Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Little Synagogue on the Prairie

Once upon a time, around 1916, a small community of Jewish settlers on the Canadian prairie built a synagogue. Like many other edifices of that time and place, it was small, sparsely decorated and sturdy. Built on the Chetner family farm near the village of Sibbald, just west of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, the synagogue served approximately 30 families. It was named the Montefiore Institute in honor of the philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore.

In the early 20th century, Sibbald was one of three areas in rural Alberta noted for Jewish settlement. The other two areas were in Trochu and Rumsey (There were somewhat larger Jewish communities in cities such as Calgary and Edmonton). The settlers in these communities were mostly immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe.

The soil was rocky, and the winters were incredibly cold. Try as the pioneers might, the farms never flourished, and, with the additional challenges of the Great Depression, by the 1930s most of the farms folded. When the Jews left, the Montefiore Institute, which had served as a synagogue, community center and school, was abandoned. In 1937, the Canadian government sold the building for $200 to a non-Jewish family who moved the building itself to Hannah, Alberta.

This might have been just a quaint historical side note had not the synagogue been tracked down in the early 21st century. It was still owned by the same family who had purchased it in 1937, although it had been converted into a house. The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society bought the building and arranged for it to be moved to Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village. The synagogue was restored, and, in June 2009, “The Little Synagogue on the Prairie” was opened to the public with a Hachnasat Sefer Torah (a procession in which a new Torah is brought to the synagogue).

Jewish Treats wishes our Canadian readers a happy Canada Day.

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