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NEWS: Synagogue renovations focus on accessibility (Mar. 2023)

April 12th, 2023 · No Comments

The First Narayever Congregation opens after three years of renovations

After three years of renovations, the First Narayever Synagogue reopens to the public. The red-tiled exterior pays homage to the red bricks of the original synagogue which has been owned by the congregation since 1940. FOX OLIVER/GLEANER NEWS

By Fox Oliver

The First Narayever Congregation’s synagogue reopened in February after three years of renovations. The congregation’s desire for a space that would meet the needs of a 21st century community was the driving factor behind the renovations.

The upgraded shul is now fully accessible to those with mobility challenges, more environmentally conscious, and is better suited to support a growing congregation. 

An elevator provides access to all levels of the multi-story building and is located at the main entrance of the building. Leo Elias, a representative of the First Narayever Congregation, said they “wanted to ensure the elevator fit with the building and didn’t look tacked on, so people knew it belonged, just like any of our members who need to use it.”

Due to the new elevator and other renovations in the basement, the sanctuary of the shul had to be rebuilt. Special care was taken to recreate the sanctuary so it is almost identical to the original. Elias said the room was “held with a lot of fondness by many.” 

The most important changes to the sanctuary include making the Aron Kodesh (the holy ark where the Torah Scrolls are kept) and the Bimah (a platform from which the Torah is read) fully accessible. The sanctuary also features an accessible and height-adjustable reading stand, and an improved audio-visual system.

“Lots of communities hold protecting the environment highly in their priorities, and the Jewish community does as well,” said Elias. This dedication to the environment is demonstrated by eco-friendly changes to the building including plans for a solar-panelled roof, a pollinator garden on the balcony, and improvements to the temperature, insulation, lighting, and water management systems.

The renovations also included the addition of another floor which makes room for the Rabbi’s study and office space. The expanded basement has 11-foot ceilings, and pillars were removed to create a  room for youth programs and four gender neutral washrooms.

The First Narayever Congregation was founded in 1914 by immigrants from Narayev, Ukraine. The building at 187 Brunswick Ave. was purchased by the congregation in 1940, and since then, small changes have been made to the building, including an expansion project completed in 2000. “This (1999/2000) expansion was nothing close to the size of this project,” said Elias.

In 2015, polls completed by members of the congregation indicated that 82 per cent of respondents were in favour of making changes to the building to improve accessibility, and 85 per cent of respondents were in favour of renovating the existing building as opposed to moving to a new building. The synagogue closed its doors in September 2020 to undergo complete renovations with a budget of $5.5 million, largely funded by donors through the congregation’s Living Our Vision  initiative. The new space was designed by LGA Architectural Partners and built by Boszko & Verity Inc. The congregation of approximately 700 members occupied a space at the Leo Baeck Day School during the synagogue’s closure. Now that the shul has reopened and is in use again, the congregation will be celebrating with a street party on Brunswick Avenue on Sunday, May 28.

“I am overwhelmed with joy and gratitude that we have reached this transformative moment in the history of our congregation,” shared Rabbi Ed Elkin of the First Narayever Congregation in a letter to the congregation after the shul’s reopening. “Let those who are looking for beautiful, traditional, egalitarian, davening fill it (the new synagogue) for services,” wrote Rabbi Elkin, inviting those wanting to celebrate their Jewish faith to enjoy the new building which can support a larger congregation than ever before.


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