The “Shuls Project” was the work of three University of Toronto architecture students, who in 1977 wrote a research paper on the eight Toronto synagogues built before World War II. Concerned at the lack of resources on these synagogues, Sidney Tenenbaum, Lynn Milstone and Sheldon Levitt foresaw the loss of communities’ recorded history as membership dwindled and elders passed on. The students conceived a project that would photograph and document every synagogue in Canada, gathering visual evidence, memorabilia, plaques and stories before they disappeared and history was lost. The students’ goal was to document synagogues’ architecture, art, and historical development through research, interviews and site visits.
The students secured a large portion of the required funding for the project from the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation in Montreal, funding which was matched by the Canadian Jewish Congress. This financial support enabled Levitt, Milstone and Tenenbaum to begin their study, named “Shuls… A Study of Canadian Synagogue Architecture.” They began in the summer of 1977, traveling through the Western provinces. The next summer, they visited eight Maritime cities, Montreal and other Quebec communities. Financial support in the project’s second year was again provided by the Bronfman Family Foundation, along with the Canadian government and donations in kind from businesses, including Benjamin Photo Finishers in Toronto, and Polaroid. The summer of 1979 was spent in Ontario, with an added grant from Wintario. In total, the Shuls project team traveled over 24,000 kilometres, taking thousands of photographs and conducting several hundred interviews. Photographs were taken by Tenenbaum, with Levitt and Milstone assuming primary responsibility for researching synagogues’ history and gathering historic records. Interviews were conducted by all three researchers, in both English and Yiddish.
With no handy index of every shul in Canada, the researchers located small shuls by word of mouth. They spread word of their project and solicited assistance using press releases, letters to known communities, and slideshow presentations as they traveled. They would first examine a building to get an idea of a community’s character and heritage, then conduct interviews with designers, architects, rabbis and other prominent community members.
With the research and photographs created, the team compiled three catalogues of the Western, Eastern/Quebec, and Ontario phases of the project. These catalogues have entries on each synagogue that include historical summaries highlighting the founding, growth, mergers and decline of Jewish communities, their changing needs, changing architectural expressions and trends, and the evolving uses of synagogues over the course of the twentieth century. There are also building descriptions, some with critical comments by the authors, and lists of the photographs and slides produced.
The compilation of materials and preparation of these catalogues took place at the Project’s offices at 26 Ava Road in Toronto, and continued through the summer of 1980 when the Ontario catalogue was completed. In 1985, Tenenbaum, Milstone and Levitt published a book highlighting their work, called Treasures of a People: The Synagogues of Canada.
Scope and Content
Fonds consists of the records created and collected by the team of students conducting the Shuls study from 1977 to 1980. The majority of the fonds is made up of graphic material, in the form of 35mm colour slides and black-and-white Polaroid prints and (print-size) negatives. There are approximately 5110 photographs in the fonds. Fonds also consists of notes and inventory forms of buildings' architectural features. There are no interview transcripts, but the fonds does include three audio cassettes with recorded interviews and shul tours. Reference materials used in researching the history of the shuls include dedication and anniversary commemorative books and programmes, newsletters, articles and newspaper clippings. In addition the fonds contains 47 blueprints, the majority from Montreal synagogues. The fonds is arranged in the following series: 1. Quebec synagogues; 2. Ontario synagogues; 3. Western Canada synagogues; 4. Eastern Canada synagogues; 5. Reference.
Physical description note: includes 92 cm of textual records, 42 architectural drawings, 3 audio cassettes, and 1 drawing.
Physical extent note: many of the slides were culled because they were felt to be reproductions. Some of the synagogue images in the research book may therefore not be included in the fonds.
Copyright is not held by the Ontario Jewish Archives. It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain permission prior to use.