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Our History

Old World Origins

The town of Narayev that gives its name to the First Narayever Congregation of Toronto was a small market town in eastern Galicia, now in modern Ukraine. In 1900, Narayev (pictured above) was home to fewer than 1,000 Jews, who comprised close to one-third of the town’s population.

The name Narayev derives from two Russian words, “na” and “ray,” meaning “on the way to paradise.” Nestled in a valley at the top of the Narayivka River, the town traces its roots to the Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century, the townspeople were farmers, peddlers, craftsmen and shopkeepers. It was difficult to make a living and, by the 1890s, many Jews were leaving in search of a better life in America.

From “Paradise” to Promised Land

Between 1881 and 1924 over two-and-a-half million Jews—roughly one-third of the world’s Jewish population—emigrated from central and eastern Europe, primarily to North America. Motivated by economic deprivation, anti-Semitic persecution, industrialization and urbanization, they sought a new life in countries that promised peace, prosperity and plenty.

In North America, these immigrants had to navigate a new language and new social customs. To ease their transition into this society, they often formed social networks based on their place of origin. Such groups—called landsmanschaften or “hometown associations”—provided social benefits like shared medical care, burial societies and familiar religious customs and rituals. The First Narayever Congregation was established as one of these landsmanschaften or benevolent societies.

The legend is that two groups of Jews from Narayev immigrated to North America at the same period in the early twentieth century. One landed in New York; the other settled in Toronto. The two groups, so the story goes, raced to form new houses of worship based on the customs of their hometown. The Toronto group won the race, establishing itself as the FIRST Narayever Congregation in North America in 1914, narrowly beating the New York group to the punch. Although there did in fact exist a Narayever landsmanschaft, called Chevrah B'nai Isaac Anshei Narajow (Men of Narayev Society, Sons of Isaac), in New York City as early as 1895, it seems likely that the Toronto group was the first to establish a working, sustainable congregation.

The sign that was above our door, in Yiddish reads: Narayever Congregation

The congregation’s first president was Israel Chaim Katz, who came to New York from Narayev in 1898 as a single man, aged 24. There, he joined his cousin Max Heiber, who would also move to Toronto and become a founding member of the First Narayever. In New York, Katz met Yetta Bar, and they married in 1901. They started a family and had their first son in 1903. Five more children followed while they were living in the United States, and two more after they emigrated to Toronto in 1913. Israel Katz died at age 44 of influenza in February of 1920. 

It was in the Katz home at 156 William Street that the First Narayever Congregation held its first meeting.

A rare, early First Narayever High Holiday Ticket

The fledgling congregation quickly became an important social meeting place for its members.

Minutes from the earliest years of the congregation reflect the economic and social challenges of creating a new community among working-class immigrants. The location of meetings and worship services frequently changed as rental fees fluctuated in the neighbourhood.

By 1923, the congregation had grown in membership and financial capacity and was able to rent a small house at 70 Huron Street, at the corner of Huron and Dundas, which became the congregation’s main home for twenty years. Kiddush (post-worship ceremony and refreshments) was usually served across the street at the home of founders Michel (Max) and Sarah Heiber.

Rabbi Solomon Langner (center) was hired by the First Narayever Congregation in 1923, shortly after his arrival in Toronto. He retained his affiliation with the Narayever and with Congregation Shaarei Tzedek, even while he served as the full-time rabbi of the Kiever Synagogue from 1929 until his death in 1973. At the Narayever, he served more as a spiritual leader and teacher than as a prayer leader.

By 1943, after twenty years of renting at the corner of Huron and Dundas, the members had raised enough money for the purchase of a permanent house of worship farther west.

Originally built as a Foresters’ Hall in the 1890s, the building at 187–189 Brunswick Avenue later served as the home of Bethel Church, the first Mennonite congregation in Toronto. Because of its origins as a fraternal lodge, the building’s design is not typical for a modern synagogue.  Its simple white-walled sanctuary, seating 220 people, boasts little ornamentation.

The First Narayever purchased the building from Bethel Church for $6,000, paid in cash (equivalent today to $89,000). Toronto’s Jewish community had moved west of Spadina Avenue, so the new location of the synagogue was within walking distance of many members’ homes, an important consideration for those who would not drive on the Sabbath and holidays. The new building would soon come to serve as a home for some of the Holocaust survivors from Galicia who had immigrated to Toronto in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

When the First Narayever purchased the building, the members had to convert the space into a functioning synagogue (for more about our Brunswick Avenue building, click here). This process required the installation of a bimah, or reading table, and an ark to contain the Torah scrolls, which were respectively designed by the congregation’s long-time president Henry Young and his then 15-year-old son Allen, who later became an architect. From the inception of the congregation until the early 1980s, men and women sat apart, separated by a mehitzah or low dividing wall, as is the custom among Orthodox Jews.

Post-war Change

As the city of Toronto grew during the postwar years of the 1950s, the downtown Jewish community moved north along Bathurst Street, resettling in Lawrence Manor, Clanton Park and Bathurst Manor. By the 1960s, Jewish institutions that had originated and thrived in the downtown core followed their members northward, closing their doors and rebuilding in new spaces uptown.

The First Narayever was one of only a handful of downtown synagogues to remain open at that time. It continued to serve the needs of older Orthodox Jews whose own synagogues had relocated.

Their needs would come to compete with an alternative vision of congregational renewal in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the late 1970s, the First Narayever developed new membership and fundraising projects to revive its dwindling congregation. The synagogue’s identity was shifting as it absorbed younger, unaffiliated Jews into its membership base. These members supported the older congregants by helping to lead services and administer synagogue business.


A new identity

In 1983, the congregation experienced a major transformation in its identity. A new leadership team advanced a successful proposal to allow the full participation of women in its traditional services.

While the liturgy remained unchanged, women could now deliver sermons, lead prayers and read from the Torah, a level of participation not permitted for women in Orthodox Judaism. Five long-standing members of the congregation took legal action to prevent these changes. The case was resolved in favour of the new group.

The congregation began to call itself “traditional-egalitarian”, while remaining unaffiliated with any larger movement of Judaism. The combination proved attractive to many individuals and families.

During these years of growth, the Narayever was led by spiritual leader Chezi Zionce.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, the First Narayever had become the most active, vibrant synagogue in downtown Toronto. 

Into the 2000s

In 2000, Rabbi Edward Elkin (above) of Long Island, NY, came to the Narayever as rabbi and spiritual leader. He has served the congregation ever since.

In the years since, the congregation has continued to embrace gender equality, but has moved further to embrace a broader vision of equality, accessibility and social purpose.

In 2009, after careful consideration of halachic (Jewish legal) principles, the First Narayever’s membership voted to allow its rabbi to officiate at same-sex marriages. For most congregants, granting this right was an extension of the inclusive, egalitarian values of the synagogue.

A very proud moment: Rabbi Elkin officiates at a same-sex wedding following the shul's historic vote.

Centennial Year, Building Renovation, and Beyond

In 2014, the Narayever celebrated its centennial year with special events and the publication of a newly researched history of the congregation. It was a time when the congregation reflected on its traditional origins and on its future as a Jewish institution built on community, prayer and activism in downtown Toronto.

The years since 2014 have seen a new influx of Jewish families into downtown Toronto, and accompanying growth and change at the Narayever.

After years of discussion and planning, the congregation embarked on a comprehensive renewal and enlargement of its physical space through its building renewal project. That process was driven by the imperative to make our heritage building accessible to people with mobility impairments, as well as incorporate new spaces, modernize our building systems, and make our shul more environmentally sustainable.  For details, please see the building renewal section of our website.

The shul’s commitment to children and families is reflected in –our fulltime position of Director of Family and Youth Engagement, bringing vibrancy to program offerings on Shabbat, holidays and around the year for younger children, b. mitzvah students, teens and their families. Our participation in the UJA Shinshinim program since 2010 reflects our ongoing commitment to the State of Israel.

In addition, our community’s longstanding commitment to social action has become focused on our Indigenous neighbours. The shul instituted a weekly land-acknowledgement in its services and has also offered educational programs featuring Indigenous speakers as part of our ongoing participation in Canada’s drive toward reconciliation.

Another initiative has been the creation of the position of Director of Tefillah Leadership and Education. Our Shabbat, festival, and weekday services are conducted almost entirely by volunteers from the community. Our Tefillah Director assists those who are either beginners or who want to improve their davening skills, and also works to deepen our community’s understanding of and appreciation for the meaning of Jewish prayer.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a watershed for the Narayever as it was for the wider society. The shul pivoted quickly to on-line educational programming and services when the pandemic broke out in March 2020, including innumerable classes for adults and children, as well as a new daily minyan and live-streamed services for the High Holidays.  We have thankfully returned to the in-person services we cherish, while also offering on-line programs where appropriate.

In all these ways and more, the Narayever continues to expand the quality, the quantity, and the availability of its offerings even as it maintains the warm, welcoming, and informal style that has characterized it since its founding.

Tue, April 23 2024 15 Nisan 5784