Howard Starkman

Biography – Video

Howard Starkman discusses his life in Edmonton through the lens of a Jewish community member, including Beth Israel Synagogue, Talmud Torah, Victoria Composite High School, the University of Alberta, and Beth Shalom Synagogue.

My father was an observant Jew as best he could be and felt that his two daughters, well more particularly, he felt that his youngest son, me, should have a Jewish education more than he could provide than in Roblin [Manitoba] where there were about 100 Jewish families. So we moved to Edmonton when I was in about grade five. I couldn’t go to Talmud Torah at that time because I hadn’t started with my contemporaries. In those days they had night classes and I wasn’t even equipped for the night classes yet. The night class teacher was a man by the name of Charles Koliger, Mr. Koliger, a delightful fellow, who I, in later years, learned to respect and reflectively enjoy, but I can’t say I embraced him with enthusiasm as a youngster. Because I was obliged by my father to attend the private lessons which would enable me or equip me to go to the night classes that would enable me to go to Talmud Torah. None of us in the night classes really were very attentive to our studies, we were young and wanted to play, but that’s why we came to Edmonton. My father sold a successful business to make the move and became a wholesale dry goods man in Edmonton. He purchased a business called Bond Dry Goods Limited from a Jewish man in Edmonton by the name of Mr. Jake Samuels. Then his entrepreneurial skills kicked in and, in addition to being a dry goods wholesaler here, he became interested in real estate and property. Having said that, he was a very active member of Beth Israel Synagogue and the Masonic Lodge. I followed in his footsteps into the Beth Israel family of synagogues but never joined the Masons. 

That’s interesting, my Bar Mitzvah was held at the old synagogue on 95th Street and I remember it well. I remember the party we had at our homes, Bar Mitzvah celebrations were a little more modest in those days. It was a lovely event, I know it pleased my parents to equip me to become a Bar Mitzvah. In addition, visiting with Charlie Koliger who went into business incidentally and opened a frozen meat business very successfully. But it also gave birth to his nickname amongst some of us — we called him “Frozen Charlie”, not to his face of course. We had a wonderful rabbi in those days in Edmonton, Rabbi Postone. My father was less than pleased with the lack of religiosity that the more secular study at the Talmud Torah presented, so he sent me to have lessons with Rabbi Postone twice a week. At the time I was a little resentful of having to take away play time for study time, but as the years followed I came to appreciate enormously the wisdom and the affection not only that I had for Rabbi Postone, but that many of my peers had for him. I don’t know if you’re aware that Rabbi Postone was, in football terms, a “triple threat” — not only was he a rabbi, and could daven beautifully, but he was a shochet, and also a mohel. So almost without exception, my contemporaries had been subject to his ministrations at Brit Milah though I missed out on that from him (I had elsewhere). We were all very fond of him. He was wise, gentle, and a wonderful rabbi. I still consider him retrospectively as my rebbe. Our night classes at Talmud Torah at that time, I think it was 103rd Street, just off Jasper Avenue. That was also the home of  and the beginning of my involvement with the Jewish community. It housed the various youth Jewish organizations such as Young Judaea and eventually AZA (I don’t think they spent much time meeting there). Certainly Young Judaea spent a lot of time there. It was a building that was much used. It had a huge second floor and one of my early memories is the celebration and large meeting that was held there in 1948 when Israel was declared a state. Then the school moved to its new location and that’s where my children attended. 

It’s interesting because we were members and the new Beth Israel was built on 119th Street and again, Rabbi Postone held classes there. I don’t know if we had a junior congregation — the junior congregation was held on 103rd Street at the old Talmud Torah building and Rabbi Postone prepared many of us to daven. His word was “This week you’ll be the shliach tzibbur — the leader of the congregation, and we had to do shachris and then we went on to learn. Subsequently, we moved to the new synagogue. As a youngster we had Sunday morning tallis and tefillin clubs. I can still hear and see the deliberate cadence of Rabbi Postone leading us in the prayers so that we would learn them with him and be able to memorize them or say them with cadence and deliberation.  All my friends were there: David Grossman, now gone; Aaron Shtabsky, now gone; my venerated friend, Ron Bercov; Ed Pakes, who’s still alive ministering to the needy and in Toronto; Jack Cohen; we had a whole cadre of people. 

The other building that I should mention is Beth Shalom, the building on 119th Street. When it was first built, the community contributed to it, even members of Beth Israel — my father contributed, my wife’s father, Abraham Estrin, was a contributor. Many, many people contributed because they held out that it would be a location where we could meet and play, which we did. AZA [BBYO] used to have its meetings there and they had a gymnasium on the second floor. As a grade eight, grade nine, great ten, we played basketball and it was a wonderful time in Edmonton because there was less abrasiveness between synagogue affiliation and more unity amongst young people as being just members of the community that could hang out together and play. 

I suppose I wasn’t a part of the Federation when the location was purchased overlooking the River Valley, but I was asked to be the first President of the Edmonton Jewish Federation when they emerged from the Community Council, as the spending element and United Jewish Appeal, the collecting element. That merger once again required some stick handling skill in terms of bringing the two facets under one roof, the spenders and the gatherers, so to speak. Over those years I used to take a different role because originally, I was an advocate for the Talmud Torah to receive funding from the United Jewish Appeal. Afterwards this new Federation set up had to adjudicate on applicants seeking funds. 

There are other buildings as well we could spend a little time on: the 95th Street building which apparently has had a number of renovations that became a Catholic church. As I understand it there’s rumblings that it might be available to become some sort of archival location and I’m hoping that it will. One of the great moves in Edmonton was the building and the creation of the new Talmud Torah which I believe was built in about 1999. At the same time that we were building the new shul in the West End there’s a bit of an unsung hero involved in Edmonton, perhaps a controversial figure but one who has done some essentially good things. His name is Barry Slawsky and he almost single-handedly took on the fundraising role to establish a new Talmud Torah school and he with his then-wife Cheryl were very, very instrumental in organizing a cadre of of people that moved heaven and earth to get enough private funding to put this school together. Kudos to them because the school itself is beautiful and it’s a wonderful location. On a personal note, of course you’re speaking to me, my family contributed to this school building project as did the family of my wife, as well as hundreds of others in greater or lesser degrees. What’s interesting to me is the fact that the land and that building belong to the Talmud Torah Society. It was purchased through negotiations by Barry Slawsky and from the school board and does not belong to them. That seems to be a thread that we have in Edmonton, hardcore capital places that we built and that have been created by public contributions remain. So hopefully as time changes in our community as it demographically shrinks with the inevitable ebb and flow of population trends in Canadian communities. Edmonton seems to be on a bit of a wane right now but there are great opportunities for young people to move to this great city. We do have a Jewish community that can be made as vibrant as the members of the community want it to be and the city itself has the opportunities that make life here quite pleasant, and I might say, affordable. When I hear about the cost of tuitions in major cities like Toronto and Montreal and reflect on tuition costs at our Talmud Torah which are significant for an age group of parents that have children here, our parents in Edmonton are blessed with the situation of being a member of the Edmonton Public School Board and having defrayed ever so much of the possible in that context. I just have one general observation, again in that context, Edmonton has nurtured me in terms of being a young man involved in Jewish organizations where I learned and had the opportunity to chair meetings and to see how organizations run. It served me personally in good stead. As a high school student, a few of the Jewish community attended Victoria Composite High School as a brand new school as opposed to Westglen High School where most of our Jewish youngsters took their secondary education, notwithstanding the small number of Jewish students at Victoria Composite High School which was a veritable melting pot at that. In the ‘50s as a brand new school I became school president of that school and once again, learned to swim in waters that carried diverse interests and a cooperative way of diversity into a cohesiveness that moved forward. That too served me in good stead at the University of Alberta where I studied Political Science and extracurricularly where I was a member of the debating society and the Political Science Club, I think I was president of both of those, as well as other organizations. I remember in 1956 or ‘57 hearing John Diefenbaker speak for the first time on the Suez Crisis. His voice still resonates in my ears. While I didn’t become a member of his party, I did answer the speech from the throne in our Mock Parliament where I was involved, and we changed the name from Mock to Model Parliament. That political involvement moved forward when I graduated from law school and both my wife, who was the real politician in our family, and I became heavily involved in a variety of public political processes, provincial and federal. We’ve been recognized so much by the community and we’re so grateful to the community. One of the highlights and  memories we have is our involvement at the Negev Dinner, it was a grand affair. Important to note as well, in terms of Beth Israel not only was I Bar Mitzvahed in Beth Israel but Esther and I were married in the Beth Israel on 119th Street. Each of our children were married in Beth Israel; the two girls married on 119th Street and my son Daniel and Marina were the first marriage to take place at the new Beth Israel Synagogue on Wolf Willow. I think that that’s a history for my family worth remembering and certainly makes the facilities of. Since I was Bar Mitzvahed at the old 95th Street synagogue, it gives me a really unique connection to those buildings.

Howard Starkman discusses his time as President of the Talmud Torah.

That’s a very telling and interesting story. Alberta was one of the few provinces that supported independent schools with financing and, in fact, they had an association called the Independent School Association. Independent schools at that time, initially under the Social Credit government, received about 70 percent of the funding that the public school received. The Talmud Torah was a member of that association and I was a board member of that association, which became interested in independent schools. The cost of the school and the cost of maintaining the school and paying teachers became very much an issue for the then board and it was my term, while I was serving as president, that we explored the possibility of becoming a “program” as they called it under the public school umbrella. That was facilitated and basically conceptualized by the then superintendent of schools, Mike Strembitsky, a giant in education. He felt that there was no reason why schools of diversity couldn’t fit under the umbrella of a public system and so we were the first to explore and invited to attend. We attended many meetings and there were wonderful board members that were involved in this entire process, but it wasn’t without opposition. The group that opposed giving up the independence of the school was led by a most formidable member, a senior and respected member of the community, Alderman Dr. Morris Weinlos. I don’t know at whose behest or if it was his idea, but anyway, he mounted a challenge to this whole process. As a result, a huge community meeting was held, I think, in the boardroom of the Talmud Torah school, which was located near the road bridge, I think 132nd Street. I think to this day, it was probably the largest attended meeting in the city. I was privileged to chair that meeting and to try to hold the diverse arguments in favor or against this acceptance of this opportunity to join the Edmonton Public School system — together with the arguments back and forth and finally a compromise was put forward and accepted. The compromise was that we would caveat our school: we would not sell the school, the physical school, to the school board. We would continue ownership of it, lest we get cut out or we decided to cut out. A key question was would they interfere with the Judaic study or not? They assured us they wouldn’t, then of course we became a member of that system. Then we had to sell the concept to the then school board and we attended two or three meetings in that context. It was not entirely easy but the school board accepted us and this became the precursor of a multitude of independent schools that followed us into the umbrella of the public school system. It’s interesting to note that not against, again amongst those who were opposed we had some formidable opposition. There was a member of the Legislative Assembly out of Calgary, Sheldon Chumir I think was his name, and he felt that the Talmud Torah should not be funded with public funds. He was against the process in Calgary but wisely, Calgary found a way around the process and associated themselves with a separate school board in Calgary. They became a program there under the separate school board, the Roman Catholic school board, while we remain with the public system. I think it’s worked out over the years, certainly to save thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars for our parents who sent children to the school.

Howard Starkman discusses his family’s building on Jasper Avenue.

The first location that I’m going to refer to, and you refer to it as a building on Jasper Avenue, that is referred to and called and has a sign on it called the Starkman Building. It’s been there for many years; it was built in 1949 and I think my father bought it in either ‘49 or 1950. It’s been part of our family for all these years. It’s now my building and I hope it stays in the family. It had many manifestations — my father had his wholesale dry goods in the basement of the Starkman Building, which at first when we first purchased it housed the Hudson Bay Company tobacco wholesale which was kind of interesting. It’s had a very checkered and varied career in the basement. The main floor was always interesting; it had a grocery at one point, and a Jewish family by the name of Shapiro ran a grocery store there. Subsequently, one of my good friends, a Lebanese man by the name of Ken Halaby, had his grocery store there. Coincidentally he was my very first client when I became a lawyer. He cleverly came to my office and asked me to do a lease on a store he was buying and to act for him in that context. I readily agreed to do so until I found the address and I said “Well isn’t that a building owned by my dad?” He said “I know that, I’m sure you’ll do a fair and good deal for me”. I think that he got a favorable rate as a result of my intervention with my father. It then became Sid Estrin’s restaurant called the Hot Box Restaurant, which is one of the early delicatessens in Edmonton. It subsequently became a restaurant owned by Normand Campbell who is celebrating his 32nd consecutive year as a tenant. In that building we always seem to have long-term tenants, from the Hudson Bay tobacco we now have a basement that’s filled with a new cannabis store. It’s called Cellar Cannabis — I must admit that I’ve never been in that basement. He had to live with it while it’s been operating but I did see it being developed. 

In grade eight or grade nine we lived in the back of the Starkman Building. I felt very independent because I had a room to myself on the second floor, which years and years later became the mainstay office of my son Daniel Starkman. He’s a realtor there and we have our business office in that building, so the building is still belongs to us and is tied closely to our family history.

Howard Starkman discusses his time as President of Beth Israel Synagogue.

Beth Israel was an integral part of my upbringing. As I mentioned to you, we would attend tallis and tefillin classes when I was a youth and then there was the inevitable wane, as the tide of times changed. When I was going to high school and university I spent less time certainly involved in Beth Israel and in that world. But as a young lawyer I was asked to serve as a secretary early on in Beth Israel. I started to go to services when they needed a minyan at the behest of one of our famous predecessors Nate Siegel. Nate Siegel was a man to whom you did not say no. He would call me or one of my contemporaries (or two or three of us) to help make up a minyan on a certain morning. We always showed up out of derech eretz or respect for Nate. As years went on, I became secretary to the board and then again had a hiatus. There was a movement afoot to build a new synagogue or to change the location from where it was on 119th Street to a new location. The leadership at that time felt it important to have, what we were referred to as, “young turks” involved in that transition and I think it was Zane Feldman, who was president, called me and some of my contemporaries to serve on the board. We started to serve on the board and of course, eventually, I was secretary again. I think David Axler was also a secretary. Then we moved, or the movement was complete, to build a new new site and I became less involved in the building, but more involved as I was asked to be president during the transition in 1999. We moved into the new Beth Israel in the year 2000 and that was probably one of the most involved and interesting tasks that I enjoyed as being involved in the community.  

It was difficult to say the least; the tensions between the old guard and the new guard were ever present. We were changing presidents, we were changing rabbis. My two predecessors in the old school were quite wonderful — Mr. Levine, Ron Levine, and then he was followed by Alvin Weinstock. I took over from Alvin, but as you can see, we were all a younger group. There was some tension between the established older people in the congregation and the younger people. My job, as I saw it, was to create a smooth transition and to create a an ambience that was a big umbrella to allow a comfort zone for all ages in the synagogue and for all manner of observance in this modern Orthodox synagogue. Many interesting board meetings took place and, of course, the saw turning took place in, I think, 1999 — it was a huge event. It’s still a beautiful synagogue. I think it’s one of the nicest ones in Canada. Kudos to all those senior members of the community that worked tirelessly to raise money and to build the synagogue: the likes of Joe Shoctor springs to mind, Mr. Hersch Bookhalter, a man by the name of Mr. Laskin, my brother-in-law Jack Soroka was a long-time secretary and fundraiser. There was a whole cadre of people that were involved — Elexis and Eric Schloss were big contributors and active in putting the synagogue on its feet. Then we had to deal with finding an appropriate rabbi. That was a challenge in itself. So our first rabbi that we hired was a young fellow, and those were still the memorable glory days of the Oilers. I was mindful of the fact that Wayne Gretzky came to the Oilers as a young man and proved to be a superstar. So we hired a very young, first term rabbi by the name of Rabbi Enkin and that proved to be a very challenging and interesting time period. He was subsequently replaced by a wonderful rabbi of many years, Rabbi Friedman and his wife Batya. If ever a dynamic duo they were and they really put Beth Israel on its feet. But there were many issues during that period of time involving the degree of observance that we wanted the synagogue to have such as the mechitza, which was a big problem, and the sound system. In the synagogue on 119th Street we had a sound system and it had been approved by a rabbi in South Africa. The religiosity of that sound system became a problem in the new synagogue. So we had many discussions and attempts to find ways of satisfying those with hearing difficulties at the synagogue. We encouraged seats near the front during “sermon” time but I don’t know how successful we were there. “Sermon” time was nap time for me anyways, but as president I sat on the bimah and it was a fight to stay awake and to participate. I remember many financial incidents in that context but that was a great adventure in Edmonton and proved to be a very interesting building.

Howard Starkman discusses his involvement with raising funds to renovate the Misericordia Community Hospital, as well as being President of Jewish Federation during The Keegstra Affair.

I was a board member of the Misericordia Hospital for about 13 years and became a secretary of that board. It’s a community hospital and they want to do new buildings now [again]. Back in the ‘80s I think, I became chairman of that. I was the first chairman of their foundation and Marvin Weisler was involved in that and other doctors as well, but it was not necessarily doctors involved. The point was to raise money to build a renovation that is now becoming in need of further renovations. We raised 21 million dollars to assist in the building of this expansion to the hospital. It was an exciting time and lo and behold, it became the time that Mr. Klein became Premier of the province. As a result, there was belt tightening and as a further result while the building got to be built, the operating rooms within were held vacant for a period of time because of funding shortages. What goes around comes around; we always seem to be in those cycles.

There’s one other location that is of significance in my memory and history as President of the Edmonton Jewish Federation. I think the most challenging job I had was to deal with the then infamous Keegstra case. That case ultimately went to the Supreme Court of Canada, I think in 1990. Prior to that, it came to the attention of the Jewish community that a teacher in a small town called Eckville, Alberta (I think he was also the mayor) was a Holocaust denier firstly, and teaching Jewish conspiracy theories emanating out of the Elders of Zion Protocols. It was brought to the school board’s attention by a non-Jewish parent whose child was in grade 12. Well, this created a stir, because the Ontario folks had a problem with a similar hate advocate by the name of [Ernst] Zundel. We had Keegstra, and so our efforts during one or two terms of my office was to coordinate an effort to deal with this man. So in terms of the Jewish community, we held a number of meetings: the important thing we thought to do was to get the then Premier of Alberta, Peter Lougheed, to make a declaration in the Legislative Assembly disassociating right-thinking Albertans from hate. Well easier said than done. Eventually we held a meeting hosted by Premier Lougheed at Government House. An enormous and diverse segment of the organized Jewish community through representatives coalesced at a meeting at

the boardroom, I think it was the Shoctor law firm boardroom. It was overflowing and we had a consensus to meet with Premier Lougheed to express our concern about this hate-filled diatribe that was being passed on as free speech by a teacher in an Alberta classroom. Well it was an extraordinary meeting of people of diverse backgrounds and interests, and we determined that we were able to get a meeting with Peter Lougheed who hosted the meeting at Government House. We attended there and for many of us, it was a first time personal meeting with the Premier of Alberta. He indicated that he would indeed make a statement in the House. We agreed that our advocate or our spokesperson would be the venerated Joe Shoctor. He spoke very well and we had members of the courts in attendance, as well as members from all facets of the religious spectrum in Edmonton attending, and representatives of all organized Jewish organizations in attendance. Indeed, Mr. Lougheed came through and made a wonderful statement in the Legislative Assembly that gave comfort to us. I think it ultimately led to legislation that added penalties to hate crimes in Alberta. The case became a very famous case and went on to the Supreme Court of  Canada. Rather disappointingly, the decision upholding the application of the Charter that there are limitations to speech in the Charter, and while the Charter was sustained, you couldn’t spout, espouse, and talk about hateful things to an identifiable group — it’s an interesting decision.

Locations Mentioned in This Video