Shaar Hashomayim was the second synagogue founded in Montreal after Shearith Israel, from which it broke off in 1846. Its first members had begun to meet in 1834, but they were unable to obtain a legal charter until 1846. The break between the Shaar Hashomayim (English, German and Polish Congregation) and Shearith Israel (Spanish and Portuguese) synagogues occurred in a context marked by the arrival of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) immigrants in Montreal. Unfamiliar with the Sephardic traditions of the Shearith Israel, the new immigrants also felt slighted by the wealthier Sephardic Jews. The Shaar Hashomayim congregation met in a secular building located on St. James Street (now Rue Saint-Jacques) from 1846 to 1859, when a synagogue was built at 41 St. Constant Street (now Rue De Bullion). Over time, the congregation became an established institution. In 1886, it relocated once more to a new synagogue located on McGill College Avenue, following its now well-off members as they moved uptown. Until 1918, it was known as the English, German and Polish Congregation.
Canada’s foremost fur trader, Moses Aaron Vineberg, became a lay leader in the community during his term as Congregation president in the 1890s. But for a long time, the congregation suffered from a lack of religious leadership. Rabbinic stability was finally achieved in 1902, when Herman Abramowitz became the congregation’s rabbi, a position he held until his death in 1947. During this period, the Orthodox Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue realigned itself with Conservative Judaism, finding inspiration in the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York City.
Although several Uptown leaders joined the congregation, it did not participate in the debates that pitted wealthier Uptown Jews against immigrant working class Downtown Jews. However in the context of the Jewish School Question of the 1920s and 30s, congregation members voted on a resolution to oppose plans calling for a separate Jewish school board.
With the shift of the Jewish population to the west end of the city, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim relocated yet again in 1922 to a new synagogue at 450 Kensington in Westmount. Replacing Abramowitz, Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat led the congregation from 1948 to 1993. Over the years, the services held at Shaar Hashomayim have remained more traditional and formal than those of most synagogues in North America or even the around world. Certain congregational officials still wear top hats today, and the congregation continues to maintain a formal choir and cantorial activities that are no longer customary in less formal synagogues. Yet despite its commitment to tradition, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim has become more receptive to new ideas, opening itself to other spiritual movements in a Jewish community that has become increasingly diversified over the last century.
Today, the synagogue is not officially affiliated with any movement. In terms of religious practice, it reflects a form of Judaism that is neither Conservative nor Orthodox. In 2013, Shaar Hashomayim was one of the first synagogues in the world to hire a maharat, a modern Orthodox female clergy member, which is a spiritual leadership position similar to that of a rabbi.
Compiled by Valérie Beauchemin and translated by Helge Dascher
Arnold, Janice. Montreal Orthodox Shul Hires First Female Clergy The Canadian Jewish News. N.p., 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 06 Oct. 2013.
King, Joe (2009), Fabled city: the Jews of Montreal, Montréal, Éditions Price-Patterson Ltd.
Shuchat, Wilfred (2000), The Gate of Heaven: The Story of the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Montreal, Montréal, McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Tulchinsky, Gerard J.J. (1993), Taking Root: The Origins of the Canadian Jewish Community, Hanover, Brandeis University Press.
*Courtesy of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Museum and Archives, Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives, and Jewish Public Library - Archives.