Nearly seven decades after moving from its humble, first home on Hunter Street to an elegant and impressive facility on 375 Aberdeen Ave., Beth Jacob Synagogue has sold its building in a “best-case scenario” arrangement that’s allowed the synagogue to maintain use of its beloved Richter Chapel, also known as the “shul within a shul”— the 160-seat sanctuary built of Jerusalem stone that was completed in 2011 as part of a major renovation. It was in that sanctuary that the historic vote took place on June 26, overseen by a representative from the accounting firm Taylor Leibow. When the results were announced —163 in favour, seven against and three abstentions—all who came to cast their votes in person that day burst into spontaneous applause, an acknowledgement of the shul’s executive committee, whose tireless efforts had produced a deal that both put the synagogue on stronger financial footing than it had seen in decades while allowing it to remain in the building as a tenant for the next five years.
After the applause, Dan Levy, the committee’s most senior member, approached the podium to make a few off-the-cuff remarks. In a conversation with the HJN the next day, he did his best to recall what he’d said.
“When we moved into Aberdeen, we were all proud as punch with the brand new building. It was an incredible feat, not only of architecture and size. It really blew the socks off most religious institutions in terms of where it was, its being in Hamilton and part of the Jewish community.” But Levy recalls 1970, the year he joined the synagogue board, as the beginning of a new preoccupation.
“From 1970 to the present day, every board, every executive, and every president has devoted much of their time to an aging building and diminishing dues base ... maintaining the status quo or simply making ends meet.”
Nonetheless, the decision to put the building on the market after months of exploring other options was not easy. “Our biggest fear early on was that if we put the shul up for sale, where will we go,” said Levy. “No one dreamed that we would find a buyer that would make it possible for us to lease back the significant space, the shul within a shul, the magnificent Richter chapel.”
He concluded his remarks on an optimistic note saying the sale will enable the synagogue to “do all the things that we haven’t been able to do over the last number of years, and that’s to rebuild the heart of this synagogue and put together the groundwork to sustain this synagogue for the next 100 years. That’s our plan.”
In the days and weeks that followed the vote, the HJN spoke with some of those responsible for shepherding the shul through this significant moment in its history. Shul president Lorne Richter told the HJN that he recognized that “something had to be done or the congregation would wake up in a bankrupt situation” three years ago, but that progress was slow until he managed to put together an executive that included Ted Lax, Brenda Burjaw, Dan Levy, Stephen Yanover and David Walman. “We had a fabulous team,” he said.
But the momentum really began after an offer came in from a non-profit charitable Hindu organization.
“The best deal in our mind always had to ... maximize the proceeds we could get from the sale, but also, respect our needs,” Brenda Burjaw, a banker by profession and long-time shul treasurer told the HJN, “so when this buyer group came to us, we were excited.”
The $6.25 million offer from the Radha Madhav Society “fit all the boxes.” “They knew we had a congregation that had an emotional tie to the building ... and that we had put a lot of money and effort into the Richter Chapel, and that what we were proposing as a second-floor space remaining ours worked for them.”
After prolonged negotiations, a deal was eventually worked out that allowed Beth Jacob to lease back 6,500 square feet of space, which includes a separate entrance, a new upstairs foyer, the Richter Chapel, a renovated kitchen, washrooms, a library, and second floor offices for the next five years.
Burjaw said that the synagogue will net approximately $5.8 million after paying off legal and broker fees, its bank loan and renovation expenses. Along with its pre-existing endowment funds, that leaves it on stronger financial footing than it has had in decades. “We’re going to come up with a policy that preserves the principle, maximizes the interest and limits the risk,” said Burjaw.
Multifaith worship spaces have become a global phenomenon, and though the concept of a synagogue sharing space with a Hindu temple may be groundbreaking for Hamilton, it’s not unprecedented. Burjaw said the committee spoke to members at a synagogue in California in a similar situation who described the accommodation as “wonderful.”
Dan Levy said there’s been a significant number of synagogues throughout North America either merging with other synagogues or sharing space with non-Jewish organizations. “Where we are today, it’s simply all over the world ...We’re not carving out new territory,” he said.
John Levy, under whose co-presidency the Richter Chapel was constructed and who has worked closely with the executive committee over the last three years, told the HJN that, notwithstanding three generations of his family’s deep involvement with Beth Jacob, he has no regrets about where the shul finds itself today.
“It’s emotional for me ... that the (large) sanctuary’s going to be gone for us, but the reality is we couldn’t support it anymore. The community didn’t need it,” he said, acknowledging that it took him some time to come to terms with selling the building. “I went through a “we can’t do that” like everybody else. And then I sort of said, think about the future ... I think the building, as marvellous as it is, it’s just a structure. It’s an important structure, but we can replace that.”
Dan Levy echoed that sentiment when asked whether he felt sad in the aftermath of the vote. “I think that we’re all sad that we’ve lost part of our past,” he said. We loved the sanctuary and will no longer have it, but I think that we’re sad for the bricks and mortars. Our synagogue is about our people, about our community, and for that I’m happy with the ways things have turned out because we’re moving forward. So yes, it’s a sad day, but it’s also a very happy day that we can now move forward with a different view.”
On her drive down to the synagogue on June 26, Burjaw was nervous about whether they’d get a quorum of 36 people for an in-person vote. But when she walked into the Richter Chapel, her mood shifted to one of elation.
“Seeing the faces that were in that room for this milestone historic moment, I was really proud. I was emotional. I was happy,” she said. “We got people who haven’t come to services in more than two-and-a-half years or, frankly decades, come and show that this is something they’re supporting—to keep a Beth Jacob congregation for the future. Whatever was going to be the end result, that in itself was huge.”
Lax, whose family has been Beth Jacob members for generations, spent much of the last three years driving from his home on Lake Simcoe to Hamilton for executive and board meetings, and more recently, to assist Lorne Richter with all the myriad tasks surrounding downsizing the synagogue. In the weeks leading up to the Aug. 2 closing, he carved out some time to sit in the Lax family row in the large sanctuary and be alone with his thoughts.
“I was just sitting back and remembering all the great people that we had in our synagogue. How everyone supported it and how we evolved over the years. It’s very sad for me. But I’m glad that we went ahead and were able to go ahead and put the deal together and we now have the Richter Chapel thanks to everyone. It’s made it easier knowing that we have a home.”
BETH JACOB SYNAGOGUE THROUGH THE YEARS