Cornwall maintains minyan despite dwindling numbers (1997)

From the Canadian Jewish News, September 18, 1997

Though the average age in this dwindling Jewish community is 70, there is still a Shabbat minyan at historic Congregation Beth-El.

At its peak, the community in the eastern Ontario town consisted of 120 families, but now it is down to 30. For the first time, there is not one locally Jewish-owned business in the city.

“I only have 15 people I can call to a minyan and last winter so many were away we had to cancel the Shabbat minyan for the first time” said Marc Goldhammer, 75, the shul’s president for the past 15 years. “What the future holds I dare not say.”

His father-in-law, Julius Miller, was president for 25 years before him. But the aging community, one of the oldest in Canada with Jewish settlement going back to the 1860s, is proud of the good relations it has had over the years with its English and French-Canadian neighbors.

Eugene Larocque, the Roman Catholic bishop of Cornwall, regularly attends the Kol Nidre service, fasts on Yom Kippur, and breaks the fast with shul members. Cornwall has a history of producing Jews who made good in politics, Goldhammer said, including Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips, Aaron Horovitz, Cornwall mayor for 16 years and George Simon, mayor of Alexandria.

“The family of Sam Jacobs, first Jewish member of the House of Commons, came from this area. At one time four of our 10 council members were Jewish. During the Jewish holidays, there was little shopping done because so many stores on Pitt street were closed. Among the well known families were the Vinebergs, Kellerts and Friedmarts.”

Goldhammer, now retired, was a high school teacher for 25 years, and taught data processing even before the school had a computer. His late wife, the former Helen Miller, was one of the first Jewish high school teachers in Ontario. Their son, Bram, is a well known Toronto musician, while a daughter, Sharon, is executive secretary of the Atlanta, Ga., Jewish community.

Former residents of Cornwall have raised $30,000 for a reserve fund to help the shul stay open, and the interest on the investment helps defray operating costs. “It was a phenomenal place to live,” said Peter Loebel of Toronto who resided here with his family from 1956 to 1961. “Everyone gave newcomers a helping hand.”

The shul has fraternal associations with Jewish communities in Canton, Messina, Potsdam, Ogdensburg and others in northern New York state and invites their residents to take part in Chanukah celebrations. When the St. Lawrence seaway was developed in the 1950s, three graves had to be moved from an area of the Jewish cemetery, and a new cemetery was given to the community west of the city. The government was wonderful in its dealings with us on the cemetery,” said Goldhammer.

If spirit can keep a place alive, then the future of Cornwall’s Jewish community is assured. Despite its small population and distance from major Jewish centres, eight families still keep kosher homes. ♦

This article appears courtesy of the Rose family. © 2012 by the family of the late Ben Rose. 

◊ Cornwall’s Beth-El synagogue was forced to close its doors in 2006. For more information on the Jewish community of Cornwall, please click here.