In the 1920s, the town of Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba, was called the “Coney Island of Canada.” Beaches on the shores of Lake Winnipeg were packed with children of Jewish immigrants. Trains leaving the city at 5 p.m. would carry fathers out to newly built cottages join their families who had spent the day at the beach. On the weekend, young lovers would travel out to grand hotels to dance the night away. In the wee hours, the train would travel back to the city.
Like Coney Island, Winnipeg Beach today has lost much of its pizazz. During the 1980s and 90s, it would continue to remain popular as a family vacation destination. Yet, little was updated, and by the turn of the century it would fall into disrepair. When I visited for the first time nearly a decade ago, I was stunned. This was it? The beach was in shambles. Quaint cottages were hopelessly outdated. Young people were choosing different vacations. The town day camp and local Jewish overnight camp once were flush with kids were nearly empty.
Thankfully, the past two weeks I spent at the beach reminded me that it truly is possible, paraphrasing the prophet Ezekiel, “to give new life to old bones.” Members of the town together contributed, in conjunction with investment from the province, to build a brand new boardwalk that has helped to sustain the beach and its local businesses. Older cottages are now being bought, renovated, or bulldozed. Real estate prices are up. Young people are returning.
Of course, numbers are nowhere near the “good old days;” however, they do seem to be on an upswing. Younger people are taking leadership roles on camp boards, sending their children, and spreading the word to their friends. Even the tiny, lay-led, conservative synagogue seems to be holding steady. Years ago it sold its real estate and trucked its tiny building to the grounds of the Jewish overnight camp, where they now enjoy a nice partnership.
Winnipeg Beach may have found a realistic, potentially winning strategy to resurgence. I only wonder whether the same can work for American synagogue life.