A visit with the Jews of Kingston

From the Canadian Jewish News, January 7, 1999

Kingston is a city full of surprises for a Jewish reporters from the big city of Toronto.

For one thing, the Kingston Jewish Community Council spreads an umbrella over the unaffiliated Jews, as well as those of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform persuasions. The unaffiliated 50 members pay $10 a year to belong. And some belong to both the Orthodox and Reform congregations

For another, it is a small city where the Jewish population, about 1,200 including 400 Queen’s University students, is as large, or larger, than it ever was. For this to be appreciated, think of all the small cities and towns in Canada that once had a thriving Jewish community and now have trouble assembling a minyan.

And then there is Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Elkin, 54, a native of Montreal and the first Canadian-born rabbi the community has ever had. He rides a bicycle to his office at the Beth Israel Synagogue. His wife Gittel, who hails from New York, is a holistic healer.

If you want to talk to a real pioneer, then drop in on Faygel Cohen, a 91-year-old straight-backed connoisseur of fine arts, and lifetime volunteer extraordinaire. As the daughter of the well-loved Rabbi Jacob Gordon of Toronto, she first came to Kingston 65 years ago in a roadster (a Hupmobile), driven by her late husband, Sheldon Cohen.

And there is the surprising news that Kingston is just behind Victoria as the retirement capital of Canada. Retired Jews, as well as others, are drawn to this Lake Ontario community which is so well located, being handy to sons, daughters and grandchildren not only in Kingston, but in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

But lest you think Kingston is a veritable garden of paradise, a walk along Princess Street on a cold, crisp autumn evening will reveal a number of drifters, unemployed and young people hanging around the usual places, like they do in the big city.

And there are poor Jews in Kingston, because one of the problems the Jewish Community Council is wrestling with, is how to help those who need economic assistance.

To the outsider, the Kingston Jewish community presents a united front, because its members work at it.

Twice, motions to change the affiliation of Beth Israel from Orthodox to Conservative have been defeated, the rationale being that the steadfast Orthodox would not have any place to pray. The beautiful sanctuary at Beth Israel has separate seating for women and men.

The Iyr HaMelech Reform Synagogue, founded 10 years ago with 68 families (compared with 125 families at Beth Israel), holds its services in a hall at Queen’s University.

According to Iran-born Moussa Cohanim, 70, a past president of Iyr HaMelech, the congregation has an equal number of old-time Kingston families and newcomers. “They come and go,” said the retired physician, who practiced medicine in Toronto for six years before coming to Kingston 30 years ago.

“I enjoy sailing, I like the summer and fall here, and as for the winter, you have to live with it. It’s an easy place to get out of, to go to Montreal or Toronto, or south to Syracuse. It is so popular a retirement community, that we probably have too many seniors now.”

Like Cohanim, Frank Lewis, an economics professor at Queen’s, and president of Iyr HaMelech, said he likes life in Kingston because it is more laid back than a big city, its ecological record is good, and it has excellent health services. He has lived in Kingston for 25 years.

The intermarriage rate among members of the Reform synagogue is “fairly high,” he said, but it applies to less than half of its members.

The decline in discrimination against Jews during and after World War II, opened up academic posts at Queen’s, and about 75 Jews are on its faculty.

Rabbi Barbara Bortz of Montreal, is in her second year as Iyr HaMelech’s part-time rabbi, and when she is not on hand, the services are conducted by lay members. Its Talmud Torah has 35 children, the highest in its history.

Some people have dual membership in Orthodox Beth Israel and Reform Iyr HaMelech because they want to pray and be comfortable in one surrounding while supporting, in principle, the other synagogue. What a disclaimer for that joke about the Jew, all alone on a desert island, who builds two synagogues, and wouldn’t be caught dead in one of them.

When Wally Viner, Jewish Community Council president, explains it to the bug-eyed Toronto reporter, he has the nonchalant air of a man who can’t understand why it causes such a fuss.

A successful Ottawa-born lawyer, he has lived in Kingston for 35 years. His wife Elaine has just become president of the Kingston Chamber of Commerce, a post previously held by him. They are the chamber’s first husband and wife team to be presidents.

Kingston’s biggest problem, Viner said, is that it needs another 200 Jewish families so they can support their own butcher and baker.

The way in which Jews and non-Jews in Kingston get along is shown by the campaign headed by businessman Irving Rosen to plant 100 full-grown trees in the area ravaged by last winter’s ice storm in eastern Ontario.

Some trees have already been planted in a Kingston park. So far, $60,000 has been raised, and Wally Viner, Jewish Community Council president and a past president of the Orthodox synagogue Beth Israel, is confident the goal of $70,000 will be reached. “It has been well supported by the general community.”

Tracing his ancestry back to the first Jews who landed in Quebec in the 18th century, Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Elkin, who has called Kingston his home for more than a year, does his part to promote unity. For instance, he invited students of Iyr HaMelech’s Talmud Torah to help decorate the sukkah at Beth Israel, this year.

He obtained his undergraduate degree at Yeshiva University in New York, his rabbinic training at Mesivta of Staten Island, and his smichah from Rabbi Leib Baron in Montreal.

He has another connection with Kingston. His grandfather, Mark Wolf of Montreal, adopted Dr. Alfred Bader, a young survivor from Vienna, when the latter came to Canada, subsequently graduating in chemical engineering from Queen’s. Bader, now an industrial tycoon, donated a castle to Queen Elizabeth, and has backed several charitable events.

“My wife and I liked the idea of coming to a small community with a good ecological track record,” said Rabbi Elkin. “The quality of life here is exceptional, and the community celebrates together.”

For the interview, he is dressed informally, wearing a sweater over his tzitzit, as he does when he conducts business in the shul office, five minutes away from his home by bicycle. He is the principal of Beth Israel’s Talmud Torah with its 30 students, ranging in age from three to 13.

He teaches a high school class in the Talmud Torah and is a consultant to Hillel for Queen’s students, whose headquarters is on the property owned by the synagogue next door. He has also been invited to teach at the Jewish Studies Institute of Queen’s.

He taught at the Hebrew Academy and the Akiva school in Montreal, and for nine years, was education and youth director at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, with 1,640 members, where he conducted many weddings and funerals.

He and his wife visit Montreal and Toronto often to see the rabbi’s parents, two brothers and a sister in Montreal, and the family of son Shalom-Zion (Sam), a Thornhill businessman. A daughter, Abbie Krupnik and her husband Alex, live in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I don’t care if the Jewish community in Kingston is bigger than the one in Moose Jaw, or anywhere else, all I know is that we live in a great place here,” said Mort Abramsky, 71, a businessman whose forbearers came to Kingston 106 years ago and operated the famous Joseph Abramsky store. “I know everyone and they know me,” he said.

His wife, the former Shirley Borden, comes from Glace Bay, N.S. One of their sons, Jay, is an executive of Mort Enterprises in Kingston. Another son, Leon, is in real estate in Toronto, while daughter Karen is married to Dr. Howard Conter, a Halifax physician.

In her cosy apartment, overlooking Lake Ontario, pioneer Faygel Cohen recalls the time her late husband took her out sailing shortly after their marriage in 1934. “I was terrified by the high waves and vowed never to go again.”

But Cohen did like fishing and spent many a happy hour on the St. Lawrence River. They had a cottage on Deadman’s Bay, the only one in the area that had lights, a fringe benefit of her husband’s battery business.

Using a walker because of arthritis, but otherwise in relatively good health, this bright-eyed woman confessed that her favorite piece of art in the apartment is an abstract painting on the walls that she did herself.

Cohen has known discrimination, being turned down because of her Jewish faith when she applied to the University of Toronto library school in 1929, after graduating from the university as a social worker.

She speaks fondly of the persistence her late husband showed in courting her, even after she told him there was no way she would leave Toronto for the wilds of Kingston. “The moon will turn green but some day I’ll get you to marry me,” he teased her. They had a four-month part honeymoon, part business trip in Europe.

The daughter of a rabbi, she was raised in a house where her father’s word was the law. “We were impressed that Sheldon’s family had two cars, because we couldn’t even afford one.”

Why did Kingston’s Jewish community thrive while so many others went down hill?

To this question, Cohen’s reply came quickly: “Because the community had good leaders, like my late husband.”

The voluntary work Cohen did, and still does on behalf of organizations in Kingston, reveals a deep commitment to the ideals of a unified community. ♦

Courtesy of the Rose family. © 2012 by the family of the late Ben Rose.