Presenting – Arie Nerman and the Beach Hebrew Institute – The People’s Synagogue

For my Celebrate Toronto articles series I am continuously searching for people who are making positive contributions in the neighbourhood and building the community in unique ways. During my brief tour of the Beach, Gene Domagala introduced me to the Beach Hebrew Institute, a religious institution that has been in existence in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood since 1920. I wanted to learn more about this institution so I contacted Arie Nerman, the President of the Beach Hebrew Institute, and a good friend of Gene Domagala.

Arie invited me to come over and join him on a Wednesday morning which would allow me to also see the drop-in program in action, a program that offers a free warm lunch to disadvantaged people in the neighbourhood. Punctually at 10:30 am I entered the premises and met Arie, a distinguished gentleman in his early seventies. He started to fill me in on the history of the Beach Synagogue: during the 1890s the Kenilworth Avenue Baptist Church was erected on these premises and opened in 1895. Around 1908 the congregation moved to a larger church on Waverley Road and the old church stood empty for a while and was even used as a warehouse and as a community centre.

In 1920 finally the building was purchased by the Beth Jacob congregation which started to hold Orthodox prayer services in the now refunctioned synagogue. Even the orientation of the building was changed in order for the gable to face eastwards. Arie explained that this was a small congregation and in 1935 it was composed of about 35 families. The 1920s and 1930s were a difficult time for the Jewish community as anti-Semitism had been sweeping across Canada. The word “synagogue” had deliberately been left out of the name of this religious building.

The Beth Jacob congregation stayed until the 1940s and then moved away and left essentially no trace. Over the years various congregations fluctuated in size and they had no rabbi. During the 1960s the Jewish community in the Beach began to dwindle as its members moved further north in the city. Yet a handful of members remained; many of them were small business owners who had upholstery shops or grocery stores.

Arie Nerman himself joined the congregation in the 1970s, right around the time when there was talk of the building being sold. Arie originally was a non-observant Jew and it took him about two years to even find out that there was a synagogue in the Beach. Once he joined the congregation he decided to become more involved. Together with several members of the congregation and with the blessing of the elders they did some fundraising to ensure the continued existence of the Beach Hebrew Institute.

No repairs had been done for eons, and Arie took over the congregation when there was $40 in the treasury. The congregation was still orthodox and a devoted group of members set about to make some changes. They made changes to become a conservative congregation which meant that members of the opposite sex were allowed to sit together. A few years later the congregation changed again to become liberal conservative. Ever since then women and men have equal status in the synagogue.

During the 1980s and 1990s major repairs were undertaken as a result of extensive fundraising efforts. Letters were sent to every Jewish business in the city, and bazaars were held whose proceeds were dedicated to the restoration fund. Arie explained that the furnace needed to be replaced and now the building actually has two new furnaces. The roof had to be repaired, the floors had to be painted. The original stained glass was restored at a cost of about $15,000. Fans were added which were later replaced by a central air conditioning system. All the fixtures were paid for by the congregation.

Today, the building is in good shape and the congregation’s fiscal state is in order. The membership at the Beach Hebrew Institute today encompasses about 130 families and about one third of the members reside in the Beach triangle. Others come in from Scarborough or Cabbagetown. One Jewish family is still living on this very street, a few doors away from the Synagogue.

Arie refers to the Beach Hebrew Institute as the “People’s Synagogue”. The congregation participates in all the services and during high holidays they bring in a cantor to lead the service. One of the community’s elders, Mr. Tanenbaum, a Holocaust survivor, is the spiritual mentor and guide for this community.

Arie’s goal has always been to become an active part of the wider community and today he participates in various interfaith initiatives and is part of the ministerial meetings that are attended by ministers of various churches in the area. Arie Nerman is the co-founder of the Beaches Interfaith Community Outreach Committee, a local interfaith group that includes the Presbyterian, Anglican, United, Roman-Catholic, Mennonite and Baptist Churches, whose primary initiative is a drop-in program that is held daily at a different location. This program offers a hot, nutritious lunch to the homeless, unemployed individuals, welfare recipients, individuals with mental challenges and low-income residents in the neighbourhood.

Arie Nerman is a quiet, modest man. He does not talk much about himself; about his personal life he simply shares that he used to be in the advertising industry and also taught at Seneca College. For his extensive work in the community Arie Nerman has received several awards, including the Beaches/East York Citizen of the Year, and a tribute to his contributions has been immortalized in the Millenium Walk of Fame in Woodbine Park, right next to other important honour recipients such as Gene Domagala, Glenn Cochrane and Marie Perrotta.

At the Beach Synagogue the drop-ins are attended by 30 to 35 individuals on average. Some of the locals also drop by to socialize and mix with people. The doors are open to anyone and religion is not involved at all with the exception of special events on high holidays such as Christmas and Hannukah. At Thanksgiving special lunches are served, and the regular weekly lunches include soup, sandwiches and a dessert. Volunteers in various congregations add their own special touches to the lunches, sometimes in the forms of cakes or home-made casseroles. During the summer barbecues are held occasionally as well.

The drop-in lunches have now been held for about 6 years and they always take place from 11 to 1 pm. At the Beach Hebrew Institute there are approximately four regular volunteers while some of the other locations may have as many as eight volunteers.

During the drop-in I even bumped into my friend Gene Domagala who I had interviewed a couple of weeks earlier. Gene, another tireless volunteer, regularly helps with picking up the food from different locations, sometimes from private corporations, at other times from Toronto’s Daily Bread Foodbank.

As Arie was busy with the patrons, Gene introduced me to another interesting individual: Paul Mandell, who is a regular contributor at Centre 55, a local community centre dedicated to the welfare of Beach residents.

Paul has been running a promotions business since 1996 the idea for which started with a meeting with Paul’s father during which his father spilled some coffee. In a sudden flash of insight, Paul decided to create cleaning rags, a particularly fortunate idea since he had been offered a whole shipment of unsold diapers which he ended up buying and refunctioning into cleaning rags. These were then sold to various property management companies, who incidentally expressed an interest in uniforms, which meant that Paul Mandell moved into the uniform business as well. Ever the consummate entrepreneur Paul also moved into the promotional items business and customized embroidery.

But not only is Paul a gifted salesman and entrepreneur, he also has a heart for the community. His local bank manager connected him to Centre 55, and ever since then Paul has regularly donated prizes for the organization’s golf tournament, an important fundraiser. He has also been running the putting contest. Over the last few years he even got more involved and wanted to generate additional funds to help feed people. He donated 640 hot dogs for the barbecue during the Beaches Jazz Festival and worked at the event as well. The barbecue has become a regular part of the Jazz Festival and now raises even more funds for local community programs. Gene was joking that Paul was the recipient of one of the coveted Centre 55 jackets, an item he would love to get his hands on too considering his extensive volunteer work at Centre 55.

I then had a chance to reconnect with Arie who mentioned that he has been the President of the Beach Hebrew Institute for many years and that he truly enjoys his community work. He also teaches children about Jewish traditions as well as Hebrew reading skills for their bar / bat mitzvahs. He describes his congregation as eclectic, and it includes all kinds of professions and people from all walks of life. Arie said that he needs to continually upkeep the membership so that the congregation can maintain this beautiful building.

As we were talking around 25 to 30 regulars were enjoying their lunches, sitting down in the community room in the basement of the Beach Synagogue. The lunch today included a vegetable soup, various kinds of sandwiches, and a diverse spread of desserts, including baked goods and fresh fruit. The atmosphere was friendly and it looked like people have known each other for a long time.

I also had a chance to talk to Celia Gould, another volunteer who has been helping out with the drop-in for about four years now. Celia comes in every Wednesday at 9 am and helps prepare the food in the upstairs kitchen which gets carried downstairs into the community room. Other ladies drop by from other churches to help with the food preparation and they are usually gone by 10:30 am. From 11 am onwards the guests come in and start to enjoy their meals.

Celia explained that the soup usually comes packaged in frozen buckets from the Food Bank, sometimes it is delivered in cans as well. The meals are always fresh and highly nutritious. Celia has been living in the Beach since 1987 and enjoys the neighbourhood, particularly since you can get everywhere without needing a car. Her kids have gone to school in this neighbourhood. She enjoys volunteering and appreciates that Arie includes her. She finds the drop-in a very wholesome activity and enjoys the interaction with the local seniors who help with the food preparation.

Some of the volunteers are in their nineties, and they are all regulars. Celia herself hardly ever misses a Wednesday and loves to support the drop-in program. She says Arie is their hero and she is very proud to know him.

I bet many of the regulars at the drop-in feel the same way.

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