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The Jewish Community of Montreal

Montreal

Montreal, second largest city in Canada, in the province of Quebec. The population of the Jewish community in metropolitan Montreal, the oldest and largest in Canada, was estimated at 121,000 in 1970 out of an approximate total of 2.4 million.

Jews first went to Montreal in 1760 as officers with the British army under General Amherst, and after the surrender of the city to the British on Sept. 8, 1760, several Jews settled in Montreal as merchants, fur traders, exporters, and importers. The earliest Jewish settlers in Montreal had previously lived in New York, in which the only synagogue was the Shearith Israel congregation, which followed the Sephardi minhag. In December 1768, when there were sufficient permanent Jewish residents in Montreal, they formed a congregation which adopted the same name and followed the same Sephardi minhag as the synagogue they had attended in New York. The congregation did not receive legal and official government recognition until 1831. The first minister of the Shearith Israel congregation was the Rev. Jacob Raphael Cohen. From 1847-1882 the Rev. Abraham de Sola, grandson of rabbi Raphael Meldola, the haham of the Sephardi congregation in London, served as a spiritual leader to the Montreal Spanish and Portuguese congregation. He was appointed professor of Hebrew and oriental literature at McGill University soon after his arrival in Montreal, was for many years president of the natural history society of Montreal, was a prolific writer on Jewish religious and historical subjects, and was the first Jew awarded an honorary LLd. by McGill University (in 1858). It was not until 1858 that Jews who preferred the Ashkenazi minhag, most of whom had previously been members of the Spanish and Portuguese congregations, were able to purchase a lot and erect a synagogue called the German and polish synagogue. This was subsequently renamed the Shaar HaShomayim synagogue, and was the first Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue erected in Canada.
The number of Jewish congregations in metropolitan Montreal increased rapidly until 1946, and there were 40 synagogues in 1970, of which 33 were Orthodox, three were conservative, three were reform, and one was Reconstructionist.

In accordance with the British North America Act of 1867 there were in Quebec only two types of tax-supported public schools, one Roman Catholic and the other Protestant. All school taxes paid by Jewish property owners went to the Protestant school board, and in return Jewish children had the right to attend the schools of the Protestant school board of greater Montreal, and were exempted from Christian religious instruction upon request of their parents. From 1903 on, attempts were made by the Montreal Jewish community at various times to obtain changes in legislation which would establish a secular nondenominational system of public schools or tax-supported Jewish schools parallel with and with powers equal to the existing roman catholic and protestant public schools, but without success. After protracted negotiations, five Jews were appointed by the Quebec provincial government to the Protestant school board of greater Montreal in 1968 from a list recommended by the Canadian Jewish Congress. The Protestant board agreed to accept as "associate schools" those Jewish voluntary elementary and high schools which had the same pedagogical standards and regulations pertaining to training of teaching staff, curriculum, and salaries, and to pay an annual grant of 350 dollars per Jewish pupil attending nine of these approved "associate" Jewish day schools, leaving Hebrew studies and religious instruction to be financed by the associate Jewish day schools themselves. In 1969 there were about 5,000 children attending the Jewish day schools in Montreal which were approved "associate schools" receiving the aforementioned per capita grant, and the Jewish children attending the Protestant elementary and high schools in 1969 numbered 17,000.

Jews formed the third largest ethnic group in metropolitan Montreal during the period from 1901 to 1961, exceeded only by the population of French origin with 64.2% and those of Anglo-Celtic origin with 17.9%. Thirty-four percent of the total Jewish population of Canada lived in Montreal. By 1961 this percentage had increased to 40.4. In 1961 there were 72 cities, towns, and villages in what is known as the suburban metropolitan Montreal census area, and Jews were resident in 64 of them. There were seven suburban cities and towns within the metropolitan Montreal area each with a Jewish population exceeding 1,000. Those residential suburbs with their Jewish population in 1961 were Outremont (9,033), Cote St. Rue (8,307), St. Laurent (7,696), Chomedy (3,493), Mount Royal (2,617), Westmount (2,222), and Hampstead (1,560).

The majority of the total Jewish population in metropolitan Montreal in 1961 was Canadian-born (56.9%), while 11.7% were born in Poland; 10.0% in Russia; 4.4% in Romania; 3.6% in Hungary; 2.3% in the United States; 1.6% in the United Kingdom; 4.4% in other European countries; and 5.1% in all other countries. 53.8% of the total Jewish population of metropolitan Montreal in 1961 reported English as their mother tongue and 30.2% reported Yiddish as their mother tongue; while 97.2% could speak English and French. Jews engaged in commerce formed 30% of the total Jewish labor force in metropolitan Montreal in 1961, followed by 22% in industry, 16% in clerical occupations, 13% in the professions, 12% in service occupations, 2% in transport and communications, 1% in construction, and 1% in unskilled labor.

In 1970 the national headquarters of almost all Jewish communal organizations in Canada were situated in that city. The Young Men's Hebrew Benevolent Society founded in Montreal in 1863 was the first Jewish social welfare organization in Canada. Its object was to assist the increasing stream of Jewish immigrants fleeing from discrimination and persecution in Eastern Europe. It changed its name to the Baron de Hirsch Institute in 1900 in recognition of the munificent grants made to it by Baroness Clara de Hirsch. As the Jewish population of Montreal increased, the Montreal Jewish community became more self-supporting and fund-raising campaigns multiplied; and in 1916 the Baron de Hirsch Institute, the Mount Sinai sanatorium, the Herzl dispensary, and the Jewish home for the aged combined to form the federation of Jewish community services. During the period from 1916 to 1965 the number of Jewish social welfare and health agencies continued to multiply rapidly and the need for larger
Funds necessary to maintain them brought about the organization of a combined Jewish appeal campaign in 1941, which in 1951 joined with the United Israel Appeal to conduct one annual fund-raising campaign. In 1965 the need for still greater coordination, planning, fund-raising, and cooperative action in Jewish community affairs brought about the reorganization of the Montreal federation of Jewish community services and the combined Jewish appeal into a new all-embracing body named the allied Jewish community services of Montreal.

Members of the Jewish community in Montreal have been prominent in the political, musical, literary, and artistic life of Canada during the past century. Lazarus Phillips, a prominent Jewish lawyer active in Jewish communal life, was appointed a member of the Canadian senate in 1969. In 1970 Victor Goldbloom, who was reelected as a member of the Quebec provincial legislature, became the first Jew to hold the position of a cabinet minister in the Quebec provincial government.

The Jews of Montreal make up the second-largest Jewish community in Canada. The community is one of the oldest and most populous in the country, about 23% of the total population. In 2011, the Jewish population of Montreal was approximately 91,000, with over 40,000 Jewish households. Jews comprise 2.4% of the city's total population. The community is composed of several different Jewish groups that settled in Canada at different time periods and under varied circumstances.

The most recent waves of immigration have included Jews from the former Soviet Union (some via Israel), France, Argentina, and small numbers of Ethiopian Jews from Israel.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish community of Montreal had established numerous organizations. Many of these organizations were in the areas of social welfare, health care, education and culture while others were established specifically to fund various community activities. In 1965, a federation was established to better organize community planning and fundraising. Originally, this federation was known as Allied Jewish Community Services but was renamed to Federation CJA in the 1990s.

The Federation supports several organizations throughout the city of Montreal. Due to their extensive support of Israel and local allocation for social services and educational programs, the Jewish community of Montreal is considered one of the most generous communities per capita in all of North America. Other notable Jewish organizations include The Jewish Community Foundation, the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal, Canadian Council of Israel, B'nai B'rith Canada, The Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services.

Religious life among the Jews of Montreal is quite diverse. While Orthodox congregations make up the overwhelming majority of the city's synagogues, there are also Reform, Reconstructionist and numerous Conservative congregations. Even within the Orthodox movement is a wide spectrum of communities, including several Hasidic sects, Modern Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and Sephardi. Orthodox Judaism has historically been very strong in Montreal. Since the early 21st century, Chabad Lubavitch has established a significant presence in the areas of Côte des Neiges and Hampstead.

The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, also known as Shearith Israel is Montreal's oldest synagogue. It is also the oldest congregation in Canada. Formally established in 1768, its original building, designed in a Judeo-Egyptian style, was the first non-Catholic place of worship in the entire province of Québec. It remained the only place of Jewish worship in Montreal until 1846.

Beginning in the 19th century, most Jewish families opted to send their children to private Jewish day schools. Whether due to segregation or the confessional nature of Montreal's public schools, the Jewish community established a number of schools of their own. As of 2015, there were about 13 private Jewish schools in Montreal. More than half of Jewish school age children are enrolled in private Jewish schools. Approximately half of the Jewish students who complete Jewish elementary school continue to Jewish high school. Jewish education in Montreal is quite varied. There are many private schools affiliated with a wide range of Jewish movements and communities, including Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic, Conservative, Yiddishist, and Sephardi.

There are additionally several youth movements and organizations, and a well-established network of camps, after-school activities and educational programs.

The city's major Jewish cultural centers include the Museum of Jewish Montreal (founded in 2010), the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, the Jewish Public Library, the Miles Nada Jewish Community Centre, and the YM-YWHA Jewish Community Centres of Montreal: The Ben Weider JCC and Y Country Camp. There are also more than 25 different Chabad centers throughout Greater Montreal.

The area with the largest Jewish population in Montreal is Cote St. Luc (19,395), where Jews comprise nearly 63% of the overall population. Cote St. Luc also boasts the largest population of Sephardim in Montreal (5,580). Large contingents of Sephardi Jews also live in Ville St. Laurent (3,365) and the West Island (2,205).

The second-largest population is in the West Island, with 12,055 Jewish residents. The affluent suburb of Hampstead has the highest density of Jews than any other area, approximately 75% of its total populace. Other areas with sizeable Jewish populations include St. Laurent, Snowdon and Côte des Neiges.

Montreal is also home to a number of Haredi enclaves. In Outremont are the three Hasidic dynasties of Belz, Satmar and Skver; in Côte des Neiges is a sizeable Lubavitch community; and in the suburb of Boisbrand are the Tash, a group originating in Hungary.

Nearly one third of Montreal's Jewish population was born outside Canada. The largest waves of immigration have been from North Africa and Eastern Europe, including the former Soviet Union.

In addition to the Holocaust Memorial, Jewish Museum and the Jewish Public Library, the most significant Jewish landmarks and points of interest can be found in the historic Jewish quarter. Located on St. Laurent Boulevard, or Main Street, this historic neighborhood was once home to a number of synagogues and Jewish businesses. By 1871, a Jewish enclave of 400 people had formed and Yiddish was the common language. Other main streets include Clark Street, Park Avenue, Saint Urbain Street and Esplanade Street.

Serving both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of Montreal are various hospitals and health care facilities that had been established by Jews. The most notable are hospitals, Mount Sinai and the Jewish General Hospital. The latter provides general and specialized care and was partially founded by Jewish philanthropist Allan Bronfman. Ground broke on the hospital in 1931 and in 1933 it was officially named the Jewish General Hospital. The first patient was admitted the following year. Other Jewish health care services include Donald Berman Maimonides (geriatric care) and the Miriam Home, a rehabilitation center that provides residential services for children and adults with disabilities.

Circulating throughout Montreal are the city's very own Jewish publications. The largest and most well-known is "Montreal Jewish Magazine". A premium source for all things Jewish, this widely distributed publication has a readership of more than 90,000. Montreal Jewish Magazine includes a wide variety of articles and editorials about community events, local activities and international news.

Place Type:
City
ID Number:
148668
Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
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Louis Rubenstein (1861-1931), figure skater and politician, born in Montreal, Canada, to parents who had immigrated from Poland. He represented Canada in the 1889 unofficial world championships for figure skating which were held in St Petersburg, Russia, and won the gold medal. Largely as a result of his efforts, the Amateur Skating Association of Canada was formed and he remained its president until his death. After retirement from skating in 1892, Rubenstein became involved in the sports of bowling, curling, and cycling. He was elected president of the Canadian Bowling Association in 1895, president of the International Skating Union of America in 1909. From 1913-1915 he was president of the Montreal amateur Athletic Association. In 1981 he was made a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
He was alderman in St. Louis ward of Montreal from 1916 until 1931.

Bass-baritone singer. Born in Montreal, Canada, his name was George Burnstein. He studied in Los Angeles with Hugo Strelitzer, Nathan Stuart and Enrico Rosati. His debut as an opera singer took place in 1941 at the Hollywood Bowl and he was then engaged at the San Francisco Opera. Between 1949-1956 he sang at the Vienna State Opera and was guest singer in Bayreuth (1951), La Scala (1952), the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in Moscow (1960). In 1967 he retired from singing. In 1972 he became director of the Opera Theater of Southern California in Los Angeles. He died in Armonk, New York.

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), Singer and composer.

Born in Montreal, Canada. His lyrics center on existential despair while his music is based on a folk or folk-rock idiom. His songs are widely sung by other performers.

Moshe Denburg (b.1949) Musician, composer, performer, arranger and piano tuner.

Denburg had a religious upbringing and grew up in the town of Montreal. Since he came to the Canadian West Coast in 1982, he has had four decades of experience as composer, performer, arranger and piano tuner. From 1986-90 he studied composition with John Celona at the University of Victoria and in the year 2000, founded the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, where he has worked as Program Director ever since.

Currently, he is the lead vocalist and guitarist of the band Tzimmes, which he founded himself in 1986. Four years later, the ensemble disbanded but was reformed in 1991, when Denburg and another band member moved to Vancouver and got together with three other musicians to bring the band back to life. 

Recording and performing internationally, Denburg has played an active role in Jewish music education. As the bandleader of Tzimmes, he programs a wide range of repertoire that explores the rich diversity of Jewish music from Western and non-Western cultures. He has made use of many instruments from around the world, including; East Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and more.

Bronfman, Edgar (1929-2013), philanthropist, international Jewish communal leader, businessman, born in Montreal, Canada. His father was the founder of Distillers Corporation Limited, which in 1928 purchased what was then the largest distiller in the world, Seagram Co Ltd.

After graduating from McGill University in Mongtreal with a B.A. degree in 1951, he joined the family business. In 1957, he took over as head of Seagram's American subsidiary, he increased the range of products sold by the company, improved distribution, and expanded the number of countries in which Seagram's products were sold. In 1966, Cemp Investments, which managed the family's investments, bought 820,000 shares of MGM and in 1969 Bronfman took over the chairmanship of MGM for a short time. Following his father's death in 1971, Bronfman took over as president, treasurer, and director of Distillers Corporation-Seagrams Ltd.

In 1979, Bronfman was asked to take over as acting head of the World Jewish Congress. Bronfman was formally elected President two years later. Bronfman “turned the World Jewish Congress into a preeminent international Jewish organization and broadened its base by bringing in new member communities in Eastern Europe and other countries. Through the campaigns to free Soviet Jewry, the exposure of the Nazi past of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and the campaign to compensate victims of the Holocaust and their heirs, notably in the case of the Swiss banks, Bronfman became well known internationally during the 1980s and 1990s. Among the initiatives Bronfman supported were the Jewish college organization Hillel, a major scholarship program for young Jews from Israel and North America called the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, and the educational website MyJewishLearning.com.

After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, Bronfman was invited to the Kremlin and on September 8–11, visited Moscow, becoming the first World Jewish Congress President to be formally received in Moscow by Soviet Officials. Bronfman met with Gorbachev, and initiated talks of a Soviet Jewish airlift and called on the Soviet Union to resume diplomatic relations with Israel.

In a Washington Post profile a few months after the September trip, Bronfman laid out what he thought had been accomplished during his September meetings. He said, "There's going to be a buildup of pressure through the business community. The Russians know the Soviet Jewry issue is tied to trade... My guess is that over a period of time, five to ten years, some of our goals will be achieved." In March 1987, Bronfman along with fellow delegates of the World Jewish Congress, flew to Moscow once again. Bronfman held three days of discussions with senior Soviet officials. Together, Bronfman and the World Jewish Congress delegates advocated for the freeing of the Jews living under Soviet rule.

On June 25, 1982, Bronfman became the first representative of a Jewish organization to speak before the United Nations. He argued that , "world peace cannot tolerate the denial of the legitimacy of Israel or any other nation-state ... [and the] charge that Zionism is racism is an abomination." Bronfman's goals for the visit were threefold. In his book, "The Making of a Jew", he explained: First, he called for the release of all so-called Prisoners of Zion, the Jews imprisoned for expressing a desire to emigrate to Israel. Bronfman also wanted freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union to practice their religion. Finally, he called for the freedom for Soviet Jews to learn Hebrew, which was forbidden at the time.

A year later, in 1988, Bronfman returned to Moscow to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze This trip resulted in the Soviets promising to legalize the teaching of Hebrew in the Soviet Union and to establish a Jewish cultural center in Moscow. Bronfman said of this visit, "By their actions, they are indicating that they are eager to get the question of Jewish rights and emigration off the bargaining table. And it is actions, rather than simply words, that count."

In 1986, during Bronfman's presidency, the World Jewish Congress accused Austrian President Kurt Waldheim of covering up his past connections to the Nazi party. It was when Waldheim became a candidate for President of Austria that the World Jewish Congress first published material showing Waldheim's active duty in the German army during war time. This evidence was later used to prove that Waldheim must have known about the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, though Waldheim's service as an Austrian in the German army cannot be considered a war crime. Waldheim had served as an intelligence officer in a unit of the army that participated in the transfer of Greek Jews to death camps.

The allegations against Waldheim resulted in public embarrassment for the Austrian president. He was on the U.S. Justice Department's list of undesirable visitors in April 1987. On May 5, 1987, Bronfman spoke to the World Jewish Congress saying Waldheim was "part and parcel of the Nazi killing machine". Waldheim subsequently filed a lawsuit against Bronfman, but dropped the suit shortly after due to a lack of evidence in his favour.

In the late 1990s, Bronfman championed the cause of restitution from Switzerland for Holocaust survivors. He began an initiative that led to the $1.25 billion settlement from Swiss banks. The Swiss banks, the United States Government, and Jewish groups investigated unclaimed assets deposited by European Jews into Swiss banks before the Holocaust. Negotiations began in 1995 between the U.S. and Switzerland. The parties reached a settlement in August 1998, and signed the $1.25 billion settlement in January 1999. In exchange for the settlement money, both parties agreed to release the Swiss banks and government from any claims regarding the Holocaust.

President Bill Clinton awarded Bronfman the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.

Stanley M. Diamond (b. 1933), founder and executive director of Jewish Records Indexing – Poland (JRI-Poland), family historian, lecturer, and author, born in Montreal, Canada. He was educated at McGill University, Montreal (B. Commerce 1954), and Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, USA (MBA 1958).

Diamond was the Founder and Chairman of Intalite International Group of Companies (1960 – 1986). 

Diamond is the Founder and Executive Director of Jewish Records Indexing – Poland (JRI-Poland), an award-winning international project to create an Internet-searchable index of all surviving Jewish vital records of Poland.  Launched in early 1995, JRI - Poland is the largest fully searchable database of indexes to Jewish vital records accessible online with many millions of records from more than 550 Polish towns. 

A dedicated family historian for more than 25 years, Diamond was the founder and president of the  Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal; a genealogist member of genetic research project team with McGill University ‑ Montreal Children's Hospital and Hebrew University‑Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem -  research related to Beta‑Thalassemia genetic trait in Ashkenazi Jewish families (1994-2006).  He was also a Founding Board Member of International Institute of Jewish Genealogy, Jerusalem, and served as consultant to producers of "Who Do You Think You Are?" television series, episodes on NBC, CBC, BBC and ABC (Australia) and “Finding Your Roots” television series on PBS (USA), (since 2007). 

His publications include “An Update on Jewish Records Indexing-Poland: Phase Three”, Avotaynu, The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Winter 2016; "New Developments in Research of Polish-Jewish Records", Avotaynu,  Spring 2013; “The Role of the Jewish Genealogist in Medical and Genetic Family History”, Avotaynu, Spring 2007; “How I Traced the Beta Thalassemia Trait”,  Avotaynu, Winter 2006; “A Jewish Genealogist’s Wish List”, Avotaynu, Spring 2003; "The 1915-1932 Canadian Naturalization Index", Avotyanu, Fall 2002; "Indexing the Jewish Vital Records of Quebec 1841-1942", Avotaynu, Summer 2002;  Documenting the Fate of the Jews of Ostrów Mazowiecka", Avotyanu, Fall 2001; "Shtetl-Based Jewish Genealogical Research", Avotyanu, Spring 1998; "Jewish Vital Records Research in Quebec", Shem Tov, Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Canada (Toronto), June 1998.  He is co‑author of "Probable Identity by Descent and Discovery of Familial Relationships by Means of a Rare B‑Thalassemia Haplotype", Human Mutation, Volume 9, No. 1, 1997

Diamond was awarded the Government of Canada Meritorious Service Medal (2017); Nominated for the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (2016), and Canada Export Award (1984).   

Poet. Born in Solobkovtsy, Ukraine, he emigrated to Montreal, Canada, in 1911. He spent five years in New York (1923-1928) and then returned to Montreal.
Segal’s numerous poems were published in most major American Yiddish literary magazines. His books of poetry include Fun Mayn Velt (1918), Sefer Yiddish (1950) and Letste Lider (1955). He died in Montreal, Canada.

Boy and girl with the Zionist flag. New Year card sent to Glasgow, Scotland, from Montreal, Canada, in 1910
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Hayim Shtayer, Haifa)

Isaac Bashevis-Singer, the famous writer
and Nobel Laureate, meeting with members
of "Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem" congregation
after a speaking engagement, Montreal, Canada 1979.
Photo: Michael Solman, Canada
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Michael Solman, Canada)