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Caring for the Community - The Winnipeg Hebrew Free School

Located in the North End, on the corner of Magnus Avenue and Andrews Street, is a red brick building covered in murals. Today, this building is the home of the United Way’s Andrews Street Family Centre, with safe and supportive spaces that offer basic needs for the surrounding community. However, long before the Centre opened, the building already housed a rich social history focused on helping its surrounding community. Originally known as the Winnipeg Hebrew Free School (Talmud Torah), it functioned as an educational institution for the Jewish community. The institution operated during the first half of the 20th century, addressing the growing demand for children to attend a Hebrew Free School. The educational system itself can be traced back to the concerning lack of Jewish education in the late 1800s, which marked a turning point in the Jewish community’s educational system in Winnipeg.

The Winnipeg Hebrew Free School in 2014.
Source: Google Maps

Though there were a small handful of Jewish families that lived in Winnipeg prior, the real start of Jewish settlement began when an influx of approximately 271 Russian Jews arrived in the summer of 1882. Like many Russian Jews during the late 1800s and early 1900s, they fled Russia to get away from the government's growing hostility and restrictions that were placed upon them. Arriving in Canada and settling in Winnipeg gave these people new hope and opportunity for their families and loved ones, even if it accompanied a heavy financial burden on them. The Canadian government of that time deemed them undesirable, and created a situation where Jewish people had to finance their own means of transportation to Canada. Due to the prior lack of Jewish settlements, when these new immigrants arrived in Winnipeg, they had to build their Jewish institutions from the ground up. Like most immigrants during that time, they worked in harsh conditions for little pay, with the Jewish immigrants living in overcrowded shacks in the North End.

Jewish immigrants faced poor living conditions in Winnipeg's North End. Photo of the Jewish settlement, New Jerusalem, at the corner of King Street and Dufferin Avenue in 1904.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Initially, families were happy placing their children in the public schools but overtime, there were growing concerns about preserving the ethno-religious customs of their community. As a result, numerous Jewish educational establishments were created. The first Hebrew School in Winnipeg, Shaarey Zedek Hebrew School, was created in 1891 inside of the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, formerly located on Henry Avenue and King Street. For the Jewish community this was a great achievement however not long after opening, a problem emerged. As these schools were not affordable for most families and salaries were low, Hebrew school teachers were hard to retain, sending the school into a to decline a few short years. Thus, in 1907 a group of people led by Rabbi Israel Kahanovich (1872-1945) created a Winnipeg Hebrew Free School (Talmud Torah) where all Jewish children, regardless of their family's income, could come to learn about Jewish teachings and customs. Another was built in 1913 as the demand for these schools rose. This second Hebrew Free School had a strong affiliation to the 220 Andrews Street Hebrew Free School.

Rabbi Israel Isaac Kahanovitch was a prominent figure in Winnipeg’s Jewish community. In 1914 he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Western Canada and served as Chief Rabbi of Winnipeg and Western Canada for nearly 40 years.
Source: Wikipedia

The second Winnipeg Hebrew Free School was also built in the North End, at the corner of Flora Avenue and Charles Street. Primarily an educational facility, the two-storey building accommodated the many different activities that took place in the Jewish community. The basement had classrooms, a caretaker’s room, storage rooms, and a heating plant. The first floor consisted of classrooms, meeting halls, a boardroom and a library. The second floor contained a huge auditorium that could accommodate 1500 people, used for religious and communal events. The opening of the building was a grand affair with the public cornerstone laying ceremony on July 28, 1912 attended by more than 2000 individuals. This communal space was open to the public in 1913, and was so loved by the Jewish community, it was one of the top three Hebrew Schools in North America at one point in time. It was open on weekday evenings and on Sunday morning, with many organizations and clubs occupying the space. Due to its tremendous popularity, a school branch was built to accommodate the growing demand. This branch was the Winnipeg Hebrew Free School (Talmud Torah) on 220 Andrews Street.

Winnipeg Hebrew Free School (Talmud Torah) at Flora Avenue and Charles Street was built in 1907. It gradually was phased out in the 1950s due to the location being segregated from the Jewish population that moved towards West Kildonan. It later became the German Society Building.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

The school at 220 Andrews Street was built in 1923, a one-storey building made of brick and stone, placed on a raised concrete foundation. Its original cornerstone contained a Yiddish inscription that translated to “This cornerstone was laid by Reb. Joel Mayer and his wife Rebeccah Leah. Tessler in the year 5680.” Over time some of the inscription has been covered by the door. The building was designed in the bungalow style, low and sprawling, a popular style of architecture among Winnipeg schools during the post-World War I era. This was style was prevalent because of its easy construction and low cost of maintenance. Interestingly, both the main building (the second Winnipeg Free Hebrew School) and this branch school (at 220 Andrews Street) were designed by the prominent architect Max Zev Blankstein.

Max Zev Blankstein. A prominent Jewish architecture in Winnipeg.
Source: Winnipeg Tribune, 31 December 1931, page 2

Blankstein was born in 1873 in Odessa, Russia, where he studied architecture. In 1904 he moved to Canada and is today known as one of the first Jewish architects to register and practice the profession in Western Canada. Throughout his career he would design over two hundred buildings. His works include his final project, the Uptown Theatre at 394 Academy Road which was built in 1931, now the Uptown Alley and Entertainment Centre; the Tivoli Theatre at 115 Maryland Street which was built in 1929 and is currently a Foodfare; and the New Hargrave Building / Film Exchange Building at 361 Hargrave Street which has since been converted into office spaces. His legacy was passed on to his many children in which three followed his footsteps, becoming architects. Though the two Free Hebrew Schools he designed closed in 1951 and 1947, the buildings remained intact today, a wonderful display Blankstein's work.

The Winnipeg Hebrew Free School is now the Andrews Street Family Centre with colourful murals covering the windows. The panel on the left has been removed since 2011.
Source: Murals of Winnipeg

The Winnipeg Hebrew Free School at 220 Andrews Street has been the home of the Andrews Street Family Centre since 1995, a family resource centre that helps those struggling with issues like poverty and violence. Established by Dilly Knol in partnership with the United Way, it has become a hub for individuals of all faiths in the community. They offer a wide range of activities and amenities such as after-school programs, internet access and laundry facilities. For the surrounding community, it is a significant gathering place and provider of social services. Through adaptive reuse, the building’s mission has not changed, as it continues to care and serve all those in the community, regardless of the socioeconomic standing, helping them build a better life. One only has to look at the murals painted on the exterior in 2004 by the Pritchard Place Drop-in Centre and Head Start Program, to see that this is a building where dreams take root, and hope for the future flourishes.


Written by Kimberly Cielos on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg. Edited by Cheryl Mann.




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