Home Opinions Ideas The Jewish history of Montreal’s Expo 67 you probably didn’t know

The Jewish history of Montreal’s Expo 67 you probably didn’t know

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A photo from a news clipping photo of Lazare and Suzette Halberthal, who constructed the Temple model in the Pavilion of Judaism

About one year before Expo 67 was slated to open in Montreal, I read a remarkable article about the planning for a Christian pavilion that would be featured at the world fair. All the Christian denominations had combined their efforts to create a unified exhibit in order to spread the message of Christianity to the world. I felt a slight sense of jealousy.

It was not as though the Jewish community in Montreal was not aware of Expo 67. In fact, as early as 1965, the city’s Board of Jewish Ministers had discussed a motion to establish a synagogue at the exhibition. That plan received mixed reactions. Plans were already underway for an Israel pavilion at Expo, and some in the community questioned the need for two Jewish pavilions, since Jews everywhere looked on the Israeli pavilion as Jewish by nature.

Former cardinal Paul-Emile Leger at the Pavilion of Judaism and its memorial to the Holocaust. ALEX DWORKIN, CANADIAN JEWISH ARCHIVES PHOTO

We had to resolve these problems. A committee was created, and we met with staff from the Israeli consulate. I asked if in their pavilion they could accommodate some of what we wanted to do in a pavilion of Judaism. They were prepared to take some sample exhibits, like Torah texts and art such as that celebrating religious ceremonies, but would they be willing to let us build a synagogue on their grounds? The answer was a definitive no.

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For the Israelis, their country represented three great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and they did not wish to be seen as favouring one religious community over another. After that kind of response, any criticism for the Jewish pavilion idea within the Jewish community dissipated. The former critics were then open to the establishment of a Pavilion of Judaism.

It was by then 1966, and our time was limited. I met with Saul Hayes, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and requested him to enlist the support of the leading opinion makers in the local Jewish community. He endorsed the idea and suggested that Congress act in an advisory capacity, creating a sub-committee, consisting of S.L. Kert and myself, to seek an individual to be the president of our organization.

We first met with Sam Bronfman, who was in favour of our project, but said that it required a person with the time and energy to do an effective job. He had to eliminate himself owing to his other interests, and feeling that he could not do justice to the idea. Next, we met with Sam Steinberg. Sam was a remarkable human being. As a child, he worked for his mother’s grocery store. Later, he turned it into a multi-million-dollar corporation. He offered employment to every Jewish person in need of a job and believed strongly in Jewish practice. But while he was very much in favour of a Jewish presence at the world fair, he was against the idea of a synagogue, preferring instead an interpretation of Judaism to the world. I agreed.

In one of our first conversations on Expo 67, Steinberg said to me: “Rabbi Shuchat, I’d like you to call a meeting of your friends, together with an architect, some experts in programming, and others in exhibition planning.” He added: “And don’t worry about the money. Do whatever you have to do.”

He intended to meet with some of the leading figures in the Jewish community, who would become his board of directors, and he would ask them for a financial contribution to cover the costs of the pavilion. He was confident they would agree and convinced that their participation would lead to total acceptance of the project by the community.

By then, we had just three months to get everything ready. Steinberg and I approved a design for the pavilion and hired architects Harry Stilman and Max Roth, both Montrealers, to make it a reality.

Meanwhile, I convened the committee members for programming. We received many creative ideas, but the problem was that they mostly dealt with the Jewish People and their history, not with Jewish culture, religion and civilization, which represented the main content of what we had described as “Judaism” for the sake of the pavilion. They simply did not fit with what we were trying to convey.

Finally we received an idea from one of the important educators and program creators in the United States. It consisted of seven main themes, including a combination of the history of the Jewish People together with a spotlight on various Jewish institutions over the ages. It was beautifully developed.

On the main floor of the pavilion there were two features. One of the outside walls was made of material that resembled a window. People outside could see inside, but the outside view of those inside the building was restricted. The other feature was an ark to hold Torah scrolls, designed by Harry Stilman and located more or less facing the reception area. It was covered with a beautiful curtain.

As he explained it: “There’s nothing more beautiful or symbolic than a synagogue ark, and we cannot leave it out of a Jewish display and claim that we have included everything.” At a later stage, a Torah scroll was placed in the ark, although it was no longer admissible for ritual use because of some textual errors. It was used for display purposes only – looked at but never touched.

The ritual aspects of the building sparked another thought in my mind. After the construction was completed, we were very much impressed with the edifice, but I felt that there was a certain emptiness in our program. Something had to be done to fill that vacuum. After a week or two, I had a brainwave. I called the president of the Synagogue Council and asked him whether the Montreal synagogues would be prepared to conduct evening services at the pavilion for five evenings during the fair. My thought was that individual synagogues would take responsibility for one night, bringing with them a minyan (quorum of 10 men) for reliability, and that there be one person conducting the service, and another interposing a few explanatory comments when appropriate. The council president told me he would raise the subject at a forthcoming meeting.

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Subsequently, he called me back to say the project had been accepted with great enthusiasm, and six to eight congregations had agreed to participate. Each congregation did a magnificent job – they started on time, everyone attended as agreed, and everything proceeded smoothly. Close to 50 people watched from outside the pavilion through the window walls and we also had an external loudspeaker installed so that they could hear our Hebrew service.

Another aspect of the building that affected the program was the installation on the roof.  It consisted of a Hebrew expression in very large print. In translation, it read: “Upon three things the world depends – on the search for truth, the search for justice and the search for peace.” This theme represented the essence of our programming.

There were two aspects of our exhibit areas. The first concerned well-known Jewish symbols. As chairman of the program committee, I tried very hard to influence our volunteers that this should not be a museum. Every table should have an interpretive document or a person present to answer questions, I argued. For example, it was not sufficient to say, “The cup you’re looking at is very beautiful and is used for drinking wine.” A document was required to explain the significance of wine in Jewish ritual.

Second, our program had to contain a message to the world. We arranged for people to exit while hearing a message on tape that explained the concepts of unity of purpose and division of thought. That was our farewell message to visitors.

The exhibits were a combination of historic and symbolic material. Every century of Jewish experience was reflected, including the Holocaust. Every measure was taken to emphasize our relationship with Israel, that Jewish peoplehood is intimately connected with the Jewish religion and the restoration of the Jews to their homeland in Israel.

Fifty years after the close of the pavilion, I must confess my disappointment that what we wanted to achieve was not carried forward in the manner in which I had hoped. I had hoped that the success of the Pavilion of Judaism would inspire other Jewish communities at future world fairs to produce a vehicle that would identify the local community and the Jewish People in their place on a world level. Unfortunately, Jewish communities either did not know about our pavilion or seemed uninterested in promoting the message. Perhaps if we had produced suitable documentation or published a commemorative book the reaction would have been different. Without those elements, the continuity of our message was interrupted.

One afternoon, I happened to be in the basement of the pavilion when the telephone rang. Since there was nobody else around, I answered. The voice on the other end said: “This is Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger speaking.” Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with surprise. I explained that I was one of the prime movers behind the Pavilion of Judaism and that I was honoured to receive his call. He then explained that he had recently become aware that the pavilion had a prayer service in the evening, the only one at Expo that seemed to recognize God in that formal way.

The cardinal continued: “I am very impressed with this, and I would like to attend one of your prayer services and share the experience. My only reason for making the call is that, in the past, I have noticed that participants in services of my own faith are distracted by the presence of newcomers, without meaning to do so. If my attendance would not disturb you, it would be a privilege for me to be invited.”

I assured the cardinal that it would be a great honour to receive him at the pavilion for our service or for any other visit, whenever it was convenient for him to do so. I had only one request: that he give us about two days’ notice so that members of our board of directors could welcome him in person. He agreed.

Members of Histadrut in front of their display at Expo 67. From left to right: Amram Tsur, A. L. Achbar, Dr. Sol Stein, and Abraham M. Shurem

Several weeks later, on a Wednesday, Cardinal Léger arrived. He was not alone. It seemed that more than 100 people had joined him, having heard about his visit. I quickly realized that the event would be more than a visit. It would be a major happening.

I asked the cardinal if he would be willing to address the community, and he agreed. After the evening prayer, I introduced him as the leader of the Catholic Church in Quebec, stating that I was honoured by his visit. He spoke in English and French, congratulating us for having a prayer service, especially since we seemed to be the only people to do so.

Although the service was in Hebrew, he had some idea of the language and the content of our prayers, and could easily identify with them.

He also expressed his delight that the pavilion had become a meeting place not only for all Canadians and world visitors, but also for the various groupings in the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec where Jews and Christians, English and French could live together and share our magnificent living heritage. A reporter for the Journal de Montréal wrote that Cardinal Léger’s appearance at the Pavilion of Judaism represented Quebec at its highest.

After much hard work, the community could say in no uncertain terms that our project had been an outstanding success.

Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Westmount, Que.

NOTE: In an earlier version of this story, architect Max Roth’s name was incorrect.