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Virtual Jewish World:
Vancouver, Canada


Virtual Jewish World: Table of Contents | Canada | British Columbia


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Vancouver, the largest city in the Canadian province of British Columbia, is home to a Jewish community of approximately 17,500 in 2013, which represents 7% of Canada's Jews and the third-largest Jewish population in the country. It currently houses more than 16 synagogue congregations of various demonications, six Jewish day schools and the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library.

Jewish life in Vancouver began in the early 1880s, when a small number of pioneers arrived at the town site of the future metropolis, drawn by the prospects of its deep-sea harbor on the Pacific Ocean and impending status as the terminus of the trans-Canada railway. One of the city's most prominent early builders was David Oppenheimer (1834–1897), a Jewish resident of German origins who served as Vancouver's second mayor from 1887 to 1891. During his term in office, Oppenheimer opened foreign trade and initiated the construction of Vancouver's water supply, sidewalks, bridges, transit, and lighting. He also donated large tracts of his personal property for civic facilities and the promotion of local industry. Oppenheimer was popularly known as the "father of Vancouver," and his bust still stands at the entrance of Stanley Park, the world-famous green space that he procured for the city in 1888.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, Vancouver's Jewish population remained below 200, split between a small congregation (Temple Emanuel) of acculturated West European Jews living in the west end and an increasing number of East European newcomers. Most of the latter concentrated initially in Vancouver's immigrant district in the Strathcona and Chinatown areas, many working in the clothing trade or secondhand goods. By 1911, the East Europeans had swelled the Jewish community to 1,024, becoming the dominant element. In 1907 the Orthodox congregation B'nai Yehuda (Sons of Israel) was established under the presidency of Zebulon Franks (1864–1926), a merchant in whose store and home the first Orthodox services in Vancouver had been held 20 years earlier. The congregation opened its first synagogue in 1911 and changed its name to Schara Tzedeck (Gates of Righteousness) in 1917, building a much larger synagogue in 1921, when Vancouver's Jewish population had reached 1,376. For the next three decades Schara Tzedeck was led, for the most part, by Nathan Mayer Pastinsky (1887–1948), a qualified shoḥet who became the religious leader for the Jewish community, universally respected for his citywide welfare work and spiritual leadership.

As the Jewish community grew to 2,440 by 1931, a vigorous organizational life became the hallmark of Vancouver Jewry. The first secular group to form was a B'nai B'rith lodge in 1910. During the 1930s to 1950s, the lodge sponsored a highly successful interfaith "Goodwill Dinner" each year, honoring leading representatives from different areas of public life. A Zionist and Social Society was founded in 1913, the official beginning of the community's long history of support of a Jewish state. The first of numerous Hadassah chapters was organized in 1920, and for many years the group ran the largest annual bazaar in the city. The National Council of Jewish Women has also been very prominent in Vancouver since 1924, initiating a number of innovative social programs for children and the elderly. A women's B'nai B'rith section was formed in 1927 and Pioneer Women in 1933. Among the community's youth groups during these years were Young Judaea and Aleph Zadik Aleph, and slightly later, Hillel and one of the most active Habonim chapters in North America.

Early mutual aid organizations included a Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Hebrew Free Loan Association, and an Achduth Society (credit union) established in 1927. A Jewish Community Chest was founded in 1924 to centralize the community's fundraising, later serving as the model for the Vancouver-wide Community Chest. In 1928, a Jewish community center was opened and began publishing a weekly newssheet, the precursor to the Jewish Western Bulletin, which has served as the community's newspaper since 1930. To coordinate these new institutions and organizations, a Jewish Administrative Council was established in 1932, superseded by an enlarged representative body in 1950, the Jewish Community Council and Fund. Internal community welfare work was also strengthened through the 1936 creation of a Jewish Family Service Agency, run for many years by social worker Jessie Allman, and the 1946 founding of the Louis Brier Home for the Aged.

In addition to a strong tendency toward institutional affiliation, since the end of World War II rapid growth has become a dominant feature of Vancouver's Jewish community. In 1951 the population was 5,467, and by 1971 it was 10,145. Although the majority of newcomers were Jews from other parts of Canada, particularly the prairie provinces, there were also several hundred Holocaust survivors and, later, refugees from Hungary and the Soviet bloc. Vancouver's generally high level of postwar prosperity allowed for considerable upward mobility and economic diversification in the Jewish community, marked by a residential shift away from the east end to the more affluent Oak Street corridor in the south-west part of the city. In 1948, a Talmud Torah day school was built in the area, as was the Schara Tzedeck's new synagogue. The Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation that had been incorporated in 1932, also opened a new Oak Street synagogue in 1948, eventually surpassing Schara Tzedeck in membership. Further cultural and religious diversity emerged with the revival of a Reform group in the 1960s, the incorporation of a Sephardi congregation in 1973, and the arrival of Lubavitch in 1974.

In the midst of this rapid expansion, the 1962 opening of an ambitious new Vancouver Jewish Community Centre created a focal point for communal activities, housing many of the Jewish community's organizations as well as providing cultural and athletic facilities. The Pacific Region of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which had become its own branch in 1949, also assumed a leading role in community public relations, advocacy for Israel, and a number of educational initiatives. Although antisemitism in Vancouver was never a serious threat, the CJC was particularly active in calling for anti-discrimination legislation, co-founding the Vancouver Civic Unity Council for this purpose during the 1950s. Congress also sponsored a number of Christian-Jewish dialogues in the 1970s, and during the 1980s helped found an umbrella organization known as the Committee for Racial Justice. Longtime Pacific Region Executive Director Morris Saltzman (1918–1988) was especially active in inter-ethnic outreach, and in tandem with Lou Zimmerman (1911–1987), the first and longest-serving Jewish community civil servant in Vancouver, provided much of the organizational leadership throughout the postwar decades.

In addition to several programs and facilities for the religious education of youth and adults, most recently the Community Kollel and the Pacific Torah Institute, a Vancouver Peretz Centre has been providing secular, humanist Jewish education since 1945, also maintaining a small Yiddish presence. Other Jewish cultural initiatives in Vancouver have included the establishment of a Judaica library and a program of Jewish Studies at the University of British Columbia. A Vancouver-based Jewish Historical Society of B.C. has been in operation since 1971, with a museum devoted to local Jewish history scheduled to open. The very successful annual Jewish Film Festival and Jewish Festival of the Arts have also become part of the community calendar. Since the mid-1970s, Holocaust awareness has taken on increasing prominence as a vehicle for education, most notably through the 1976 inception of an annual symposium for high school students and the 1995 opening of a Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.

Vancouver now has the third largest Jewish community in Canada, with its 2001 Jewish population of 22,590 just over 1% of the total population of the city. Although the Oak Street corridor remains home to approximately half of the city's Jews, considerable expansion has taken place into the suburbs, with new synagogues and Jewish community centers in Richmond, Burnaby/Coquitlam, North Vancouver, and Surrey. There are more than a dozen congregations across the metropolitan area, with affiliations ranging from Egalitarian to Chabad. To provide services to this increasingly dispersed community, a Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver was established in 1987, assuming responsibility for the Combined Jewish Appeal campaign, which supports over 30 local agencies as well as Israeli and overseas Jewish causes. A Shalom B.C. welcoming center also provides newcomers with information about local Jewish life.

There have been many Vancouver Jews to have an important impact on both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Businessman Jack Diamond (1910–2001) was an extremely prominent leader and benefactor, helping to found several major charities such as the local Variety Club, the B.C. Heart Foundation, and the Diamond Foundation. He also served as chancellor of Simon Fraser University (SFU), as did prominent businessman and philanthropist Joseph Segal (1925– ). Morris Wosk (1917–2002) was one of SFU's greatest benefactors, particularly in the establishment of the downtown Harbour Centre campus. Judge Nathan Nemetz (1913–1997) was the first Jewish chancellor of the University of British Columbia as well as the first Jewish chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court and B.C. Court of Appeals. The first Jewish judge in Canada, Samuel Schultz (1865–1917), was also a Vancouver resident. In politics, Dave Barret (1930– ) served as the provincial premier in 1972–75, while Harry Rankin (1920–2002) served on the Vancouver City Council for over 20 years and journalist Simma Holt (1922– ) was the first Jewish woman to serve as a member of Parliament, representing the Vancouver-Kingsway district. Between 1969 and 1983, Muni Evers (1914–2002) was re-elected seven times as the mayor of New Westminster, part of Greater Vancouver.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

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