March 16, 2006
16 Adar, 5766


Cornwall shul closes its doors on an 80-year history

The Cornwall Standard-Freeholder reports on the closing of Beth-El Congregation. Pictured is shul president Mark Goldhamer, 83.

Staff Reporter

April 2 will be a sad day for the small and dwindling Jewish community of Cornwall, Ont., as that’s when the town’s only synagogue, the 80-year-old Beth-El Congregation, will close its doors for good.

Mark Goldhamer, 83, who has been president of the shul for 25 years, said the decision to close it was made last summer because it has so few members that getting a regular minyan together had become nearly impossible.

Cornwall has had a Jewish community since the 1860s, but in recent years, it declined drastically, as younger generations of Jews moved to bigger cities, Goldhamer said.

Information provided by Ellen Scheinberg, director of the Ontario Jewish Archives, shows Cornwall has a rich Jewish history that dates back to Alexander Vineberg, who settled in the eastern Ontario town in 1858.

The community grew from 15 Jews in 1881 to 210 by 1931.

Beth-El Congregation was established in 1925, and the cornerstone was laid by Aaron Horovitz, who later became the mayor of Cornwall in the 1950s.

Goldhamer said that at its peak in the mid-1950s, the shul had about 275 members, including people who lived in and around Cornwall.

But in the late 1960s, the number began to steadily decline.

“The last time we had regular weekly services was two years ago,” he said.

Joyce Miller, 73, Goldhamer’s sister-in-law, was once president of the Hadassah sisterhood in Cornwall. She said she was involved with every part of the shul, “including washing the floors.”

She moved to Cornwall from Montreal in 1944, when the synagogue had a thriving congregation of about 90 families.

In the 1960s, “people were becoming elderly and the younger people began leaving. Families would move out of town. Of our four children, only one of them stayed in town. There was nothing for them here,” Miller said.

“Today [the shul has] a main list of about 18 people. Very small. It’s a terrible thing that happened,” Goldhamer added.

“The older people who came here can’t live forever and the younger people all moved away,” he said.

Montreal-born Peter Loebel, who lived and worked in Cornwall for five years in the 1950s before moving to Toronto, is also upset at the loss of the shul.

“It’s just sad, but this is part of the way that towns change,” he said, adding that living in Cornwall and being a part of its Jewish community was an important part of his life.

Speaking about Cornwall’s proud Jewish history, he noted that Nathan Phillips, the first Jewish mayor of Toronto, who served from 1955 to 1962, grew up in Cornwall.

“The younger generation moved away, and the older generation is living in nursing homes and dying. They are the ones who have kept [the shul] going.”

In an attempt to help Cornwall’s Jewish community stay active, other small Jewish communities in northern New York state – including Lake Placid, Malone, Massena, Ogdensburg, Potsdam and Tupper Lake – formed a coalition with Cornwall in August 1992 to share in joint activities.

Goldhamer said he can’t be sure where the remaining 18 members will go for services once the shul closes, but he guessed they will probably join congregations in Ottawa and Montreal.

“We just can’t keep up with the synagogue anymore. And it’s not about the money. We just don’t have the people. No young people have come back.”

On April 2, Beth El will hold its final service. Goldhamer said he will give a speech and a rabbi will attend, as will representatives from Canadian Jewish Congress and United Israel Appeal-Federations Canada.

The 125-seat, one-floor shul has been sold and will be turned into a private home.

“On Rosh Hashanah, I broke down a couple times. It’s very sad. The loss of the synagogue is a terrible blow to the city,” Goldhamer said.

Miller said that in an effort to continue weekly Shabbat services, the shul began to count women in the 10 people needed to make up a minyan.

“Now, even when we count women, we don’t have a minyan. We have people in their 90s, and we can’t expect them to come here every Saturday morning.

“When you’re down to less than 20 people, it’s hard to keep a shul open for [even] three days a year,” she said, explaining that the fewer members a shul has, the fewer donations it gets.

“For years we talked about [closing Beth-El], but we would say, ‘We can’t close. We can’t close,’ but the building began to deteriorate.”

As Miller began discussing the final ceremony, she broke down into tears, apologizing for her emotional state.

“This is just very difficult,” she said.

“It’s a very sad thing. I just don’t realize how emotional I am about it until I start talking about it. I feel like once the shul is gone, the community is gone.”