Victoria’s Jewish community, now estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews, has never been large. Last year, however, saw the construction of a new synagogue building by Chabad.
Although many small congregations have come and gone on Vancouver Island, there were no new synagogues built during the long stretch between 1863 and 2016.
Victoria boasts a Reform congregation, Kolot Mayim, and has hosted Orthodox congregations over the years, but this historic new building may point to a growing Jewish community in years to come.
Rabbi Meir Kaplan and his wife, Chani, settled in Victoria in 2003. Kaplan is a native of Safed, Israel, and Chani was born in Montreal and grew up in Oak Park, Michigan. The shul’s beginnings were slow. “It took three years until we had our first minyan,” Rabbi Kaplan told a Lubavitch website.
The couple eventually rented a 2,000-square-foot space, which they used for services and education for 10 years. The newly built centre offers three times the space as their former location. The official grand opening was celebrated last year before the High Holidays, and the community is now preparing for its second year in its new home. “We expect a packed house,” Rabbi Kaplan told The CJN.
“The building has taken us to a whole new level. Not only have the number of people involved grown, but people’s commitment has also grown tremendously.”
Rabbi Kaplan added that the synagogue has 150 families involved in some way, and 950 people on its mailing list, which may amount to two out of every three Jews in Victoria.
‘The beginnings of the city of Victoria are really due to the Jews’
The construction of the synagogue has allowed the Kaplans to stop renting out halls for holiday services and their summer camp, and to expand the daycare and Sunday Hebrew school programming they offer. The centre has full-time daycare, a unique offer in Victoria sure to cement their place in the Jewish community.
The expansion in the infrastructure of Jewish life effected by the new synagogue is likely to make life a little easier and a little more freilich (happy) for the small, historic Jewish community of Vancouver Island.
Meanwhile, the synagogue built in 1863 is now home to the Conservative-affiliated Congregation Emanu-El (formerly Temple Emanu-El). In 1858, during the time of gold prospectors, fur traders and steamships, the first known Jewish settlers arrived in Victoria, mostly from San Francisco. They came with gold prospectors who had to stop in Victoria to obtain mining licences, and supplied the mining camps with food, clothing, household goods and tools. In the 1850s, there were about 200 Jews in Victoria.
According to a 2011 historical report prepared for the 150th anniversary of Congregation Emanu-El:
“The beginnings of the city of Victoria are really due to the Jews. For, no matter how many persons streamed to the island at the outbreak of the gold fever, they scattered again, for the most part, to all corners of the world when their disillusion followed only too quickly. The Jews, however, held their ground, set up tents for residence and booths for shops; for they soon realized that this place had a great commercial future.”
The Emanu-El congregation came into being in 1862, and members purchased the present site of the synagogue just after that. The cornerstone-laying ceremony took place June 2, 1863, in a gala celebration attended by the mayor, town council, chief justice, the Freemasons, the Hebrew and French benevolent societies, St. Andrews Society, bands and choirs.
The synagogue is the oldest house of worship in British Columbia and has claims to be the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Canada.