The Jewish Community of Saint John

The foundation and growth of the Jewish community of Saint John can in some ways be most easily explained in waves. Unfortunately, after three waves of immigration that span almost a century, the community began to decline in similar tides.

The First Wave of Immigration

Immigration to Saint John, NB, occurred principally in three waves. Realistically, the founding of the Saint John Jewish Community began in 1858 with the arrival of Solomon Hart and his family. The Harts sailed from England to New York City, and then by chance or circumstance, arrived in Saint John and made it their permanent home where Mr. Hart established a tobacco business.

In 1860 Saint John was the third largest urban centre in British North America and bigger than Halifax. The death of a child prompted the establishment and consecration of the Green-Hart Cemetery which is still in existence and used by the descendants of these families. This ultimately led to the establishment of a community cemetery.

The first Jewish wedding in 1882, Elizabeth Hart and Louis Green, was a social event that included the elite of the city including top civic and political functionaries without regard to religious affiliation.

The Second Wave of Immigration

Around the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of Jewish immigrants arrived in the port of Saint John from Eastern Europe, most of them on their way to other centres.

This second wave of immigrants came to escape religious persecution and poverty. Those who fell ill were quarantined on Partridge Island and some are buried there. Members of the Saint John community founded the first Jewish Immigrant Aid Society in Canada, in 1896. Many of these immigrants became the leaders and sculptors of the Saint John Community.

The Third Wave of Immigration

The third wave, due principally to the Second World War, brought only a few immigrants who settled in Saint John, and by 1987 all of these had departed for various reasons.

Structure of a Community

Prior to the building of the first synagogue, Mrs. Soloman Hart and her two daughters conducted religious teaching at a Sunday School held in their home. Religious services were held in various halls in the city.

The first synagogue was realized in 1899 with the establishment of the Ahavat Achim (Brotherly Love) Synagogue. This was the result of a building campaign that was well supported by citizens of all faiths. This was one of only two in the Atlantic Provinces – the other being Halifax.

A second synagogue was established in 1906 (The Haven Avenue Synagogue) that formalized the social-cultural division between the long-established well-educated English-speaking Jews and the newly arrived Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Both congregations were orthodox, both had their Rabbis and both had religious teaching for the children.

At this time the Jewish Community was very active in the business and social life of the city.

The third synagogue was the result of the amalgamation of the two previous congregations. This took place in 1919 when a former church was purchased. This congregation was namedShaarei Zedek (Gates of Righteousness) and is the one functioning synagogue today.

In 1925 there were one hundred children in the Hebrew school.

The Jewish community was actively involved in the Second World War and a large number served in all branches of the armed forces.

In 1951 the adjacent building to the synagogue was bought and became the Saint John Community Centre. It served and still serves all the necessary religious and social functions of the community. It houses the Hebrew School, meeting rooms, a chapel, a mikveh, and the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum.

In the 1960s, the congregation peaked both in number and activities. There were between 75 and 80 Jewish-owned businesses in the city at its peak. Many groups flourished including Young Judaea, scouts, actors with a professional director that competed in an annual musical festival, a theatre group (The Jewish Community Players), along with the regular community groups. The community produced many outstanding athletes both in individual and team sports, particularly in baseball, basketball and boxing.

Decline and Saving History

In the 1970s and 1980s, the community started diminishing with the loss of children to universities and opportunities in the larger centres. Often parents followed on their retirement. The community found itself without a rabbi in 1983, and has not had a spiritual leader since then. It is then truly remarkable that religious services have been maintained on a weekly basis, the bar mitzvah boys have been trained, and that funeral services have been handled with dignity.

High Holiday services have been conducted by a Rabbi brought in for the occasion.

With the rapid shrinking of the community, the Saint John Jewish Historical Society was formed and a decision made to create a museum in 1986, to preserve the heritage of the community. The museum was formed principally due to the foresight and dedication of Mrs. Marcia Koven, the recently retired curator. This is the only Jewish Museum in the Atlantic Provinces.

In 1987 the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum was the recipient of an International Award from the American Association for State and Local History (one of three in Canada that year) for preserving our heritage.

At present the Saint John community (including surrounding areas) has approximately less than 35 families, with an aging membership. There are few children and little evidence of any new wave of immigration to allow the Jewish community to bloom again.

 

Reference

Medjuck, Sheva. (1986). Jews of Atlantic Canada. St. John’s: Breakwater Books Ltd.

Community Representative

The person responsible for representing the Saint John community on matters that concern the Atlantic Jewish Council is Dr. Joseph Arditti(send an e-mail).
If you have seen anything in the media or elsewhere that you find offensively anti-Semitic or anti-Israel and you would like to have someone challenge that position in writing, Dr. Arditti is also the Community Relations person responsible for handling these matters.

The Saint John Jewish Historical Museum

The museum was founded in 1986 in fulfillment of the dream of Marcia Koven to preserve the history of the Saint John Jewish Community. Click here to visit the museum online.Tourism Season 2009:
Monday, June 1st – Monday, November 2nd

Check Out These Links:

The Saint John Jewish Historical Museum
Community News
Community Rep
Congregation Shaarei Zedek
Israel-Related News in French
City of Saint John
Saint John Tourism
Telegraph-Journal Newspaper

 

Historical background edited by Katherine Biggs-Craft, Curator of the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum