by Selina Long
with contributions from Bob Muller
An Assembly — a group of people gathered in one place that shares a common purpose.
Identity — the fact of being, who or what a person or thing is.
Maybe these words do not mean much to you as they are often used generically, but I know for a fact that these two ideas are a driving force in people’s lives. Like all people of culture, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and religion, we seek to find a place where there is a shared identity and morals. In this there is a common memory, which formulates the identity of people and ultimately a secure future for posterity. When there is a common identity there is a shared allegiance of sentiments, consciousness and solitude. This is always something that we as humans search for when it comes to companionship.
In the hustle and bustle of Niagara Falls’ city centre of tourism on Ferry Street is situated the Congregation B'Nai Tikvah, Niagara Falls’ only synagogue. However, in its eighty years of existence it carries with it a saga of a group of people who have very much shared Niagara Falls’ history and economic prosperity. “Synagogue” is a derivative from the Hebrew term beit k'neset meaning “house of assembly” and an approximate word from the Greek synagogue, which also means “assembly”. The importance of a synagogue is deep rooted, as it is more than just a place of worship. In ancient Israel, before King Solomon built the first temple, the Jewish community would worship privately in tents or in seclusion. But Solomon’s Temple promoted public prayer and communal gathering and ultimately a place where the people could congress and promote the general welfare of the community. Ever since its construction in 832 BCE, temples for the Jewish community became sanctuaries, especially for a group of people who have faced anti-Semitism, slavery, persecution, murder and genocide for thousands of years.
In the early 1900s Niagara Falls started to see its first Jewish immigrants. Although it is unsure as to exactly who the first families were, it is fact that they chose the city based on word of mouth. Many families who were interested in immigrating to Canada were informed by families living in the city that life in Niagara was a good one to offer, especially after the Second World War. Many took the leap of faith and accepted sponsorships to Niagara Falls in hopes of living a better life. The result? Excellent, as the Jewish families who immigrated to the city established many of Niagara Falls’ business ventures. Examples include: Rosberg’s Department Store, Muller’s Meats & Dry Goods, Salit Steel, Flexo Cleaning Products, Saks Furniture, men’s and ladies’ wear shops on Queen and Ferry Streets, as well as the hotel and souvenir industries. Many of the families also felt that they received welcoming accommodations in Niagara Falls, though there is no doubt that anti-Semitic attitudes were present.
When the families arrived in the city they established their new homes in and around Buchanan Avenue near present-day Falls Boulevard. It was also in these homes that they worshipped and held communal gatherings. However, with the increase of Jewish immigrants to the city, going to someone’s home was not sufficient as it did not offer the proper socialization that a synagogue did. To establish a synagogue was pivotal as it offered a place of worship and a setting of mutual understanding in order to keep the community together, especially for a post-Holocaust age as the emphasis on community and remembering the past became necessary to strengthen the future against anti-Semitism. All of this is very much what Congregation B'Nai Tikvah represents today.
The location of the community’s homes was also a deciding factor in the location of the synagogue. Ferry Street (before it became a tourism sector) is around the corner from Buchanan Avenue, where the community established their homes. The original date of construction for the synagogue was from 1934 to 1937, with a kitchen for community events and holidays and a classroom for Hebrew school added to the back of the building in 1957. They named the synagogue “B’Nai Jacob” which translates to “Sons of Jacob.” In the 1960s the community had reached its peak in membership with about eighty to ninety families living in the city. Unfortunately, it was also the highest in membership for the synagogue; as of 2017 its membership is now down to twenty families. Many of the descendants of the original families have left the city to find employment elsewhere with many of their parents joining them after retirement. Although there were many family matriarchs who stayed, when they passed away their descendants decided not to return to the city. In 1996 the synagogue’s Rabbi of twenty-seven years retired and by that time there were only twenty families left; therefore they could no longer have a rabbi to run the synagogue. As a result, Bob Muller officially took over as the spiritual director and leader. By the year 2000 the synagogue was a single unit until they amalgamated with the St. Catharines synagogue, B’Nai Israel. This was the first time in Canadian history that a conservative (Niagara Falls) and a reform (St. Catharines) movement joined together. B’Nai Jacob and Temple Tikvah became the Congregation B’nai Tikvah with a total of forty families. Unfortunately the membership is now down to about thirty.
Congregation B’Nai Tikvah is a place of history and a firm representation of a community that very much shares Niagara Falls’ history. Unfortunately, with the decline in membership it does leave the synagogue’s future unsure, making this local treasure unsafe. We as citizens of Niagara Falls need to remember this community and acknowledge their contribution to the city’s economic prosperity and their bright colour in our mosaic of identity. To learn the Jewish community’s memory is to empathize with many in the city -- a Canadian orthodox family history. Either our ancestors or we came to this city in hopes of being welcomed, to build a better life, keep our community together while being able to share it in hopes of creating a better society.
The Congregation B'Nai Tikvah has four Torahs, which is the first five books of the twenty-four books of the Tanakh. They are hand-written and made from kosher animal parchment. Out of these four Torahs one is quite special. During the Holocaust, the Nazis raided, looted and destroyed temples to further their anti-Semitic causes, but from these temples they kept and buried 1500 Torahs. The reason for this is unknown but there is speculation that after the war ended the Nazis would build a museum to an extinct race and the Torahs would be on display. After the discovery of these Torahs a synagogue in Westminster, London, England, repaired and distributed them to synagogues around the world. Only eleven Torahs came to Canada and The Congregation B'Nai Jacob was one of the locations to receive one of these Torahs. The Torah itself dates back to the 1840s and it is not regularly used, for preservation purposes, except on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Stained glass windows in the Synagogue- Photos courtesy of S. Long
The Muller family is most famously remembered for Muller’s Meats & Dry Goods but they are one of the first Jewish families to come to Niagara Falls. Bob Muller of Muller’s Workwear is a local entrepreneur and the current spiritual director of Congregation B'Nai Tikvah. Bob’s father was from Czechoslovakia and he and his brother immigrated to Canada in 1939, three days before their town was taken into Nazi occupation. Bob’s father and uncle chose Canada due to a government contract for immigrants, which stated that the signatory could live on given land so long as they cultivated it for at least seven years. However, this was a change in occupation as they were storeowners by trade. Bob’s mother survived the Budapest ghetto during the Nazi occupation and eventually escaped during the Hungarian Revolution to Canada. As with many Holocaust survivors, it was difficult for her to tell her story of survival. It was not until she watched the movie, Schindler’s List, that she found the courage to tell her family. Her story is recorded on Steven Spielberg’s the Shoah Foundation, documenting the stories of Holocaust survivors.
Contributions by: Bob Muller
Immortalized in the 1962 memoir “The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square” by Holocaust survivor Joseph Ziemian, Irving Milchberg was a wartime leader of a Jewish youth group who sold cigarettes to Nazi officers in Warsaw while secretly distributing food into the city’s ghetto and smuggling arms to the resistance. Born Ignac Milchberg on Sept. 15, 1927, into a Warsaw housewares merchant’s family, his life forever changed in September 1939, when the Nazis invaded and walled the Warsaw ghetto. Milchberg and his father were sent to work in a lumberyard outside the ghetto, sometimes bartering for food that they would sneak back. In 1942, Milchberg and his father were caught hiding bread by a Gestapo officer; he shot Milchberg in the back and killed his father. Milchberg was detained, but managed to escape in the swirling crowds of Umschlagplatz, which was a holding pen for the Treblinka trains. When he returned to his family’s room his mother and three sisters were taken and sent to Treblinka where they all perished. Milchberg eventually escaped two further deportation attempts, finding safety in the kindness of strangers though the threat of death was always present. During his time of refuge he apprenticed to a cobbler and was an assistant to an ice cream maker. After the war Milchberg relocated to Niagara Falls and opened a jewellery store. It was here, in 1953, that he met his wife, Renee, a visiting tourist. They shared a similar horror of war as she had survived for years in a Russian labour camp.
Mr. Salit was born in Brest, Litovski, Poland in 1880. At the age of 23, he decided to emigrate to North America to flee persecution and to make a better life. After surviving the sinking of the SS Norge a year prior, Salit landed in the Port of New York in September, 1904. After working for a short while he immigrated to St. Catharines, Ontario, where his brother-in-law Harry Rubin was a scrap metal dealer. In 1905 Mr. Salit decided to try his hand in the scrap business in Niagara Falls. He worked with only a single horse and cart but with his determination he built a prosperous business. Mr. Salit was a respected and active member of the Jewish and local community, a founder of B’Nai Jacob and a prominent philanthropist. After World War II Mr. Salit's son-in-law Irvin Feldman joined the company, followed by his grandson Larry Cohen in 1955. In the early 1950s the company diversified and began distributing new and used steel products to local industry. Sadly, in 1958, Mr. Salit passed away but the company continued to grow well into the mid 1960s when it became a reinforcing steel fabricator known as Salit Steel. In 1981 Larry Cohen's son, Steven Cohen joined the company. During the 1980s the industrial base in Niagara Falls declined and the family sold the scrap division. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s the company continued to expand by improving facilities and opening new operations.
Until 2008, Saks Furniture Ltd. was the go-to place for home furnishings in the Niagara Region. It was not uncommon for Robert Saks to get stopped on the streets after closing its doors – for people to say, “We bought all of our furniture at Saks!” The Saks family paid special attention to all of their customers.
Like many immigrant families there was a journey towards their success. Robert was born in Niagara Falls, but his parents Doris and William had a journey before calling Niagara their home. William was born in Syracuse, NY, then moved to Niagara Falls, NY, and then to Niagara Falls, ON. Doris was an immigrant from Lithuania to Niagara Falls, ON. After their marriage they chose to build their lives in Niagara Falls, Canada.
Robert (or Bob as he was more fondly referred to) married Mary Adam who was born in 1936 in Romania; she and her brother immigrated to Toronto in about 1954. Somehow they managed to escape the devastation of the Holocaust though there were many members of their family who tragically perished.
Bob’s parents opened Saks Furniture in 1931, but the business struggled in the beginning due to the Great Depression. At a very young age Bob joined the business to help but once the Depression was over the business prospered for many years.
Having had some previous interest in the hotel industry, the family decided to expand back into the city’s growing tourist industry and in 1985 opened the Renaissance Hotel. The hotel did well due to its prime location on Fallsview Boulevard and because of the hard work of the Saks family and its number one goal which was to serve its guests well.
In 2008 Saks Furniture closed its doors and the family sold the Renaissance Hotel. Many local residents still remember the legacy the Saks family left behind.
The new generation of Saks family has successfully spread its mark across Toronto, Vancouver, and San Francisco in a variety of industries.
Interview with Brooke Blackburn
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen
The J4BL Book Club
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen