The Virtual Jewish History Tour
By Joanna Sloame
The land now known as Toronto was claimed by France after being discovered by the French explorer Etienne Brule, a member of the Samuel Champlain expedition in 1608. It became part of the French colony of Quebec in 1615, and remained so until 1760, when the British gained control of the region during the French and Indian War. In 1791, the British divided Quebec into two provinces. Upper Canada, now Ontario, stretched west from the Ottawa River, and Lower Canada, now Quebec, encompassed all the land to the east of the Ottawa.
It was not until the 1840s that small numbers of Jewish immigrants from Western and Central Europe began to arrive in Ontario and settle in the cities of Hamilton, Kingston, and Toronto. In 1849, Abraham Nordheimer moved from Kingston to Toronto and purchased a plot of land for a cemetery on behalf of the Toronto Hebrew Congregation. The congregation was originally an Orthodox synagogue, made up of members from Germany, including Bavaria, Bohemia, and Alsace, Great Britain, the United States, Russia, Galicia, and Lithuania. It became known as the Daytshishe Shul because of its modernized services.
In 1856, Lewis Samuel of York, England, immigrated to Toronto and helped organize the Sons of Israel Congregation. In 1858, the two congregations combined to form the Toronto Hebrew Congregation-Holy Blossom Temple. Holy Blossom was Orthodox, but in the 1920s joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and became Reform. It was the only Reform temple in Toronto until the 1950s, when it was joined by Temple Sinai and Temple Emanu-El. Today Holy Blossom is the largest Reform Congregation in Canada.
By the 1940s, Toronto had about 60 synagogues. These were mainly small Landsmannschaften, which were immigrant synagogues that represented the different hometowns of settlers from Russian Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belorussia. In the 1950s and 60s, the smaller shtiblekh merged into larger synagogues. Therefore, the number of synagogues decreased, but in their place were larger and more stable congregations.
The Jewish population of Toronto started out small in the 18th and 19th centuries and grew slowly but steadily into the early 20th century. In 1871, 157 Jews lived in Toronto, in 1891, the number rose to 1,425, and, by 1901, the Jewish population had increased to 3, 090. The size of the community always depended on waves of immigration from Europe, based on pogroms and persecution in various countries. In 1911, the Jewish population of Toronto had expanded to 18,237 and, by 1921, had almost doubled to 34,619. In 1931, 45,000 Jewish immigrants, made up of mostly Poles, settled in Canada after the United States tightened its immigration quota in 1924. Immigration preceding and during World War II declined significantly because of restrictions imposed by the Canadian government during the Depression. This was a huge blow to Eastern European Jews trying to escape persecution, and only small groups of Austrian and German Jews fleeing Hitler were able to immigrate to Toronto during this period. In 1941, the number of Jews in Toronto had only risen slightly to 49,046, despite the thousands who desperately sought refuge in Canada.
After World War II, the Canadian government established anti-discrimination laws and eased immigration regulations. The Canadian Jewish Congress and needle traders helped refugees come to Toronto from displaced persons camps. In addition, an important development in the Toronto community was the growth of the Jewish day school system in the post-World War II era. Previously, the Montreal and Winnipeg Jewish communities had larger networks of congregational and day schools.
The 1950s and 60s saw a tremendous growth of population and community life. In 1951, the Jewish population of greater Toronto reached 66,773. It was augmented further after the 1956 Hungarian uprising brought a new influx of Jewish refugees to the city. In the 1960s, the first Sephardic Jews came to Toronto from Morocco, and established the first Sephardic synagogues and organizations in the city.
Toronto's economic developments of the 1960s, combined with the rise of Quebec's separatist movement in the 1970s, led to a mass migration from Montreal to Toronto in the late 70s and early 80s. In 1971, the Jewish population stood at 105,000, by 1981, it reached 128,650 and, by 1991, increased to 162,605. When the Parti Quebecois won the provincial election in 1976, 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fled to Toronto, fearing an independent Quebec would divide and weaken the national Jewish community. Toronto assumed Montreal's position as the center of Jewish activity. However, the economic recession of the 1990s had a deleterious impact on the Jewish community's finances and its ability to subsidize Jewish day schools. Despite this setback, Toronto maintains the largest Jewish population of any Canadian city.
In recent years, Toronto has received Jewish immigrants from South Africa, the former Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel. Today, the Jewish community stands at approximately 150,000 out of Toronto's 3.5 million inhabitants. Most Jews living in Toronto have only been there for one or two generations. With such close ties to their homelands, Torontonian Jews are typically more traditional than those in the rest of Canada and the United States. Of the 50 percent or so of the Jewish population that associate themselves with the community, 20 percent are Orthodox, 40 percent Conservative, 35 percent Reform, and the remainder nondenominational. In addition, a Reconstructionist synagogue opened in Toronto in February 2008, Congregation Darchei Noam. Toronto maintains around 50 synagogues, a growing network of Jewish day schools, and a number of Jewish organizations.
Oldest Congregation in Toronto
Holy Blossom Temple
1950 Bathurst Street
Historic Jewish Cemetery
Holocaust Education & Memorial Centre
Canadian Jewish Congress
Israelowitz, Oscar. Canada Jewish Travel Guide. Israelowitz Publishing. Brooklyn, NY: 1992.
Tigay, Alan M. (ed.) The Jewish Traveler. Hadassah Magazine. Northvale, New Jersey: 1994.
"Canada", "Ontario", "Toronto", "Landsmannschaften" Encyclopedia Judaica
Photo Credits: JBuff.com