in 1911 by the architectural firm Ellis and Connery, Knesseth
Israel synagogue is situated on the corner of Maria and
Shipman Streets in “The Junction” of west
Toronto. The building is quietly tucked in amongst the
encumbering railway lines to the north and the lively
business community on Dundas Street West to the south.
Harmonizing with this inconspicuous location is the Synagogue’s
architecturally simple exterior.
Knesseth Israel is a modest building with a red brick
facade, featuring minimal exterior ornamentation or grand
architectural details. The chief exterior features are
the windows and the main entrance. The circular windows
on the north, west and south walls are divided into eighteen
segments, symbolizing the numerical value for the Hebrew
word for life: “chai”.
The main entrance, located on the west side of the building,
consists of a double-sided staircase leading up to two
large wooden doors.
this simple exterior masks a traditionally elegant and
decorative Eastern European interior. The building is
two stories high, so the sanctuary is separated into two
distinct levels. The women’s gallery on the top
floor is a three-sided upper-level balcony, which provides
the women of the congregation with ideal seating to observe
the services being conducted below. The lower level of
the sanctuary similarly has three sides of seating facing
the center and is used to accommodate the men. The ark,
or aron kodesh,
depicting the Ten Commandments and housing the Torah scrolls,
is situated against the eastern wall, so that, in accordance
with religious law, the congregation always faces towards
Jerusalem. In the center of the sanctuary stands the bimah,
an elevated platform with four illuminated corners, from
where the prayer services are conducted. Both the ark
and the bimah
are skillfully crafted in oak and were likely made by
Heintzman cabinet-makers, many of whom were early members
of the Synagogue.
oak benches were designed to accommodate siddurim
by incorporating lockable drawers underneath the seats.
This feature enabled the congregants to store their prayer
books at the shul, as the Torah prohibits the transfer
of objects from a private location to a public one on
the Sabbath. Each bench is carved with a Magen David.
artistically and delicately painted religious murals adorning
the walls, the upper gallery, and the ceiling of the sanctuary
complement the skillfully crafted ark, bimah
and benches. The painting of the sanctuary did not take
place until the end of the First World War, after the
congregation had raised enough money to commission a painter.
Until that time, the walls stood bare, gradually discolouring
from the dust and smoke of passing trains on the nearby
rail lines to the north. During the early 1920s, European
painters were contracted to paint the murals in the Synagogue.
Unfortunately, during this project, the oily rags used
by the artists caught fire, causing extensive damage to
the interior of the Synagogue. Distraught over the loss
of the preliminary artwork, the artists refused to finish
the painting. Hence, it is possible that someone else
finished the work.
walls of the lower sanctuary and the women’s gallery
are painted to resemble marble and the curved ceiling
is a pale blue featuring soft white clouds and stars.
The twelve zodiac signs of the Hebrew calendar adorn the
ceiling above the women’s gallery. Those signs representing
the human form were altered in compliance with religious
law, which prohibits human images within the Synagogue.
the most impressive decoration in the sanctuary is the
striking mural above the ark on the eastern wall. Large
sweeping red drapes are painted above the ark, as if suspended
from the ceiling and partially drawn open by gold braided
ropes. The artwork revealed behind the drapes on the upper
half of the wall represents a verse from “Pirkei
Avot” (“Ethics of the Fathers”): “Be
as bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer
and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in
Heaven.1” Musical instruments,
such as a trumpet, violin, and harp, are skillfully stenciled
on the lower half of the wall.
basement was once a smaller sanctuary, originally used
for daily services and functions. It is now a modest school
room, or cheder,
used for Sunday Hebrew school. The mikvah,
although still on site, is no longer in use. On the grounds
outside the Synagogue during Sukkot
stands a sukkah,
which is decorated and used for the celebration of the
the years of railway pollution had left its mark on the
Synagogue, and by the early 1990s, Knesseth Israel was
restored to its former elegance. Toronto philanthropist Joey
generously funded the restoration in honour of his grandparents
and Chippa Sura Tanenbaum,
early members of the Synagogue. Today, Knesseth Israel
stands as a testament to the Jewish history of the Junction.
The Synagogue still occupies the same building, and in
1984 the shul was designated an historic site under the
Ontario Heritage Act.
Exterior view of Knesseth Israel (2003)
Architectural drawings of the women's gallery (c. 1917)
Architectural drawings of the sanctuary
Seating plan for the upper balcony of the sanctuary
Seating plan for the lower level of the sanctuary (c.
Interior view of the oak pews on the lower level of
the sanctuary (2003)
Interior pew with tallis
Interior view of the women’s gallery in the upper
Photograph of the ark on the east wall of the Synagogue