By Elena Kingsbury
Community and a sense of belonging is understandably important to Jewish identity, as it is for members of any minority group who experiences exclusion and marginalization. Canada is home to many thriving Jewish communities which have flourished in Canada’s major urban centers over the past 100 years. Indeed, the Canadian Jewish experience has been overwhelmingly urban and as of 2019, 84% of Jewish people in Canada live in four of our largest cities - Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. But what about the stories of Jewish Canadians outside of these urban centers? What does it mean to “be Jewish” when you grow up without access to a wider Jewish community?
In my experience, you get creative. There are no all-encompassing answers to these questions but I can share my own perspective as a young Jewish person who grew up in the rural community of Maitland, Ontario on the St. Lawrence River. This region of Ontario, about 45 minutes east of Kingston in the Thousand Islands, has experienced declining population for the past 50 years and by the time of my birth in 1989, there were just a handful of Jewish people living in the area, including my grandparents who immigrated to Canada in the early 1950s following the Holocaust. To the best of my knowledge, the only other Jewish person in the area was my grandmother’s best friend and fellow Holocaust survivor, Anita Meyer. And yet, in spite of our isolation, we were a part of a vibrant but little-known international Jewish community that spanned both American and Canadian sides of the St. Lawrence River.
In the town of Ogdensburg, New York, where the river narrows, there is a bridge between Canada and the US. Ogdensburg was also home to the synagogue our family belonged to, congregation Anshe Zophen, which means People of the North in Hebrew. This synagogue was originally founded in 1875 and was in continuous use until the early 2000s when it sadly closed forever. The existence of the synagogue speaks to a bygone era when the St. Lawrence Valley was booming and small towns across Canada and the USA were swelling with immigrants. Anshe Zophen served dozens of families on both sides of the river and although I was born long after the “hey-day” of the community, I remember large crowds for evening services on Fridays.
Truly “North American”, our congregation would be best described as a motley crew: our leader was an Orthodox rabbi from Montreal, but the synagogue itself was Conservative. To complicate matters further, some congregants actually identified as Reform. Holocaust survivors and their families were heavily represented in the congregation but many non-Jews, including my father (who played an active role but never converted), were regular attendees. We even sang our songs in slightly different tunes from one another.
I had my Bat Mitzvah at Anshe Zophen in the summer of 2000. Although the synagogue survived the millennium, attendance had been on the decline for years as more families moved away from the small towns of eastern Ontario and upstate New York. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 were another serious blow to the existence of an international community like ours. Prior to 9/11, border crossing between Canada and the US was much more relaxed and people freely traveled by car or boat between the two shores. Following the attacks, border crossing became a more uncertain and drawn-out process, sometimes taking several hours. The difficulty of travel, in combination with the deaths of key members of the congregation, tragically sealed the fate of the synagogue which is abandoned today.
I look back on the Jewish community of my childhood, I cherish these memories and realize that although atypical, my experiences have allowed me from a very early age to understand that “being Jewish” transcends nationality and that the Jewish experience in Canada cannot be easily defined.