The first Jews arrived in Halifax in 1750, a year after the city was founded and established as a fort. By 1752, there were as many as 30 Jewish men, women, and children living in Halifax. Very early, a town plan allocated a separate cemetery for Jewish use in an area near what is now the corner of Brunswick Street and Spring Garden Road. However, the site was never utilized as it was expropriated for a jail in 1758.
The first Jewish settlers came from Newport, Rhode Island. Most were merchants. One of the most noted early residents was Samuel Hart, who arrived in 1781. A decade later, Samuel Hart entered politics and was to be elected to the Provincial Legislature for Lunenburg County. Although he could be considered an elected Jew, the laws were such that he had to convert so as to swear an oath on the Christian Bible.
Between the 1820s and 1860s, few records remain and the Jewish population of Halifax may in fact have disappeared for much of that time.
By the 1860s, however, the numbers begin to rise once again and Jewish weddings and other community events were recorded in public halls and private homes.
As new immigrants began to enter the city after fleeing the renewed Pogroms in Russia, the 1890s saw the foundation of the community. The need for a proper home of worship soon became obvious and the Baron de Hirsch Hebrew Benevolent Society was founded in 1891. A Jewish death forced the 1893 purchase of land on Windsor Street, for the site of what remains the Jewish cemetery for the city.
In 1894 a former First Congregation Baptist Church on the corner of Starr Street and Hurds Lane was purchased. With the generous contributions of Christian congregations in the city, repairs were made and the building made ready to serve as both synagogue and school for the community. On February 19th, 1895, the Synagogue was dedicated and within an hour witnessed its first wedding, that of Sarah Cohen and Harry Glube. These dual events received wide coverage in all local newspapers, including almost full transcripts of the many speeches and prayers made.
By 1901, the Jewish population of Halifax had grown to 118. As immigration continued, the Jewish community began to feel the strain of existing within non-Jewish society and answering the demands of the ever growing Canadian Jewish society. Sometime around 1912, the Webber family opened their own, private synagogue on Proctor Street, under the name, The Webber Shul.
In 1913, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Halifax charged the kosher butcher, Rabbi Abraham Levitt, with inhumane practices in municipal court. The case panicked the larger Canadian Jewish population and demonstrated the subtle anti-Semitic attitudes in Halifax at the time. The case was lost for the Jewish community who immediately appealed. With the help of a Montreal Rabbi, a Dalhousie University physiologist, and a more favourable judge, the case was overturned on appeal.
On the morning of December 6th, 1917, the Halifax Explosion damaged the Starr Street Synagogue beyond repair. Not until 1920 was sufficient moneys raised to purchase a new site on Robie Street. Consecrated in the following year, the community soon added a Community Centre on Quinpool Road. The Webber Shul and Baron de Hirsch Congregations reunited in 1936, only to divide once again in the 1950s.
In 1953, a conservative congregation, Shaar Shalom, was established, and dedicated their synagogue on Oxford Street on October 31st, 1954. The orthodox Baron de Hirsch Congregation constructed a new synagogue, the Beth Israel, also on Oxford Street, and it was officially opened October 21st, 1957.
The Jewish community of Halifax has continued to grow and is now the largest population east of Montreal. With approximately 1,500 Jews and various organizations still active from the 1920s and all the decades since, Halifax’s Jewish community continues to make history and struggle for a definition.
Medjuck, Sheva. (1986). Jews of Atlantic Canada. St. John’s: Breakwater Books Ltd.
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