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Memoirs

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Benson Orenstein: Memoir of Beach Hebrew Institute in the 1930s

Growing up in the Beaches, I attended Williamson Road Public School. It was a pleasant time for me in the early 1930s. I enjoyed extra curricula activities and especially competing in debating and public speaking. Our English teacher was committed to assisting all the students with special personal time to develop their skills and enjoy the learning experience.

About 1932-3, our family faced an open anti-Semitic experience as the Nazi movement in Germany spread to the Beaches in Toronto. We were living in a duplex managed by Price Brothers Realty. We were issued a notice of eviction for our rental home on Wineva Avenue. They claimed that they did not realize that we were Jewish, and that their property had a rental policy that prevented renting to Jews.

My mother was upset, as was my father who, during the depression, found an opportunity for employment with a friend in Chicago, Illinois. My mother decided to go to the Jewish Agency in downtown Toronto to seek assistance in the eviction notice. The Agency told the story to one of the Singer brothers who practiced litigation law. He represented my mother and the Jewish Agency in a long trial. We were successful and the trial became a focal point for other discrimination charges.

Price Brothers personally apologized to my mother for the harassment and suffering caused by the eviction notice and trial, and they asked us to remain as tenants. Meanwhile my mother found a house on Scarborough Beach Boulevard where the landlord was told of our experience. We were welcomed by the neighbours and enjoyed the home, its location and its south of Queen Street proximity to the beach and lake.

I had four brothers and two of my older brothers and myself attended Malvern Collegiate from where I graduated. One of my brothers was active in athletics and was the school's boxing champion for his age group. We did not, for the most part, encounter outward anti-Semitism at school. Personally, I played in the school orchestra and continued my interest in debating and public speaking, where I won a number of honours and championships.

By 1935 anti-Semitism was growing. At Balmy Beach Canoe Club Jews were not welcome. Many of my school friends kept inviting me there, but I was uncomfortable and felt it not proper to visit the Club.

Some of the teachers at Malvern became active in the Nazi movement at Balmy and their undertones began to appear at school. Students and others began to organize for Sunday forays to Kew Gardens Park to harass Sunday picnickers and groups of Jewish people who found the park an ideal change from inner city Toronto.

The years of '36 and '37 were getting to be uncomfortable, but personally I had good relationships with many of my gentile friends, friendships that continued even after moving from the Beaches.

My time at the Beach shul was most memorable. Prior to my bar mitzvah in 1934, the congregation hired a young American rabbi, Rabbi Axelrod, who was responsible for all the shul's activities: daily cheder, Sunday School, Friday evening services and, of course, the Shabbas and Holiday services. He organized a choir which I enjoyed being part of and Friday night services attracted a good crowd, ending with a social evening of discussions and friendship. Following a bar mitzvah, families brought food to share with the whole congregation.

Once you attained bar mitzvah, you were expected to be present on Shabbat to ensure a minyan. I remember families whose children attended Malvern Collegiate and also attended activities at the shul. Family names such as the Wolfe family whose four boys and one girl were active and involved with activities at the Beach shul. The Mehr family had three older sons, friends of my older brothers.

The Mernick family who operated a tailor shop on Queen Street had two girls and a son. The middle daughter married a well-known boxer, Baby Yack, and all the kids were happy to meet with him. The Greenstein and Herlich families lived close to Kingston Road and Queen Street and their children attended cheder and had bar mitzvoth at the shul. One of the Greenstein sons remained my close friend for over sixty years. The Paulin family and Schwartz family lived out at Neville Park and Queen, and their children too were active at the shul.

Two of my grandsons had their bar mitzvot at the shul and I enjoyed the memories of my teen-aged years as happy ones and, of course, the importance of the shul's warmth and friendship provided a great basis of Jewish involvement.