Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation, a civil rights champion, marks 250 years

Some early Canadian history:

The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal was a forerunner of multiculturalism before the word had been invented.

Its members were among the founders of Canada: fur-traders, captains of industry and scholars.

Their struggle for civil rights made Quebec the first place in the British Empire where Jews could hold office.

So how come so few people know its amazing story?

Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. On Thursday, the synagogue is holding a gala dinner to mark the anniversary.

For Rabbi Avi Finegold, it’s an opportunity for the congregation on St-Kevin St. in Snowdon to celebrate its storied past and contribution to intercultural harmony.

“I like to think multiculturalism and religious pluralism started with us,” Finegold said.

“Diversity starts with our congregation. We represent something much bigger than us,” he said.

Montreal city council passed a resolution marking the anniversary in March and the synagogue is planning other events throughout the year, including a speaker series, travelling exhibition and the commissioning of a new Torah scroll.

Founded in Old Montreal in 1768, the synagogue, also known as Shearith Israel (remnant of Israel), was founded by Quebec’s first Jews — an enterprising group of merchants who arrived with British troops starting in 1759.

Its origins are rooted in the military and religious struggles that shaped the modern world, from the Spanish Inquisition to the age-old rivalry between France and England for world domination.

And its membership would include some of the brightest denizens of Montreal’s elite Square Mile, from streetcar magnate Jesse Joseph, president of the city’s streetcar company, to Clarence de Sola, a leader of Canada’s Zionist movement at the turn of the 20th century.

One of the rare surviving mansions on René Lévesque Blvd., the Judah house at 1980 René-Lévesque W., just west of the ramp to westbound Highway 720, belonged to another congregation member, the prominent lawyer and real-estate owner Frederick Thomas Judah.

Never heard of any of those gents?

Not surprising, because there was something of the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie about Montreal’s Jewish community in its first century of existence.

“It was a community that was quite discreet,” said Éliane Bélec, a doctoral student in history at Université du Québec à Montréal who wrote a 65-page commemorative booklet on the congregation that will be distributed to members.

Unlike the Ashkenazi Jews who poured into Canada from 1880 to 1920, fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, the earlier community (which included Ashkenazi Jews but practised Sephardic rituals) was numerically small, wealthy and assimilated, she noted.

“I think the Spanish and Portuguese, the Sephardic community, was very Westernized while the Ashkenazi who arrived from Europe had their own way of dressing and their own foods,” Bélec said.

During the 1880s, Montreal’s Jewish population rose from 811 to 2,473 and in the 1890s it rose to 6,941, according to Taking Root: the Origins of the Canadian Jewish Community by Gerald Tulchinsky (Brandeis University Press, 1993).

Fast forward to the 1960s, when the arrival of Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and North Africa again changed the Jewish community.

“When we first came in 1970, the congregation was 85 per cent Ashkenazi,” said Norma Joseph, a professor of religion and cultures at Concordia University and the wife of Rabbi Emeritus Howard Joseph, who led the congregation for 40 years.

Within a few years, the membership had become 85 per cent Sephardic, with substantial contingents from Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco, she said.

The couple will be honoured for their long service to the synagogue at Thursday’s gala.

“One of the things my husband excelled at was making the different communities feel welcome and telling them that their own traditions were valuable, wonderful and that we could all live together in our multicultural synagogue,” Joseph said.

“On Rosh Hashanah, we have five different services. We have the main Spanish and Portuguese tradition, we have an Iraqi service, a Moroccan service, a Lebanese service, and an authentic Ashkenazi service.

“When you walk into each one of these services and close your eyes, you think you’re transported back 100 years to the different countries. It’s the most amazing, wonderful feeling,” she said.

For more information on the 250th anniversary, visit thespanish.org/250th-home or call 514-737-3695.

Why Spanish and Portuguese?

When Spain and Portugal expelled the Jews in 1492 and 1497, hundreds of thousands of “conversos,” Jews who had converted to Christianity — often under duress — remained. They now became the main targets for persecution. Over time, some escaped to other parts of Western Europe and returned to the Jewish fold. In Amsterdam, the world’s leading trading city and a centre of religious tolerance, they founded a thriving community, supplemented by the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. It sent out offshoots to New York (then New Amsterdam) and London, where Spanish and Portuguese Synagogues were founded in 1654 and 1657 respectively. (The New York synagogue credits its founding to 23 Jews who escaped from Brazil after Portugal re-conquered it from the Dutch.)

Hart and Soul

Jews, banned from New France, began arriving in Quebec with the British army from 1759 onward. Among them was Aaron Hart (1724-1800), a sutler who sold provisions to the British troops. A protégé of commander and later governor Frederick Haldimand, Hart founded a dynasty in Trois-Rivières, where he became a successful merchant and landowner. Despite the distance, Hart maintained close ties to the Montreal synagogue.

Fight for rights

In 1807, Hart’s second son, Ezekiel (1770-1843) won a by-election in Trois-Rivières, becoming the first Jew elected to office in the British Empire. But the majority Canadien party (later the Patriotes) refused to let him take his seat in the assembly of Lower Canada because he was a Jew.

In 1832, the assembly passed a motion introduced by newspaper publisher John Neilson extending political rights to Jews, who were still barred from holding office in Britain.

 

Source: Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation, a civil rights champion, marks 250 years

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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