Following the close of the Second World War, much of Toronto’s Jewish community began a northerly migration along the Bathurst Street corridor, moving throughout the sprawling new suburbs of North York to the northern edge of Metro Toronto. This mix of Orthodox and more liberal congregations, many newly-formed, looked to Modernist architecture as an expression of their religious faith and their confidence in the future, both in a new postwar suburban world and, for those who had left war-ravaged Europe, in a fresh beginning in an entirely new country. Responding to this need, Irving Grossman, then a promising young Toronto architect, designed a series of synagogues that deftly integrated traditional Hebrew imagery and ritual with the rapidly-evolving language of Modernist architecture.
Grossman’s first major work for the Jewish community was the Beth David B’Nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue, completed in 1959 at 55 Yeomans Road. Conceived by Grossman as a richly decorated jewel box, the rectangular form of Beth David was completely wrapped in concrete bas-relief panels, each deeply sculpted with abstracted interpretations of traditional Hebrew iconography. This evocative fusion of art and architecture was developed in collaboration with Graham Coughtry, a rising star in the Toronto art world with whom Grossman shared a studio building. In a rich contrast of light and shadow, the panels express the menorah, the sacred wine goblet and the tree of life, while curves of glass represent the cupped hands of the high priest. And the design proved surprisingly cost-effective: the precast panels cost little more than a plain cladding and their modular construction eased future expansion.
Some distance south at 3600 Bathurst Street is the 1963 Shaarei Tefillah. Faced with a constricted site and heavy vehicle traffic, Grossman turned the complex inward, arranging around an inset courtyard an octagonal-shaped sanctuary on the prominent northeast corner and a rectangular assembly hall to the south. The sanctuary is placed close to the sidewalk on two sides, its flat planes of orange-brown brick separated by inset slit windows and ornamented with vertical piers capped by the Star of David. Above the walls is a ring of stained-glass clerestories, filtering natural light through cool tones of blue, green and violet. Seating in the sanctuary is also octagonal, as per Ashkenazic requirements, with an upper gallery tucked beneath the timber-beamed roof. Sunlight streams down through an octagonal skylight to illuminate the central bema.
Grossman’s Temple Emanu-El, completed in 1963 for a reform congregation, is by contrast set within a bucolic acreage at the end of Old Colony Road. Its long, low red-brick base nestles into the crest of a grassy slope, topped by the squared brick form of the sanctuary volume and an ethereally floating roof of glass and steel. The generous south-facing entrance, sheltered by a row of mansard roofs, evokes a sun-kissed California feel and leads to the main sanctuary space. Here, rows of parliamentary-style seating face each other in the Sephardic tradition, washed in natural light from above and through the massive Star of David-shaped aperture over the bema. Red brick walls and dark-stained cedar link the interior and exterior and complete a warm, comforting and uplifting environment for spiritual contemplation.