One of the oldest of the Eastern European congregations, the Beth David was established in 1888 and named after David Elimelech Pinsler, the father of the first president. In 1890 the congregation took over the Cheneville Street synagogue which had been built by the Spanish and Portuguese congregation (Shearith Israel) in 1838. Originally established by Romanian immigrants it continued to be known as the Rumanishe Shul. Despite a resolution of 1893 ensuring “equal status to all regardless of land of origin,” the congregation seems to have retained a connection to Romanian origin at least through the 1940s.
The last of the major congregations to move out of the original neighborhood below Sherbrooke, it established the first synagogue in Outremont proper when a former church (422 St. Joseph) was purchased in 1929. In this location it served a relatively prosperous community. Unlike most of the smaller congregations they employed their own rabbi and cantor. By the 1930s the congregation had a sisterhood, a junior congregation and educational programs consisting of public lectures and a Sunday school. Along with some of the other large synagogues, the B’nai Jacob, and the Beth Yehuda, it was known for its choir and cantorial concerts. These were also the sites of the larger weddings and Bar Mitzvahs in the "downtown” immigrant community. The building at 422 St. Joseph was sold in 1965 to the St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church, which, despite a fire in 1998, remains standing.
Today the Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem is located in a modern building at 6519 Baily Road in Côte-St-Luc. While this congregation represents an amalgamation of four congregations from the old neighbourhoods (Beth David, Tifereth Jerusalem, Beth Itzchak, Kehal Yeshurun), the immigrant roots are now resigned to history as today’s synagogue is a leading Modern Orthodox congregation in Montreal.
Witness to History
Lawrence “Sonny” Popliger, representing several generations of members of the Beth David, recalled his Bar Mittzvah in 1932. The three hundred guests who attended a dinner in the reception hall of the synagogue included judges, lawyers, and politicians, non-Jews among them. Also like today’s youth, Sonny received everything he needed to outfit a “sports minded” young man: volley balls, soccer balls, baseballs, mitts, and hockey gear. Such an event stands in contrast to the bar mitzvahs in the smaller shuls where the ceremony would be followed by a simple lunch at home in the company of close family and friends.
The building at 422 St. Joseph was built in 1913 as the St. Giles Presbyterian Church. The architects were the Maxwell brothers. A newspaper article of 1912 reviewed some of the plans for the building. “The Sunday School department and Bible class rooms will accommodate seven hundred, while the main body of the church will seat about 900, which can be increased by 250 when a gallery is put in, which is provided for in the plan.” The altar space was fitted with a platform behind the pulpit to house the organ and provide space for the choir. An article following the dedication described the church as “a plain Gothic structure of rustic brick with cut stone trimmings…The church auditorium is pure Gothic.”
The synagogue purchased the building in 1929 for $105,000 adding $10,000 for renovations. The church seems to have been little altered in its transformation to a synagogue. The photo of the building as a synagogue indicates a plaque above the entrance door, perhaps representing the Ten Commandments. The organ was retained and used by the synagogue, becoming a popular feature for wedding processions. The existing galleries as well as some space on the main floor served as the women’s sections. A traditional central bimah was not installed and was replaced by a reading table on the platform of the former altar space in which an aron hakodesh was installed. The basement level, outfitted with a small kitchen, served as a large reception hall. It housed as well a separate study room and daily chapel.
Written by Sara Tauben
Tauben, Sara Ferdman. "Aspirations and Adaptations: Immigrant Synagogues of Montreal, 1880s-1945." Masters Thesis. Concordia University, 2004.
Tauben, Sara Ferdman. Traces of the Past: Montreal's Early Synagogues. Montréal: Véhicule Press, 2011.
Images courtesy of Montreal Daily Witness and Sara Tauben.