This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Minyan for the Holidays *

As our local synagogues struggle with the formidable challenges of accommodating the crowds of worshippers who converge upon them during the current High Holy Days season, it demands some effort to recall that there were times in the not so distant past when small and fragile Canadian Jewish communities faced great difficulties in their endeavours to piece together makeshift religious services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

As a tiny trickle of pioneering Jews first made its way to the Canadian wilds, even to the northwesterly frontiers of the new land, the convening of a minyan for the holidays came to have profound symbolic importance as a token of a community's permanence.

In those rugged days there were usually no special buildings set aside as houses of Jewish prayer, and the services might be held in a variety of exotic settings.

In some cases, a private home was sufficient for the purpose of High Holy Days worship. That was how things were done in Prince Rupert B.C. during the community's infancy in the early decades of this century, in Winnipeg in 1879 (without the benefit of a Torah scroll), and in Victoria as far back as 1858. By 1862, Victoria's "First Hebrew Benevolent Society" was soliciting subscriptions in order to acquire a plot of land (for $730!) upon which to erect a real synagogue, a project which would be completed within a few years. The first president of the Benevolent Society was a hardware dealer and ironmonger named Abraham Blackman, who also officiated as the cantor for Kol Nidré and as treasurer of the shul upon its completion.

A simple commercial establishment also served as a synagogue for the forty participants who gathered for the 1898 Rosh Hashanah services at Dawson City in the Yukon, held in the latter days of the Klondike Gold Rush. By Yom Kippur the worshippers were able to move into the town's Yukon Pioneer Hall. Similarly, by the second year of their existence, in 1880, the Winnipeg congregation had overflowed into the Orange Hall (using a sefer Torah sent from Chicago), and the following year they gathered in the Oddfellow's Hall.

Though scheduling prayers in a social hall might have been an improvement over private residences and storefronts, it could also give rise to some unexpected inconveniences. Such was the fate of the dozen or so Jews who congregated for Yom Kippur prayers in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1912. They were compelled to vacate the premises immediately after the Minchah service in order to make room for a dance.

Whatever latitudes they might permit themselves in their choice of venue, the fledgling congregations could hardly forego the halakhic minimum of ten adult males to make up a proper minyan. Understandably, the body count was not always an easy goal to accomplish.

When Jacob Diamond realized his dream of convening formal religious services in Calgary for the 1894 holiday season, he could not count on an automatic quorum of local residents. In addition to himself, his brother William and two other Calgarian Jews, he had to import two participants from Edmonton, a farmer from Lacombe and five peddlers who were passing through the city at the time.

A similar predicament beset the handful of Jews in Saint John, New Brunswick, when they sought to hold New Years services in 1879. By then the town could lay claim to eight of its very own Jewish males, a circumstance that encouraged the community's leader, Solomon Hart, to schedule public worship that year. However completing the quorum would prove to be a more complex challenge than he had anticipated.

The ninth member of the minyan was a peddler who happened to be passing through from Montreal. Having received a commitment from him to remain in Saint John for Yom Tov, the congregation were ready to complete the quorum by inviting an American lay cantor, who also agreed to furnish the shofar and Torah scroll.

The Rosh Hashanah worship took place as scheduled. Unfortunately, the impatient Montrealer deserted from the ranks immediately afterwards, leaving the disappointed Saint John congregation with the prospect of a minyan-less Day of Atonement.

Local legend describes how Solomon Hart personally made the rounds of every hotel in town, scouring the guest lists for Jewish-sounding names. At the last minute he did succeed in locating a Jew from Boston who was just about to return home for the holiday. Hart implored the traveler to remain in town for the occasion.

The traveler did succumb to the entreaties, and Yom Kippur services were held in St. John that year.

For a full week afterwards, the delighted Hart continued to pour out his family's gratitude and hospitality upon this Bostonian, whom he had characterized as a veritable "Elijah the Prophet, an angel sent by God."

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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