Like all of Toronto’s early synagogues, the Beach Hebrew Institute was founded in the Orthodox tradition. Quite active during the 1920s and 1930s, the synagogue held weekly Shabbat services, afternoon religious school (or cheder) and a Sunday School. High Holiday services would be filled to capacity, consequently, the synagogue often needed to rent up to one hundred extra chairs to accommodate everyone. Shabbat services, on the other hand, were less well-attended, since many of the members frequented downtown synagogues.
Throughout most of its history, the Beach Hebrew Institute did not have a full-time rabbi. The lay leadership would perform most of the religious duties themselves, except on High Holidays, when they would almost always hire a cantor and a rabbi to lead services. In 1927, Rabbi Jacob Gordon and Cantor Wladowsky, both prominent figures in Toronto’s Jewish community at the time, officiated at High Holiday services.
Mr. Sam Lewis was the synagogue’s first religious head. An expert in Jewish studies who had taught some of Toronto’s most prominent professionals, he attended to religious and ritual matters for the Beach synagogue and its members. The Beach’s Jewish families held him in high esteem, and every year during Simchas Torah, Mr. Lewis was known for making the rounds and sharing a drink with every household.
In 1933, the congregation engaged Rabbi Lazarus Axelrod as its spiritual leader. Rabbi Axelrod taught both the Beach Hebrew Institute’s cheder and Sunday School, and even started a junior choir. Though he only served the for one or two years, he brought new life and spirit to the synagogue. His extremely popular Friday night family services, for example, drew sizeable crowds from as far north as Gerrard and as far east as Fallingbrook. Another religious leader was Charles Pascoe, who was a member who led the serves at the shul for many years during the 1930s and 1940s.
For the founding families, one of the synagogue’s most important religious roles was educating their children in Jewish religion and culture. Along with a Sunday School, the synagogue held cheder, or religious school, each weekday afternoon except for Friday. Eleanor Bessen, a student during the 1930s, recalls going to Hebrew school at the Beach Hebrew Institute. Religion, Hebrew reading, and Jewish history were taught by a number of young men throughout the years, including J. Shoichet, Morris Zimmerman and Rabbi Axelrod. The Sisterhood provided students with chocolate milk and the teachers gave out prizes to their best students. Upon reaching the age of 13, the boys were given additional classes in preparation for their bar-mitzvahs.
As the Beach lost many of its Jewish families in the late 1930s and 1940s, attendance at Hebrew School sharply decreased. The cheder and Sunday School both closed in 1946, and their students were sent to the Toronto Hebrew Free School on Brunswick Avenue. When they started up four years later, Mr. Gurau became the Principal. There were so many students in the 1950s, that classes were held in the basement, because the upstairs gallery was too small. In 1964, Sam Day took over as principal, but over the next few years so many Jewish families left the Beach that the Hebrew school ceased once again.
Letter to the Minister of Immigration regarding Rabbi Axelrod, 1933.
Weekly schedule for the Beach Hebrew Institute, 1933.
Invitation to David Zand’s Bar-Mitzvah at the Beach Hebrew Institute, 1945.
VIDEO CLIP: Eleanor Bessen remembers afternoons at the Beach’s Hebrew school, 2006.