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TORONTO, city in Canada, with a population of approximately 2.5 million people; located on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The city is the capital of the province of Ontario and at the heart of a larger urban expanse officially known as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), home to an additional 2.7 million people. Toronto is also one of the largest Jewish Diaspora centers. In 2001 there were approximately 114,000 Jews in the city of Toronto and another 65,000 in the surrounding GTA municipalities. That population continues to grow.


Many of Toronto's Jews remain clustered along what is likely the longest Jewish neighborhood in the Diaspora. It begins downtown and extends up either side of one street, Bathurst Street, for about 15 miles (24 km.). While there are no fixed boundaries along this lengthy north/south artery, it is possible to divide the Toronto Jewish community into a landscape of three connected neighborhoods.

The downtown and most southerly neighborhood is the oldest. Toronto, originally named York, was founded as a British garrison town on Lake Ontario in the late 18th century. As surrounding agricultural settlement gradually expanded, so did the town, which served as a local market and commercial center. By the late 1840s and early 1850s Toronto was home to a small number of Jews, mostly merchants active in the jewelry, clothing, and dry goods business. Many of these Jews were originally from England or Germany and retained close economic and kinship ties to Jewish merchant families in Montreal, New York, or London. As Toronto continued to grow, Jewish-owned enterprises successfully expanded to include financial services, land speculation, and manufacturing.

While few in number and generally well integrated into the larger community, the tiny Toronto Jewish community came together to found a burial society and organize High Holiday services. Confident that their numbers would gradually grow, in 1856 a group of 18 men founded Toronto's Holy Blossom Congregation. For the next decade and a half, there was slow but steady growth in the community. In the early 1880s the Toronto Jewish community stood just short of 600 members. They were not ready for the explosion in Jewish population numbers that came with the great westward migration of Jews out of Russian Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine that began in the early 1880s. As this migration reached Toronto the city's Jewish population expanded by more than 200 percent to almost 1,400 Jews in 1891. During the next 20 years it grew by more than one thousand percent to exceed 18,000 in 1911. In the next ten years the size of the Jewish community of Toronto doubled yet again.

The small and generally well-integrated older Jewish community offered the new immigrants what assistance it could, but it was soon overwhelmed by so many new arrivals who were so different from themselves. In turn, the new arrivals, Yiddish-speaking and largely working-class, often felt at a distance from the prosperous and largely English-speaking Jews they found in Toronto. Many of the recent immigrants first clustered in poorer inner-city neighborhoods where they found employment in the growing garment industry or struggled to make a living as peddlers and petty merchants. They built an institutional infrastructure that echoed the East European world from which they had recently arrived. Synagogues and Landsmannschaften were established, often tied to country or region of origin. Secular organizations of many different political stripes, left and right, Zionist and non-Zionist, also took root.

Even as Jewish immigrants to Toronto and their children struggled to secure an economic foothold for themselves in this new urban world while tenaciously holding onto their identities as Jews, they were subject to assimilationist pressures from Toronto's urban gatekeepers – school teachers, Protestant missionaries, social workers, and politicians – all preaching a vision of Toronto as an orderly outpost of British values in North America and believing it their duty to remake these "foreigners" in their own image. Some, tinged with antisemitism and fearing that Jews could not or would not assimilate, began to pressure the government for severe restrictions on immigration. As the anti-immigrant movement grew through the mid-1920s, the government responded with tough immigration barriers. Even though these regulations cut off the flow of East European immigration into Canada, antisemitism in housing, in the workplace, and in areas of social contact continued. Tensions exploded in the 1933 Christie Pits riot, where Jewish and Italian youths fought anti-immigrant gangs who had been harassing Jews.

World War II was a watershed in Toronto Jewish life. The outbreak of war in 1939 brought not only distress to the heavily Polish-Jewish population of Toronto fearful for the fate of family still in Poland, it also brought a return of economic growth, full employment, and a sense of shared contribution to the national cause. With many Canadian Jews serving with the military and contributing on the home front, Jews were increasingly unwilling to tolerate further anti-Jewish discrimination. Even as the organized Toronto Jewish community, led by the Canadian Jewish Congress, organized in support of the war effort it also began a campaign to combat antisemitism and to lobby for legally enforced human rights protections. In part as a result of this effort, in 1944 Ontario passed the first human rights legislation in Canada, barring discrimination on the basis of race or religion. In 1962 the Ontario Human Rights Code was proclaimed and the Ontario Human Rights Commission established to ensure the Code was followed. Changing attitudes can be seen in the election, back-to-back, of two Jewish mayors, Nathan *Phillips (1955–62) and Philip *Givens (1962–66). Givens, at the time he was mayor, was also president of the Canadian Zionist Federation.

In addition to a growing spirit of openness, Toronto also emerged from the war a prosperous center of commerce and industry. Continuing demand for labor in and around Toronto drew migrants from within Canada and quickly forced a reopening of immigration. Toronto continued to thrive through the rest of the 20th century. Manufacturing declined, but the government and service sectors expanded. The city grew through large-scale suburban expansion. Like most North American Jews, Toronto Jews left crowded, aging housing downtown for the second of Toronto's Jewish neighborhoods, the near suburbs – now considered the central region of Jewish Toronto – above the core along Bathurst St. The near suburbs developed as an uptown version of the dense Jewish community that had been downtown. Continued immigration as well as suburbanization brought Jews to this area. Tens of thousands of Displaced Persons, including many Holocaust survivors, settled in Toronto in the 1950s as Canada became second only to Israel in the proportion of survivors in its Jewish population. North African Jews and Hungarian Jews arrived in Toronto in the 1960s. In addition, small-town Ontario Jews seeking a more Jewish environment for themselves and their children also moved to Toronto as did many young people from Montreal who moved out of fear of separatism in Quebec during the 1970s and 1980s. Toronto also attracted immigrants from the United States, including Vietnam draft resistors, and many from the former Soviet Union, South Africa, and Israel. Each group brought its own Jewish traditions, creating a unique Jewish community pluralism that found expression in new congregations, schools, bookstores, newspapers, bakeries, restaurants, clubs, and cultural associations. By 1991, the Jewish population of greater Toronto had risen to 163,000, up from 67,000 in 1951.


The near suburbs developed as population expanded from the 1950s through the 1980s. Dozens of congregations of all branches are found in the near suburbs. Forest Hill, which was the subject of an early study of suburbia, Crestwood Heights, is the home of Holy Blossom Temple, Canada's largest Reform congregation, and of Beth Tzedec, Canada's – and North America's – largest Conservative congregation. Toronto's extensive network of Jewish schools, which began downtown in the first wave of migration, flourished in the near suburbs. The Toronto Jewish Federation decided in the early 1970s to place considerable community resources into day school education. But instead of funding schools directly, the Federation started subsidizing tuition according to need. Day school enrollment steadily increased, reaching parity with Jewish supplementary school enrollment in the 1970s. Congregationally based supplementary schools remain the setting in which many Toronto Jews have their Jewish education, but the enrollments at Jewish day schools are now larger. And as day school enrollment grew, so did the range of day school options. Orthodox day schools were joined by secular Zionist, Conservative, and Reform day schools and others with distinctive pedagogical approaches. Orthodox schools on the yeshivah model are also late 20th century additions to the Toronto Jewish school system.

As the day schools grew at the elementary level, Federation leaders planned for a high school which would be an alternative to the public high schools that prepare students to do well at university. The Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, which opened in the 1960s, has had continually increasing enrollment, to over 1,400 students in 2004–5. In contrast to the expansion of the day school system, there are still many school-age Jewish children who do not receive any formal Jewish education. As in other North American Jewish communities, there is support for a model of lifelong learning in summer camps, campus programs, and adult education. Both the University of Toronto downtown and suburban York University have well-staffed and well-enrolled programs in Jewish Studies and many congregations have active adult education programs.

Community Organization

The Toronto UJA Federation, which was created by the merger of the Ontario branch of the *Canadian Jewish Congress with the Toronto Jewish Welfare Fund in the 1970s, acts as the central agency of the community. By the end of the 20th century the Federation's UJA campaign in Toronto was annually raising about $50 million. It allocates funds to a wide diversity of needs. About one-third of the annual UJA income goes overseas and almost 10 percent to Canada-wide Jewish organizations. Of the part that remains in Toronto about 40 percent is allocated to Jewish education and identity. Of that amount, two-thirds is used for subsidy of Jewish day school tuition. Significant Federation allocations support a range of social services often in conjunction with funding from different levels of government. The Jewish Family and Child Service is the leading agency in this area. The Federation acquired responsibility for the two Jewish community centers in the 1990s. The Toronto Jewish community has also developed a wide range of services for the elderly. The Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care is one of the world's outstanding facilities. In addition to the support from Federation, Jewish schools, social services, and other organizations do their own fundraising. The Orthodox community is also organized for its particular needs, sponsoring a bet din and maintaining a well-organized Va'ad Hakashrut, which uses the COR label.

York Region and Downtown Toronto

Jewish population expanded along Bathurst Street beyond the near suburbs into York Region, north of the city of Toronto. This area is today the third distinctive Toronto Jewish neighborhood. The first step was the intentional creation of a Jewish neighborhood in the 1980s and this set the stage for a later transformation of this previous farming landscape into dense automobile-dependent suburbs. The developer of a large tract along Bathurst Street set aside a plot for a large Orthodox synagogue and encouraged Jewish day schools to build. The area soon became an affluent, largely Orthodox neighborhood from its inception. In addition to the synagogues and schools, the local shopping center contains a large grocery chain extensively stocked with kosher items, a Jewish bookstore, and kosher restaurants. Jews, not all Orthodox, have continued to move northward in York Region, attracted by large modern housing developments, Jewish schools, and the perception of the region as the "new neighborhood." By 2001, York Region accounted for 33 percent of the Jewish population of the GTA, and with so many younger Jewish families it was home to 40 percent of Jewish children and tightly packed with hockey clubs, music lessons, and carpooling.

UJA Federation has begun building a York Region campus that will include Federation offices, a Jewish community center, and several different day schools. Synagogues, while present, are less visible parts of the area landscape than they are in the near suburbs, since a number of existing day school buildings have space in which congregations can meet. Socially, the neighborhood is also distinctive. It has a large percentage of recent immigrants from Israel and the former Soviet Union. Street life, characteristic of Toronto Jewry two generations ago and still common downtown and in parts of the near suburbs, is much reduced, shifting to the malls that dot Bathurst Street in York Region which provide the setting for the leisure-time spending on entertainment, snacks, and consumer goods.

In counterpoint to the development in York Region, downtown Toronto has also seen a rapid revival in Jewish population growth. Much of downtown Toronto was gentrified in the latter 20th century. This urban transformation brought thousands of Jewish professionals and business people into renovated homes. With its combination of safe streets, public transportation, pedestrian street culture, and access to jobs and the arts, central Toronto is considered a very desirable place to live. Some areas with competitive house prices remain, but much of the increase in the Jewish population is occurring due to extensive recent condominium construction, which is adding hundreds of thousands of residential units to the central city. Recently formed Jewish congregations have joined several historic ones. New schools were founded in the 1970s and have grown since. The downtown Jewish Community Centre was renovated in the early 2000s and the Hillel at the University of Toronto's downtown campus constructed a new center at the same time. The Ashkenaz Festival of "new Jewish culture," which grew out of the klezmer revival, is held over Labor Day weekend every second year at Harbourfront, an urban park on the Lake Ontario waterfront.


Toronto is today a city where immigrants from all over the world and the children of immigrants constitute a large majority of the population. This multicultural reality is celebrated by city boosters and Toronto Jews as a vital part of that urban context. The ability of people from a pluralism of origins to live together in Toronto without overt racial tensions and the widely held view that new immigrants enrich the local culture and economy are seen as measures of the city's tolerance. Multiculturalism also continues Canada's older tradition of seeing itself as a mosaic society. The separate tiles of a mosaic touch and form a richer larger whole, but they do remain separate. While there are social settings where persons of different backgrounds meet, and a growing segment of Toronto society where friendships and families are drawn from more than one group, social segmentation continues. This is aided by new technologies which allow extensive and low-cost contact with the old country. Modern transportation also encourages more travel back and forth than was possible for previous waves of migration. This applies to Toronto Jews as well as the general population. Toronto Jews, for example, maintain a strong attachment with Israel. Many Toronto Jews have family in Israel, whom they visit and stay in contact with. Others who do not have family have visited and many have friends and professional contacts there. As well, many Israelis have moved to Toronto, some temporarily and others permanently.

Multiculturalism is also associated with the clustering of Toronto Jews in their own neighborhoods. Many older downtown neighborhoods still have ethnic labels, although the residents of these neighborhoods are now quite mixed. Clustering in ethnic neighborhoods is also common in the new suburbs. A large concentration of Italian Canadians is found west of the Jewish neighborhood in York Region, and the largest Chinese urban diaspora in the world, a product of recent and continuing immigration, is to its east. Other immigrant groups, including growing Muslim and Arab populations, are residentially concentrated elsewhere in the central city and suburbs of the GTA. Multiculturalism is also associated with the willingness to respect the public show of distinctive lifestyles. Accordingly, not only is Toronto a good place to be a secular, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative Jew, but it is also a good place to be an Orthodox Jew. The value placed on diversity can sometimes engender unlikely alliances. In the 1990s, supporters of Toronto Jewish day schools, and the Ontario Region of the Canadian Jewish Congress acting on their behalf, joined Conservative Christian and Muslim private school supporters in a multifaith coalition. The coalition unsuccessfully urged the Ontario government to follow a policy similar to that of other provinces, which allocate public funds to private religious schools.

Toronto, which is now by far Canada's largest city, has developed into a major world center, a node in a global network of communications, commercial, and population flows. Greater Toronto's Jewish population topped 179,000 Jews in 2001 and now accounts for approximately half of all Jews in Canada. And that population is projected to grow. Jews play important roles in sustaining and developing Toronto's social and economic network, not unlike the role Jews play in other world cities. The Jews of Toronto, as in other world cities, are also continually challenged to creatively and productively blend the separate identities fostered by multiculturalism with the cosmopolitanism of an interconnected global society.


C.H. Levitt, and W. Shaffir, Riot at Christie Pits (1987); C. Shahar and T. Rosenbaum, Jewish Life in Greater Toronto: A Comprehensive Survey of the Attitudes & Behaviors of Members of the Greater Toronto Jewish Community (2005); S.A. Speisman, The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937 (1979).

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