The Anshei Minsk congregation has been worshipping at the 10-12 St. Andrews Street site since they purchased the lot in 1913. Following modifications made between 1915 and 1917 to the two narrow houses that stood on the lot, a new building was constructed in 1930 to better accommodate the growing membership.
In the late 1920s, the congregation contracted the architectural firm Kaplan & Sprachman to design a much larger synagogue to replace the cramped houses. The synagogue's building permit was issued in mid-December 1929 for a project estimated at $25 000. The congregation hired Jacob (Nahum) Glassman, a Russian immigrant who had started his own construction business in the Ward, to handle the job. By August of 1930, the Minsker synagogue was completed. However, according to Glassman's granddaughter, Michele Landsberg, in the video clip below, the congregation offered him a lifetime membership to the shul but with the onset of the Depression, was unable to follow through with payment for his services.
Kaplan and Sprachman's design, coupled with Glassman's craftsmanship, produced a synagogue similar in style to its contemporaries, such as the Kiever on Bellevue and Beth Jacob on Henry Street . The Minsk shares with these synagogues notable exterior features that include twin towers, a large entrance stairway, and a central stained-glass window between the towers. The design exhibits symmetry and geometric patterns, using white accents to create vertical and horizontal lines that contrast with the brickwork. Square white columns line the stairway that leads up to the main entrance of the synagogue. The two towers alongside this entrance feature long, narrow windows with white trim, and two horizontal white stone strips that traverse the synagogue's façade. The geometric style is carried into the central area between the towers with a large semicircular window composed of smaller, circular stained glass sections.
Below this central window is the main entrance consisting of two large wooden doorways. Above these, are dual semicircle windows and stonework with inscriptions, providing both a textured accent and a testament to the synagogue's heritage. The stone inscription reads "Congregation Beth Israel Anshe Minsk, built 1930" in Yiddish. For the word built, however, the word gebiltet was used, which is neither English nor Yiddish, but rather a mix of the two languages, called "Yinglish," that was commonly used by Toronto Jews at the time.
At the entrance of the synagogue's small lobby, staircases to the basement and the women's gallery are located by the side walls, comprising the interiors of the towers. Marble plaques with Yiddish inscriptions decorate the walls, commemorating some of the Minsk 's early members, the Executive of 1931, and the donations and members of the Ladies Auxiliary from 1928. The shul's 1930 Constitution strictly forbids the removal or relocation of these plaques, thereby making the memory of these individuals inseparable from the building that resulted from their efforts.
The Holy Ark, the focal point in the main sanctuary, is located to the right of the entrance from the lobby on the eastern wall, following Jewish tradition that prayers should be directed toward Jerusalem . However, because the 10-12 St. Andrews lot is north-south, the layout may seem unusual when first entering the sanctuary. The women's gallery, the men's wooden benches and the solid-oak bimah are all situated to face the ark, which houses the sacred Torah scrolls. The current ark came from the Palmerston Street synagogue, which closed in the late 1970s. Once the dark oak ark was resized to fit the Minsk sanctuary, the other one was moved to the basement, where it is now used during weekday services.
Along with beautiful stained-glass windows, the eastern wall is decorated with painted murals of a lion and an antelope on either side of a window above the ark. Quotes from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) are included in the murals, reminding worshippers to be 'as swift as an antelope and as brave as a lion' in observing G-d's commandments. A draped curtain motif painted on the wall surrounding the ark reveals paintings of Klezmer instruments. Rabbi Spero, the shul's rabbi since 1988, believes these paintings were the products of two different artists, noting a difference in level of detail between the animal murals and the instrument paintings. The domed ceiling above the bimah is a symbol of unity in traditional Byzantine architecture. The dome not only inspires one to direct prayers to Heaven, but also provides powerful acoustics during services.
The large basement is used for weekday services, as well as for social gatherings, Kiddush meals after services, and other events. The basement is equipped with a small kitchen and an office, and has a direct exit to St. Andrews Street . Members donated the tables, cabinets, and bookcases in memory of their relatives. Their names appear in painted Yiddish script all around the room.
The synagogue was recognized by the City of Toronto as a heritage property in 1985 and has participated in the Doors Open Toronto annual event for over four years. Thankfully, most of the structural damage of the 2002 arson attack has been restored to reflect the shul's original architectural design. For more details, about the fire, please see the Restoration section.
Ontario Land Surveyors' “Sketch Showing Lot 13”, May 9, 1929.
Architects Abraham Sprachman (on left) and Harold Kaplan (on right) at their 46 Yorkville Avenue office, ca. 1952.
Block Plan for Mintz [sic] Congregation, 1929.
Sketch of the Minsk Synagogue by architect Martin Mendelow, 1978
Removal of the interior furnishings in Agudath Israel Anshei Sfard, Palmerston Avenue , Toronto , August 1978.
Removal of the interior furnishings in Agudath Israel Anshei Sfard, Palmerston Avenue , Toronto , August 1978..
The main sanctuary of the Minsk , showing the central bimah and the aron kodesh on the eastern wall.
The main sanctuary of the Minsk , showing the view from the women's gallery.
VIDEO CLIP: Michele Landsberg speaks about the Minsk 's inability to pay her grandfather, Jacob (Nahum) Glassman, for his construction service.