A Jewish Presence

Inside Peterborough’s small but resilient Jewish community

Yom Kippur
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[Electric City/Faiths}

Peterborough’s Jewish community has just come to the end of the High Holy Days, a religious observance in late September and early October that starts with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and ends ten days later with Yom Kippur.

Having marked their most significant holiday together as Jews, they are now widening their focus, and will help (along with the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough) host a multi-faith event called Many Windows, One Light at the synagogue on October 14 and 15. The event will give representatives of about ten different faith communities in Peterborough the chance to share music, prayers, stories, and rituals from their respective traditions.

The Jewish community’s commitment to their own traditions as well as to multi-faith dialogue is a good example of what religiously diverse communities should strive for: the synagogue provides a space where people from different traditions can approach the sacred together in solidarity, but also one where people who share a particular tradition can burrow deeper into their faith on their own.

“The fact is, many of us were born Jewish,” says Larry Gillman, the president of Peterborough’s Beth Israel Synagogue. “But the other fact is we’re part of this rich fabric in Peterborough, and we want to be a space that welcomes everybody.”

The Jewish community here is small. There are about 35 or 40 regular members at the synagogue, and about 100 attend during holidays, Gillman says, though the census suggests there are hundreds more non-practicing Jews in the city.

Ziysah von Bieberstein, a local activist, is one of the synagogue’s regular members. Von Bieberstein first visited the synagogue in 2000 when they moved to Peterborough to attend Trent. “Everyone in the Jewish community automatically adopted me as part of their community,” they remember. “It kind of feels like family.”

The community’s small size means it feels intimate, but von Bieberstein says it presents challenges as well. “In Peterborough there’s only one synagogue,” they say. “In Toronto there’s so many synagogues and Jewish groups that you can join a group that aligns with your political views and your cultural views. But here everyone who wants to have some kind of Jewish community comes together even though we are quite diverse in all those other ways.”

“That can be really challenging, but I’ve actually really appreciated it,” they say. “We actually have to reckon with the fact that we all have totally different views… but that we’re all still Jewish and we all want to pray together and have a safe space together.”

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Gillman says being the only synagogue in the city also means the community has to move slowly when implementing changes, like when they moved to an egalitarian type service (where women can read from the Torah as well as men) 15 years ago, or when they relaxed the kosher restrictions in their kitchen more recently. “We went through a lot of community discussion,” Gillman says, “which is what we try to do in effecting big changes.”

The Beth Israel Synagogue can’t afford to employ a rabbi or cantor (a Jewish worship leader), but a serendipitous relationship with Leon Litvack, a Jewish cantor who lives in Ireland, means they’ve been able to have a trained cantor preside over their High Holy Days services for the past seven years.

Litvack was adopted as a child. He was raised in a Jewish family in Toronto, trained as a cantor, and then pursued what he calls “itinerant cantorial work” all around the world. He now lives in Belfast, Ireland where he works as a professor. But eight years ago Litvack learned that his birth parents were from Peterborough, and upon investigating his roots, he paid a visit to the synagogue, where he established a bond with the community here. He now returns every year to lead the High Holy Days services.

“To do this in Peterborough, where I have roots, really means a lot to me. It’s very meaningful to me in family terms, and in spiritual terms,” Litvack says.

Litvack lent his strong singing voice to the Jewish community’s worship again this year, and led them as they celebrated Rosh Hashanah, and then as they sought forgiveness from God in the more somber Yom Kippur. In between these two holidays, the congregation observed Tashlich, where they tossed pieces of bread into Jackson Creek, to symbolize casting away sins.

Having a Jewish presence in Peterborough to mark these occasions, no matter what the size, is important, and not only for those who participate regularly in the life of the synagogue. That’s something Gillman says was illustrated to him earlier this year when he was asked to help arrange a Jewish burial.

“This past year, we had two non-observant Jewish people, one of them being a Holocaust survivor living in Peterborough, pass away,” Gillman said. “Their wishes were to be buried in a Jewish way. At the end of their life, that’s what they wanted, even though they didn’t participate [at the synagogue].”

“We were able to bury them in the Jewish cemetery at Little Lake, and give them a Jewish funeral,” Gillman said. “Because we have a Jewish presence here, we were able to do that.”

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Will Pearson

Will Pearson


Will Pearson is a freelance journalist based in Peterborough, Ontario. He has written for a variety of local and national publications, and he is the host of the Peterborough Currents podcast.