Knesseth Israel
Early History
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The Congregation Knesseth Israel was established in 1909 in the west-end neighbourhood of Toronto known as “The Junction”. Immigrant Eastern European Jews, primarily from Russia and Poland, started settling in the Junction at the close of the nineteenth-century. Most were naturally drawn to the area by the business opportunities afforded by the intersecting railway lines. The first Knesseth Israel congregation was comprised of a small number of these immigrant families, who held services out of a modest home at 303 Maria Street at Runnymede Road. However, as the Jewish population in the Junction grew, the need for a larger synagogue became apparent.

On November 25, 1910, the Congregation Knesseth Israel had also established and dedicated a Bais-OilomBais-Oilom: Jewish cemetery. for the members of the congregation. The acting trustees of the “Congregation Cnesses of Israel” purchased a plot of land at an existing cemetery on Royal York Road, in the township of Etobicoke, from Mr. Thomas Bethel. One hundred feet of eastern land from the Knesseth Israel cemetery was later sold to the Men of England Congregation for$425.00 on March 3, 1911, perhaps to help finance the purchase of the Maria Street property.

In 1911, a tract of land at what is now 56 Maria Street (plan 833, lot 36) was purchased by the founding families of the congregation for $520.00. Shortly thereafter, construction of the present-day synagogue began. Known as the “Junction Shul”, Knesseth Israel was designed by James A. Ellis of the architectural firm Ellis and Connery. It was, however, built with the bartered labour and donated funds of the founding members and their families.

The Congregation Knesseth Israel was dedicated September 8, 1912. During the ceremony Rabbi Levy, Rabbi Gordon, and B. Nathanson addressed the audience and Cantor Wladowsky conducted the choir. Although traditional Orthodox services began in the new building in 1913, the congregation did not draft its constitution until 1918. The constitution set out to define the obligations of the Congregation by outlining the rules of membership, dues, conduct, and hierarchy.

The establishment of the Knesseth Israel synagogue prompted a dramatic rise in Jewish migration to the Junction, peaking at 200 member families by the 1920s. During this period, Maria Street was the most densely concentrated area of Jewish residents in the west-end. Most members of the community also worked in the Junction in industries like construction and demolition. Many also laboured as artisans, peddlers, shop owners and scrap and metal collectors, while a large number of Jewish residents with a background in carpentry and cabinetry found work at the Heintzman Piano factory, which was located on Keele Street. Several of these cabinet-makers were the same men who carved much of the Synagogue’s interior wooden architectural details.

The first full-time rabbi, Mordecai Langner, was employed by Knesseth Israel in 1924. Rabbi Mordecai Langner was the brother of Rabbi Solomon Langner of the Kiever and First Narayever shuls. He lived in the Junction and served at this post until 1939. Rabbi Langner was the shul’s only permanent rabbi, and after his departure, subsequent services were led by a cantor or by the members themselves.

After the Second World War, the Jewish population within the Junction began to wane, as many second-generation residents moved east of the Junction and later on to the northern areas of Toronto. As a result, Knesseth Israel found it financially difficult to support full services during this period of migration. After the late 1950s, the Synagogue was forced to restrict its services to the High HolidaysHigh Holidays: The holidays of Rosh Hashannah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), when Jews must humble themselves before God and ask forgiveness for their wrongdoings., when members would be willing to make the trip to the Junction.

Knesseth Israel is now the oldest original synagogue in Toronto that is still in use today. It is cared for by the descendents of the founding members. Although the Jewish population within the Junction has decreased considerably since the time of the Synagogue’s founding, Knesseth Israel continues to perform weddings and bar mitzvahsBar-Mitzvah (pl. Bnei-Mitzvah): A ceremony for boys who reach the age of 13 in which they read from the Torah on the Sabbath falling closest to their Hebrew birthday. (Judaism follows a lunar calendar.) At this age, boys are considered accountable for their own actions and have higher responsibilities to God. Girls reach this level of responsibility at the age of 12, in what is called a Bat-Mitzvah. However, according to Orthodox tradition, girls do not read from the Torah. and offer High Holiday services.





Isaac and Layka Sorosky and family, c. 1915
Isaac and Layka Sorosky and family
(c. 1915)

Louis and Sosil Melamed, c. 1915
Louis and Sosil Melamed (c. 1915)

Cantor Bernhard Wladowsky, c. 1906
Cantor Bernhard Wladowsky (c. 1906)

Pincus containing an early draft of Knesseth Israel's constitution (c. 1910)
PincusPincus:  honour book compiled by a synagogue. containing an early draft of Knesseth Israel's constitution (c. 1910)

Congregation Knesseth Israel constitution, July 1918
Congregation Knesseth Israel constitution (July 1918)

Seat deed for Benny Nikolaevsky, August 21, 1917
Seat deed for Benny Nikolaevsky
(August 21, 1917)

Joseph Alexandroff in his father’s lumberyard, c. 1930
Joseph Alexandroff in his father’s lumberyard (c. 1930)

Portrait of Boris Alexandroff, shortly after arriving in Canada, 1904
Portrait of Boris Alexandroff, shortly after arriving in Canada (1904)

CPR tracks looking west from Old Weston Road Bridge, August 4, 1957
CPR tracks looking west from Old Weston Road Bridge (August 4, 1957)

CanadaUJA Federation of Greater TorontoThe Ontario Jewish ArchivesRyerson UniversityCanada's Digital Collections