The Beach Hebrew Institute building was originally constructed in 1895 as a church, designed by architect J. Francis Brown. The Kenilworth Avenue Baptist Church’s original plain frame structure was designed in the shape of a crucifix, with two small wings extending out from each side of the sanctuary. These wings are visible in the sketch from the Baptist Yearbook for 1895-1896. In 1907, the Baptist congregation relocated a block away, where it still exists today at 129 Waverley street, and is consequently called, the Waverley Road Baptist Church.
The building originally faced north on Queen Street, but around 1911, the entire structure was moved south onto Kenilworth Avenue and rotated to face west. Compare this photograph of the church at the turn of the century with the photograph of the synagogue today to see the change. Today it stands nestled in with a street of residential housing and barely stands out from its neighbours, except for its unique façade. The red brick front wall was built in 1926 to make the building look less like a church and more like a synagogue. It features a round top, a large Star of David, and five stained glass windows. A wooden sign, reading “Beth Jacob Synaogue” in Hebrew, was carved by congregant Paul Pascal in 1979. Beautiful landscaping in the front has added to the building’s quaint charm and makes the synagogue all the more inviting.
The façade was designed by architect W.G. Hunt in conjunction with major alterations undertaken in the mid-1920s. At the time, the thirty-five year old building badly needed repairs. Consequently, the congregation held a fundraising dinner, at which over $1800 was raised for the project. In addition to the new façade, the synagogue received an upstairs gallery overlooking the sanctuary and a new basement layout with more convenient pantry space. Other Toronto architects had submitted proposals for the project as well, including Benjamin Brown; and there is evidence that the newly-formed architectural duo of Kaplan and Sprachman were involved in carrying out the work as well. In fact, they donated $15 towards this cause.
The synagogue interior is warm and welcoming. The main sanctuary is a simple room with white plaster walls, wooden floors and a high wooden ceiling. The bimah and Holy Ark are located at the east end, in line with the Jewish tradition of praying towards Jerusalem. Wooden pews and chairs, dating back at least to the 1920s, serve for most services, but with the addition of metal folding chairs, the sanctuary can seat up to 250 people. Red accents and simple adornments, like chandeliers, all contribute to the synagogue’s haymishe feel. Pastel stained-glass windows with geometric patterns let light into the room.
The bimah is raised off of the floor and is enclosed on three sides by railings. On it sit two wooden chairs with holes in their seats, which were likely used as Torah-stands during services. Beautiful, embroidered red velvet covers adorn the reader’s table and lectern. The wooden Aron Kodesh was donated by the Beaches Ladies’ Auxiliary in 1926. It is carved with swirls and stars of David. Two wooden tablets with the Ten Commandments extend out from the top of the Ark. A royal blue curtain covers its plain wooden doors, within which are stored the magnificent Torah scrolls.
The upstairs gallery, added during the alterations in 1926, is used for the children’s Sunday School. Glass windows overlook the sanctuary and can be opened and shut as necessary. The room is outfitted with small desks and chalkboards and decorated with the children’s artwork. The original desks, in which the synagogue’s earliest students carved their names, were sold off in the early 1980s.
The basement hall is used for bar and bat-mitzvah parties, wedding receptions and other special events. In the synagogue’s early years, it was dank and damp, but in 1989, the congregation transformed it into a modern facility. Today, the basement walls are adorned with photographs, artwork, and historical memorabilia. In the corner stands a small children’s Ark, which was lovingly donated by congregant Joe Black, approximately five years ago.
Finally, the building features a number of stained glass windows, many of which are original from the late nineteenth century. The large circular window, and four smaller stained glass windows at the front of the building, were added during the 1926 building alterations. Two of the four look into the children’s gallery upstairs, a third into the kitchen, and a fourth into the side stairwell.
The most beautiful stained glass in the building, however, is a new addition. The two windows above the Aron Kodesh had sat boarded up for decades after they were broken by vandals. In 1986, artist Bev Goldman donated two beautiful stained glass panels to replace them. Their abstract design -- in bright blues, reds and yellows -- serves as a testament to all the hard work and dedication that the members have put into the synagogue over the years.
Sketch of Kenilworth Avenue Baptist Church, c. 1895.
Building permit for 109 Kenilworth Avenue, October 24, 1910.
Plan of Proposed Alterations to Beach Synagogue, 1926.
Interior view of the sanctuary showing a close up view of the bimah, 2003.
Aron Hakodesh, the Holy Ark, c. 1979.
Front façade of the Beach Hebrew Institute, c. 1979.
View of the synagogue’s front doors, c. 1979.
Chair for holding the Torah, 2003.
Interior view of the sanctuary showing the stained glass windows, 2003.