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The Canadian Encyclopedia

Unlike most immigrants to Canada, Jews did not come from a place where they were the majority cultural group. Jews were internationally dispersed at the time of the ancient Roman Empire and after unsuccessful revolts against it lost their sovereignty in their ancient homeland. Subsequently Jews lived, sometimes for many centuries, as minorities in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.


Jews in western Europe participated in the opening up of the Americas to European settlement, but were legally barred from residence in New France, where immigration was restricted to Catholics. Jews settled in the British colonies to the south and after the incorporation of New France into the British Empire began also to settle in Lower Canada. By 1768, the number of Jews in Montréal had grown to the point where they decided to establish Canada's first synagogue, Shearith Israel. By the late 18th century Jews had also settled in Québec City and other parts of Lower Canada. The Hart family were prominent in the area of Trois-Rivières; Ezekiel Hart was elected to the legislature of Lower Canada in 1807 but was denied his seat on the basis of his religion. Jews participated in the settlement of Upper Canada, establishing the first synagogue in Toronto (later Holy Blossom Temple) in 1856.

Ezekiel Hart was elected to the legislature of Lower Canada in 1807, but was unable to take his seat because the law prescribed that an oath be taken "on the true faith of a Christian" (courtesy Canadian Jewish Congress).

The 1871 census, the first after Confederation, counted 1115 Jews in Canada - 409 in Montréal, 157 in Toronto, 131 in Hamilton and smaller numbers in Québec City, Saint John, London, Kingston and Brantford. A community of over a hundred was also settled in British Columbia when it joined Confederation. British Columbia's first delegation to the House of Commons included Henry Nathan, the first Jewish Canadian MP.


At the end of the 19th century, 80 per cent of the world's 10 million Jews lived in the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empires. The possibility of better conditions elsewhere, prejudice, legal discrimination, and violence encouraged emigration. Pogroms - violent mob attacks on Jewish neighbourhoods involving rape, injury, murder, looting and destruction - began in the Russian Empire in 1881. Jews fled eastern Europe to many places, including Canada, in the period from the 1880s to the beginning of WWI. Jews also moved north from the United States, part of the cross-border migration common in much of Canadian history.

By the time the outbreak of WWI curbed immigration, there were over 100 000 Jewish Canadians. Montréal and Toronto together accounted for about three-quarters of the Canadian Jewish population, but Jews could be found in every major city and in dozens of smaller places. Jews worked as retailers and wholesalers, many beginning as pedlars and working their way up to established businesses. Jews also provided much of the labour for the urban sweatshops of the new ready-to-wear clothing industry. Jewish merchants spread out to small towns, adding synagogues to the places of worship found in rural Canada. Eleven Jewish farm colonies were founded in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, assisted by the Jewish Colonization Society.


During their long period of international dispersion, Jews had developed an identity based on being a national minority with a distinctive religion and communal structure. When Jews settled in Canada, they founded organizations which expressed each of these dimensions of their identity.

In accordance with their religious traditions of thousands of years (see Judaism) places for worship were usually set up soon after the arrival in a new place of only a handful of families. Often the need to establish a Jewish cemetery was the source of the first Jewish organization. Synagogues and schools followed shortly after.

Turn of the century Jewish immigrants came almost entirely from the multinational empires of eastern Europe. Nationalist movements (see Nationalism) within these empires were organizing in pursuit of greater autonomy and eventual national independence. Modern nationalism encouraged the revival of Jewish national identity, which took two forms. Each had mass support in eastern Europe. The first was the movement for the reconstruction of modern Jewish life around guaranteed minority rights within modern nation-states, with separate social institutions controlled by the Jewish minority, and the recognition that the primary language of modern Jewish cultural life would be the everyday language of eastern European Jews - Yiddish. The second form of modern Jewish nationalism, Zionism, aimed at the re-establishment of an independent national state in the ancient Jewish homeland.

Jewish immigrants to Canada from eastern Europe were sympathetic to both of these movements. The Montreal Jewish Public Library - one of the major institutions of that community - Yiddish theatres, and Yiddish literary creativity had their social base in the attachment to Yiddish culture. The generation of Jews who were being transformed into urban factory workers were particularly strong supporters of secular Yiddish culture. The language of their unions and fraternal organizations was Yiddish; through it they shared and interpreted their experiences in the new land.

The mounting enthusiasm for Zionism in eastern Europe was paralleled in Canada. The Federation of Canadian Zionist Societies, founded in 1899 - two years after the first World Zionist Congress - became the first nation-wide Canadian Jewish organization. Zionism attracted wide support, including many affluent Jews, who followed the example of Clarence de Sola, the leader of the Federation of Canadian Zionist Societies, by joining the movement. The Zionist movement was an important setting where women's talents were encouraged; women's Zionist organizations took on distinct projects and produced their own cadre of leaders. By the first decades of the 20th century the Canadian Zionist movement, like Zionism world-wide, also contained organizations with competing philosophies. Mizrachi blended Zionism with religious Orthodoxy. Poalei Zion ("the Workers of Zion") had a strong following among the Jewish working class.

Jewish immigrants also brought a tradition of establishing a communal body, called a "kehillah," to look after their social welfare needs. The first Jewish social welfare body in Canada was the Young Men's Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded in Montréal in 1863 to assist Jewish immigrants (in recognition of financial support, the name was changed to the Baron de Hirsch Institute in 1900). Montréal and Toronto, with large populations, developed a wide range of communal organizations - hospitals, social work agencies, homes for the aged, libraries and more. There was a gradual movement towards the formation of organizations to co-ordinate fundraising in local communities. Immigrant Jews also founded landsmenschaften - literally, organizations of people from the same place. Landsmenschaften would sometimes sponsor synagogues, but they were primarily organizations in which immigrants helped each other and which could reply, as a group, to appeals for help from those left behind.

The movement to organize the Canadian Jewish Congress through countrywide elections spoke on behalf of the common interests of this diverse group of Jews, who thought of themselves in religious, cultural and communal terms. The Canadian Jewish Congress was organized in 1919 while the Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was being drafted. The treatment of national minorities under the new postwar arrangements was of great interest to Canadian Jews; very many had relatives who were to become citizens in the newly independent country of Poland. The Congress was also part of the groundswell of support for Zionism, which had been endorsed by the British government during WWI and was further endorsed by the new League of Nations. In anticipation of the renewal of Jewish immigration after the end of the war, the Congress established the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, which continues as a national agency of Canadian Jewry.


In 1930 the Canadian government responded to the unemployment caused by the beginning of the Depression by imposing severe restrictions on immigration. Although the cabinet could, and did, approve certain kinds of immigrants, permission for Jews to enter was almost never given. Religious intolerance was still a common feature of Canadian society. Anti-Semitism, which compounded religious intolerance with the new "science" of racism, was found among cultural and political leaders (see Prejudice and Discrimination).

In the face of strong opposition within the Cabinet and the upper levels of the civil service to admitting Jews, the Canadian Jewish Congress was reorganized under the leadership of Samuel Bronfman to work for a safe haven in Canada for some of the increasingly desperate Jews of Europe. Despite mass protests and continuous lobbying by political and communal leaders throughout the Depression and war years, pleas on behalf of the trapped Jews of Europe went unheeded. Canada took in proportionately fewer Jews than any western country. At the same time, 17 000 Jewish Canadians responded to the call to arms in WWII and served in the armed forces.

The hard economic times of the Depression led to a greater awareness of the need to co-ordinate the fundraising for communal organizations. The level of co-ordination increased in Toronto with the organization of the United Jewish Welfare Fund in 1937 and in Montréal with the formation of the Combined Jewish Appeal Campaign in 1941.


With a growing economy in need of workers, Canada opened its doors to immigrants soon after the end of WWII. About 40 000 survivors of the Holocaust came in the late 1940s, seeking a peaceful country, a place where they might have a chance at rebuilding their lives, or simply coming because they had relatives here. In the 1950s, Jews fleeing hostility in newly independent countries in North Africa immigrated to Canada, settling mostly in Montréal, where their French language was an asset.

During the postwar period, Jews became more fully integrated into Canadian life. Human rights legislation, which began to be introduced in Canada in the late 1940s, removed discriminatory practices which had been previously common. The introduction in 1971 of the federal policy of multiculturalism (latter supplemented with provincial policies and the incorporation of multiculturalism into the Canadian Constitution) highlighted the legitimacy of cultural pluralism within the Canadian mosaic.

Social patterns were also changing as 2nd- and 3rd-generation Jews born in Canada became a larger part of the community. Children of immigrant businessmen and labourers persevered through university, joining the professional ranks of doctors, dentists, accountants, lawyers and professors. The growth of Canadian cities in the postwar period was accompanied by the movement of Jews to new suburbs. Rather than dispersing, the 2nd and 3rd generation of Canadian Jews moved as a group. Synagogues, schools, community centres and other institutions relocated to these new neighbourhoods.

There was continuing internal Jewish migration in the postwar period. The Jewish populations of Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver increased during periods of economic growth. In contrast, the Jewish population of small towns and rural areas almost disappeared, with the exception of those small towns within commuting distance of large cities.


Canada is now home to the 5th-largest Jewish community in the world - following the US, Israel, the former USSR and France. Based on 1991 census data the Canadian office of the Council of Jewish Federations estimated the Canadian Jewish population at approximately 356 000. This figure includes those who responded "Jewish" to the census question on religion plus those who responded "no religion" but indicated Jewish ethnic origin on the census. In the 2006 census, 351 705 people reported being Jewish. The largest number - about 141 700 - were in Toronto. Despite much talk of a Jewish "exodus," the Jewish population of Montréal had dropped only slightly, to about 68 500.

The most recent data available indicate that significant Jewish immigration continues. Data from the 1991 census indicated that about 30 000 Jews immigrated into Canada from 1981 to 1991. These immigrants account for over 8 per cent of the Canadian Jewish population, which roughly corresponds to the percentage of 1981-1991 immigrants in the Canadian population as a whole. Jewish immigrants from 1981 to 1991 came mainly from the former USSR, Israel, South Africa and the United States. A continuing small stream of converts to Judaism also adds to the community. These sources of population increase may be offset by the disaffiliation of some of the growing number of Canadians who are of partial Jewish descent.

The generation of survivors of the Holocaust is now elderly, but the challenge of living with the history of being the victims of a campaign of mass extermination has not disappeared. The effort to bring to justice war criminals who had sought refuge in Canada became a major issue in the 1980s and continues. Remembrance of the Holocaust and the struggle with its implications are not only personal issues for children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, but also communal issues in Canadian Jewish life. Museums, lectures and other activities are resources for the younger generation of Jews and for other Canadians who are troubled about the threat of another genocide.

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 marked the success of the Zionist movement and initiated a period of gradually closer ties between Israelis and Canadian Jews. Jewish federations have cultivated close relations with Israel, as have the organizations of each of the branches of Judaism. The Canada-Israel Committee was created to establish an organization that would speak about Israel on behalf of the Jews in Canada. Specialized organizations connect Canadian Jews with particular parts of Israeli society - universities, hospitals, social welfare projects. Visits to Israel have become much more frequent, often in the form of tours sponsored by organizations. Most adult Canadian Jews have visited Israel; many have visited more than once. The number of Canadian Jews who can speak in Hebrew is increasing.

Jewish federations have moved beyond meeting social welfare needs, developing co-operative relations with other community groups, and defending Jews against discrimination and anti-semitism into activities directly related to Jewish identity and continuity. In Montréal, a new inclusive body, the Allied Jewish Community Services, was established in 1965. The Toronto branch of the Canadian Jewish Congress merged into the United Jewish Welfare Fund in 1976; the new organization is now named the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto. In the recent period of governmental cutbacks in social services, individuals and organizations have looked more for assistance to the social welfare services supported by Jewish federations. The 12 Jewish communities affiliated with the Canadian office of the Council of Jewish Federations share responsibility for the Canadian Jewish Congress, student services at Canadian universities, a Jewish continuity commission, the Canada-Israel Committee, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, a detailed analysis of census data on Jews and other activities. The Canadian office is recognized as a regional organization within the North American umbrella organization, the Council of Jewish Federations.


Current theories of ethnic identity describe ethnic groups as diasporas as well as assimilating minorities. Diasporas are culturally distinct groups scattered in distant countries who stay in touch with their homelands and with each other. This perspective is helpful in understanding Canadian ethnic diversity in general and Canadian Jews in particular. Jews were historical pioneers in the development of a long continuing Diaspora way of life. When modern societies developed in the direction of making ethnic or religious differences issues of private preference, many Jews chose to make their lives with friends and spouses outside of their community of origin. With the decreasing significance of national boundaries, cultural differences and international connections have again become more important. As well, some Jews, like other people at the end of the 20th century, have turned to what their tradition says about values in reaction to the cultural relativism of modern society. Like the members of other Canadian diasporas, Jews are faced with the challenge of developing strategies to live in a Canada which is moving towards ever more intimate involvement with a culturally plural, uncertain and interconnected world.




The first Jews immigrated to Canada in the 1750's. They too had to compromise their Jewish identity in order to gain entrance into the New World. Canada was under rule of the French colonizers. So Jews, and in fact all non-Catholics, were prohibited from settling. Some Jews side-stepped these restrictions by converting to Catholicism.

The Gradis family of New France was among the most notable of early Jewish settlers. Historians believe that this Jewish family played a pivotal role in sustaining the colony before it was conquered by the British. The Gradis family had a fleet of ships that went back and forth to France, providing food, supplies and munitions that kept the settlers armed and fed during their fight to defend the colony.

But Jewish political allegiances were as varied as anyone else's. While the Gradis family supported the French, a Jewish man by the name of Alexander Shomberg was a commander in the invading British navy. Of course, Schomberg's Jewishness would have been kept secret - only Christians were allowed to serve in the British navy. Schomberg's frigate, Diana, took part in the attack on Quebec that led the battle on the Plains of Abraham, where the French colony fell to British control.

The first significant wave of Jewish immigrants to make Canada their home arrived with General Jeffery Amherst in 1760. Most of these Jewish settlers emigrated from the United States and settled in urban centres, the majority in Montreal. The 1831 census recorded 197 Jewish residents in Upper and Lower Canada. By 1851 the number had increased to 451. Most were middle class and well educated; they were involved in trade and contributed to the economic growth of the country.

From 1850 to 1900 Jewish immigrants came mostly from Europe. During this period approximately 15,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Canada. The Shumiatcher family, when they came to Canada in 1909, were part of a wave of 120,000 Jews that came from Eastern Europe between 1900 and 1920. Those who came between 1920 and 1940 numbered 60,000 and from WWII to the 1980's, 135,000. The origin of Jewish immigrants at this time was predominantly the United States, North Africa and the Middle East.

According to 1991 Census, the Canadian Jewish population today is estimated at 356,000. The largest Jewish populations exist in Toronto, with 162,000, Montreal with 98,000, Vancouver, with 25,000. Jewish immigration to Canada continues: 30,000 Jews entered Canada from 1981 to 1991.


Between 1850 and 1914 Jewish immigrants to Canada faced few difficulties in gaining admission. But restrictions tightened after World War I and throughout the Depression years, at the very time when upheavals in Europe made Jews more desperate than ever to leave, especially from Russia, Poland, Austria-Hungary, Romania and the Baltic states. Virulent anti-Semitism drove many Jews from their homeland, while thousands who stayed were massacred or victimized by disease and starvation.

Even with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime in the mid 1930's, refuge for Jewish immigrants was shamefully hard to find. Traditional  immigration countries including Canada imposed restrictions on them leaving them. Condemned Jews in Auschwitz had a poignant vision of what Canada represented. They named one of the barracks "Canada." It was the place where food, clothes and confiscated belongings such as jewellery were stored--it was regarded as a place of luxury and salvation. But it was completely sealed off, as  between 1933 and 1945.

In 1939, Canadian Jews could only watch with helplessness and horror as the St. Louis, a ship full of more than 900 Jewish refugees, sailed from port to port off the coasts of the United States and Latin America, searching for a place to land its human cargo. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King responded to urgent pleas for refuge by saying that it was not a Canadian problem. And with that, the Jews of the St. Louis headed back to Europe, many of them to their death. During the war period, between 1939 and 1945, Canada accepted a total of only 500 refugees.

Jews already in Canada were the brunt of anti-Semitism and nativism during the Second World War. Discrimination took many forms: Canadian Jews were restricted from admissions to universities and professional schools. More subtle forms of prejudice included a xenophobic fear of the growing number of Jews in Canada and a whispering, or at times blatant, campaign impugning their character.

These subtle forms of hatred have subsided over the last forty years. Human rights legislation, which was first introduced in Canada in the late 1940’s, has helped eliminate some forms of racism. The introduction of the federal policy of multiculturalism in 1971 has brought to public attention the necessity and legitimacy of cultural pluralism and the need for tolerance within the Canadian mosaic.


Despite the obstacles some Jewish immigrants faced in finding a new homeland and starting over in Canada, Jewish society and culture has thrived and flourished here. When Judah Shumiatcher moved to the city of Calgary, for example, he brought with him a Torah scroll - the first one the Jewish community of Calgary had ever seen - and he was welcomed with open arms into the local synagogue.

The synagogue has long been the Jewish house of worship, as well as the centre of the community's social and philanthropic work. In fact, the building of synagogues is often used in the history books as a benchmark, of sorts, for a community's success and progress in putting down roots. Canada's first synagogue, Shearith Israel, was established in Montreal in 1768. Toronto's first synagogue, later called the Holy Blossom Temple, was built in 1856.

There are several forms of religious expression in Jewish culture and many degrees of orthodoxy. Judaism is the ancient Jewish religious tradition that goes back thousands of years and pre-dates Christianity. Modern forms of Jewish religious expression include the more secular Yiddish culture, and Zionism, which helped to create the modern state of Israel. For many Jews, Judaism is an expression of a rich cultural tradition, celebrating holidays and building Jewish community.

Since the biblical origins of the Jews, and throughout their history of migration and resettlement, religion has been the main cohesive force in protecting and perpetuating Jewish identity. It has been especially important in maintaining their strength of community and identity against persecution and the forever widening generational circles.

Most Jewish children in Canada attend public schools, but almost every Jewish community provides facilities for Yiddish and Jewish education. In key urban areas such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg, there are numerous Jewish day schools, some of which are partially funded by provincial governments. A significant number of Jewish children now attend these day schools. Some Canadian universities have developed programs of Judaic studies.

Today, Jews are among the most philanthropic contributors to Canadian society, especially in the arts, and play prominent roles in the political and cultural spheres of Canadian life.

One of the first Jews to enter Canadian politics was Ezekiel Hart, who was elected to the legislature of Lower Canada, in 1807. Hart could not take his seat, however, because the law of the time demanded that an oath of the Christian faith be taken. This obstacle was removed in 1932, at the same time that Jews were granted the same civil and political rights as other Canadians. It was this kind of progressive and humanistic legislation, 25 years before similar legislation was passed in Britain, that helped shape Canada into a truly sovereign and multi- cultural nation.

Since then, Canadian Jews have been represented in all Canadian political parties: Allan Grossman, the first Jew appointed cabinet minister of a provincial government (Progressive Conservative); the late Larry Grossman, the first Jew to be elected leader of an Ontario provincial party, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party; Dave Barrett, the first Jew ever to be elected Premier of a province (British Columbia); Stephen Lewis, the first Jewish leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party; David Lewis, former leader of the National New Democratic Party. Herb Gray was the first Jewish Cabinet minister, David Croll the first Jewish senator.

Jews have made deep and profound contributions to Canada and include: Leonard Cohen, Garth Drabinsky, Ed Mirvish, A.M Klein, Irving Layton, Mordecai Richler, Lorne Greene, John Hirsch, Wayne and Shuster, Barbara Frum, Peter C. Newman, the Bronfman family, the Reichmann family and Sam Steinberg(25).

The Shumiatcher family, with roots in Canada going back to the beginning of the century, are truly representative of the Jewish immigrant experience, and the Jewish legacy of being active contributors to Canadian society. Second and third generation Shumiatchers have become poets, writers, filmmakers, architects, lawyers, businessmen, judges, impresarios, musicians and educators. Looking back, Maurice Paperny, grandson of Judah and Chasia Shumiatcher, considers that his family has come a long way."I think that is one of the most phenomenal things about this family," he says. "That they are able to adjust and make their mark in many many fields of endeavour. I think Judah and Chasia would have been very proud of their grandchildren, and even prouder of their great grandchildren, because the seeds have truly scattered



Voyage of the St Louis   Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

‘A Scattering of Seeds The Creation of Canada’

History of the Jews in Canada  Wikipedia

Canada Virtual Jewish History Tour | Jewish Virtual Library

Canadian Jewish History Partial Bibliography

Canadian Jewry Canada's multicultural society has shaped its Jewish community. By Sharonne Cohen  My Jewish Learning



The first Jews immigrated to Canada in the 1750's. As non-Catholics were prohibited from settling they either converted to, or pretended to be, Catholics.

The first significant wave of Jewish immigrants to make Canada their home arrived with General Jeffery Amherst in 1760. Most were from the United States and settled in urban centres, the majority in Montreal. By 1851 the number had increased to 451. Most were middle class and well educated.  From 1850-1900 about 15,000 arrived from Europe. 120,000 between 1900 and 1920, 60,000 from 1920 to 1940 and 135,000 from WWII to the 1980' predominantly from the United States, North Africa and the Middle East.

The 1991 Census shows the Canadian Jewish population was estimated to be 356,000 with the largest Jewish populations in Toronto, 162,000, Montreal 98,000 and Vancouver, with 25,000. Jewish immigration to Canada continues: 30,000 Jews entered Canada from 1981 to 1991.  The American Jewish Year Book of 2012, shows a population of 385,000 making it the fourth largest Jewish community (after the USA, Israel and France).

Immigration restriction s tightened after World War I and throughout the Depression years when upheavals in Europe made Jews desperate to leave and was completely sealed off between 1933 and 1945 when antsemitism appeared.

This changed with the introduction of social legislation and tens of thousands of refugees arrived after the end of World War 2.


First Jewish Immigration to Canada


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