As membership dwindled and the average age of congregants dropped to about 75, the writing was on the wall for the Orthodox Young Israel of Chomedey Congregation in Laval, Quebec’s second largest city just across the bridge from Montreal.
“We had talked about selling the building for years,” said Chairman George Finkelstein, a member since 1967 and the man who stepped up to the plate to steer the ship. “Everyone was in denial. We were losing money and members. The status quo made no sense.”
Membership had plummeted to about 200 from a high of approximately 1,000 in its glory days.
Once it was confirmed that none of the other synagogues in the area would be open to merging, the decision was made to put the building, established on Elizabeth Street in 1961, up for sale. Since it was zoned as a religious building, there were several restrictions, meaning that anyone looking at this prime piece of real estate for a commercial project was out of luck.
Then along came Arden Dervishian, owner of the successful women’s clothing, shoes and accessories chain Ardène and a leader in the local Armenian community. He purchased the building via his Ardène Foundation, with plans to use it for a multi-purpose project. Suddenly the Young Israel of Chomedey was in a solid financial position.
Finkelstein looked at the options. There was the Congregation Chevra Mishnais Jacob Joseph, but it was on the small side. Converting a duplex into a synagogue was considered, but rezoning would have been difficult. The logical choice was to come up with some kind of arrangement with the Conservative Shaar Shalom, one kilometre away and also suffering from a drop in membership.
The sale to Dervishian went through last June and the synagogue rented the premises through November. They then moved to the Shaar Shalom, agreeing to an eight-month lease with the understanding that a more permanent arrangement would be discussed before the next High Holiday season. The Chevra Mishnais Jacob Joseph has since closed and donated its building to the Young Israel of Chomedey.
“We are in pretty good shape,” Finkelstein told me. “We have $2.7 million in the bank. The arrangement with Shaar Shalom is working out nicely. We have our own space and our own rabbi. It is now easier for both congregations to get minyans. We will have to see. The Chevra Mishnais Jacob Joseph building is available to us. We have even heard from synagogues in Montreal, inviting us to join them.”
Finkelstein credits Building Chairman Bernie Peroff and Vice-President of Operations David Green for assisting him with the heavy workload of vacating the building they called home for over 50 years and relocating.
“The set-up at the Shaar Shalom is small and haimish,” longtime member Fred Rudy shared. “It certainly takes some getting used to. It’s a very welcoming and friendly atmosphere and both groups seem to be working together in harmony.”
Rudy acknowledged that for those who walk to shul, this represents a much longer trip as many members are in Florida for the winter. “At this time of year there is always a problem with having a minyan in the mornings and evenings, but with both shuls in the same building it’s easier now,” he said.
What does the future hold? Finkelstein agrees that members are getting older and there are no young Jewish families moving to Chomedey. The French-speaking Sephardic Jewish community, though, remains in better shape. I was at the Congregation Or Sépharade recently for the bar mitzvah of Isaac Ouaknine, the son of noted coiffure Georges Ouaknine and his wife Ora Assayag. It is a beautiful building. There is also Centre Sépharade de Torah Laval nearby.
At one time in Chomedey, there was a United Talmud Torahs campus and a Jewish Y. The Jewish Rehabilitation Centre still remains intact.
As Rabbi Solomon J. Spiro, the founding rabbi of the synagogue, recently wrote, after World War II young couples began to move from the city centres to the suburbs. For Jews this also meant a challenge to organize a Jewish community in which they could feel at home and create an atmosphere that would induce their children to remain loyal to their faith. A number of Montreal Jewish families took up the challenges of buying their own homes and undertaking mortgages for the first time in their lives.
The original group that founded the Young Israel of Chomedey were among those young families all over North America who moved to the suburbs. They bought bungalows in a small town called St. Martin from a builder and developer in the area named Bruno Romitti. He rightly guessed that if he cultivated this group they would bring their friends and neighbours and create a mini real estate boom. In fact, he donated one of the bungalows to serve as the original home for the synagogue. Romitti finished the basement and that was the sanctuary. Upstairs, the dining room-living room served as the social hall and the bedrooms were classrooms for a nursery and kindergarten student. Two Israeli women members of the shul were among the first teachers, which included Bernice Berbrier and Rose Peligal in the nursery, with Margot Schram and Claire Leaman in the kindergarten. The program was so successful that even some non-Jewish parents registered their children.
The Elizabeth Avenue shul came into being after an enterprising real estate entrepreneur started to build homes in Western Chomedey, with mortgages subsidized by the government young Jewish couples found it within their means to buy substantially sized bungalows and the area grew rapidly.
“The administration of the congregation decided that the future of Jewish Chomedey was there and with land just a few pennies a foot, solicited pledges to purchase enough land for a future building,” Rabbi Spiro wrote. “In addition they wisely purchased land for a parking lot as well, (for weekday parking!).”
How will The Young Israel of Chomedey survive as a mere tenant of the Shaar Shalom? Well, there will be no resurgence of a Jewish population in Chomedey. I am just glad members of the Jewish community have roofs over their heads.