By Irena Karshenbaum
People the world over go to great lengths to protect historic sites. Built in 1900, the Parisian Gare d’Orsay railway station was converted into Musee d’Orsay in 1986. Owned by the City of New York and opened in 2009, the High Line Park was built over a historic freight rail line elevated above Manhattan’s West Side.
These examples of “adaptive reuse,” an architectural concept for reusing a building or a space for which it was not originally intended for, not only enriches our built environment but contributes to creating layers of a rich cultural and architectural heritage.
Similarly, Jewish communities the world over go to great lengths to protect and restore their religious and historic sites fighting for the miraculous restoration of The New Synagogue in Berlin and the White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw, Poland, just to name a couple.
Whether the option is adaptive reuse or protection of original use, people invest resources to preserve their history and their heritage.
Oddly, Calgary’s Jewish community has had little awareness and interest in doing so, despite unprecedented freedom, economic well being and social status.
We have a history of discarding our religious and community places once we’ve deemed them to be economically unviable moving with the wave of the suburbs and taking on a physical appearance that is almost indistinguishable from the rest of the population. We have become architecturally invisible contributing almost nothing to the built environment and have failed to create a new distinctly Jewish yet western architectural character – the Little Synagogue at Heritage Park being the lone exception.
120 years have passed of a Jewish presence in Calgary and in that time we have neglected to develop who we are architecturally. We have denied ourselves, and with it have denied the greater community, of experiencing our own unique architectural identity.
Instead here is what we have done.
The Jewish community abandoned the sandstone Talmud Torah at 211 6th Avenue S.E.; the coffin-shaped Chevra Kadisha at 1702 17th Avenue S.W.; its first community building, the Art Deco House of Israel at 102 18th Avenue S.E. and the attached Mid 20th Century Modern Shaarey Tzedec Synagogue at 103 17th Avenue S.E.
From an urban vibrancy perspective, the House of Israel got lucky. After standing empty for a number of years, it was transformed into one of Calgary’s most desirable townhouses by a visionary entrepreneur. From the Jewish community’s perspective, this is a loss as this beautiful building could have been a crown in the community’s inventory that we haven’t had the vision to accumulate.
The Talmud Torah was not so lucky. It is now a failed green pocket beside the triangular St. Francis Church.
The Chevra Kadisha stands empty for now; its adaptive reuse potential currently unknown.
Jewish sites add a rich layer to the local history speaking not only of a Jewish presence but also laying a stake to the land.
Without a physically unique and stable center, we are at risk of slipping into a virtual community.
This brings us to the current predicament of the Shaarey Tzedec Synagogue.
A newspaper clipping from April 12, 1959, held in the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta shows Jacob Bell Barron, in a wheelchair, surrounded by children, breaking ground to what would be the city’s first modern orthodox congregation. Leo Sheftel, the congregation’s first president, urged the 400 people in attendance to “help the synagogue” and that they did. Raising $400,000, the community completed the synagogue in less than six months opening its doors in time for that year’s High Holidays.
According to the Joyful Harvest book, Bella Singer donated the congregation’s Aron Kodesh made of Galilee marble. Murray Robins was the first head of the men’s club while Sybil Bercov led the original sisterhood. Rabbis Ginsburg and Postone were among the congregation’s best known clergy.
Sheila Gurevitch, whose father was Leo Sheftel, remembers, “My father was going door-to-door. He was very involved with about half a dozen men. Meetings were held at our house very often.” On June 14, 1964, 21 year old Sheila Sheftel married 25 year old Dr. Ralph Gurevitch in the newly built synagogue.
Sheila remembers, “The shul was very warm and soothing. There was something about it. I don’t know whether it was the wood paneling. It was very warm and comforting. It was very family oriented. In Calgary we didn’t have many new people in those days so when you’d walked in you saw the same people and you felt a part of it.”
But with the drift of the community south, the synagogue followed the population. In 1986, the modern orthodox congregation amalgamated with the conservative Beth Israel Synagogue whose building was at the same location the newly formed Beth Tzedec Congregation is today, at 1325 Glenmore Trail SW.
The congregation felt it couldn’t afford to keep the building, so in 1991 the Shaarey Tzedec was sold to the Calgary Centre for Positive Living.
In March of 2012, the City of Calgary added the Shaarey Tzedec to its Historic Resource Evaluation List. Although the evaluation does not protect the building, it is the first step an owner must take to designate and protect a building.
The City’s evaluation states, “The Shaarey Tzedec Synagogue is highly valued as a symbol of the strength and perseverance of the Jewish community to establish the first synagogue built since the House of Jacob was constructed in 1912.” Adding the synagogue is, “Also significant for its stunning and dynamic Modern-style architecture.” The evaluation rates the synagogue as having “city-wide significance.”
The City recognizes, “Shaarey Tzedec Synagogue is in remarkably original condition in both the interior and exterior spaces.” The biggest change to the building is that the connection between the House of Israel and the synagogue was sealed after the former was sold and converted to townhouses.
On May 29, 2012, the Calgary Centre for Positive Living sold the Shaarey Tzedec site for $4.2 million to KS (KingSett Capital based in Toronto having a 75% interest) and to JAT (John Torode having a 25% interest).
KingSett Capital is a private equity business that according to its website focuses on investing in, “Office, retail and industrial properties and portfolios in the central and suburban business districts of Canada's major markets.” It has a strategy of “Co-investing with pension funds and high net worth individuals” to “achieve premium risk weighted returns.”
John Torode was once a high profile real estate developer who ran Torode Realty. In November of 2009 he declared bankruptcy, which caused him to abandon building two towers (after one was built) of the Arriva project in Victoria Park.
At the time of writing this article, JAT has filed a development application with the City of Calgary, for the demolition of the Shaarey Tzedec to be replaced with a 48 unit condo on the upper three floors and retail at ground level.
I have seen the plans and they are conventional, dull and represent arrogance in their ignorance of local history, heritage and culture.
This proposal raises a lot of questions in my mind.
Why are we so willing to discard our city’s and the Jewish community’s historic, cultural and heritage fabric?
Why do we give little thought to the legacy we are leaving future generations? (The Shaarey Tzedec will be lost forever and missed by future generations. No photograph or plaque will ever replace it).
Why is it acceptable to demolish a building that is of a better architectural quality than what is being proposed?
Why are we indifferent to dumping a building into a landfill, when we obsess about saving paper and banning plastic bags?
Why are we allowing the demolition of a building that could be reused and desperately needed by arts and cultural organizations when nothing is being built for arts and cultural organizations?
Why have we accepted a value that owners can do whatever they want with their developments when we are the ones who have to live with the consequences of the developments they create?
Why do we allow non-resident owners to parachute into our city and build whatever development to give their investors the highest return on their investment while being ignorant of our history and heritage?
Is Calgary just a place for economic transients and a vehicle for efficient capital formation?
I called Aron Eichler, Yiddish teacher and the community’s sage, to ask him the meaning of “shaarey tzedec.” “Gates of justice,” Aron explains. After I tell him what is being proposed, he adds, “If they demolish it, there is no justice.”
These developments have been a wave, but soon will turn into a tsunami, unless we stop them.
Your letters to the Mayor and Council opposing this development are greatly appreciated.
Irena Karshenbaum is a writer and heritage advocate who led a project that gifted one of the last surviving prairie synagogues to Heritage Park. email@example.com
This article was originally published in the October 12, 2012 issue of Calgary's Jewish Free Press. It was republished on this site by the author.