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Virtual Jewish World: Toronto, Canada

by Joanna Sloame

Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the provincial capital of Ontario, with a population of approximately 2.5 million people. Toronto is also one of the largest Jewish Diaspora centers; in 2023, there were approximately 180,000-200,000 Jews in the city of Toronto.

Early History

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.

Holy Blossom’s sanctuary

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, 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.

Main Sanctuary of Adath Israel Congregation, located in the North York Section of Toronto.

In the 1880s, the arrival of large numbers of Eastern European Jews escaping the pogroms of czarist Russia led to the creation of three new synagogues. Goel Tzedec and Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Chevra T’Hillim were founded in 1883 and were made up of mostly Russian members. They merged in the early 1950s to form Beth Tzedec, a Conservative congregation. The third synagogue, Shomrei Shabbos, was started in 1889 by Orthodox Galician Jews. Also in 1889, Beth Jacob, known as the Poylishe Shul and Rumanian Synagogue or Adath Israel, came into existence.

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 PolandUkraine, 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.

Postwar Toronto

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 tremendous growth in 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% or so of the Jewish population that associate themselves with the community, 20% are Orthodox, 40% Conservative, 35% Reform, and the remainder are 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.

In June 2023, the Toronto Holocaust Museum opened. The 9,500-square-foot museum is located on the Sherman Campus or the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of Greater Toronto. The museum replaces the city’s Holocaust Education and Memorial Centre that had been started in 1985 by Holocaust survivors. 

“What we set out to do from the very beginning was to ensure that this was a place to hear from survivors long after they’re gone,” the museum’s Executive Director Dara Solomon told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Bringing the Holocaust survivors in to see how we’ve done that, and having them really happy and fulfilled, has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my personal and professional life.”

Tourist Sites & Contacts

Holy Blossom Temple
1950 Bathurst Street
Tel. (416) 789-3291

Historic Jewish Cemetery
Holy Blossom Cemetery
Jones Avenue

Toronto Holocaust Museum
4588 Bathurst St, Sherman Campus
North York, ON M2R 1W6
Open Monday–Thursday & Sunday Closed Friday and Saturday
[email protected]
(416) 631–5689

Canadian Jewish Congress

SourcesHistory of Toronto and County of York.
Oscar Israelowitz, Canada Jewish Travel Guide. (Israelowitz Publishing. Brooklyn, NY: 1992).
Alan M. Tigay, (ed.),  The Jewish Traveler. (Hadassah Magazine. Northvale, New Jersey: 1994).

Canada, “Ontario,” “Toronto,” “Landsmannschaften,” Encyclopedia Judaica.
Shira Li Bartov, “Toronto’s first Holocaust museum looks to the post-survivor era,” JTA, (June 13, 2023).

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