by a prominent architectural photographer as well as archival documents and images that are part of the Ontario Jewish Archives’ holdings. By combining the two, they hoped to capture the aesthetic qualities as well as the rich and dynamic history of each shul. In turn, the final intent of this project is that of providing histories for each of the synagogues, thereby filling the void that exists in this area. Although there have been histories written for some of the larger synagogues, many are quite old and outdated, and there is often little mention of the smaller shuls. As such, we hope that this exhibit will inspire but also educate visitors, by providing them with greater insight into the rich and dynamic history behind each of these synagogues.

The delivery of this project has been conceived over three phases. The current project, Toronto's First Synagogues, represents the first phase of this virtual exhibition and learning resource. The three shuls that were selected for this phase were constructed before the Second World War and are still standing and operational today. In the future, the exhibit will include many more of the original shuls, in order to make the display more inclusive and better reflect the title of this exhibit. Another goal for the future will involve adding some new components to this display, such as an educational section as well as a section relating to photography and archives. The intent, therefore, is to create a more comprehensive and educational display that would be of interest to people of all religions, cultures and generations.

We would encourage viewers to contact us if they have any comments regarding this site. Your input can only enhance the quality of this type of display.

CanadaUJA Federation of Greater TorontoThe Ontario Jewish ArchivesRyerson UniversityCanada's Digital Collections