Observing Shabbat in a cottage country shul
Muskoka’s Jewish summer community welcomes the change of season knowing they will not be compromising their Jewish traditions.
B’nai Isaac Synagogue at 1086 Burlmarie Rd. in Baysville, Muskoka, opened its doors for its 35th summer on Canada Day weekend.
Some 100 people travelled by foot, canoe, boat, car and seaplane to attend Shabbat service June 30, and several returned on July 1, Canada Day, for services and to be interviewed for this article.
To many, cottage living is a summer fling that starts on Canada Day and ends by Labour Day.
Clean air, less traffic, reconnecting with family and summer friends, fishing, swimming, boating and barbecues are some of the reasons many of us pack up and head to the cottage.
B’nai Isaac Synagogue is named after Isaac Jesin, owner of St. Andrew’s Poultry Ltd., and his wife, Basia, who in 1976 purchased the four-acre property with a 1,200-foot waterfront. It was called the Burlmarie Hotel.
“We were looking for a summer place to come with our young children. Paul, Aaron, Norm, Elaine, Jerry and Eddie were growing up and we wanted a summer place to bring family and friends. My father, Yirmiyaau Slawin, thought it would be a perfect place for a synagogue,” Basia Jesin said.
It took a year to renovate, and in 1977, the synagogue, which is in the main lodge of the former hotel, opened its doors. Word of mouth travelled fast among the Jewish population of Muskoka.
Everyone is welcome – cottage renters, cottage owners and visitors to the area.
The Jesin family live in other buildings on the property during the summer.
“My grandparents, Isaac and Basia, turned this into a family compound. My earliest memories are of coming to the cottage every weekend and running around with my cousins. We would have colour wars and carnivals.
“We are grown up now and scattered – some live in Israel, some in New York. However, there is at least one weekend where everyone comes up and reconnects,” granddaughter Rachel Shiff said.
“When we were looking for a cottage and found out the synagogue was in the area, it was the deciding factor for us,” cottage owner Rena Levy said.
“Some of our children stay up all summer, some for an extended long weekend,” Levy, the mother of eight children, said. “It’s a wonderful meeting place, as they live in different countries. I do the kosher shopping in the city and bring it up to the cottage, with the joy of sharing Shabbat dinner on the porch with the family.”
Isaac and Basia’s son, Aaron Jesin, a family physician and mohel, said, “We honour monumental events at our shul such as aufrufs, baby namings and weddings. It doesn’t matter how religious you are – any denomination of Judaism is welcome and there is always a minyan. My grandfather Slawin was a very good reader, and he taught all of his grandchildren to read Torah. My brothers and I take turns davening and conducting the services.”
B’nai Isaac is an official synagogue with a charitable number. There are no membership dues. The shul opens for weekends during the summer, beginning the first long weekend in July. It has Saturday morning services starting at 9:45 a.m., followed by a kiddush that’s sponsored by a volunteer member of the community. Donations are welcome.
“The fact that there was a minyan in the area allowed me the flexibility to leave the city and, at the same time, be able to say Kaddish for my father,” Gary Kleinberg, a visitor to the Muskoka area, said. “The congregation was extremely friendly and welcoming, and made me feel very much at home.”
Sydney Gangbar, Isaac Jesin’s lawyer and longtime friend, owns a cottage in Baysville, Muskoka, close to B’nai Isaac.
“When Isaac indicated he wanted to own a summer place where there was a Jewish community for his family, we introduced Isaac to the Burlmarie Hotel back in 1976,” Gangbar said. “At that time, it was a very run down and dilapidated hotel, as the original owners had let it go. However, Isaac had the foresight to see [its] possibilities.
“What started out as a small kiddush after some 80 to 90 people came out regularly on Shabbat morning dating back 35 years, grew into what today is almost a banquet every Sabbath. The synagogue enables people who come to this area to maintain the same [level of observance] as they do in the city,” Gangbar added.
Zack Minuk, this writer’s son, also talked about why the synagogue and the Jewish community around it are important to him.
“My family travelled from our cottage in Huntsville and took the scenic forest route to synagogue,” Zack said. “To my surprise, just a few feet from the car, leaped a female deer. It was an exciting moment, one I wouldn’t likely encounter in the city.
“With my bar mitzvah fast approaching, I was looking forward to attending Shabbat services,” Zack added, “and the family proudly witnessed my brother, Jordan, get called up to the bimah to dress the Torah.
“Finally, there was the kiddush. Now that was some awesome spread,” he said.
“Shabbat is time spent with family, reflecting on how this day is different than any other day of the week,” Rachel Shiff said. “It is quieter up here. Everyone is respectful of everybody. It is not as formal as in the city. Breaking bread and praying is a nice custom to maintain even in the country.”
“Relax and have a good time,” Basia’s father, Yirmiyaau Slawin, said many years ago. It’s a sentiment that is still shared by Jesin family members today.