One Erev Rosh Hashana evening in the 1980’s, I happened to pass Beth Israel synagogue. While I had passed it by on many occasions while on house calls as a physician at the nearby Peterborough Clinic, I had never entered through its doors.
That evening, I was drawn to the open doors of the synagogue inside the courtyard as a few members stood around before service. I parked my car and walked into the shul, where I was invited to stay for High Holy Day services. It turned out that I knew a few members, as they were shop keepers or patients in my family practice. That night, when I was received by the congregation with open arms, was the beginning of my association with Beth Israel and the Jewish community which continues to this day. I soon became a paying member.
Over time the community shrank significantly, as the older generation moved out of town to join their grown children that had relocated outside of Peterborough to avail themselves of the multitude of Jewish congregations, many in the metro Toronto area. Only a fraction of the community remained, to not only fill seats in the synagogue but to manage the community institutions.
Given this reality, I joined the Board at Beth Israel, eventually serving as co-president (1996-2000). I remain on the board to this day as Vice-President and have chaired many committees. The small size of the congregation requires that board members take on multiple roles.
It is a wonder how we actually kept things going with the same people. Turnover has been slow and younger members are reluctant to serve as a director or committee member. This is a significant challenge for the survival of our institution. But our membership has been growing, with about 100 congregants who may show up for HHD but with only 34 that pay membership dues. We almost had to close our doors in 2004. Fortunately, rental income from a major tenant and parking lot fees help us keep our financial heads above water.
I was raised as a cultural Jew, with an informal but definite Jewish identity, in a small seaside city on Long Island where the majority of residents were Jewish. Growing up I didn’t have to think too much about my Jewishness. In fact, I decided not to. I married a non-Jew who respected my roots but it was my own lack of identity as a member of the Jewish Community that informed my behaviours for many years, until that fateful Erev Rosh Hashana.
While the services were mostly foreign to me, the warm and welcoming environment kept me coming back. I began to understand that being a cultural Jew was not enough; that the 'culture' was connected to community and ancient traditions. Our reconstituted and relatively younger membership, which was the result of the natural process of attrition of older and more conservative members, brought about an egalitarian and progressive outlook that remains our community's ethos.
My leadership position as president and my own personal growth as a Jew led to my Bar-mitzvah in 1998 along with another member. It cemented my relationship with my community and the larger Jewish community. Our son, now 28, became bar mitzvah in 2000. I know with certainty that he has a stronger Jewish identity than I did at his age.
Throughout my communal service I have focused on the essential connection between Jew and Community. Without the latter, the former is impossible. My commitment to the larger Jewish community is evidenced by my continued involvement with JFC-UIA and Regional Jewish Communities of Ontario (RJCO). Formal and informal outreach has allowed the Peterborough community to avail itself of the services available through the national system and also to connect to the larger Jewish community. I have served as Director of RJCO on the JFC-UIA Board for many years.
I am motivated by the notion that Jewish tradition is unique, special and worthy of cultivating, preserving and enhancing. This is especially true in a small Jewish congregation which has the overwhelming influences and challenges of an engulfing Christian community. In a community like Peterborough, the natural forces of assimilation and acculturation that draws Jews away from communal expression is accelerated.
My favourite part of the job is seeing the results of a steadfast persistence in maintaining programming and services, enabling Beth Israel synagogue to develop into a local centre for Jewish communal expression. In 2016, we marked our 'best ever' High Holy Days experience with 100 worshippers in attendance. I am hopeful that is reflective of an increased commitment by Jews in our community to remain under our "big tent” or actually join our congregation.
While at times I have been quite demoralized by what appeared to have been a fruitless struggle to keep us going as a viable Jewish community and synagogue, over the last few years I have become more hopeful with our financial stability and the recent influx of Jews to our community from the Toronto area to escape the life of the larger city. However, it is a struggle to find a way to ensure that our wonderful legacy is inculcated into our younger generation. I would like to know the secret of getting younger people active in our local community, as it seems that when they leave their parental home, they are lost to the larger community.
I am anxious about succession of our Board and the long-term survival of the Beth Israel Synagogue – ever more so in the face of the results of the 2011 National Household Survey. However, a recent census revealed 500 identified Jews in Peterborough - up from 300 in 2011. The challenge remains to make belonging to a Jewish communal experience attractive to every Jew living in the Peterborough community. While community engagement is a universal challenge in most every community across the globe, it is significantly more burdensome in small communities like Peterborough.
My sense of being a Jew is more complex than before I walked into shul that night. I am convinced that God is everywhere. I do feel that our religion and traditions do great justice to observing God and the wonders that have been given to us to protect and conserve.
I feel more connected to other Judeo-Christian traditions because of this, and to others that live by 'the book' and its traditions. I know that being a Jew is a personal and solitary thing but cannot exist for long outside of the communal part of the Jewish identity.
Israel is our historical and cultural heartland. It can never be allowed to perish. I struggle greatly with the irrevocable differences within Jewish society which threaten to destroy that state as a democracy.
I am fearful about global antisemitism and Jew hatred. I strongly believe that standing together will protect us - more so than standing alone. I am greatly comforted by the hard work put forward every day by organizations like our advocacy agent the Centre for Israel & Jewish Affairs.
JFC-UIA is genuinely committed to serving the wider Jewish community, especially Canada’s smaller communities. While much attention is given to the larger communities, by virtue of their population size and philanthropic capacity, throughout its 50-year existence JFC-UIA has directed focus on providing smaller Jewish community with meaningful support, programs and services. Each Jewish person is connected to the next by millennia of traditions and struggles as a people. I am grateful for the contributions, insight and support of our local and national leadership.
I am confident that smaller communities across Canada will continue to receive both the constitutional and logistical support of the national system. I am also hopeful that members within small Jewish communities across Canada will work together effectively to plan for the future and devise ways to sustain a sense of community and connection that will help them not only endure the challenges but thrive in the face of them.
The Regional Communities Forum is an initiative under the auspices of JFC-UIA that enables smaller Jewish communities across Canada to join together to discuss mutual interests and concerns on regularly scheduled webinars. The leaders of the these communities have been able to join together for regular 'face to face' contact over great distances for mutually engaging and fruitful discussions. I am hopeful that this initiative will continue to yield positive results and address the collective communal needs of smaller regional communities.
Dr. Mark Siegel (MD,CCFP) immigrated to Canada from the United States in 1968 to complete his education after earning an Honours BA in Anthropology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He attended McMaster University in Hamilton where he earned a medical degree in 1973. In 1976 he graduated from the McMaster University Medical School Graduate Program in Family Medicine in 1976.
From 1976-2007, Dr. Siegel managed a full scope family practice at The Peterborough Clinic, with special interest in children and young adults with complex disabilities and medical problems. Since 1978, he has served as a physician for Stewart Group Homes in Peterborough where he cares for children and young adults with complex disabilities and medical problems.
Dr. Siegel is married to Maureen since 1972 and they have one son, Joel. He is a licensed recreational pilot since 1988, and an avid baker and gardener. Since his retiring from his family practice in 2007, he and Maureen have become avid travelers.
Past and present volunteer activities include: