Articles & Columns

Canada’s oldest synagogue celebrates 250 years of Jewish life in Montreal

With a festive May 10 gala, Quebecois Jews, still 90,000 strong, boast a diversity nearly unheard of in any other community

By ROBERT SARNER, The Times of Israel, May 9, 2018

MONTREAL — When Edmond Elbaz tells people the Montreal synagogue of which he’s president is celebrating its 250th anniversary, he has a simple way of putting it into perspective for them. He says his congregation, Shearith Israel, was founded a century before Canada was born.

Known more commonly as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, or often just The Spanish, it’s Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation and one of the first in North America. While it is certain that the synagogue was established in 1768, the exact date is lost to time. To celebrate the sestercentennial, the Orthodox congregation is now in the midst of a year-long series of special events in 2018.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante helped launch the celebrations in March, hosting a special ceremony at City Hall where she presided over the inauguration of a traveling exhibit of photos, documents and artifacts (some dating back to 1768) showcasing the synagogue’s history.

It was one of the first major events the mayor hosted in the beautiful Hall of Honor since she was elected last November. Among those in attendance were leaders of the local Jewish community and other dignitaries including diplomats from Spain and Portugal.

“I was touched by the event as it gave me a great sense of pride,” says Elbaz, who has been associated with the synagogue for the past 40 years.

“The mayor and her team, along with the head of the opposition, all gave us a very warm welcome. Sitting next to her during the ceremony, I saw she was particularly moved by our children’s choir, which reflects the diverse makeup of our community,” Elbaz says.

To be sure, diversity is one of the synagogue’s most defining attributes. Its congregation is English and French-speaking; Ashkenazi and Sephardic; European, Middle Eastern, African and North American; young and old. Much of the current membership of 750 families are first or second-generation immigrants from Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, Poland, Romania, East Europe, Russia and Ethiopia. The latest contingent are some 25 Jews who left France to move to Canada in recent years.

In an unusual arrangement, five distinct groupings — Moroccan, Iraqi, Lebanese, Spanish/Portuguese and Ashkenazi — operate semi-autonomously within the synagogue. On the High Holidays, for example, each has its own service while at other times they come together for collective activities.

“Our congregation is the only one I know of where you have five different ethnic Jewish communities under one roof,” says Norma Joseph, whose husband, Shearith Israel’s former rabbi for nearly 40 years, Rabbi Howard Joseph, often referred to it as the United Nations of Jewish communities.

“What’s so impressive is these communities get along so harmoniously within an Orthodox framework despite their different religious heritage. They respect each other even with their different languages, different musical traditions, [and] different prayer procedures,” she said.

This overriding sense of diversity and mutual accommodation is a source of pride for members, even if most take this inclusive approach for granted.

“When I was asked to coordinate the 250th anniversary celebrations, I thought about what would be really meaningful to our synagogue during this special year,” says Rose Simon-Schwartz, senior anniversary coordinator, who moved to Montreal with her family from Egypt in 1963.

“It quickly became clear that the most important thing we could do is to celebrate the different communities that make up The Spanish. This mosaic of cultures is what makes our synagogue unique and soon we’ll be highlighting a different community every month as part of our celebrations,” says Simon-Schwartz.

In June, the Spanish will start a series of evenings, each focusing on a different one of its communities, concluding in December with an event spotlighting its Ethiopian Jews.

On May 10, in celebration of its landmark birthday, the synagogue is hosting a major fundraising gala headlined by the popular Paris-based, Algerian-born Jewish singer Enrico Macias who, along with his grandson Symon Milshtein, also a singer, will perform for 450 people.

On a recent afternoon, Elbaz, Joseph and Simon-Schwartz hosted The Times of Israel for an extensive tour of the synagogue, located in the Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood.

The visit began in the minor chapel where the daily prayer quorum meets. Seating 150, it’s home to a magnificent wooden ark originally handmade in 1867 for a previous incarnation of the synagogue. Flanking the ark are even older items — two marble tablets with the 10 Commandments and two brass menorahs — from the original 1768 building.

“This minor sanctuary is really special,” says Joseph, 73, a religion professor at Montreal’s Concordia University. “In most synagogues, the chapel is the forgotten room where the daily minyan [prayer quorum] meets and nobody really cares about it because it’s not usually where major events take place. But this room is so beautiful that people use it for small weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, circumcisions and baby namings.”

Joseph cites another aspect that connects her to this space.

“From a woman’s perspective, this is the best that Orthodoxy can offer because of how close the women’s section is to where the Torah is read during services. I can see the parchment better than any man sitting in the men’s section,” she says.

Moroccan Jewish immigrants arrive at Montreal’s Dorval Airport in the 1960s. (Courtesy)
The current premises are the fourth home of the congregation since its modest beginnings in the 18th century. It was founded by Aaron Hart and Simon Levy in 1768 on St. James St. where the original 15 member families prayed in rented quarters. Although they came from England, Germany and the American colonies, the founding group followed Sephardic rites because they traced their ancestry to Spain and Portugal.

In 1777, the congregation built its first synagogue on the site of the present-day Palais de Justice, a few blocks from City Hall. It was the first non-Catholic house of worship erected in Montreal.

For its first 78 years, it was the city’s only Jewish congregation. In 1846, Ashkenazi members left The Spanish to establish the Sha’ar Hashomayim synagogue. This is the synagogue which singer Leonard Cohen attended as a boy decades later, and where his grandfather and great-grandfather served as presidents. Its men’s choir sang on Cohen’s last album, released just before he died in 2016.

Since its inception, The Spanish has gone from being predominantly Sephardi to mostly Ashkenazi, then reverting to a Sephardi majority in recent decades, reflecting demographic shifts within the broader Jewish community in Quebec.

The Spanish has been at its current location, in a residential area across from a park, since moving there in 1947 from its previous home downtown. The main sanctuary, which seats 500, was built in 1960. Since then, it’s undergone numerous changes, including covering the large wall facing congregants with Jerusalem stone brought from Israel by ship in 1998. The refurbished ark is one of four places where the synagogue houses its 60 Torahs.

“That number of Torahs is unusual for synagogues,” says Elbaz, 75, who moved to Montreal from Morocco 50 years ago. “Small congregations typically have two or three while major synagogues have maybe a dozen. Ours are all functional Torahs you can actually use and read from.”

He attributes the quantity to three main factors: The 250 years the Spanish has had to accumulate so many; Jewish families, especially those from the Middle East, like to dedicate a Torah scroll on special occasions or in memory of a deceased ancestor; and when Iraqi Jews were leaving Baghdad, they smuggled out Torahs and some donated them to the synagogue.

The collection is about to expand yet again. To commemorate the 250th anniversary, the congregation commissioned a new Torah scroll, now being made in Israel. Members hope to receive it in September in time for Rosh Hashanah and a special dedication ceremony as part of the anniversary celebrations. The synagogue’s first Torah was a gift from the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, England. Today, due to its age and historical significance, the scroll is safeguarded in Canada’s national archives in Ottawa.

“As the oldest synagogue in Canada, its creation marked the beginning of organized Jewish life in Canada, long before the country existed,” says Joseph, who moved with her husband to Montreal from near Albany, New York, in 1970. “When I tell people about this milestone, most are astounded to learn of such a long presence of Jews in Canada and of the Sephardic origin to Jewish history here.”

It’s less surprising for those who know that the first synagogue in the United States was also founded by mostly Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. In 1654, they established Congregation Shearith Israel, The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, whose name, among other things, no doubt later influenced its Montreal equivalent.

As much as The Spanish is focusing on its rich heritage, it’s also looking ahead, as reflected in its bilingual slogan for the current celebrations — “Honoring the Past/Tournée vers le futur,” (Turning to the Future). Plans include a gala event in November aimed at increasing young adult membership.

Overall membership has declined over the past decade or so, in part reflecting a larger phenomenon bedeviling Montreal’s Jewish community since the early 1970s. Until then, it had always been, by far, Canada’s premier Jewish community, in numbers, influence and infrastructure.

With the onset of Quebec nationalism, political violence and instability, the election of a pro-independence provincial government in 1976, discriminatory pro-French language legislation, and economic stagnation, many English-speaking Quebecers (among them many Jews) started moving elsewhere, especially to Toronto. Over the past 45 years, proportionately, far more anglophone Ashkenazi Jews have left than francophone Sephardic ones.

Today, Montreal’s Jewish population stands at around 90,000, less than half of its Toronto counterpart, and vastly smaller than in its heyday in the early 1970s when the city was home to 125,000 Jews.

“I feel comfortable being Jewish in Montreal,” says Simon-Schwartz, 64, who spoke French when she arrived in Canada, only learning English later at school. “As far more Jews can speak French today than in the past, we’re perceived less as an English-speaking community isolated from the majority. We’re now much more part of Quebecois society.”

Joseph has a similar take.

“I feel extraordinarily comfortable as a Jew in Montreal,” says Joseph, whose four children all left for the US due to economic opportunities and career choices. “Without a doubt the city’s Jewishness has declined, we’re missing our young people who’ve left, we’re an aging community and there are problems with the Jewish day schools. But one of the interesting things is the definite decrease in anti-Semitism in Quebec.

“One proof of that is the increasing intermarriage rate which you can’t have when there’s a lot of anti-Semitism,” says Joseph. “You have it when the larger Quebec Christian community likes Jews enough to want to date and marry them. Overall, we have a lot to be thankful for and despite everything I don’t see any demise of the Jewish community in Montreal.”

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