Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Judaism in Canada and Quebec


[This article was written in 1948. For the exact citation, see the end of the text. Parts between brackets [...] have been added by Claude Bélanger.]

Judaism. As one of the great faiths of the world, Judaism believes in one God, the Creator, who alone is to be worshipped; it believes also that the Torah - the judicial, ceremonial, moral law - was delivered on Sinai and is unchangeable. The Talmud, which contains the text of the oral and unwritten law, based on the Torah, and the commentary upon that text, and which covers at least 800 years of learned debate and decision, still exercises an almost unchallenged influence amongst the great majority of the Jewish people.


The dispersion of the Jews on the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 led to their being found in time in almost every land in the world, engaged mostly in finance, commerce, and various industries. They were exposed to new currents of thought and habits of life, but wherever they went - and persecution drove them from land to land - they clung to the sacredness and authority of the law of Moses. It is thus that they have preserved their national character and their religious rites and ceremonies. Their ceremonial and festival usages have been vital factors in the permanence of Judaism. It is true that the influence of surroundings and the insistence on liberty of thought have led to the rise of many sects amongst the Jews in later years, but the law of Moses has been unquestioned - it has been only the difference of interpretation that has caused the break.


Jewish settlement in Canada seems to have begun in a small way soon after the capture of Quebec in 1759 [a few individual Jews have also been recorded in the previous period of New France], and the first Jewish congregation was formed in Montreal. Most of the early Jewish settlers, whose fathers had been exiled from Spain and Portugal, and who themselves had come to Canada direct from England, adhered to the rites of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. They became active in the fields of commerce and industry, but political rights were denied to them. The case of Ezekiel Hart, elected a member of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada in 1808, but not allowed to take his seat because professing the Jewish religion, is historic as being the first act in the struggle for equal rights for the Jews [of Canada]. That struggle for civil, political, and religious rights did not end until some years afterwards, when disabilities on account of religious belief were finally removed. The Emancipation Act was passed on June 5, 1832, by the legislature of Lower Canada.


Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the Jewish population began to be augmented by newcomers from England, Germany, and Poland, (who brought with them their own special ritual). Many of these being in sore need, the Montreal Hebrew Philanthropic Society came into being, followed by similar societies in other places. Throughout the years the Hebrew community has recognized its responsibility to relieve the need of its own people: In the Mosaic legislation special provision was made for the poor, and "the wide open hand" was commended as a thing the Lord would bless. Hence the large number of Hebrew charities and benevolent societies, which minister to the needy and in many ways help poor families to become self-supporting.


The polity in Canadian Judaism is congregational. As soon as a sufficient number of Jews are found in a community, they form themselves into a congregation and in due time erect a synagogue. They adopt their own ritual and call their own rabbi. The congregations are quite independent of one another, and there is no central government over all. These congregations are almost entirely in cities, not in rural districts. It is true that there has been a certain amount of Jewish farm settlement in western Canada ; but lacking farming experience before coming to Canada, many of the settlers found their way to more populous centres. The federal census of 1931 reveals the fact that three-fourths of the people of Hebrew origin in the Dominion are to be found in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. Wherever the synagogue is erected, it is the centre of the Jewish community and is the means for sustaining its moral and intellectual life.


Characteristic of Judaism has been its cultivation of the desire for knowledge and self-improvement on the part of its youth. It has always considered religious instruction as of the utmost importance. Sabbath schools were organized almost as soon as the congregation. Jewish children being required to attend the Protestant schools in Quebec and the public schools in the other provinces, it was felt that this did not give them the Hebrew and religious instruction that were considered necessary. Arrangement was made for this instruction after the regular school hours, but since this did not prove satisfactory, special schools were established at various centres. Baron de Hirsch Institute, Montreal, founded in 1863, was followed by what were usually called Hebrew Free Schools, or Talmud Torahs, at Montreal (1898), Toronto (1906), Winnipeg (1906), Saskatoon (1915), Vancouver (1918), and other centres. In some of the cities there are various schools of this type, and sometimes a community centre building. They exist for the propagation of the Hebrew language and Hebrew culture.


The congregations in Canada may be classed as either Orthodox (strictly maintaining the language and rites of traditional Judaism), or Conservative (more liberal and using English in part of its ritual), or Reform (still more liberal and adapting its customs more to the needs of to-day). The first congregations in Montreal were marked by a severely aristocratic attitude on the part of the "Elders," who claimed special privileges and authority on account of the families from which they had sprung. Gradually this condition of things gave way to a measure of liberalism. In 1882, a few Hebrews, who had come under the influence of American Reform Judaism, met to consider a document, which was later signed by many others. This document runs in part as follows: "We, the undersigned Israelites of this city, recognizing the necessity of preserving Judaism in all its pristine glory, and making it clear and comprehensible to the rising generation, are in favour of organizing a progressive congregation." This was the beginning of Temple Emanuel, Montreal, a "Reform" congregation. The other two such congregations are Anshe Shalom congregation, Hamilton (1863), and "the Sons of Israel", which in 1894 received a charter under the name of "The Holy Blossom Toronto Hebrew Congregation." See A. D. Hart (comp.) The Jew in Canada (Jewish Publications, Limited, Toronto and Montreal, 1926), and Z. V. I. Cohen (ed.), Canadian Jewry (Canadian Jewish Historical Publishing Company, Toronto, 1933).

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College