Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Montreal, Canada

MONTREAL, Canada's second largest city and home to the country's oldest and second largest Jewish community, one that is well known for the overall quality of its Jewish life. Until the 1970s the community was the largest and most dynamic in Canada, but it has declined in importance relative to Toronto's since then. The multicultural city is the metropolis of the overwhelmingly French-speaking province of Quebec. Most of the Jews are Ashkenazim, descended from

immigrants who arrived during the first 60 years of the 20th century and assimilated into the English-language community, in part due to the more favorable educational and economic opportunities available in that sector. The Sephardim, largely French-speaking, have become increasingly important during the past 20 years. They are mainly the products of the post-1956 immigration from North Africa.

As Quebec nationalism, especially as manifested in demands to secede from Canada, became more assertive after the founding of the Parti Québécois (PQ) in 1968, minority ethnic groups, including Jews, felt less secure. PQ election victories and independence referenda between 1976 and 1995 sparked an exodus of thousands of Jews, mainly young adults, and left the remaining Jewish community on edge and apprehensive about its future. In the face of continuing threats of secession, the vast majority of Montreal Jews remains staunchly federalist and vigorously opposes the idea of an independent Quebec.

The beautiful St. George's Angilcan Church today stands on the grounds of Montreal's first Jewish cemetery, which was active from 1775-1854.  


The community was founded by Sephardim from New York in 1768 but remained minuscule until the emigration from Eastern Europe began late in the 19th century. By 1901 there were about 7,000 Jews. During the 20th century there were rapid growth spurts connected with immigration spurred by antisemitism, the destruction of the two world wars, and later by upheavals in the Arab world after the creation of Israel. The community reached its peak population of nearly 120,000 during the 1970s but has been in decline since then due to out-migration, mainly to other cities in Canada. During much of the 20th century Montreal was the leading force in the countrywide community, with most of the major organizations, notably the *Canadian Jewish Congress , headquartered there.

The flow of immigrants, almost all European until the Sephardi immigration that began in 1956, gave the community a European character in many respects: religious, cultural, social, and linguistic. Montreal was home to numerous Yiddish writers and a lively cultural life. The Jewish Public Library and the Montreal Yiddish Theatre are two examples of institutions with deep roots in the community. The geographical concentration of Jews in particular neighborhoods also produced a sense of genuine community that had a positive effect on organizational life. One concrete manifestation was the Jewish Federation, now known as Federation CJA, formed in 1965. It is well known for effective fundraising and coordination of a range of services to meet community needs. Through its power to allocate the funds raised in the annual campaign to the various agencies, the Federation is able to dominate Jewish organizational life in the city. However, there are numerous organizations that operate outside the orbit of the Federation, including religious institutions, B'nai B'rith, and bodies with direct links to Israel.

Montreal's Jews have always been consigned to minority status politically, even those who speak French. The same was largely true in the business world as well. Opportunities have been severely limited in both fields. In politics, there have been a few Jews elected, usually to represent predominantly Jewish constituencies. Among the prominent examples since 1970 are the federal minister of justice and former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress Irwin *Cotler , the Quebec minister of revenue Lawrence Bergman, Victor Goldbloom, Gerry Weiner, Sheila *Finestone , Herbert Marx, and Robert Libman. Others, such as Norman *Spector and Stanley Hartt, have been top advisers to prime ministers. Morris Fish is the second Jew appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In business, the largest success stories have been small businesses that eventually grew into large enterprises. Examples are the Seagram liquor empire under Samuel *Bronfman and Steinberg's supermarkets under Sam *Steinberg . In fact, traditionally Montreal Jews were more likely to be employed in Jewish rather than non-Jewish businesses.

By the early part of the 21st century the community faced a number of serious problems. The largest was demographic: a declining Jewish population with an age distribution skewed toward the elderly. Other key problems were the ongoing threat of Quebec independence, inadequate immigration levels, the difficulty of maintaining sufficient levels of community fundraising to support the demands generated by the aging population, and the challenge of supporting an elaborate day school system that educates over half of the Jewish children with only partial government subsidies.


Since the decennial Canadian Census asks questions about both religion and ethnicity, it is possible to generate accurate data about the Jewish population in the Montreal Census Metropolitan Area. According to Federation CJA demographer Charles Shahar, the population (using the "Jewish standard definition") stood at 92,970 in 2001, down from 101,405 in 1991, 103,765 in 1981, and 112,020 in 1971. Jews constituted 2.8 percent of the population of the metropolitan area in 2001, compared to 4.1 percent in 1971. Montreal's Jews were 25.1 percent of the countrywide Jewish population and had a higher median age (41.8 years) than Jews nationwide (40.2). In 1971, over 39 percent of Canada's Jews lived in Montreal. Jews constitute the seventh largest ethnic group in Montreal.

A comparison of Montreal's Jews with the non-Jewish population shows that there is a bulge in the over-65 category (21.6 versus 11.9 percent) and a shortfall in the 25–44 group (21.6 versus 32.0 percent). There are similar differences when compared to other Canadian Jews, though not as marked. In addition, the 15–24 cohort shrank dramatically between 1971 and 2001 (from 18.2 to 12.7 percent). The age distribution suggests that the growing social and health care demands of the elderly will be increasingly difficult for the community to meet because of the small size of the key productive age cohorts. As a result, the community actively seeks immigrants but has found that the supply is insufficient to maintain the population size.

The largest concentrations of Jews in the metropolitan area are found in the suburban areas of Côte St. Luc (19,785) and the West Island (13,030). Other areas with more than 7,000 Jews are St. Laurent, Côte des Neiges, and Snowdon. Hampstead and Côte St. Luc have Jewish populations in the 70–75 percent range. There are ?asidic enclaves in Outremont (mainly *Belz , Skver, and *Satmar), Côte des Neiges (Lubavitch), and Boisbriand (Tosh), as well as an ultra-Orthodox community in Outremont and the Park Avenue area. There are 6,795 Holocaust survivors, constituting nearly one quarter of Jews over 55. About 18 percent of Montreal's Jews live below the poverty line.

Approximately one third of the Jewish population was born outside Canada. The largest numbers of immigrants came from North Africa and the Middle East (10 percent) and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (11 percent). Smaller proportions came from Western Europe, Israel, and the United States. About two thirds of the Jews speak both English and French, with English the predominant mother tongue and language of home use. Another 26 percent speak English only and four percent speak French only. About 10 percent have Yiddish as their mother tongue, with about 56 percent English, 18 percent French, and three percent each for Russian and Hebrew. Some 70 percent now use English at home.

Religious Life

Jewish religious life in Montreal is extensive and quite varied. There are dozens of synagogues, the overwhelming majority Orthodox. There is one major Reform temple, several Conservative synagogues, and a Reconstructionist congregation. Even among the Orthodox there is a wide range, running from the various ?asidic sects to yeshivah-oriented ultra-Orthodox to Modern Orthodox to Sephardi, each with its own type of synagogue. Finally, there are also quite a number of informal minyanim around the city, meeting in such venues as schools, homes, synagogue buildings, and even shopping centers. Some of these minyanim have been formally organized as congregations in order to enjoy certain legal advantages.

During the early years of the 21st century, *Chabad has energetically tried to extend its impact in the community beyond traditional Lubavitcher ?asidim by establishing a major presence in both Hampstead and Côte St. Luc. Among the leading synagogues, the Shaar Hashomayim in suburban Westmount, while originally Orthodox, was affiliated with the Conservative movement through most of the 20th century. It is currently unaffiliated and has hired only Orthodox rabbis since the retirement of long-time Rabbi Wilfrid Shuchat. The Conservatives' decision to ordain women was the key precipitating factor.

In addition to regional bodies representing the various religious movements, there are community organizations whose purpose is to facilitate religious life. The Montreal Board of Rabbis and the Synagogue Council are inclusive. The Va'ad Ha'ir, styled as the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, is Orthodox and has traditionally been the sole body to offer kashrut supervision in the city. The long-time monopoly, while objectionable to some, did serve a unifying purpose because the Va'ad's authority was accepted by virtually the entire community. During the past decade that authority has come into question for two reasons. First of all, the Communauté Sépharade du Québec (CSQ) organized its own kashrut supervision operation, which amounted to a competing hekhsher. Some kosher eating establishments opted for CSQ supervision, thereby undermining those who wanted to preserve a single standard of kashrut in the community. Secondly, under the influence of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the Va'ad became more stringent in its interpretation of kashrut requirements. Its various edicts elicited some complaints from within the Modern Orthodox group.

Personal status issues such as conversion and divorce have generally been handled discreetly through the Va'ad or associated institutions. Issues involving marriage are more open, with traditional norms generally prevailing except among the most liberal groups. Questions about gays and lesbians have not had a high profile, though again the Reform and Reconstructionist congregations have been the most open to those minorities.

In general, studies have shown a pattern of greater religious observance, particularly in terms of Sabbath, holidays, and kashrut, than in other communities on the continent. In addition, there is a considerable amount of tolerance. For example, although most congregations are Orthodox, many of those who attend such synagogues are not. Yet that fact does not seem to have caused significant problems.


Education has been a major issue for the community for over a century. Originally the public school system was confessional, with parallel Catholic and Protestant schools. Ashkenazi immigrants found greater acceptance in the Protestant sector, which is a major reason for the fact that they became part of the English-speaking community. The Catholic schools, most of which operated in French, were not open to the Jews. By the 1960s and 1970s Jewish involvement in Protestant schools was protected as a right; they were no longer there on sufferance.

Due to the confessional character of the public schools, many Jews had opted for private Jewish day schools, of which there is a great variety in Montreal. In 1968, the provincial government agreed to provide partial funding for the general studies portion of the curriculum, a policy that is still in effect. During the 1970s increasing numbers of strings were attached to those grants, notably a requirement that the major proportion of the teaching hours be in French. The schools were also made subject to the eligibility requirements of the language law that limited admissions to schools classified as English (which included most of the main Jewish schools) to students who were officially certified as Anglophones. This condition limited choices for immigrants, including English-speakers. Meanwhile, the Sephardim developed their own day schools, which were classified as French, meaning that any student was eligible for admission.


The result of the government subsidy of tuition kept tuition charges relatively low in the North American context. That, plus the tradition of Jews attending their own schools, has resulted in over half the Jewish school age children enrolled in day schools at the elementary or high school level. Only about half of those who complete Jewish elementary schools remain in the Jewish system for high school. The schools offer a wide range of ideological options, including Religious Zionist-Modern Orthodox, Yiddishist, Conservative, community, and ultra-Orthodox (including ?asidic). Most of the schools maintain a strong commitment to Hebrew language studies, and the community is known for its innovations in Hebrew language instruction.

There was an agreement with the Quebec government in 2004 to increase the public support to 100 percent of the amount allocated to the public schools (now non-confessional) for secular studies. However, the announcement triggered a political storm that included thinly disguised antisemitism. Within a month the government backtracked, leaving the schools at 60 percent funding. The result was most embarrassing for both the community and the government, especially because of the way that opponents succeeded in ridiculing the government for proposing to channel additional public funds to the affluent Jews.

Organizational and Institutional Structure

Ever since the early part of the 20th century, Montreal's Jews have created a host of organizations, largely to deliver services to the community. Many of these were in the health care, social welfare, recreation, cultural, or education areas. Eventually, in 1965, a federation structure, similar to those in existence in the United States, was established in order to bring more coherence to fundraising, allocations, community planning, and coordination of community affairs. What was originally known as Allied Jewish Community Services was renamed Federation CJA during the 1990s. It is one of the 16 large Jewish federations on the continent. The Federation has proven to be exceptionally successful in the annual Combined Jewish Appeal, giving the Montreal community the reputation of being one of the most generous in North America on a per capita basis. In 2005 the expenditures on programs were about $45 million. Of that, about 38 percent supported Israel and related activities, about 6 percent went to countrywide organizations and programs, and 56 percent was retained for local services. The local allocation is primarily for social services, education, and culture (including tuition assistance at the day schools), and various community initiatives.

The Canadian Jewish Congress, which had been the dominant representative body of Canadian Jewry for nearly a century, never established a solid fundraising base. Eventually it had to turn to the federations, including Federation CJA, for support. Its Quebec regional operation is now somewhat limited and is supported by the Federation. B'nai B'rith Canada is outside the federation structure. It has a national organization that raises money to fund its local activities, including a Quebec Region office in Montreal, with the main focus on community relations and antisemitism. Other national bodies, such as the Canadian Jewish News, National Jewish Campus Life, the Canada-Israel Committee, the Canadian Council of Israel and Jewish Advocacy, Canadian Jewish Congress, and JIAS ( *Jewish Immigrant Aid Services ) Canada, are funded by all the federations in the country through UIA Federations Canada.

The Quebec Issue

Ever since the Parti Québécois (PQ) became one of the two main provincial parties in 1970, the issue of secession has bedeviled the political scene. The raison d'être of the PQ is making Quebec an independent sovereign state, a goal that few in the Jewish community share. Montreal Jews clearly prefer that Quebec remain within Canada. In the 1980 and 1995 referendums on independence Jews overwhelmingly opposed the PQ's goal. Indeed some were quite outspoken. After 1995 Jews became particularly prominent in leadership roles within the Anglophone community.

After the PQ achieved power for the first time in 1976, many Jews began to contemplate leaving Quebec, despite their strong roots in Montreal. Among the factors that they considered were the deleterious effect of separatism on the economic climate, the accentuation of the minority status of anyone other than the French Québécois, the political uncertainty associated with the secession option, and a general fear of nationalism. It is difficult to be precise about how many Jews left from 1976 onwards, but an estimate of 20,000 is certainly reasonable. The departure of such a sizable portion of the community, especially younger people, is a major cause of the imbalance in the age structure of Montreal's Jews.

Future developments regarding separatism are likely to have a profound effect on the community's future. Although the issue became quiescent with the election of the provincial Liberals in 2003, the PQ remains the main opposition party. Should it regain power and hold a successful referendum, there would likely be a further exodus from the productive age cohorts. Consequently the future of the community is in some ways dependent on the vagaries of Quebec politics and nationalist sentiment.

Montreal's Jews have built a strong, cohesive, and thriving community that in many ways exemplifies the best that Jews can achieve in the North American context. Although it retains considerable energy and has been revitalized by the arrival of the Sephardim, its future is clouded by the political uncertainty. There is no doubt that it will persist, but its ability to maintain an elaborate structure remains to be determined.

[Harold M. Waller (2nd ed.)]

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