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Exploring Montreal Jewish history à pied

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Warren Werbitt and Samantha Mintz Vineberg co-chaired Federation CJA’s “Mission to Montreal” tours of historic Jewish sites.

More than 350 Jewish Montrealers came out for the Mission to Montreal, a series of walking tours on June 11 that highlighted the community’s deep roots in Quebec, as part of Federation CJA’s centennial festivities.

Participants travelled by bus from the Federation building to various neighbourhoods, where knowledgeable guides met them, many from the Museum of Jewish Montreal. Each of the six tours explored a different aspect of Jewish history or culture.

“The Mission to Montreal is a way to connect our past to our present, to showcase how far we’ve come as a community and to think about how we can continue to grow and support each other in the future,” said Warren Werbitt, who co-chaired the event with Samantha Mintz Vineberg.

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The “Making their Mark” tour focused on synagogues, schools, hospitals and cultural organizations established in the Plateau, the centre of Jewish life in Montreal from the turn of the 20th century, until the 1950s.

The “Tur Malka” tour explored how Jews in Montreal interpreted the cultural and geographic conditions they faced, and the contrasts between their vision for their new home and the realities of life in the city.

The “Rabbis, Writers and Radicals” tour traced the evolution of the rich literary, musical and culinary heritage of Mile End, a hub of Jewish culture and the Yiddish language for nearly a century.

Another tour explored the historic Baron de Hirsch and Back River cemeteries, while the “Beyond the Bagel” tour uncovered Jewish food history and local delicacies, some long gone, like the property that first housed Mrs. Whyte’s Pickles.

For young families, there was a PJ Library event at the Segal Centre, featuring a musical adaptation of Aubrey Davis’s book, Bone Button Borscht, performed by YAYA, the Segal’s Yiddish children’s theatre group.

Fay Rodin, who went on the “Making Their Mark” tour with her daughter and granddaughter, was thrilled that she recognized the principal at her former Jewish Peretz School on Duluth Avenue, in an old photo shown by the guide.

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The picture brought back happy memories of her time there in the 1940s and ’50s. She shared with the group that they had danced in the streets when Israel was declared a state in 1948.

“Going on the tour with my bubbie was an amazing experience,” said Rodin’s granddaughter, Tamara Rozansky. “I got to explore the area where she grew up and went to school, and to learn more about Jewish history in Montreal. I had no idea how great an impact the Jewish community had on the city that we know and love today.”

On the bus ride back, Federation professionals teamed up with representatives from the Jewish Public Library, Ometz, the Montreal Holocaust Museum, JEM Workshop, the Segal Centre and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, to provide their insights into Montreal’s Jewish history.

Ometz CEO Gail Small pointed out that while the Mission to Montreal was primarily about early 20th-century Eastern European immigrants, the city has absorbed subsequent waves of Jewish immigration from around the world, notably, Hungary, Morocco, the former Soviet Union and Argentina.

Currently, Ometz and Federation CJA are assisting over 300 families from France through the joint Initiative France-Montréal, some of whom are settling in the Plateau.

“Throughout the centennial year, we’ve been looking to the past to understand the present and to plan for a bright future,” Mintz Vineberg said. “It’s inspiring to see how our community has evolved and to know that Federation CJA will be there to meet its changing needs, just as it has done for the past 100 years.”

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