Saint John, N.B. is the second oldest Jewish community in Maritime Canada with its roots dating to the mid-1800s, about a century after Halifax welcomed its first Jewish citizen.
However, Saint John stands ahead of everyone with the only Jewish Historical Museum in the region, a site supported through artifact donations and other participation by members of the local Jewish community, and visited by more than 4,000 people annually.
The museum has several permanent exhibits, new exhibits each year, occasional travelling exhibits, as well as a library and archive of Jewish history. Outreach programs include hosting tours from local schools, distribution of educational kits, and offering guided tours to cruise ship visitors.
Long-time resident Marcia Koven fulfilled her dream of creating the museum in 1983 as she saw the decline of the Jewish community’s once-vibrant population.
Immigration from northern and eastern Europe brought the community to about 1,400 members in the 1920s but, by the 1960s, Saint John’s Jewish population fell to about 300 members. Today there are roughly two dozen Jewish families in the congregation.
Koven collected community history through oral interviews with elderly members and through photographs, organization minutes, and other records.
She rented a small studio to hold her collection until the museum opened its doors in the summer of 1986 with a modest exhibit on the lower level of the Jewish Community Centre.
In succeeding years, with Koven as curator, the museum, open only in the summer months for tourists, expanded to encompass nearly the entire community centre building. By 1990, the museum started welcoming group tours from local schools, churches, and social organizations throughout the fall, winter and early spring. Today, it is a year-round operation.
When Koven retired as curator in 1998, Katherine Biggs-Craft, who had a strong art and history background but no Jewish connection, was hired.
“People tell me I know more about Judiasm, Jewish history and the community here than many who were born and bred in Saint John,” she laughs, while admitting she is learning more and more all the time as she deals with artifacts, books and pieces of the history of the long-time community.
The collection has grown so that Biggs-Craft has to pick and choose what will be displayed at any one time.
“There is a permanent exhibit which includes a Hebrew school classroom and ‘From The Cradle to the Grave’, a display focusing on the history of the Saint John Jewish community and on religious practices and traditions.”
Other display areas change annually to feature some aspect of the community’s life, such as Jewish weddings, servicemen and women in World War II, bar and bat mitzvahs, Jewish businesses in Saint John, and notable men and women who have come from or lived in this community.
The 2014 exhibit will be on Pamdenac, a summer cottage community about 20 kilometres from Saint John that, between the mid-1940s and the late 1970s, housed more than 50 Jewish families plus hundreds of annual visitors. Biggs-Craft has assembled many photographs, artifacts, written memories, even old Yiddish record albums, games and sporting equipment from those decades.
In 1995, the museum created a series of eight Jewish educational outreach kits to teach students and others about the Jewish religion and way of life, and create understanding. They are sent, on a two-week loan, to schools and churches throughout New Brunswick and even to organizations in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
A high school Holocaust study group is held annually, culminating on Yom Hashoah when the museum organizes a guest speaker and program.
“The students in the group, 18 this year, hear from speakers and survivors, and do book reports, PowerPoint presentations, or write poetry, music or do painting as their final project,” says Biggs-Craft. “Their work is displayed at the Museum on Yom Hashoah when we attract more than 300 people.”
The mandate of the museum is to collect, display and preserve articles related specifically to the Saint John Jewish community, and to educate and to provide a research facility for genealogists, historians, and religious scholars.
To contact the museum: Saint John Jewish Historical Museum, 91 Leinster Street, Saint John, N.B. E2L 1J2; Tel: 506-633-1833; email: [email protected]; Web: personal.nbnet.nb.ca/sjjhm