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British Columbia

BRITISH COLUMBIA, province of Canada bordering the Pacific coast. Although much smaller than the Jewish communities of Ontario and Quebec, the Jewish presence in Canada's western-most province, British Columbia (B.C.), has been part of the region's history and development since the late 1850s. Drawn to B.C. by the discovery of gold in the Fraser River and Cariboo regions of the mainland, by 1858 approximately 100 Jewish merchants had established themselves in the port city of *Victoria, then capital of the crown colony of Vancouver Island. Predominantly of British and West European origin, many of these merchants had business connections with gold-trading firms in San Francisco. From their base in Victoria, these Jewish businessmen played a significant role in developing the wholesale and distribution networks which supplied Victoria and the B.C. hinterland with a wide range of consumer goods. A smaller number of Jewish miners, traders, and small shopkeepers also ventured into B.C.'s interior, pioneering in boomtowns like Yale and Barkerville.

By the mid-1860s, Victoria's Jewish population reached about 250. In addition to its economic prominence, the highly acculturated community enjoyed social acceptance. When the city's first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, was consecrated in 1863, more than half of the building fund contributors were non-Jews. Further, many Victoria Jewish businessmen were elected to important civic and political positions. In 1860 Selim *Franklin became the first Jew to take a seat in any legislature in British North America. His brother Lumley Franklin was elected Victoria's mayor in 1866. He campaigned for political union with the mainland of B.C., which came to pass that same year. In 1871, soon after B.C. joined Canada, Victoria merchant Henry *Nathan became the first Jew elected to the House of Commons in Ottawa.

The decline of the gold trade in the 1870s spurred a shift in the province's Jewish demographics. Victoria's Jewish community stagnated. Many of its most prominent residents relocated to Vancouver, attracted by the potential of its natural harbor and resources. Among them was David Oppenheimer, who became widely known as "the father of Vancouver." Although *Vancouver was soon to become the center of Jewish life in the province, during these early years its Jewish population remained quite small. When a Reform congregation was established by Rabbi Solomon Philo in the 1890s, it had a membership of only 22 families. A smaller, more traditional congregation numbered only a dozen men.

This situation changed dramatically with the influx of large numbers of East European Jews between 1901–31. Vancouver's Jewish population grew from 214 to 2,440. The newcomers were largely from Russia, bringing with them strong currents of Orthodox Judaism, Zionism, and socialism. Unlike their more affluent and acculturated Jewish counterparts in the west end of the city, the majority of the East European Jews initially clustered in Vancouver's east end Strathcona and immigrant districts, adjacent to Chinatown. While some had spent time in eastern Canada or the U.S., the majority were new to Canada. Their arrival in Vancouver coincided with a period of growth, permitting a fairly high degree of economic mobility. Many peddled produce or various forms of secondhand merchandise until they accumulated enough capital to open their own retail or manufacturing establishments, particularly in the clothing industry. To assist economic integration, the community organized a Hebrew Aid and Immigration Society and Hebrew Free Loan Association in 1915, succeeded in 1927 by an Achduth Cooperative Society.

The East Europeans concentration in Vancouver's east end also created a more "Old-World" style community revolving around religious observance and a cluster of Jewish shops and institutions. In 1911–12 Vancouver's first synagogue, the Sons of Israel, opened. In 1917 the Orthodox congregation was renamed Schara Tzedeck, and in 1921 it consecrated a new house of worship with a seating capacity of 600. The synagogue was led by Nathan Mayer Pastinsky, who, while not an ordained rabbi, was highly esteemed by all Vancouverites for his religious knowledge, welfare work, and tireless activity among immigrants. A Conservative congregation, the Beth Israel, was also established in the mid-1920s and incorporated in 1932, absorbing what remained of the community's Reform element. Each synagogue maintained its own congregational school. The school originally associated with the Schara Tzedeck synagogue eventually evolved into the Vancouver Talmud Torah, the city's only Jewish day school.

Vancouver's small Jewish community reflected a broad range of organizational affiliations, even in its formative period. A B'nai B'rith lodge was established in 1910, followed in 1913 by a Zionist and Social Society. A local Hadassah chapter was founded in 1920 as well as a chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1924 and Pioneer Women in 1933. Active groups for young people included Habonim, Aleph Zadik Aleph, and Young Judaea. Communal fundraising was managed through a Jewish Community Chest, the precursor to a 1932 Jewish Administrative Council. The latter also oversaw the community's only newspaper, the Jewish Western Bulletin, which began publishing in 1928, the same year that a Jewish community center opened. In the mid-1930s, B.C. delegates began participating in the activities of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) but it was not until 1949 that a CJC Pacific Region encompassing B.C. was formed. During World War II, CJC helped to organize the Jewish community's war relief efforts and assumed responsibility for community relations and numerous Jewish cultural and educational initiatives.

The postwar period was one of tremendous growth for B.C. Jewry, Vancouver remaining the primary center. By 1971 the city's Jewish community had grown to more than 10,000. Newcomers included many former military personnel and Jews from other parts of Canada, as well as more than 400 Holocaust survivors and 250 Hungarian refugees. The community enjoyed substantial upward mobility and occupational diversity, and shifted its geographic center from the east end to the more affluent Oakridge district in the city's southwest. In 1948 both the Schara Tzedeck and Beth Israel congregations built new synagogues in this area, followed by an impressive new Jewish Community Center in 1964. Organizational expansion also included the founding of a Reform congregation in 1965, the establishment of a Sephardi group in 1973, and a Lubavitch presence in 1974.

Among community priorities during these years, fundraising and advocacy support of Israel remained very prominent. Although antisemitism was never regarded as a major problem in B.C., the B'nai B'rith and Pacific Region of the CJC spearheaded considerable human rights activism in coalition with other like-minded groups. The community also included a strong Jewish secularist presence through the Peretz Institute created after the war to foster secular humanist Judaism. Vancouver also had a chapter of the left-wing United Jewish People's Order. The Vancouver section of the National Council of Jewish Women was a pioneer in areas of social welfare, organizing programs in volunteer training, preschool education, and gerontology.

Jews also had an impact on the larger civic society. Between 1972 and 1975, David *Barrett, a social worker and the leader of the New Democratic Party, served as the premier of British Columbia. Several well-known Jews were also heavily involved in support of higher education in B.C., including former provincial chief justice Nathan *Nemetz and Jack *Diamond, a prominent businessman and philanthropist. The *Belzberg, *Wosk, and Koerner families have also been extremely generous Jewish donors to the province's universities.

By 2001 the Jewish population of B.C. had grown to more than 30,000, a nearly threefold increase in 30 years, but Jews still constituted less than one percent of the provincial population and only about eight percent of Canadian Jewry. Unlike earlier years, when fully 90 percent of B.C.'s Jews lived in Vancouver, recent growth occurred outside of Vancouver, particularly in the nearby suburbs of Richmond, Maple Ridge, and Burnaby. Victoria's Jewish community likewise witnessed a revival, and relatively new Jewish communities emerged in interior towns such as Kelowna. As a result, approximately one in four B.C. Jews now lives outside of Vancouver. The need to provide community services and outreach to this increasingly dispersed populace led in 1986 to the creation of a Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, a central body responsible for the planning and distribution of communal funds. With B.C. being an attractive destination for retirees, an aging Jewish population is of particular concern. Other prominent items on the communal agenda are support for Israel and Holocaust awareness. The latter is coordinated through the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, created in 1985.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.