The Shuls Project

Commonly known as the Shuls Project, “Shuls… A Study of Canadian Synagogue Architecture” was the creation of architectural students Sidney Tenenbaum, Lynn Milstone, and Sheldon Levitt. Looking for an  interesting project to occupy their summer, the three set out in a camper van in 1977 to document every synagogue in Canada, from St. John’s to Vancouver. One summer turned into three and the result was the most complete and robust documentary collection on Canadian synagogues ever produced. Astonishingly, the project team travelled over 24,000 km and documented over 250 synagogues.

The Shuls Project collection, housed at the Ontario Jewish Archives, is a rich visual resource, with thousands of photographs, worksheets, and documents. It not only illustrates the synagogue buildings, but also interior detailing like arks and bimahs, meeting rooms and libraries, stained glass windows and doors, yahrzeit and founders’ plaques, and candelabras and chandeliers.

The Shuls Project collection illustrates the evolving use of synagogues over the 20th century – from repurposed homes and churches to purpose-built edifices. It reveals the changing religious practices found across Canada. At its core, the Shuls Project reminds us that archiving is a community effort, often involving grassroots efforts that document local histories, to broaden our understanding of Jewish identity in Ontario and Canada.

Film Sponsored by Clifford & Katy Korman

Archivist Notes

The Shuls Project collection is one of the OJA’s most often used resources. No other collection contains the same breadth and depth of material related to Canadian synagogues. When recently asked about the project, the team of Lynn Milstone, Sheldon Levitt, and Sidney Tenenbaum responded:

“While studying architecture at the University of Toronto in the late 1970s, we wrote an essay on the history and design influences of 9 pre-war synagogue buildings that were still in existence in Toronto at the time. However, we struggled during the research phase as we were confronted with a shortage of documented historical information. We were further hindered by a lack of accessibility to what little information we believed did exist, since much of the documentation, photographs and artifacts belonged to private individuals and were kept in their personal homes. Needless to say, with such limited resources available to us in Toronto, Ontario, we suspected that similar restrictions prevailed in other smaller locations throughout Canada. We began to have further concerns for the future of individually-held collections that were not properly maintained and protected in a valid archival setting.

“We thus developed our Shuls Project to fill a void in recorded Canadian Jewish and Architectural history. Over the course of the next 3 years, we set out to identify, locate and personally visit and document every existing synagogue building in Canada. From the beginning, our intention was to assemble all materials we collected or produced into a central archive accessible to the public. Ultimately, we hoped that this collection would function as a link across the country, connecting separate communities’ efforts to preserve their synagogues as monuments to their Jewish history in Canada. We truly hoped that this initial collection would generate further research on the rich heritage of these buildings and the people who originally built them, as well as those who ensured their ongoing presence in the community. The three of us are very grateful that, after more than 40 years since its transfer to the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Shuls Project’s collection of photographs, catalogs and other documentation, continues to be well-maintained and used as a valuable resource for researchers at the Ontario Jewish Archives.”

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