More than 150 years old
, Congregation Emanu-El
is located in Victoria, British Columbia, right off of the TransCanada Highway, and is both the oldest continuously operating Jewish congregation in all of Canada (1859) and the oldest continuously used synagogue (built in 1863) along the west coast of the North American Continent.
Historically, the development of Victoria was similar to that of San Francisco, which had grown from a Spanish garrison on the Presidio (and it’s requisite* nearby lazy mission town in 1774) with only about 500+ non Native American inhabitants, to having achieved ‘vibrant city’ status almost overnight. As we all remember from our history classes, this occurred because of the 1848-1855 California gold rush, when tens of thousands of prospectors flooded into the area. In both cases, this sudden influx of miners drew along with them a smaller flood of entrepreneurial businessmen who were less interested in something as exciting as mining, than in setting up the far more dependably profitable, albeit dull, secondary businesses necessary to support the minors’ endeavors. In fact the business people as a whole, were the ones who made financial killings, while most of the minors went home penniless. Among these shop keepers, far more so than among the miners, were a relatively large number of Jews (because, lets face it, we’re Jews), so that by 1870, San Francisco had the largest population of Jews outside of New York, comprising a full 10% of the city’s population.
*Tangent alert! I say “requisite” because the Catholic Spanish justified their heavy handed, military, colonialist, expansionism as being the spreading of G-d’s word via his ‘true church’ (i.e., Catholic); and, keeping in mind Spain had (till 1492) been a part of the Muslim empire, they initially did it with a jihadist zeal (I will make you love G-d’s word, and if that means killing one hundred of you in order to get just one true believer, that’s good math). Granted, this Islamic influence had tempered out over time, but even in the late 1700’s, ‘ideologically‘ what ‘mattered’ for the Spanish was the church, thereby allowing them to kid themselves that the military was just their to ensure the church got the job done; and, of course, it was all for the benefit of the native peoples being converted rather than any greed on their own part (imagine me faking a sneeze while saying *bullshit!*). This is not to say that Protestant governments did not do the former (military expansionism) … granted, they did, but arguably with a bit less of a concern for the latter (spreading the word). As I studied history I often got the feeling that the military men of protestant countries (of that period) sort of suffered their missionaries as a necessary evil and encumbrance, rather than viewing them as their raison d’être; as in protecting the missionaries who insisted on being out among the ‘savages’ rather than staying close to or better yet, behind, protected walls, just made their jobs harder… rather than being their jobs.
Back to Victoria: Originally founded in 1843, as Fort Victoria — a military and Hudson Bay Company fur trading post (along side a naturally protected harbor), the explosive growth to city status was, again, a direct result of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush (1857), which brought in that same influx of minors, and supporting businessmen — who were again dis-proportionally Jewish (compared to the population of most Canadian Towns); and by ‘same minors’ I mean that most of them had traveled north along the coast from the overworked gold mines of the United States, to this new opportunity in Vancouver Island. In fact, gold had been mined in the Vancouver Island for a while before that, but news of the fact hadn’t reached San Francisco until the then Governor of Victoria (population again, about 500+) had sent a shipment to SF for minting into coins; and he probably had genuinely mixed feelings when what he got back a month later were his coins AND the unexpected and unprepared for influx of 30,000 men (“a record for mass movement of mining populations on the North American frontier, even though more men in total were involved in the California and Colorado“). How he felt about a large percentage of said men being Jewish businessmen, I can’t imagine, although I’m guessing they were the least of his problems, as “The influx of prospectors included numerous European Americans and African Americans, Britons, Germans, English Canadians, Maritimers, French Canadians, Scandinavians, Italians, Belgians and French, and other European ethnicities, Hawaiians, Chinese, Mexicans, West Indians, and others” (same Wikipedia source as above).
According to the woman who showed me around the temple, the first thing the congregation (formed in 1859) did, was to arrange for the purchase of land for a consecrated Jewish cemetery, which they did in 1860, rather than for the Shul (the building wasn’t built till 1863) — as the former was by far the more pressing need at the time. It was ultimately established on a 1.5 acre parcel, that was purchased by one of the members, a gentleman with the unenviable name of Lewis Lewis, who bought it with his own money and donated it to the congregation. And, according to the woman, the parcel purchased was so large and the community of the Shul (which for a long time was the only one in Victoria) has remained so small… that over 150 years later it still isn’t full.
To a Jew, the fact that they were more concerned with a cemetery than a synagogue makes total sense, but let me explain why: unlike Catholics, Jews don’t actually require priests/rabbis or ‘churches/temples’ in order to pray, just a knowledge of the prayer or a copy of the book (hence the religion of the book) — and in fact the 16th century Protestant Reformation returned this attribute to some sects of Christianity. For Jews, most praying can be done alone… although there are a large number of specific prayers — for instance the prayer for the dead, or Kaddish — that require a minyan (a quorum if you will) of 10 Jews who have all had their Bar’Mitzvah ceremony (or bat — if you’re not orthodox). In fact, if you arrive at a synagogue early enough for morning prayers, it’s not the rabbi that you will find the group waiting for, but rather the quorum of 10… with, if necessary, you see individuals running out into the hallways (or the street, if it’s a Jewish neighborhood) to drag people in so they can get started. As such, prioritizing the creation of the graveyard over the building of a synagogue (or shul), makes perfect sense from our perspective…
I first learned about this Shul during the Canada Day festivities when my friend Gina was visiting. As we were walking around looking at the local ‘group’ displays we came across one for the local JCC (Jewish Community Center) and the woman there told us about this historic shul just a few blocks away, and invited us to attend services, if we wanted to. Apparently they only have about 200 families in their entire membership, most of whom only show up for the high holidays. And they don’t do anywhere close to the normal amount of services (technically there should be three a day), but only manage to pull together a regular minyan for Sabbath prayers, and only once a week (Most shuls in major cities do two, Friday night and Saturday morning), and they only manage to do the 2nd Sabbath prayer once a month. She also said that if I came by the office during business hours, they’d be happy to show me around, even if there were no services that day — which is what I ultimately did.
Even though this is a conservative shul, the construction of the temple implies that it started out as orthodox, where men prayed on the fist floor and women sat above, looking down on their husbands and sons. (This is highly likely, since the Conservative Jewish movement, which among other changes allows men and women to sit together, was created about the same time as the shul was built.)
The boards with the names (Yahrzeit Memorial Plaques) are traditional, and visible in most shuls around the world. They show the name of all former members and memorialize the date of their death in both the Jewish and Christian Calendars (they are different), with the lit lights reminding friends and family to remember that this week they need to say the prayer for their loved ones (“The Mourner’s Kaddish”).
You have got to love the town where the parishioners feel it’s completely safe for the regulars (those who attend services regularly) to leave their Tallis bags just sitting out in the open like this. At our shul in Chicago there’s a locked closet. These bags will contain the things men need to pray, a Kippa — assuming they don’t wear them all day (orthdox will), their Tallis (or prayer shawl), and Tefillin (the little boxes attached to leather cords that are wrapped around the head and arm during prayers — “…and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” — Deuteronomy 11:18).
Apparently one of the walking tour-companies (the ones I seen where the leader has a mic and all the followers have Bluetooth earphones) offers a Jewish Victoria tour once a week that walks around looking at the various historic buildings, pointing out the ones that were originally Jewish stores… am thinking about it.