Walk participants explore the Ashkenazi synagogue, the oldest in Winnipeg, on a tour led and organized by Zach Fleisher. (photo from Zach Fleisher)
Not so long ago, Winnipeg’s Jewish community hub was the city’s North End. With Yiddish spoken on the street, Jewish businesses could be found on many corners, as could kosher butchers and synagogues. Since then, however, many Jews and Jewish-owned establishments have moved south or closed down entirely. Some of the North End buildings have been rebuilt or redesigned, while others have been preserved for various reasons. A recent walk – set up via Jane’s Walk – showcased the area’s history and current-day reality.
The early May tour was led by Zach Fleisher, 22. A history buff and University of Winnipeg student, he is chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students Manitoba. In his spare time, he is involved with other projects, with the main goal of making Winnipeg a better place.
“I’ve always found myself enamored with the work of famous American-Canadian urbanist Jane Jacobs (for whom Jane’s Walks are named),” said Fleisher. “And, I’ve always been interested in how we build and define community. In that spirit, I’m quite interested in the history of Winnipeg and the Jewish population, especially the North End area.” He hopes people who took the tour will see the area differently now that they are aware of its history.
According to its website, “Jane’s Walk is a movement of free, citizen-led walking tours inspired by Jane Jacobs. The walks get people to tell stories about their communities, explore their cities, and connect with neighbors.” The free walks are held annually in more than 100 cities in 22 countries around the world on the first weekend of May each year, including in Vancouver.
Fleisher attended a few Jane’s Walks in Winnipeg last year and has informally given tours of different areas for a friend of his, Nicholas Audette, who suggested he get involved with the movement in a more formal way.
While some people RSVPed for his walk, there was no requirement to do so. “That’s what makes the Jane’s Walk so unique – the lack of commitment and organized structure that culminates in a strong sense of community,” he said.
Fleisher’s May 4 walk attracted more than 70 people. “I think a lot of people know that the North End carries a lot of history, but they are always interested in hearing a bit more about the area and its unique history,” he said.
The tour began from what used to be the old Canadian Pacific Railway station at 181 Higgins Ave. “The CPR station, where thousands of immigrants passed through, is now home to an aboriginal centre, housing a variety of offices,” explained Fleisher. “It was a place of great significance and a proper starting point, as almost every Jewish newcomer to the city would also have begun their story in Winnipeg at that same spot.
“This station was one of two major train stations in Winnipeg, the other being Union Station on Main Street.” The station fell out of use in the 1970s, he said.
Walking through Point Douglas on Austin Street, the tour headed toward Chesed Shel Emes funeral home. Along the way, Fleisher pointed out what was formerly the Sharon Home, which was originally established as a rehab centre, but became a personal care facility; it is today located in the city’s South End, and called the Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre.
Although the North End has not seen a significant Jewish population in two generations, the many buildings and sites that are historically relevant remain, along with a number of other key cultural institutions.
“At its peak, it’s believed that over 15,000 Jews – primarily from the Ukraine, Poland and Russia – called the North End home,” said Fleisher.
Once at Chesed Shel Emes, participants were given a brief history of the facility by Sharon Allentuck, who was representing the chapel because its executive director, Rena Boroditsky, was away. The funeral home was founded in 1930 by volunteers who wanted to ensure that every Jew had access to a proper Jewish burial and, in 1947, the chapel was built, she explained.
The walk then continued along Main Street to Burrows Avenue, to Congregation Ashkenazi. “The Ashkenazi is the oldest synagogue in Winnipeg and has a second floor only for women,” said Fleisher. “According to [its] tradition, non-married Jewish men don’t wear tallit, because the women on the second floor then got to pick their husband.”
Saul Spitz, who organizes the maintenance and care of the building, was on hand to give a talk and lead a tour of the synagogue.
“The North End has a rich tradition that continues today,” said Fleisher. “Along with the times, the type of community has changed. While the Jewish North End may be a memory of years past, it’s important to recognize the heritage of the area.”
After passing by the German Club at Flora and Charles streets, which was the home of the Talmud Torah at one time, the walk continued on to one of the few Jewish businesses still around in the North End – Gunn’s Bakery, which opened in 1937.
Fleisher noted that Gunn’s is located next to what was formerly the Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall, now home to a Christian worship group, though the building still retains the initials HSB.
Fleisher said he would love to organize another walk if there’s interest, and “to branch out a bit as well. So many of the folks who made it out had their own additions to the oral history of the walk and were able to contribute as necessary. I aimed to provide a basic framework for the walk and so many people were able to bring their own lived experience to the table.
“The walk was a great experience and it was great to see that I’m not the only one with a passion for the rich diversity of the area,” he continued. “The Jewish component is only one part of the rich diversity of the North End and I’d encourage everyone to read up a bit more on such a dynamic area.”
The next Jane’s Walk weekend is scheduled for May 6-8, 2016. To find out about walks in the various cities or to organize one of your own, visit janeswalk.org for more information.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.