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Alan Chisvin

Photo of the YMHA when it was at 91 Albert Street. It was on that site from 1936 to 1952 and then moved to 370 Hargrave from 1952 to 1997.
Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada

Photo of Executive Director of the YMHA Les Marks, which was taken in 1969.
Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada

Installing sign on YMHA, 370 Hargrave, 1952
Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada

Official opening of the YMHA, 370 Hargrave, 1952
Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada

Leible Hershfield, gym display, YMHA, 91 Albert Street, 1937
Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada


by Rhonda Spivak, November 21, 2019

The Winnipeg Jewish Review wishes the YMHA/RADY JCC a hearty Mazal Tov on its 100th Anniversary. It seems an appropriate time to review some of the history of this venerable institution, that is a cornerstone of our community.


The YMHA  received its official charter in 1919, when it was located  in Fairbairn Hall (on Selkirk and Main).

Fast forward to the mid 1930's, with membership in the Y growing, a large four story warehouse on 91 Albert street was donated in 1936 by the Stenkopf family in memory of Max Steinkopf, a well known lawyer. The warehouse was converted into a recreational facility.

Al Chisvin, now age 88 remembers the Albert Street Y with much fondness. "I went there in 1944 at age 13. There were clubs, maybe 20 different clubs for ages 13-17. We had programs on Saturday morning. You could play indoor hockey, basketball or do gymnastics."

According to Chisvin, "In 1947, the membership of the Y was 1800, with 1000 being under the age of 18. You can see how important the Y was for young Jewish boys and girls."

Chisvin vividly remembers Saturday evenings where there was a "teen canteen", a dance."We had someone playing records, not a D.J."

For the dances, Chisvin says "The boys would go  up to the 3rd floor where the auditorium was. The boys were on one side, the girls on the other. The boys would ask girls to dance, but sometimes girls would refuse. There would be a bingo dance. Once you were on the dance floor they'd call bingo and you'd switch partners. That way you got to mix with everyone." He adds that there was also a spotlight dance, "when they'd put a spotlight on a couple who was dancing and there'd be a prize."

Chisvin, who grew up in the North end also  notes that at that time most of the Jewish teenagers who went to the Albert Street Y were from the North End, but some were from the South End. "Very few boys had cars. You'd ask a girl if you could take her home and you'd take her home on a street car. Then you' walk home late at night in the cold."

He also recalls that "Various Saturdays were sponsored by one of the clubs. Each club put on a program, which was usually a skit of some sort with music and dancing. There was a lot of good talent around. Some like Normy Mittleman, Aubrey Tadman, Alan Blye, and David Steinberg became famous, as did Lil Kligman, who later changed her name to Libby Morris and became an actress well known in the U.K., and also in Canada."

Chisvin remembers that a lot of the programs at the Albert Street Y were led by Lou Russof, an extremely talented musician who wrote and directed musical productions performed by the teens on Saturday night. "Russof  went on to become a producer of movies in Hollywood," Chisvin says. He worked for a studio known as American International Pictures.

Chisvin emphasizes that there were a whole bunch of programs at the Albert Street Y. "You could be in a drama club or be on the staff of a monthly little newspaper called the Y-Review. There was a gossip column called the 'Wise Guy', and the writer of the column was anonymous."

For Purim, Chisvin says there was a Queen Esther contest,  and "girls from different clubs would be nominated and one of them would be crowned Queen Esther."

"We even made the local newspapers once because during Christmas we, the Jewish kids, made up  food hampers for needy people," Chisvin points out.

"Our club, 'The Senators' sponsored a scavenger hunt and a program we called Football Frolicks, where we invited some of the star football players," Chisvin adds.

Chisvin emphasizes that Albert Street Y had a very unique basketball court, which was half the size of a regular court, with a high ceiling and a wooden post in the middle of the court. The baskets were not opposite each other. They were kitty corner." Chisvin adds that "you could bounce the ball of the wall, and it was O.K. There was there was no such thing as being out of bounds." He also recalls that the Albert Street Y had "a steam room for older people."

He also remembers that there was a basketball league Tuesday nights between the clubs at St. John's Tech, and a baseball league in the spring and summer at McCrae school. And then we played at St John's college."

The role  of the Albert Street Y in the 30's and 40's was firmly established as a place where Canadian-Jewish identity was solidified, especially given the social and political context of the time (For example, The Manitoba Club and the Winter Club barred Jewish members from joining).

From 1939 to 1945, during the War years  the Albert Street Y was used as a military barracks and canteen that served as a club that was open daily to men and women in the Canadian Forces.

In the 1940's board members of the Albert Street Y began to look for a larger facility, and in 1944 they started a campaign to build a new facility which finished in 1949.  The architectural firm of Green Blankstein Russell and Associates put together plans for a new modern custom built  facility for 370 Hargrave in 1950. The facility opened in 1952, with a gymnasium, auditorium, pool, chapel, meeting rooms, restaurant, lounge, and library.


Les Marks was executive Director of the YMHA from 1967 to 1996. He was the second executive director of the Hargrave Street Y, the first being Sam Sheps. Marks recalls getting his first paycheck. "It was less than I had arranged for with the approval of the Board. The book keeper said this is what Sam Sheps had gotten so she assumed that's what I'd be getting too."

Shortly after he took over Marks he took away men's nude swimming at the the pool. "There was men's nude swimming from Monday to Friday in the morning until noon or 1 p.m. We took the nude part away during the first year of my involvement. We changes  things so that both men and women could swim during that time," Marks says, adding that "Sunday afternoon was a big family swim time."

When he took over, Marks said there was a very large youth program. "We could have 250-300 kids on a Saturday afternoon." He notes that the YMHA didn't open until after 1 o'clock on a Saturday.  "Our teenage program was Monday evenings, with approximately 250 kids involved at that time, and we still had the teen canteen dances on Saturday night."

"We had basketball on Sunday mornings ,  a floor hockey league at noon hour, and Wednesday evening there was a volleyball league," Marks remembers. "But the concept was beginning to change. We were becoming more than just  a sports organization. We had to develop towards physical fitness programming." There  was an aerobics studio, racquetball and squash courts, and "we introduced a special seniors program for those 65 and older called Stay Young."

Marks says "We also started to develop adult cultural and educational programs in the 1970's." "We had a town hall series bringing in speakers on social issues. We did those programs in cooperation with other Jewish agencies  in the community." He adds that " Folkorama's Israel Pavilion started at the Hargrave Street YMHA."

"We were also responsible for making sure that the kosher restaurant was operating. The hot dog special was a big seller. Kids ordered it on a Saturday afternoon for lunch."

Marks recalls that "for a couple of years there was a daycare at the Hargrave Y."

Marks points out that there was a period of time when membership tended to maintain itself. "It wasn't at the highest levels." He  estimates that there were about 2000-2500 members.

Marks, who attended the nostalgia weekend reunion for the 100th Anniversary of the YMHA/Rady JCC says he was there "to listen to people talk about their involvement with the YMHA and how they enjoyed their time there."

As for the Rady JCC, Marks, who is a member there says "I am impressed with the Rady JCC. They are doing a good job in cultural and educational programming and their fitness centre is first rate and they have a great aquatics program."

Turing back to the Hargrave Street YMHA, while it had many successful years, by the late 1980's, it was becoming clear that change was going to come about.

To read about that change, see our accompanying article:  HOW THE RADY JCC CAME INTO BEING-INTERVIEW WITH MARJORIE BLANKSTEIN
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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