Observing the High Holidays in Saskatchewan's oldest synagogue

On one of the most important days in the Hebrew calendar, most Jews in Saskatchewan find their way to the synagogues in Saskatoon or Regina for prayer, learning and community.

But this year, on the day before Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — I am marking my observance by visiting a site of Saskatchewan’s Jewish history.

I leave Saskatoon first thing in the morning and drive north, past billboards and railway bridges, past Melfort, down dirt roads hemmed by almost-harvested fields.

I am looking for the oldest surviving synagogue in the province.

In 1906, a group of Lithuanian and South African Jewish immigrants came to the R.M. of Willow Creek and founded the Edenbridge Hebrew Colony. Two years later, they built the Beth Israel Synagogue.

At its peak in the 1920s, 50 families lived and farmed in Edenbridge — but, like many small farming communities throughout Saskatchewan’s history, it was not to last.

“The lure of urban life, the advent of farm mechanization, and Father Time all combined to reduce this once flourishing centre to less than five families,” reads a plaque mounted where the community once was.

In 1987, after almost all of the former residents had died or moved on, the synagogue, the cemetery and the land around them were donated to the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation.

Decades later, Willow Creek remains a small farming community where everybody seems to know everybody. My unfamiliar car driving down these back roads was reason enough for three separate people to flag me down and make sure I wasn't lost on my way to Gronlid or Star City.

Here in its own backyard, the synagogue is a bit of a best-kept secret. Most Willow Creek locals I talk with didn’t know there was a synagogue in their rural municipality at all.

But the guestbooks piled on the bimah tell a different story: For the people who know about it, the synagogue is beloved.

Entries going back to the 1970s show visitors to the synagogue from as far away as Scotland, the Netherlands, South Africa and Germany, as well as descendants of some of the original Edenbridge settlers, now scattered all across Saskatchewan and beyond.

Along with their names, people have left little notes of thanks to the Wildlife Federation for keeping the building so well-preserved:

“Thanks for letting us view this piece of history;” “It’s great to see part of our heritage being so well-preserved;” “It’s a most lovely, peaceful building — I am so glad it is here for us to see.”

Even now, after so many years of disuse, the synagogue is still beautiful. The sanctuary was built with lovely, sturdy wood, and big windows let in the light on the ground floor and the upper balcony. The room has a rich echo; when 50 families prayed together here, it would have sounded like hundreds.

Though the keyboard left behind in one of the outer rooms is stuck solid, I have come prepared with a recording of Kol Nidre, the familiar piano and cello arrangement I am so used to hearing before the start of Yom Kippur.

Sitting in the sanctuary, now full of music, is a powerful reminder of what I love about being Jewish: that I am in community not just with the people I know today, but with all these strangers through time who stood in these places and read these texts and said these same words of prayer.

It reminds me that my life is braided in with the past and future, one strand in the cloth of all living experience.

By its nature, Yom Kippur — atonement, apology, making right — is a chance to repair that braid and restore those connections where they have started to fray.

But ‘repair’ doesn’t necessarily mean leaving things exactly as they were; it means making things right, meeting the needs of the moment.

Today, the main purpose of the Beth Israel synagogue is no longer to serve a congregation, but to protect the 40 acres of bush surrounding it. The Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation says maintaining the site means it can preserve important local ecosystems and prevent them from being plowed under. In a very literal sense, this is repair and restoration, too.

Before I leave the synagogue, I start to sing a short prayer. The door swings open. Has someone else had the same idea, to come and observe the High Holidays here?

A large brown squirrel scrabbles into the room and cocks its head at me, probably wondering what this strange creature is doing in its home.

Still, it keeps me company until I finish my prayer.

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix