The Atlantic Jewish Council is dedicated to enhancing the quality of Jewish life in Atlantic Canada and promoting the continuity of Jewish communities in the region.
Articles of Interest
Like the rock on which the Jews of Newfoundland lived, the history is as solid and reluctant to reveal its secrets. Much of the early history of Jewish settlement is open to speculation. It is believed that the first Jewish settler was an English Jew engaged in the fur trade who came to Newfoundland around 1800. There is some evidence suggesting that during the first half of the nineteenth century several other Jewish families had settled in the colony, primarily outside St. John’s.
The real history of the Newfoundland Jewish community begins, however, with the arrival in St. John’s of Israel Perlin from the United States. He was instrumental in founding the first synagogue in Newfoundland, the Hebrew Congregation of Newfoundland, in 1909. The Jewish community of Newfoundland grew slowly from 215 in 1935 (the first census to include Jews as a separate religious denomination) to 360 in 1971 (the majority of whom were in St. John’s).
Until the building of the Beth El synagogue on Henry Street in 1931, services were held at 170 Water Street and other rented spaces in the St. John’s downtown. In 1961, the new Beth El opened its doors and in 1966 made Edmond de Rothchild an honorary member of the congregation for his contributions to the building of the new home.
Local Jewish volunteers helped to accommodate the needs of a large number of Russian refugees who defected in Gander during the later years of the Soviet era. While most of these Russians have gone to Upper Canada, some families have remained to form part of the St. John’s community.
While Jews settled in most towns in Newfoundland, St. John’s remained the centre of the Jewish population of the province. The small Jewish communities on the west coast of the Island attempted to maintain congregations (without professional staff) both in Stephenville and Cornerbrook up until the mid-60s. During the 1930s there was a major attempt by several Jews on the west coast of Newfoundland to convince the British government to open the west coast for major resettlement of Jewish refugees from Europe; nothing came of this attempt.
The Jewish community in Newfoundland is still centered in St. John’s with members in Holyrood, Grand Falls, Springdale, and other provinces. There are approximately 25 family units, many of whom are associated with Memorial University or the Eastern Health Hospital Corporation. Beth El synagogue, on the corner of Elizabeth and Downing, was extensively renovated in 2001. It re-opened several days before 9/11, and was instrumental in receiving and aiding many Jewish passengers who were marooned there less than a week before Rosh Hashanah.
Services are held every Friday night and Shabbat morning and during all Jewish holidays. In addition, there are many festive events including communal Rosh Hashanah, post Yom-Kippur and Seder meals, cantorial concerts and guest speakers. Many elementary, secondary, university and seminary student groups visit the synagogue during the year, and every second year, the synagogue participates in the Doors Open programme, and gives tours to hundreds of visitors. The annual Holocaust Memorial service draws over 300 members of the public and receives much attention in the local media.
A new tradition was begun several years ago. The Congregation holds Shacharit services the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah at Cape Spear, the most easterly point of North America. The shofar is sounded at the conclusion of services, and the congregation moves over to the cemetery, which it owns and maintains on Blackmarsh Road. A memorial service, similar to those held across Canada, is conducted. Some of these graves are almost 100 years old. Several members of the community constitute a volunteer Chevra Kadisha, as there is no Jewish funeral home.
In 2006 the community welcomed over 70 former Newfoundland Jews from Canada, the U.S. and Israel for a five day “Kum Ahaym”. While Beth El was originally an Orthodox congregation, it is now an egalitarian Conservative shul within the Canadian framework open to all Jews of all denominations. Warm relations with the local Mosque and several prominent churches ensure excellent communication with other faith communities. A proud and integral member of the AJC, Beth El continues to foster Jewish life in this province.
In 2006, the Jewish Community Havura, an egalitarian religious and social organization, was established to serve St. John’s and the surrounding area. The Havura began with about 20 members who wanted to develop an inclusive community with services that accommodate many different approaches to Judaism, and to reach out to non-affiliated people in the Jewish community and to students. Tzedaka and a commitment to social justice are among our central goals. By 2008, the membership had more than doubled. The Havura holds a Shabbat service and dinner in members’ homes every other Friday night as well as Festival and Holy Day services and events.
The Havura organizes and supports community lectures and concerts, social action, adult Jewish education, parties at Hanukah and Purim, community meals for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur Break Fast, Simchat Torah, Passover, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, participates with other religious groups in organising community-wide events, and sends speakers to area schools and organizations. Beginning in 2008, the Havura is offering a Hebrew School programme. The Havura and Beth El cooperate in putting together an annual Holocaust Memorial Service.