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The Jewish Community in Vancouver

Haim F. Ghiuzeli

Vancouver, a city in the Province of British Columbia, is the third most populous city in Canada. It is home to Canada’s third largest Jewish community with approximately seven percent of the Canadian Jews living in Vancouver metropolitan area.

The south-west region of the modern Province of British Columbia started to attract large numbers of immigrants after the 1850’s. Among those early settlers, many driven to the region by the prospect of gold rush, others by various commercial opportunities, were several Jewish immigrants who arrived from the American West, eastern and central provinces of Canada, and from Europe. The establishment of the Jewish community of Vancouver resulted basically from the activities of a number of individuals. Their commitment to Judaism and their fellow Jewish settlers made possible the beginnings of the Jewish life on the Canadian West coast. One of the first Jewish European settlers in the region was the Polish-born Louis Gold (1835-1907), known as “Leaping” Louis, who along with his family arrived in the area of Vancouver in the early 1870’s. They established a general-merchandise-grocery on Water Street. The Gold family later extended their business by purchasing additional tracts of land. Louis’s son, Edward Gold (1868-1946) developed his own successful career: already in 1892 he was the owner of the Vancouver Collateral and Securities Loan Bank and in 1914 was elected councilor in South Vancouver.

However, the early Jewish history of Vancouver is largely identified with the activities of the Oppenheimer brothers: Meyer, Godfrey, Isaac, Charles, and David Oppenheimer. Born in Bavaria, Germany, they came to the Pacific province in 1858 following the gold rush in that region. The Oppenheimer brothers settled in the Vancouver district in 1885, a year before the city was founded. In 1887 David and Isaac Oppenheimer were members of the Vancouver city council and in 1888 David Oppenheimer (1834-1897) was elected the city’s second mayor, holding office for four years. The family commerce – Oppenheimer Bros. & Co. Ltd., Vancouver’s oldest business, built the first wholesale grocery in the city’s first brick building, still extant in the district of Gastown. The Oppenheimer brothers also purchased large pieces of land that by the end of the 19th century turned them into the third largest land-owners in Vancouver.

In 1891 there were 85 Jews in the city. At the end of the 19th century Vancouver began receiving Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most of the Yiddish-speaking new comers settled in the East-end working class district of Strathcona, where they continued to pursue their traditional way of life. The majority were active as storekeepers and artisans practicing the professions they brought with them from Eastern Europe: tailors, shoemakers, peddlers.

The first Jewish religious leader in Vancouver was the Ukrainian-born Zebulon Franks (1864-1926) who settled in Vancouver in 1887. His store served as the first praying house for the nascent Orthodox Jewish community. Y. Franks Appliances Ltd. Company is the continuator of the original enterprise founded by Z. Franks. Abraham David Goldstein, another Polish-born Jewish immigrant, was involved in land development: his best known project is the Sylvia Court. This first residential high-rise in the city, named after the owner’s 12-year-old daughter, and still a landmark of Vancouver’s West End was converted into a hotel during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The Sylvia Court Hotel has been designated a Heritage Building in 1976.

In 1887 a separate section of the newly established Mountain View Cemetery was reserved for Jewish burial. Agudas Achim (“Association of Brethren”) was the first congregation established in Vancouver: it conducted the first Jewish public prayers for the High Holidays in October 1891 at the Knights of Pythias Hall on Cordova Street – currently part of the Army and Navy store. The first liberal congregation started with the arrival from Victoria, BC, of the German-born rabbi Solomon Philo in 1894. The establishment of the Temple Emanuel of Vancouver followed in 1895. The Temple Emanuel congregation’s first secretary was Edward Gold. The congregation was presided for many years by the Swiss-born Samuel Gintzburger (1867-1924) who arrived in Vancouver in 1887. He eventually became a real estate, insurance and financial agent, having during his youth traded with the First Nations of Canada on the Pacific coast. S. Gintzburger served in the municipal council of West Vancouver and was consul of Switzerland. However, a truly Reform community was established only in 1965. Justice Samuel Davies Schultz (1865-1925), born to a pioneer family of Victoria, BC, is another worth mentioning person in early Vancouver; in 1914 he was appointed to the Vancouver County Court, at that time the first Jew in Canada to be named a judge.

Growth of the Jewish population of Vancouver Metropolitan area:

1891         85
1901         205
1911         987
1921         1,301
1931         2,481
1941         2,969
1951         5,467
1961         7,301
1991        19,375
2001        25,000

The Jewish population of Vancouver continued to grow in the early 20th century, mostly by immigration from Europe. Already by 1914 there were a number of affluent Jewish families in Vancouver; nonetheless the great majority of the Jewish inhabitants of Vancouver earned their living as small artisans. About one quarter of all Jews in Vancouver were employed as tailors, pressers, sewing-machine operators and in other cloth-industry related occupations. Other Jews were active as watchmakers, jewelers, shopkeepers and peddlers. There was also a growing class of white collar workers, chiefly bookkeepers and other clerks. A significant part of the working force was made up of women who contributed to the family’s incomes by either supporting their husbands’ business or being employed outside the home.

B’nai Yehuda (“Sons of Yehuda”), the first Orthodox congregation of Vancouver, was established in 1907. It opened the B’nai Yehuda synagogue, the first synagogue in Vancouver, in the Strathcona neighborhood in 1911 with Zebulon Franks (1864-1926) acting as its first president. It served the Orthodox community that consisted mostly of immigrants from Eastern Europe. This first modest wooden structure was replaced in 1921 by the Schara Tzedeck synagogue, a large building that catered for the growing Jewish community of the city. It was incorporated as Schara Tzedeck Chevra Kadisha Bnai Brith Hebrew Aid and Immigrant Society. Rabbi Nathan Mayer Pastinsky (1918-1948) was for 30 years the leader of the Schara Tzedeck synagogue.

The Reform congregation, whose members resided mainly in the more prosperous West End of Vancouver, gave up plans for a separate praying house out of a desire to maintaining the unity of the Jewish community of Vancouver. Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation was founded in 1932 and Beth Midrash, a Sephardi Orthodox congregation was established in 1943.

The Jewish education started modestly with an afternoon school that functioned in conjunction with the B’nai Yehuda synagogue. In 1918 it developed into the Vancouver Hebrew School and was affiliated to the Schara Tzedeck synagogue. At the same time, the Congregation Emanu-El School was established in West Vancouver. Sholem Aleichem afternoon school was opened in 1928 as a Jewish secular school promoting the Yiddish language and culture; however, despite the efforts of the Socialist Muter Fareyn Yiddish association, this school was closed in late 1930’s. It was succeeded in 1945 by the Vancouver Peretz School dedicated to the advancement of humanist and socialist ideals. The Vancouver Talmud Torah Hebrew School was opened in 1948.

During the 1920’s new Jewish organizations began to function in Vancouver: among them a Council of Jewish Women started in 1926 and a Jewish Community Centre two years later in the district of Fairview. The Jewish Western Bulletin, a weekly, started publication in 1930. The establishment of mutual assistance and charity organizations was one the first concerns of the newly established community: The Hebrew Free Loan Association (1915) and the Vancouver Jewish Community Chest (1924) were among the first charity organizations that endeavored to provide for the economic and social needs of the new immigrants. The activities of those organizations were coordinated after 1932 by The Vancouver Jewish Administrative Council that was in charge of the community center too.

The Vancouver branch of Hadassah started its activity in 1920. The free Well Baby Clinic was established by the Council of Jewish Women in 1927. In 1946, with the help of a donation by the comedian Eddie Cantor (1892-1964), the first Jewish senior citizen home was opened. It was enlarged in 1968 and has since operated under the name of Louis Brier Home and Hospital, thanks to a legacy by Louis Brier (1861-1936), a Romanian-born successful pioneer. These organizations were instrumental in assisting new Jewish immigrants with money, clothes, food and shelter and facilitating their integration into the life of the community and of the Canadian society. A new Jewish cemetery was opened in 1929. The British Columbia branch of the Canadian Jewish Congress started out in Vancouver in 1941.

During the interwar period the Jewish population of Vancouver had tripled, largely by immigration. It also improved its social and economic status with more Jews becoming self employed and successful merchants. They also left the old district of Strathcona moving to newer middle class neighborhoods.

The Jews of Vancouver were among the first to join the Zionist movement and a Zionist association was founded in Vancouver already in the early 1900’s. During the 1930’s the Zionist movement in Vancouver was lead by Rabbi J. L. Zlotnick (1888-1962). A native of Poland and a notable activist of the Mizrachi in Poland, he immigrated to Canada where he became head of the Mizrachi Zionist Organization of Canada. J.L. Zlotnick served as rabbi of the orthodox community of Vancouver between 1934 and 1938. He eventually immigrated to Israel.

The Jewish community supported the Canadian war effort during 1939-1945. In addition to many Jews that enlisted into the Canadian Army, the community activated on behalf of the European Jews. The establishment of the State of Israel was welcome by many; not only had the Jews of Vancouver extended their financial and moral support, but twenty seven of them volunteered to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. One of those volunteers, Ralph Moster (1924-1948), a pilot who previously served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, lost his life during the war.

After WWII the Jewish population of Vancouver has increased with the arrival of new Jewish refugees and immigrants from all over the world. Their successful integration contributed to the emergence of a multicultural and diverse Jewish community. The Council of Jewish Women was instrumental in assisting the various waves of refugees. In 1948, the first groups of Holocaust survivors arrived in Vancouver, including forty seven orphaned children. Other Jewish refugees included Iraqi Jews who arrived in the early 1950’s, Hungarian Jews who fled the aftermaths of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, then Jews from Czechoslovakia who emigrated in 1968, and most recently Jews from the Balkans who fled the war in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. Vancouver has attracted many Jews from the eastern provinces of Canada, a tendency that accentuated itself during the last decades of the 20th century, as well as immigrants from United States, former Soviet Union, South Africa, Israel, and South America.
The general move to newer residential districts and to the suburbs brought about a shift in the main centers of Jewish activities in the city. A Jewish center developed after the 1960’s on Oak Street; the neighborhood shelters three synagogues, a Jewish community center, a Jewish religious school, a senior citizen home and hospital, and various stores selling Jewish food and books. Yet, the great majority of the Jewish inhabitants of Vancouver are scattered all over the city. Although rare, the Jews of Vancouver were occasionally victims of anti-Semitic incitement and attacks. During WWI and again during WWII, Jews with German-sounding surnames were sometimes treated with resentment. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s there were sporadic acts of vandalism against the community institutions, the worst being the burning of the Temple Shalom synagogue. In the early 2000’s new acts of anti-Jewish hostility were reported among the growing local Muslim population.

In the early 2000’s there were fifteen Jewish congregations in the Greater Vancouver area representing all Jewish movements with the Conservative congregations boasting the largest number of members. Reform congregations follow in the second place with the Orthodox and Chabad congregations attended by a dedicated minority. However, approximately half of the Jews living in the Vancouver metropolitan area are not affiliated to a religious congregation. The Jewish Community of Vancouver is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world; its vibrant Jewish life is coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. The Jewish education is served by a well developed educational system including ten preschools, three day schools – Vancouver Hebrew Academy, Vancouver Talmud Torah Elementary School, Vancouver Talmud Torah High School, and a number of after schools and Sunday schools: the Beth Israel Religious School, Or Shalom Religious School, Temple Sholom Religious School, Beth Midrash Religious School, Torat Hayim in West Vancouver, Beth Tikvah Religious School, Richmond Jewish Day School, andEitz Chaim – the last three located in Richmond, BC. The Greater Vancouver Community Kollel, located at Eitz Chaim synagogue, offers lectures and seminaries on Judaism in all districts of Greater Vancouver. Hebrew language courses are available at the Vancouver Summer Mini Ulpan. Youth and student organizations include Vancouver B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation who serves Jewish students attending the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, both in Vancouver, as well as other colleges in Greater Vancouver area. There are additional Jewish youth organizations active in Greater Vancouver area: Habonim Dror Zionist Movement, United Synagogue Youth / Kadima, Greater Vancouver Jewish Youth Council, National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Temple Sholom Youth Group (NFTY), and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.

The synagogues of Vancouver cater for members of all Jewish movements: Beth Hamidrash B’nai Jacob Congregation – Orthodox, the only Sephardic synagogue in Western Canada, has dedicated its new building in June 2004; Congregation Beth Israel – Conservative; Congregation Har El – located in West Vancouver is an egalitarian Conservative synagogue following the guidelines of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Lubavitch of British Columbia – Hassidic; Or Shalom – Reconstructionist, is part of the movement for Jewish Renewal; Schara Tzedeck Congregation – the largest Orthodox synagogue in Vancouver, offers daily and highly attended Shabbat services; Louis Brier Home – Orthodox; Temple Sholom – dedicated in 1976, was at that time the first Reform synagogue in Western Canada; Shaarey Tefilah Synagogue – Traditional.

Among the many Jewish organizations active in Vancouver a special mention should be made of theCanadian Jewish Congress – Pacific Region, Israel Action Committee, BC, and CIJA – Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy. The links between the Jewish Community of Vancouver and Israel are maintained, among others, by local branches of the Canadian Friends associations of Israeli universities and institutions of research and higher education as well as of Israeli medical institutions and other cultural and humanitarian organizations. Community services include the Jewish Family Service Agency, the Hebrew Assistance Association, and the Shalom BC Information, Referral, and Volunteer Centre. The community has a developed program of assistance for the needy – Yad B’Yad Council on Poverty, a Non Profit Housing Society, and operates programs for senior citizens: Council on Aging and People with Special Needs (APSN), as well as other organizations, clubs, and associations for the senior members of the community: L’Chaim Centre for Adult Day Care, Temple Sholom Seniors, West Vancouver Har-El Seniors Group, Sholem Aleichem Seniors of the Vancouver Peretz Institute and others. Teva Outdoor Club, Jewish Solos, and Kehila Jewish Singles offer dating opportunities for the single. Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) and Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada provide for the integration of Jewish immigrants to Canada. There are also a number of women community organizations: Na’amat Canada, Hadassah-WIZO Council of Vancouver, Emunah Women of Canada, National Council of Jewish Women, Ladies Auxiliary of Louis Brier Home and Hospital, and Jewish Women International.

The cultural activities are promoted by various organizations and associations including the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia and Community Archives who edits The Scribe – The Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of BC, The Jewish Genealogical Institute, and the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival founded in 1989. There are two organizations dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust victims: The Vancouver Holocaust Centre Society for Education and Remembrance that holds an audio-visual archive of testimonies and endorses educational activities and the Western Association of Holocaust Survivors – Families and Friends. The Harry & Jeanette Weiberg Jewish Community Campus houses the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and is home to The Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library. The Jewish media includes Yachad Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver Magazine, Jewish Western Bulletin, and Guide to Jewish Life in B.C.

Jewish Personalities from Vancouver:

Shabbath candles in the Louis Brier Home and Hospital. Vancouver, 1984 Photo: Andrew Haward, Canada Beit Hatfutsot – the Visual Documentation Center

Shabbath candles in the Louis Brier Home and Hospital. Vancouver, 1984
Photo: Andrew Haward, Canada
The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

Former building of the Schara Tzedeck synagogue. Vancouver, 1984 Photo: Andrew Haward, Canada Beit Hatfutsot – the Visual Documentation Center

Former building of the Schara Tzedeck synagogue. Vancouver, 1984
Photo: Andrew Haward, Canada
The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

Schara Tzedeck synagogue. Vancouver, 1984 Photo: Andrew Haward, Canada Beit Hatfutsot – the Visual Documentation Center

Schara Tzedeck synagogue. Vancouver, 1984
Photo: Andrew Haward, Canada
The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

Interior of the Schara Tzedeck synagogue. Vancouver, 1984 Photo: Andrew Haward, Canada Beit Hatfutsot – the Visual Documentation Center

Interior of the Schara Tzedeck synagogue. Vancouver, 1984
Photo: Andrew Haward, Canada
The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

  • David (Dave) Barrett (b.1930)

    A social worker turned politician, he joined the British Columbia Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, later known as the New Democratic Party, and was elected to British Columbia legislature in 1960. D. Barrett’s political career reached the pinnacle during 1972-1975, when he served as Premier of British Columbia. He was defeated in his attempt to become leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada in 1989, and in 1993 lost his Parliament seat.

  • Sam Bass (1915-1990)

    A graduate from University of Manitoba (1939), he served as a pharmacist with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in WWII. Having settled in Vancouver in 1945, he bought Schoff’s Drug Store (Main and Union), and renamed it London Drugs. S. Bass was instrumental in developing the first modern drug store in British Columbia; he also was a major donor to various Jewish charity activities.

  • Samuel Joseph Cohen (1897-1966)

    A successful businessman, he founded the Army & Navy, a surplus store at 300 block W. Hastings (1919) that soon expanded to a chain of five stores. S.J. Cohen was a generous donor, chiefly to children’s charities.

  • Zebulon Franks (1864-1926)

    A Ukrainian-born son of a rabbi, and survivor of a pogrom in which his family was killed, he arrived in Vancouver in 1887, where he made a living first as a “junk merchant” and afterward as a storekeeper. Z. Franks is remembered as the first religious leader of the Jews of Vancouver, his home and store serving as the first praying house for the local Jews. He was President of Sons of Yehuda (B’nai Yehuda) in 1907, and later of the Schara Tzedeck Synagogue.

  • Simma Holt (nיe Milner) (b.1922)

    An outstanding journalist, she started her career with the Vancouver Sun in 1944 and continued to contribute to numerous local and national newspapers. S. Holt entered politics by joining the Liberal Party and was a member of the Canadian Parliament for Vancouver-Kingsway riding between 1974 and 1979.

  • Nathaniel T. Nemetz (b.1913)

    A Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1963 and a Justice of the Court of Appeal in 1968, N.T. Nemetz became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1973, and was also elected an executive member of the Canadian Judicial Council in the same year. From 1985 to 1988, he served as vice-chairman of the Council. In 1979, he was appointed Chief Justice of British Columbia, a position he held until 1988.


  • David Oppenheimer (1834-1897)

    Often called the “father” of Vancouver, David Oppenheimer was born in Germany and arrived to Vancouver area in 1860. D. Oppenheimer’s activity as Mayor of Vancouver (1888-1892) greatly contributed to the early development of the city. During his term the basic civic services of the city were set up: water supply, the fire department, sewers, streets, sidewalks, and parks, including the Stanley Park, still one of the main landmarks of Vancouver. D. Oppenheimer was the first president and founder of the Board of Trade in Vancouver. His bronze bust was unveiled in Stanley Park in 1911 by Richard McBride, the then Premier of the Province of British Columbia.

  • Anne Sugarman (nיe Wodlinger) (1895-1973)

    Daughter of Jewish pioneers from Winnipeg, she lived in Vancouver from 1919 until 1942. She founded the Reform Jewish Sunday School (1922). A. Sugarman was the First President of the Vancouver Council of Jewish Women (1924), and along with her husband Ephraim, she founded Congregation Beth Israel (1932). During WWII, she founded and chaired the Red Cross Salvage Scheme, copied across Canada and later on was responsible for the first seeing-eye dog program in North America.

  • Gertrude Weinrobe (1893-1975)

    First Jewish child born in Vancouver. Her parents, Barney Weinrobe, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and Sara Sarbesky, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, came to Vancouver in January 1893. Their elder son, Nathan, 8, died shortly afterwards and was the first child buried in Mountain View Jewish cemetery. Gertrude was born three months later, the first Jewish baby born in Vancouver; she spent her life in the area and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery next to her brother Nathan.


  • GERBER, Jean. Opening the door; immigration and integration of Holocaust survivors in Vancouver, 1947-1970, Canadian Jewish Studies, 4-5 (1996-1997):63-86
  • LEONOFF, Cyril Edel. Vancouver and its outlying Jewish communities, 1886-2000, Western States Jewish History, 33, 4 (2001):344-378; 34, 3 (2002):247-281
  • LEONOFF, Cyril Edel. Vancouver Jewish life, 1886-1986, Western States Jewish History, 19, 4 (1987):315-334; 20, 1:62-72
  • The Scribe: The Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of B.C. – Volume XXI:1-2 (2001), XXIV:1-2(2004) – various articles