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Virtual Jewish World: Hamilton, Canada

HAMILTON, city in southern Ontario (total pop. 495,000 in 2001), with the eighth largest Jewish community in Canada (4,765). Hamilton Jewry comprised 1.3% of the Canadian Jewish population in 2001 compared with 1.4% in 1991, and 1.5% in 1981. Despite its small numbers, the community enjoyed an impressive array of institutions, including, for example, three active synagogues, a mikveh (ritual bath), a retirement and nursing home for the Jewish elderly (Shalom Village), a community center, and day and afternoon schools.

The community's Jewish population has reflected the larger Canadian experience. By 1941, Jews in Hamilton numbered some 2,600, with half identifying Yiddish as their mother tongue; by 1951, the number had risen to 3,000. Little population expansion occurred over the following two decades. However, this changed in the late 1960s and 1970s when the expansion of McMaster University attracted Jewish academics and medical professionals. In addition, between 1975 and 1980, some 300 Russian Jews settled in Hamilton, though the vast majority eventually left for Toronto. By 1981, the Canadian census listed 4,250 Jews in the Hamilton area.

The Jewish presence in Hamilton reaches back more than 150 years. In 1853 the city record identified 13 Jewish families. They formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society Anshe Sholom Hamilton. They were soon renamed the Jewish Congregation Anshe Sholom of Hamilton, constituting the first Jewish congregation in Hamilton and the first Reform congregation in Canada. All charter members were of German origin and the records were recorded in German. In 1874 Anshe Sholom women formed the Deborah Ladies Aid Society, the first Jewish women's charity society in Canada. Initially Orthodox in orientation, it aligned with Reform following changes to traditional liturgical practices and rituals.

Finding these changes unacceptable, a number of Orthodox Jews who had immigrated to Hamilton in the 1870s established the Beth Jacob congregation in 1883. In 1901 the congregation organized its Talmud Torah, and in 1908 the women formed a Ladies Aid Society. Its Orthodox orientation changed to Conservative in 1954. Membership peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. The congregation later proclaimed that it offered a fully egalitarian religious service. Immigrants from central Poland and Galicia founded the Adas Israel that served as the community's Orthodox congregation. In 1914 they adopted the name "Adas Israel Anshe Poilen." Known informally by its street designation, Cannon Street shul, its members formed a Loan Society in 1930 followed by a Ladies Auxiliary two years later.

For the community's first 75 years, Jews concentrated around the city's core. This area housed the synagogues (a total of five at one time), other communal institutions, and the vast majority of Jewish-owned commercial enterprises. As the Jewish population moved into west and southwest Hamilton, and to neighboring Dundas and Ancaster, there remained hardly any trace of this former institutional presence. Ironically, but hardly unique to Hamilton, Jews now reside in areas from which they were formerly barred owing to the presence of restrictive covenant practices.

The need to look after its own being understood, the number of institutions established to service the Jewish community was both impressive and extensive. Four organizations – the Hamilton Hebrew Institute, the Hamilton Jewish Relief Society, the Hamilton Free Loan Society, and the Israelitish Benevolent Society – attended to matters of financial assistance, immigration, and communal and civic affairs. They amalgamated in 1916 under the United Hebrew Association, which assumed responsibility for most philanthropic work. Other institutions helped shape the community's rich diversity. For example, the Grand Order of Israel Benefit Society was coordinated in 1907, and the Viceroy Reading Lodge of B'nai B'rith and the Council of Jewish Women were established in the city in 1921 and 1922, respectively. Formal participation in Zionist activity began with the formation of the Daughters of Zion in 1914 and the second Hadassah chapter in Canada in 1917. Shortly thereafter chapters of Pioneer Women and Mizrachi also organized. Organizations evolved and new ones were established to coordinate the integration of immigrants who arrived following World War II. The Council of Jewish Organizations was established in 1955 and represented the Jewish community locally and nationally, coordinating and overseeing matters pertaining to education, recreation, and culture. Renamed the Hamilton Jewish Federation in 1975, it served as the community's central Jewish organization.

While Jews in Hamilton endured antisemitism in the decades leading to and immediately following World War II, they successfully integrated into the mainstream. Several played prominent roles in the wider community as patrons of the arts and charitable campaigns. Their integration was also reflected in the community's changed occupational structure. While the earliest generations of immigrants were peddlers, storekeepers, and salespersons in the manufacturing trades (notably in steel, scrap, and auto parts), subsequent generations, university-educated, were active in various commercial enterprises and, not unexpectedly, proliferated the professions – accounting, education, law, dentistry, and medicine.

Demographically, the 2001 number of census-identified Jews in Hamilton represents a loss from the 5,165 recorded in 1991, the highest number ever. Indeed, the recent decrease reversed a trend of steady population growth during the preceding several decades. A closer examination of the available demographic figures reveals several features certain to impact on the community's ongoing organization, including the number of elderly, a decrease in school-age youth, and a steady increase in numbers living below the poverty line. In addition, with fewer family-based businesses where offspring are expected to succeed their parents, there is a greater tendency for younger persons to leave the community for larger urban centers. This out-migration will inevitably impact on the community's abilities to sustain the educational and cultural institutions it currently enjoys.

Despite the outflow of native Hamiltonians to larger centers, the community continued to support a vibrant institutional base and could experience growth in the foreseeable future. While university-age Jews may continue to leave, this movement could be more than offset by the arrival of newcomers attracted to the city for occupational opportunities, more affordable housing and other cost-of-living considerations, and the availability of a sound and potentially expanding Jewish infrastructure to cater to their religious, ethnic, and other requirements.


Sources:[William Shaffir (2nd ed.)]

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