By Bob Smolkin
In the beginning when we were young, there was a burning desire to start our own synagogue in Richmond Hill. It really started in earnest in 1975 when a few couples got together and decided that there were enough Jewish families in the area bounded by Carrville Road, Bathurst Street, Major Mackenzie Drive, and Yonge Street to form a core synagogue group. Our first meeting, held in the Richvale Community Centre, brought out over 90 families. Our invited speaker, Rabbi Kelman from Beth Emeth, suggested after the meeting that we join Beth Emeth, but our goal to build our own Jewish community and we did. Our shul, the Richmond Hill Jewish Community, was formalized in 1976, with the constitution set in place in December of that year.
I can still remember when the first services were held at Richvale Community Centre in 1980. Our first rabbi, Sol Tanenzapf, and his wife Elaine, were with us from 1976 to 2006, Rabbi Sol's untimely death. Rabbi David Eligberg arrived in the summer of 2006 with his wife Jodi and three children.
One of our foremost themes was "invest in our children". The Hebrew School started with 12 students and then blossomed into a full-fledged school of over 200 students.
We held High Holy Day services in Richvale Community Centre. We were so proud that over 700 people would attend and every year thereafter the number of people attending increased.
We really looked forward to this time of year. It was so nice to have so many people together in our community. In those early years our community was made up of young families and we had a special room for the "carriages" at High Holy Days. What a picture: not only did we sing and pray but there was a special choir in one of the babysitting rooms. What a beautiful feeling ... A vibrant young Jewish community with such a bright future ahead.
Over the next several years we had services in Richvale, Hillcrest Mall, McConnecky Centre, Elgin Barrow Arena, Walter Scott Public School, Bavview Secondary School, etc. etc. ... No wonder we were called the York Region Wandering Jews!
1979 was a very challenging and difficult year for my family. My challenges were as president of the synagogue, an experience which helped me understand and appreciate what it takes to run a shul. During that year Gary Winston and I met with Steeles Memorial to discuss the burial needs for our shul. After all we were a congregation now and had to take care of such things. The meeting took place in September of that year and within the next three months Gary lost his father and I lost my brother. It was as if G-d directed us to "take care of important business". A shul is not the building but rather the most important ingredient ... people. We have in this community such a close network of Jewish families that the strength of many helps those in times of need.
In 1980 I had the honour of presenting the Torah from Agudath Achim synagogue in Perth, my home town, to our shul. I remember walking into Richvale Community Centre with the Torah. So many memories were rushing through my head. Such a small town to be able to support a synagogue! My zaydie, Louis Karakowsky, alavasholem, and my dad were so instrumental in maintaining the synagogue in Perth. I am sure that my zaydie would have been proud of me as I took the Torah to the ark. Every time I see the Torah taken out of the ark it reminds me of where I came from. This is the catalyst that helped me appreciate the values of Jewish life.
Several years went by and we enjoyed synagogue life with a membership of 65 to 70 families. In 1985 a decision was made to focus on the construction of a permanent home. Our synagogue's name was changed to Shaareh Haim (Gates of Life). Again a new era for the York Region Jewish community was occurring.
In 1986, our ground breaking for our permanent home took place. Presiding over the event was our enthusiastic rabbi, Lawrence Troster. Larry was full of energy, looking forward to building a strong community. Rabbi Troster was an excellent spiritual leader who created his own congregational following, which reflected a strong increase in the membership at Shaareh Haim.
In 1990 we celebrated the opening of our new permanent home. There were around 300 families at that time.
In 1992 when the recession was in full swing we ran into difficulties and in June of that year Shaareh Haim was no more. It is difficult to put in words what this meant to Helen and myself, our children, and our community at large. We lost our rabbi, a very sad event, and we lost most of our 300 families. Over the summer of that year emotions ran high. Two main responsibilities loomed ahead in our community. What would we do with the Hebrew school for next year, and what would we do for High Holy Days? Helen worked with Barb Sax to rebuild the Hebrew school and that was the focus for the summer.
In the late summer, Gary Winston called me and we agreed that the shul had to be rebuilt. High Holy Days were arranged at the Bayview Community Centre just as we had done in 1977. We were starting all over again. Beit Rayim was born. Today I am proud to announce that we have over 250 families in our synagogue and the Hebrew School is thriving with close to 200 students again.
I am also especially proud to be associated with Cantor Eli Bard and Ester(z"l) Bard. Eli, as modest as he is, ran our services for many years, and continues to add so much life to Beit Rayim. His beautiful voice and gentle inclusive approach to helping members learn new tunes and to expand their ritual skills have fueled the strength in our spiritual direction and have provided the catalyst to help us grow and regenerate.
What I have described to you in capsule form is two decades of synagogue life in York Region. We have had our share of good and bad times but this community is second to none. It will survive and flourish.
Beit Rayim Synagogue is a thriving shul with a vibrant spirit and positive future. It is so heartwarming to be part of this Jewish community.