Debby Shoctor

Beth Israel Synagogue – Video

Debby Shoctor is the former Archivist at the Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta (JAHSENA) and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. In this video, she talks about Beth Israel Synagogue.

I worked as the archivist for the Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta for 14 years so I did a lot of work with them on the Jewish history of the city. Some of that involved work with particular historical places. I was also president of the Archive Society of Alberta for five years, so I got involved primarily with the old synagogue, the original synagogue on 95th street and Rowland Road. We were, for a while, looking into maybe purchasing that back from the Catholic Church, because it is currently a Catholic church, and turning it into a museum. Barry Zalmanowitz and I got involved with that a few years ago and we had talks with them because they had said, at that time, that they were gonna close it down as a Catholic church. So we thought, well maybe we should get it back for the community and use it as a museum, but they haven’t done that yet, so it’s still functioning as Saint Boniface Catholic Church. When the community sold it back in the, I think it was the 50s I believe, when they built the Beth Israel synagogue which was on about 116th Street. They sold it originally to the Dutch Reformed Church, the First Dutch Reformed Church, and then they sold it to the Catholic Church. We interviewed people from the Dutch Reformed Church and from the Catholic Church and we went on a tour of the building, which was really interesting. We also employed David Murray, a local architect who does a lot of historical renovation. So we employed him to do a feasibility study on the building to see how feasible it would be to restore it to its original condition. That was really interesting, but since then, we’ve been just waiting to see what will happen with that building — if the church wants to sell it. If they want to sell it to us, if we could get some grant money to restore it etc etc.

We did a lot of research on it. We interviewed a lot of people who remembered going there when they were young, including my husband’s parents, which was interesting, as well as people like Mr. Mickelson used to live next door, and Arthur Hillier, who lived down the street. The whole Jewish community lived on that street, basically on 95th street. That building was built in about 1912, and we have pictures in the archives of when it was built. The first members of the community congregating, we even have a videotape which we’ve converted, of someone’s wedding that took place there. So it’s a very interesting building, and it was the nexus of the whole Jewish community in the early days. Of course, the first Jew came to Edmonton, Abe Crystal in 1893, but the community had to grow a bit and they had to get some money together. He donated the land, looking for that building before it was built in 1912. That served the community for many years, probably about four or five decades. 

The second Beth Israel Synagogue was just around 100th Avenue and 116th Street and then eventually they sold that building about 20 years ago. I don’t know, I don’t have the figures in front of me, but they sold that building and then they moved and they built the present building in Wolf Willow. So that building also has a lot of memories for me when I first moved here and got married. We were members of that synagogue and we used to go there on high holidays and I remember — you know when there’s the break in the services at Yizkor, we would go over to the Beth Shalom, which was a couple blocks away and visit with people there, outside and then go back. That was a great building too, you know a lot of memories, a lot of people who are no longer with us used to go there. 

My husband’s father and grandfather helped build that synagogue as well as the grandfather helped build the first synagogue, Morris Shoctor, down on 95th Street. Then when they sold that building and then they moved over to the one in Wolf Willow, my father-in-law was on the committee to build that one and designed it as well. So we were very involved in that and I remember being at the groundbreaking ceremony for that and special occasions that we had there. Like I remember the 100th anniversary of the community that we held at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Wolf Willow and we did a full display and historical display of photographs that’s still on the wall there, so that was very meaningful for me. I think the original Beth Israel Synagogue is the oldest synagogue still standing west of Winnipeg. The only older one is the one in Victoria, Temple Emmanuel, but that is on the island so it’s a little bit different. Because it’s brick, it’s very solidly built and very little has changed since it was built. They built a kind of addition on the back for the priest to live in, there’s like a little apartment there, but when you go inside there not much has changed from the original configuration. So I think that building could be restored as a museum and I think that would be nice because Edmonton tends to tear down its historic buildings, which is very sad, and people are always complaining about that. I hate to see that happen and I would hate to see it be developed for a commercial site, like apartments or something like that. We need these historic buildings and it’s a very small piece of land, so I don’t think it would be good for anything like an apartment building or a condo building. I would really love to see that preserved. 

When they sold the second Beth Israel building, the one on 116th Street I think it is, the fellow who bought it invited us over there after he renovated it. That was really interesting because he’s renovated it into a single family home and it’s quite unusual. He did it all himself and in the basement he has a mini golf course and on the first floor there’s a bowling alley and there’s kind of like a disco and a movie theater in the main area. He’s turned a third floor and made apartments at all the corners, so it’s quite interesting to drive by there and see what people do with buildings like that. The last Beth Israel building has very interesting architecture. It was designed by the Manasc Isaac Architects and my father-in-law wanted it to be built kind of like a theater, he built the Citadel Theater as well, so that’s the style of it. It’s kind of a thrust stage, so everybody sits around, it’s raked, and people can see what’s going on. There’s some other interesting touches in that building — Roy Ledbetter did some of the sculptural work, as did Ivan Clark on the Aron HaKodesh, also the metal work and on the door handles and elsewhere so that’s interesting as well.

Debby Shoctor is the former Archivist at the Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta (JAHSENA) and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. In this video, she discusses Beth Shalom Synagogue and the Edmonton Jewish Cemetery.

The Beth Shalom Synagogue on Jasper Avenue is a very interesting building. David Murray always talks about that building, its international style, but it’s not on the register of historic places, whereas the old Beth Israel is the first one. It’s a really good example of that, the mid-century international style of architecture, with the yellow brick and just the lines of the building. They’ve kept it up very well. There was a fire bombing, a couple of them, there actually, but the one in the 80s destroyed some of the stained glass windows and they’ve restored those. They were originally done by McCausland, a big stained glass manufacturer in Toronto. When they were restored, some of the windows were slightly different in what they depict and how they are. Theirs, it’s unusual because that’s the only sort of Jewish stained glass in the city. You know there’s stained glass on the Cathedral and some of the Ukrainian churches, but this is particularly “Old Testament” stained glass. There’s, I think, a window of Moses and a lot of the prophets, and then there’s stained glass of all the tribes of Israel on the bima. 

The Reform synagogue now is in the Chevra Kadisha building, which is on 120th Street. I believe they used to be in the old JCC at Hillcrest, which was torn down. Vivian Manasc, who’s an architect in town, her father made the stained glass windows for that which you know were just basically frames and they’ve moved them and they’re in the Chevra Kadisha chapel now. That chapel is also interesting — it’s very 1950s. It’s not so interesting from the outside, but the inside’s quite interesting. They share that with the Chevra Kadisha, that’s where they have big funerals before they take that to the cemetery.

The other interesting place, for me at least, is the Jewish cemetery because there’s so many people from our community buried out there. That has been there, like I think it was even earlier than the synagogue, if i’m not mistaken. That land is in Forest Heights and they’re almost almost full now, so they’ve bought some land in St. Albert that they’re going to use. They’re just raising the money now to build the infrastructure to use as a new cemetery, because this cemetery is over a century old and it’s almost full. There’s interesting things in there — Dave Marcus did a tour for us once, for the Archive Society, and one of the biggest monuments in Alberta is there. There’s a lot of interesting people buried there, there’s a little chapel there. When they originally built it, Mr. Aronoff, who was a blacksmith to the Czar, actually designed and made the gates of the cemetery with little sculptures with birds and, I think they’re pomegranates, and flowers so, that’s a very interesting place as well.

Debby Shoctor is the former Archivist at the Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta (JAHSENA) and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. In this video she discusses the former Jewish Community Centre.

The other place that is really near and dear to my heart is the old JCC, which was torn down. The Hillcrest country club and that was bought by some benefactors of the community in the 70s. It used to be a country club located in Rio Terrace and I worked there for many, many years. I started working there in 1987 and stayed until they sold the building and it was torn down in 2012, I believe it was, when we moved to the offices, which are rented, on 156th Street. We did so much in that building — there was a pool, my son learned to swim there, there was a gym where we had Yom HaAtzmaut celebrations. We had exercise classes, Temple Beth Ora was there, there was a Montessori school in the basement where my kids went to school, there were offices there of every Jewish organization you can imagine, B’nai B’rith had conventions there, BBYO, Hillel students had meetings there. There were Hebrew classes, we had pottery in the basement and sculpture classes, and sketching of the River Valley. There was a workout room with personal trainers, and a weight room, and we spent a lot of time in that building. We used to dance there, the Israeli dancers used to dance there. I mean that was really the hub of the community for me. When I moved here in 1987, that was my home. I worked there, I spent time there, I met my friends there and it was a great place. But it deteriorated like all buildings do. It was an old building, I think it was built in the 50s, and it had outlived its useful life. 

There was a curling rink that got torn down at one point, the outdoor pool slid into the ravine at one point, the tennis courts just got overgrown with nature, and it was going to be too expensive to renovate it. So the best thing to do was to sell it. We’ve been looking into building another JCC for a very long time, the community has, and it’s difficult because everybody has different ideas about it and it’s very expensive to build buildings nowadays. It’s not like it used to be. I think the first synagogue probably cost less than ten thousand dollars to build and was built in a year, well less than a year, it was built in a few months. I mean that’s just not the case anymore. There’s all kinds of hurdles, rules, and regulations. It’s hard to figure out how to do it, who’s going to pay for it, where it’s going to go. I don’t know that that will ever happen again. Plus Edmonton has changed. The population has been kind of steady since the 1950s, it’s about 5000 people total. People come and people go, but the kids tend to go to university elsewhere and then stay elsewhere, and then parents move there when they retire. It’s not a stable population and it’s not a wealthy city, we don’t have a lot of wealthy people anymore willing to foot the bill for these kinds of things. I don’t know that we’ll ever have another community center like that, it’s hard to say. That doesn’t mean we can’t have Jewish life here. We have the synagogues, we have lots of buildings, we have the Drop In Center downtown as well. We have services like Jewish Family Services, we have lots of buildings, but to sustain the population is another thing. We have two Jewish day schools, we have lots of activities. People get together, Hillel gets together, BBYO gets together, we have a camp in Pine Lake that is supported by the Jewish communities of Edmonton and Calgary. There’s a lot of things that we have to support and I just don’t know that a community center is a priority for us. Plus the fact that there was a reason why there were these community centers built; Jews weren’t allowed to join country clubs and athletic facilities and yoga studios and stuff like that. Whereas now, they are, so we have a lot more choice, so I think that’s one of the issues too. I don’t know if we’ll ever build another building to replace Hillcrest.

Debby Shoctor is the former Archivist at the Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta (JAHSENA) and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. In this video, she discusses the Heritage Festival and Hawrelak Park.

I think we’re moving on, in a way, from places to programs. Especially now, everything is virtual so there is no place, which is sad. While I was working for Federation we had started moving to having programs in different places, like Heritage Days is in Hawrelak Park, it’s a city facility. It’s not really Jewish at all, but our Israeli pavilion was there for 35 plus years. We were there, practically from the beginning. That is a place that has a lot of resonance for me, because I chaired the pavilion for years. I worked at the pavilion, I danced at the pavilion, I ran the pavilion, but it’s not a Jewish place, it was just our temporary pavilion. We’re all temporary, I mean, on this land. In this place we are newcomers, so we think we’ve been here for a very long time but we haven’t. When you look at the whole history of Edmonton, you know Beaver Hills House, that’s not us. We’re all kind of passing through I guess. That’s just an example of a program that was very important to us, but wasn’t in a particularly Jewish place. 

The film festival — I worked on the Jewish Film Festival for over 25 years. It went virtual this year and it’s probably going to be virtual again. We had it downtown at the Landmark [Theatre], but we also had it at the [West Edmonton] Mall, we also had it in the Citadel Theater. It moved around, but everybody loved the Jewish Film Festival, so it doesn’t have to be associated with a particular place. Things can move and still have resonance for people.