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Spanish & Portuguese’s 250th anniversary launched at Montreal city hall

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Edmond Elbaz, right, president of the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, signs the Golden Book, as Mayor Valérie Plante looks on, during a ceremony at Montreal city hall on March 20. (Janice Arnold photo)

The Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue kicked off its 250th anniversary celebrations at a ceremony at Montreal city hall on March 20.

Mayor Valérie Plante expressed pride in Canada’s first Jewish congregation being part of the city’s heritage, and noted that it continues to make a vital contribution today.

Plante received members of the congregation and leaders of the Jewish community, as well as other dignitaries, including diplomats from Spain and Portugal, in the magnificent Hall of Honour.

Synagogue president Edmond Elbaz signed the Golden Book, as Plante looked on. Panels tracing the history of the congregation were also on display, in addition to several ritual objects. Among them was a hanukkiah that once belonged to Sir Moses Montefiore, a gift to the Spanish & Portuguese from London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest in Britain.

City hall was a fitting site for the inauguration of the year-long celebration. The congregation, which is formally called Shearith Israel, built its first synagogue in 1777, just a couple of blocks away at the corner of St. James (now St-Jacques) and Notre Dame streets, where the Palais de justice stands.

READ: CANADA’S OLDEST JEWISH CONGREGATION CELEBRATES 250 YEARS

David David, a founder of the Bank of Montreal who lent the land to the congregation, described it as a small synagogue with “a high red roof and white lime walls.”

The congregation was founded in 1768 by Simon Levy and Aaron Hart, and the original 15 to 20 member families prayed in rented space on St. James Street. They came from England, Germany and the American colonies, but followed the Sephardic rite of their ancestors.

The seat of municipal government was also appropriate because, as it was stressed throughout the launch, the Spanish & Portuguese’s early members were prominent figures in the city’s economic and political life. Besides the Harts, Levys and Davids, they included the Joseph, Hays, Solomon and Wolff families.

“Montreal is enriched by multiple expressions,” said Plante. “In a world where it is often easy to fear and reject difference, openness and dialogue constitute, more than ever, a bulwark against intolerance.”

She noted that the Spanish & Portuguese, the first non-Catholic place of worship in Montreal, receives many visitors from throughout Quebec and around the world each year.

From left, Rose Simon Schwartz, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue’s co-ordinator of its 250th anniversary celebrations, shul president Edmond Elbaz and Rabbi Avi Finegold stand in front of the synagogue’s original Aron Kodesh, which is still in use in its daily chapel. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

“If Montreal today represents a model of inclusion and solidarity, it’s thanks to the important contribution of all the communities that compose it,” she continued, adding that the Jewish community had to “overcome so many obstacles.”

The congregation itself exemplifies that ideal, she said. “More than 700 families, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, coming from the four corners of the globe, form the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue.”

City Councillor Lionel Perez, who recalled visiting the Spanish & Portuguese with his immigrant parents when he was a child, cited the important role the synagogue has played in welcoming and integrating successive waves of Jewish immigrants.

The ceremony opened with a performance by the synagogue’s youth choir, reflecting the anniversary theme: “Honouring the Past.”

Elbaz thanked Montreal and Quebec for welcoming Jews and allowing them to flourish.

Rabbi Avi Finegold said this milestone is not only about remembering the past, “because we are continually living this history and the responsibility the congregation’s founders (bequeathed) of creating good citizens.”

The exhibition will tour various locations throughout the city over the course of the next year, said Rose Simon Schwartz, co-ordinator of the anniversary celebrations. Some of the photos and documents reproduced are from the collection that the congregation entrusted with Library and Archives Canada as far back as 1970.