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History of Beth Israel

By Yale M. Chernoff

This was written on December 15th 2013, as a presentation for Beth Israel's 80th anniversary

The dream started in the late 1920's when the only synagogue in Vancouver was Schara Tzedeck on Heatley Street. With the great influx of Jewish families into the city, there was a growing need for a conservative synagogue.

At a meeting held on August 2, 1932, it was "resolved that a congregation be formed tonight and that a ways and means committee be appointed and that we join and cooperate with United Synagogue of America".

Rabbi Benzion Bokser, our first Rabbi, was hired as of September 1, 1932. On October 19, 1932, 50 people attended the congregation's first annual general meeting and elected Mr. Nathan Bell as president.

The congregation was formally incorporated under the societies act on November 26, 1932 and the Jewish community celebrated this event at the Hotel Vancouver.

In October 1933 Albert Koch was elected president. At the annual general meeting in November 1933, the board recommended that an installation program be held at the Hotel Vancouver, with a 5 piece orchestra at a cost of $2.50 per couple. The membership then resolved that the charge be $1.00.

Due to some office inefficiencies, Congregation Beth Israel was struck off the register of societies and dissolved in March 1940 and was not restored until March 1944

Twice daily services were inaugurated in November, 1936. These services were, from time to time, on again, off again and were finally routine by late 1947.

The 1938 minutes reveal that "private conclaves" had been held to discuss the possibility of amalgamating Schara Tzedeck and Beth Israel congregation with B.I. Maintaining their own services and Rabbi. It was agreed that this was an impossibility for the time being. However these discussions continued until April, 1945.

Rabbi Bokser left in August, 1933 and was followed by Rabbi Samuel Cass and in the 1940’s by Rabbis Herman Glatt and Ephraim Levy.

Our first acting cantor for the high holydays was Katznelson. Then came permanent cantors Goldberg, Sivowich, Harris and from 1945-1948, Stolnitz.

Synagogue services were held at the Jewish Community Centre in Fairview. High holyday services were held, from 1932 until 1948, at the Jewish Community Centre, the Peter Pan Ballroom or at the Park Theater.

In early 1944, the executive board set its sights on acquiring from the c.p.r. the land on which our synagogue is now located for $3,500.00. It was not until 3 years later that the recommendation of the executive to proceed with the building at 27th & oak was ratified at a special meeting. Kaplan & Sprackman of Toronto were engaged as architects. The 1948 high holyday services were held in the synagogue, the dedication of which took place on September 11, 1949 with cocktails and dinner in the auditorium at a cost of $10 per couple.

The first bat mitzvah ceremony of 11 girls was held in June, 1951.

The menorah on the roof of the synagogue was first lit at Hanukkah in December, 1951.

Do you remember the dispute that began in the late 1950's over the use of an organ with the Friday night services? A questionnaire in 1961 finally put an end to this issue.

Rabbi David Kogen served as Rabbi from September, 1946 to 1955. He was succeeded by Rabbis Jacob Freedman (9 months), Bert Woythaler (7 years) and Pincus Goodblatt (1 year). Rabbi Wilfred Solomon then served as our rabbi for 33 years from September 1964 until his retirement in 1997. He was followed by Rabbis Moishe Ulmer, Charles Feinberg and finally, and fortunately, Jonathan Infeld who joined us in 2006.

We had cantors Fred Gartner from 1941 to 1952, Abraham Deutsch (1952 to 1961) and Tibor Moses (1963 to 1967). Cantor Murray Nixon was hired in 1967 and retired 30 years later in 1997. He was succeeded by Steve Levin, Michael Zoosman and now Lawrence Szenes Strauss.

In 1961 it was recommended that a historian be appointed whose duty will be to record in a history book the important events of the congregation. This was met with mixed reactions. It was felt that the minutes of the meetings would contain all of the necessary information. That was a mistake.

In 1967 Beth Israel started to hold parallel High Holiday services at the Jewish Community Center where it continued until they were moved to the Talmud Torah.

Chaim Reznick was hired as Chazan Sheni and Torah reader from 1957 to 1959. David Rubin served from 1959 until 2005. Debby Fenson has been Ba’alat Tefillah since December 2005.

Our Assistant Rabbis between 1976 and 1992 were Paul Plotkin, Howard Siegel, Jeffrey Hoffman, Ronald Price and Ronnie Cahana.

Since 1956, we have had 20 different Youth Directors with the current one, Mijael, leaving soon to pursue a career in opera.

Since 1934, we have had 18 school principals with Harriet Frost now serving in that position since 2004.

By our 40th anniversary membership was up to 625 families and by our 60th it was up to 825 families.

Gaynor Levin has been at Beth Israel since 1997, and is our Program Director.

We have had 5 Executive Directors. The first in 1962-1964 and the next was not until 1992. Shannon Etkin has been Executive Director since 2002.

We have had only 8 head Parnassim starting with Charles Isman (1937-1964), George Fishman (1964-1967) Bert Smollan (1967-1987), Harry Woogman (1987-1989) Serge Haber (1989-1993) Tevie Goodman (1993-2006) and Norman Franks since 2007.

Two important arms of the synagogue were the Mens Club, active from 1933 until 1993 and the Sisterhood active from 1932 until it ceased in 2009 when it was known as Womens League.

The following dates are of note:

  • the cemetery grounds were purchased in 1945. The caretaker's home on these grounds was built in 1959 while a chapel (now used for storage) was built in 1974.
  • in early 1970 the Groberman chapel was renovated.
  • the Bimah was remodeled in 1971.
  • the Heather Street house, which has been used for our assistant rabbis, was purchased in 1976 and sold early this year
  • the new cemetery chapel known as "the Koch Memorial Chapel" was dedicated on September 26, 1982 and a cemetery refurbishment project was completed and a re-dedication held on October 4, 1992. 

Some of the major issues that have taken up much time of many boards have included:

1. Dues structure - the policy that "no membership seat be allotted for any member unless all dues be paid up in full" was established in 1934 . A dues revision was made in 1949 on the basis of members ability to pay.

"the dues structure has never been entirely equitable and it has been reviewed. It will continue to have changes within it to make it as equitable as possible. Most people have accepted the dues changes with understanding and agreement…. The objection by these people is not that they have been charged too much but their acquaintances have been charged insufficiently. . . . The synagogue will defer where there is hardship but it cannot condone the imposition of higher dues on the rest of the congregation and defer to people who are not prepared to do their fair share.”

That was a quote of Arthur Hayes at the May 1973 Annual General Meeting. Today we are still saying much the same thing. Nearly every board since 1932 has dealt with this issue

2. Constitution and by-laws - revisions of our 1963 constitution and by-laws began in 1984 and were adopted in 1993. Discussions for the new updated by- laws started in 2008 and these were adopted at the last Annual General Meeting on December 6, 2012.

3. The road – in January 1967 the City of Vancouver agreed that the road between Talmud Torah and Beth Israel would be sold to Talmud Torah for $1.00 on the condition that it be with the approval of Beth Israel. 22 years later an agreement between Talmud Torah and Beth Israel was finally signed.

4. Renovations - the board had approved construction of a mezzanine and additional school and youth activities at a meeting in December 1964, but this proposal was discussed and defeated at a special general meeting held in may 1965.  In the 1970's there was a proposed building expansion that would have cost $525,000.00 but this was eventually cancelled.  In 1990 an approved $4 million building renovation, of which $2.5 million had been raised without yet going to the whole membership was also eventually cancelled. Board discussions of the renovations about to actually happen began in about 2002.

5. Aliyot - the issue of Aliyot for women began in the early 1980's, gained momentum after Yom Kippur 1986 and settled in its present form in 1992 .

By way of contrast, after a simple recommendation by Rabbi Solomon at a board meeting in January 1994, that women be counted in the Minyan, a resolution was passed without discussion. As I once said to Lee Simpson, president at the time: “Aliyot for women: 12 years, counting women in the Minyan: 12 seconds.”

Three devoted early leaders who succeeded Mr. Bell as president were Messrs. Albert Koch, I.W. Chess and Willliam Morris. Mr. Koch was president three times and was the congregation's longest serving president (14 1/2 years), followed by Arthur Hayes (5 years), Yale Chernoff (4 years), Catherine Epstein (4 years) and Lee Simpson (3 years). Presidents between our 33rd and 59th years were: Marvin Weintraub, David Zack, Julius Balshine, Arthur Hayes, Ronald Gross, Mickey James, Lorne Cristall, Harry Woogman, Stan Korsch, Abe Jampolsky, Hershey Porte and Yale Chernoff. In December, 1991, Sharon Kates became the congregation's 25th and first woman president. Since then we have had another 9 presidents: Lee Simpson, Arlene Howard, Irv Nitkin, Gary Romalis, Felicia Folk, Jonathan Berkowitz, Marty Braverman, Catherine Epstein and, starting off our 81st year, Peter Lutsky.

Today we celebrate 80 years of our history, our connection with Conservative Judaism, our dedication to worship, our social concerns, our programs of education and culture, our disappointments, our achievements, our joys and our dreams.

Shabbat shalom

A note from Yale:
I was asked that this presentation be about 10 minutes. Therefore many events and names of people could not be mentioned in the time allotted. Please note that this does not include a history of the school, Mens’ Club or Womens’ League (formerly Sisterhood).