Saint John

Jewish Institutions in Saint John

Congregation Shaarei Zedek (Conservative)
PO Box 2041
Saint John, NB E2L 3T5
Phone: (506) 657-4790
Fax: (506) 652-9573
Contact: Norman Hamburg – (506) 634-6999

Saint John Jewish Historical Museum
http://jewishmuseumsj.com
91 Leinster St
Saint John, NB
Phone: (506) 633-1833
Email: sjjhm@nbnet.nb.ca


Kosher Food in Saint John


 The History of the Jewish Community in Saint John

The foundation and growth of the Jewish community of Saint John can in some ways be most easily explained in waves. The four waves of immigration span more than a century, each group bringing a different culture and history to the city.

The First Wave of Immigration

The first Jewish resident of Saint John was David Gabel, who arrived with his wife and children in 1783 with the Loyalists arriving after the American Revolution. He established a butcher shop and bakery on Kings Square. When he died in 1816 he was buried in the Old Burying Group across the street from his home.

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 came to Saint John and made it their permanent home where Mr. Hart established a tobacco business. The Green and Isaacs families soon followed. In 1860 Saint John was the third largest urban centre in British North America and was busy with shipping and commerce from around the world.

The death of a child prompted the establishment and consecration of the Green-Hart Cemetery in 1873. This cemetery is still used by the descendants of these families. Adjacent plots of land were purchased over the years and there are now more than 900 recorded burials in what is known as the Shaarei Zedek Cemetery.

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

The Second Wave of Immigration

Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of Jewish immigrants arrived in the port of Saint John from Eastern Europe. Although many travelled on to other cities, Saint John had a community of 200 families by 1920.

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. The Daughters of Israel, under the leadership of Alice Hart, also aided the new arrivals. These arrivals went from peddlar to store owner to professional within three generations and many would become community leaders.

The Third Wave of Immigration

The third wave was much smaller and arrived after the Second World War, as survivors of the Holocaust. Some were sponsored by family members in the city, others came for employment opportunities. Many moved on to larger centres within a few years of their arrival.

Structure of a Community

Prior to the building of the first synagogue, Mrs. Solomon 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 opened in 1899 with the establishment of the Ahavith 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.

The third synagogue was the result of the amalgamation of the two previous congregations. This took place in 1919 when the former Calvin Presbyterian Church was purchased. This congregation was named Shaarei Zedek (Gates of Righteousness) and continues to operate today.

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

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

The Jewish community was actively involved in the Second World War and more than 70 men and women served in all branches of the armed forces.

In 1951, the building behind the synagogue was bought and became the Saint John Jewish Community Centre. It provided space for the Hebrew School, meeting rooms, a chapel, a mikvah, and later, the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, the congregation experienced what was called “The Golden Years”.  There were more than 75 Jewish-owned businesses in the city. Many organizations flourished including Habonim, Hadassah,-WIZO, Young Judaea, Boy Scouts, Cubs, Girl Guides, the Jewish Community Players (a professional quality theatre group), and the Shomer (Seniors) Club. More than fifty families built or purchased cottages in Pamdenec along the Saint John River and enjoyed the summer in a memorable environment among family and friends.

Over the years, the Saint John Jewish community produced many community leaders including: Louis B. Mayer (founder of MGM Studio), Samuel Davis (mayor of Saint John, 1977-1980), Erminie Cohen (member of Senate of Canada, 1993-2001), and Myra Freeman (Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, 2000-2006)

Changing Times and Saving History

In the 1960s and 1970s, the community diminished as the children left for universities and opportunities in larger cities in Canada and elsewhere. Often parents followed on their retirement. The community found itself without a rabbi in 1983, and has not had a permanent spiritual leader since. With the efforts of several dedicated community members religious services have been maintained on a weekly basis, children have been prepared for bar and bat mitzvahs, and funeral services have been handled with dignity.

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

The Saint John Jewish Historical Society was formed in 1983 and the Saint John Jewish Historical Museum was opened in 1986, to preserve the heritage of the community. The museum was formed due to the foresight and dedication of Mrs. Marcia Koven, curator emeritus. This is the only Jewish Museum in the Atlantic Provinces. The exhibits include Jewish religious life and share many stories of the community’s history, which are changed annually. The museum has also assembled a large archival collection of documents and photographs and established a reading library on the premises. Visitors from all parts of the world are welcome from May to October for the summer tourist season and by appointment the remainder of the year. Educational outreach programs are offered to schools and other organizations in the area. Several events are held throughout the year.

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 the city’s Jewish heritage.

A New Beginning

The Shaarei Zedek Synagogue building on Carleton Street was sold to the City of Saint John in 2008 and the Congregation and Museum relocated to a building widely recognized for its heritage value as a prestigious private home and former funeral home at 91 Leinster Street.

At the same time, the remaining families (about 35 in number) looked to the wider world to rebuild a vibrant Jewish community. By 2016 more than 30 families, with their children, moved into the city, mostly from Israel.  Over time, these families will help perpetuate a visible and viable Jewish presence in Saint John.

References

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

Koven, Marcia. (1989 and 2008) Weaving the Past Into the Present  Saint John: Saint John Jewish Historical Museum

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