The little red brick apartment building at 324 Hill Street, just west of Waterloo Street, boasts an intriguing past. This building, built in 1926, once bore the inscription “Hebrew School-Talmud Torah” over its front door. Although built in 1926, the school’s official opening was on June 5, 1927.
Following the Russian pogroms, Jewish families settled in London from the 1880s until about 1920. Many of those families originally lived in SoHo, particularly along Clarence, South, and Grey streets. Because they didn’t speak English, many of the men started their working careers here as junk dealers, rag pickers or peddlers.
The first Jewish synagogue in London was built on the northeast corner of Richmond and Simcoe Streets, opening in 1899. When the congregation outgrew the Hebrew Benevolent Synagogue, they moved to the former St. Paul’s United Evangelical Church at the corner of Wellington and Grey streets in 1917. The B’Nai Israel Synagogue remained in that building for 42 years – the building is now the Church of the Nazarene.
A third synagogue opened in SoHo in the early 1900s – the B’Nai Ben Moses congregation, in an old frame church at the corner of Horton and Colborne Streets. That congregation later built a modern brick synagogue, which survives today as the N’Amerind Friendship Centre.
The fourth building in SoHo landmark linked with our Jewish past is 324 Hill Street. It was opened in 1927 as a communal hall and school and was very active in educating Jewish young people into the 1960s.
Max Lerner, ancestor of Lerner and Lerner Associates law firm, and a SoHo resident, was promoting the idea of opening a Talmud Torah school in London by 1920. His proposal was to build a school that would accommodate 150 children. As a Talmud Torah school, the students would be instructed in the orthodox Jewish faith. One of the courses offered at the school would be Hebrew.
By 1922, $1,800 had been subscribed towards building a four-room school complete with an auditorium – to be entirely financed by London’s Jewish families. The Talmud Torah would be open after 4 p.m. daily, when students finished their classes at the local public schools – and during the summer holidays.
Talmud Torah schools were traditionally for boys only. The writer hasn’t yet been able to discover if this was the case with the school at 324 Hill Street during its early years of operation.
Over the years, the Jewish Educational Centre had a chequered history. For many years, it operated as a typical Hebrew School. Then in the early 1930s, its operation was taken over by a more radical Yiddish group, and became a Peretz school. It later housed classes for the conservative Jewish congregation that was founded in London in the 1940s. It isn’t clear when the school name was changed from Talmud Torah to the Jewish Educational Centre.
As late as 1962, a conference was held in the school for 100 members of the Canadian Young Judea group. Activities for participants, who ranged in age from eight to 18 years old, took place both at the school and at the new B’Nai Israel Synagogue, by now located near Huron and Adelaide streets. The final assembly for the conference was held at the Jewish Educational Centre. The school was still listed as the Jewish Educational Centre in the 1966 City of London Directory.
Note the oblong stone plaque over the front door of the former schoolhouse – all mention of its’ former history as a schoolhouse has been obliterated.
There was an even earlier organization for young Hebrews established in SoHo. In 1912, thirty young people organized the Young Hebrews Social Club, which met at 257 Grey Street. The president of that club was Noah Fox and the vice-president was Sam Harris.
A Toronto historian is publishing the definitive history of London’s Jewish families later this year.