The Narayever Congregation began as a landsmenschaft — an association of Jews from the town of Naraiev in Galicia. When Jews began leaving for North America in significant numbers, a group of them joined the other Galicianers who were settling in Toronto. Another group went to New York City. Legend has it that the group in New York City were planning to found a congregation. The ones in Toronto decided to do it before them, hence, the proper name The First Narayever Congregation. The congregation appears to have been functioning as early as 1914 and received a provincial charter in 1918.
In its early years the congregation met in a building at the corner of Huron and Dundas. Some copies of deeds still exists which members could buy to ensure their right to sit in particular seats. The section of the cemetery on Dawes Road was purchased. Many of the early members are buried there, although some are at the “new” Bathurst Lawn cemetery. In 1940, the congregation moved to much larger, “spacious” quarters at the present site on Brunswick Avenue. 187 Burnswick had been originally built as a Foresters Lodge and was later used as a church. The Rabbi of the congregation was Rav Shlomo Langner, who was also rabbi of the Kiever Congregation and Shaarei Tzedec Congregation. Rabbi Langner did not lead services, but acted as teacher, spiritual leader, and authority on Jewish law. In addition to services, the congregation engaged in other activities. There are records which indicate that, in those pre-medicare years, the congregation employed a “lodge doctor” to look after the needs of its members. Members of the congregation kept in touch with relatives in Naraiev. When someone’s cow died, the Toronto group sent money over to buy a new one.
As the years went on, the many congregations downtown moved up north. Almost all of the members of the Narayever Congregation did as well, but the congregation remained. Neighborhood residents whose own synagogues had relocated attended the Narayever, becoming most of the minyan by the 1970s. A handful of newcomers to downtown Toronto joined the congregation and efforts were made to give it a future as a neighborhood synagogue. The major renovation – the conversion of a damp cellar into a social hall, kitchen and modern washrooms – was done in the early 1980s. In 1983, the older generation retired from the board. The newcomers introduced an alternative gender egalitarian service downstairs, which soon attracted additional members. The non-members who attended the Orthodox service upstairs were not numerous enough to sustain a minyan on their own and dispersed to other nearby Orthodox congregations. Within a few months the gender egalitarian service moved upstairs and the congregation was embarked on a new period in which it was to become the best attended and most active synagogue downtown.