On March 29, 2018, the Parliament of Canada passed legislation to designate May as Canadian Jewish Heritage Month.
“Canada’s Jewish community numbers 400,000 people from coast to coast to coast, making it the fourth largest in the world,” noted Minister of Canadian Heritage and Minister responsible for Multiculturalism, Melanie Joly.
“Through their achievements, Canadians of Jewish origin have shaped the social, economic, political and cultural life of our country. Canadian Jewish Heritage Month is the perfect time to recognize their contributions and reflect on how we all benefit from the diversity and openness that are at the heart of Canadian identity.
“As Minister of Canadian Heritage and Minister responsible for Multiculturalism, I invite Canadians of all faiths to learn more about the culture and history of their Jewish fellow citizens and their contributions to our society.”
Sponsored by Conservative Sen. Linda Frum and Liberal MP Michael Levitt, Canadian Jewish Heritage Month Act, known as Bill S-232, was introduced in December 2016. The groundwork for it was laid in 2015, when former Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler introduced the substance of the bill.
The United States proclaimed May as the month to celebrate the contributions of the American Jewish community in 2006, and Ontario established May as Jewish Heritage Month in 2012.
It was just 80 years ago that Canada had the unofficial policy of “none is too many”. Anti-Semitism in Canada’s immigration policy ultimately led to the admittance of only 5,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1948.
Among many Members of Parliament, Kelly McCauley (MP for Edmonton West) spoke on behalf of the Bill. He said:
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in support of Bill S-232, a bill that proposes to establish the month of May as Jewish heritage month. I want to discuss the Jewish history in Edmonton and particularly in my riding of Edmonton West.
I want to thank Debbie Shoctor and the Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton for their work in gathering together the history of Jewish Edmontonians. It is from this work that much of my speech is drawn or plagiarized.
This legislation is important to me as the member of Parliament representing Edmonton West, because two of the Jewish congregations in Edmonton, Beth Israel Synagogue and the Chabad Lubavitch, are in my riding. The two rabbis, Rabbi Friedman at Beth Israel and Rabbi Ari Drelich at Chabad, I count as two of my closest friends.
It is important to recognize as well the work of Rabbi Friedman as the council chair of the National Holocaust Memorial that just opened. Rabbi Friedman, who is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, chaired the National Holocaust Monument Development Council, which raised $4.5 million for the design and construction of the monument.
Of the museum, Rabbi Friedman said, “It has been a very long work in progress, but we have reached the goal: It’s something I’m very proud of. It really symbolizes who we are as Canadians.” I thank Rabbi Freidman for his work.
Given the history of the Jewish people in Edmonton and the prominent role that Beth Israel and the Chabaud play in the community, I am pleased that this legislation passed the Senate unanimously, and I hope that my colleagues will do the same here.
Now, on to the history.
Abraham and Rebecca Cristall, Edmonton’s first Jews, arrived in 1893, just a year after Edmonton was incorporated as a town. Their children, George and Rose, were the very first Jewish children born in Edmonton. Abe became a successful businessman and helped to bring more Jews over from his native Bessarabia.
Right from the beginning, the Jewish people played an integral part in the growth of Edmonton, dating back almost to the city’s founding over a century ago.
In 1905, William “Boss” Diamond came to Edmonton after coming to join his brother Jacob, Alberta’s first Jewish citizen, in Calgary. Even back then we had a rivalry with Calgary, and I will grant Calgary that point.
Together with eight other men, Boss Diamond and Abe CristaIl formed the Edmonton Hebrew Association in 1906. They hired Rabbi Hyman Goldstick of Pilton, Latvia to be rabbi for both the Edmonton and Calgary Jewish communities.
In 1907, Abe Cristall purchased land on the south side for a Jewish cemetery and the Chevra Kadisha was formed.
In 1912, the foundations were laid for the Beth Israel Synagogue on the corner of 95th Street and Rowland Road. Abe CristaII served as the first president, and William “Boss” Diamond served as the second, a position he held for 31 years.
In 1912, the Edmonton Talmud Torah Society was founded, with classes being held in the basement of the synagogue.
In 1925, the society erected its own building on Jasper Avenue, and it was incorporated as the very first Hebrew day school in all of Canada.
Note that it was not in Calgary.
One of my good friends Jamie and her husband Jonah have a young son named Benjamin. Jamie and Jonah plan on sending Ben to Talmud Torah for his education at this century-old institution, an example of the continuation of the work begun by Abe CristalI so long ago.
In 1928, a second congregation was started in the basement of the Talmud Torah building, which later became the Beth Shalom congregation.
A few years later, it was formally organized and they engaged Rabbi Jacob Eisen, who became the first English-speaking rabbi west of Winnipeg.
Also at that time, the new Yiddish school was opened in downtown Edmonton, enjoying a brief heyday before it had to close just before the war.
In 1938, just before the start of World War II, a 13-year old boy named Peter Owen became the only Jewish child let into Canada alone during the war years by a special order in council. He was sponsored by Edmonton lawyer H.A. Friedman, and was adopted by the family, eventually becoming a prominent lawyer himself and a permanent resident of the city.
By 1941, Edmonton’s population had increased to 94,000, and the Jewish population stood at just below 1,500.
During World War II, 120 men and women from Edmonton’s Jewish community served, with 11 of them giving their lives for our country.
The post-war years saw rapid growth in both the Jewish and general population of Edmonton. As a result, a new Beth Shalom Synagogue was built on Jasper Avenue. A new Beth Israel Synagogue building was constructed in 1953, as well as a new Talmud Torah building that same year, reflecting the population shift of the Jewish community from downtown to the west end.
In 1954, the Edmonton Jewish Community Council was formed as an umbrella organization for the community and served as such for the next 28 years. Later it merged with the Edmonton United Jewish Appeal and became the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, which still serves today.
Edmonton’s booming oil-based economy brought increased Jewish immigration over the next two decades, with major influxes from other provinces in Canada as well as from places such as Hungary, Russia, and South Africa. The Jewish population tripled in size from 1951 to 1991 and now stands at about 6,000 people, many of whom reside in my constituency of Edmonton West.
All these new immigrants brought with them the organizations that contribute to Edmonton’s vibrant Jewish community. The community’s third congregation, Temple Beth Ora Reform congregation, was founded in 1979 and is housed in the Jewish Community Centre. Beth Tzedek, a new conservative congregation and offshoot of Beth Shalom, was started in 1989 and holds services at the Talmud Torah. In 1999, a new building for the Edmonton Talmud Torah was built in west Edmonton, and the very next year, a new Beth Israel Synagogue was built nearby, reflecting a further shift in the population of the Jewish community from downtown to west Edmonton.
In the fall of 2004, Edmonton elected its first Jewish mayor, Stephen Mandel. Mr. Mandel had previously served as a city councillor, continuing a long tradition of Jewish city councillors, including Dr. Morris Weinlos, Helen Paull, Mel Binder, Karen Leibovici, Tooker Gomberg, and Michael Oshry.
There has always been a strong tradition of civic involvement in the Edmonton Jewish community, with members serving on the boards and executives of many local arts, cultural, educational, and fundraising organizations as well as in the judiciary. Notable community leaders over the years include Tiger Goldstick; Joe Schoctor; the Ghermizian family, of course, of the West Edmonton Mall; and Darryl Katz, owner of our beloved Edmonton Oilers.
The Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta was founded in 1996 to preserve and promote the history of the vibrant Jewish community. I must thank it again for supplying much of the history I have just walked the House through.
I would also like to address the specific importance of a Jewish heritage month to acknowledge not only the contributions of Jewish Canadians to Canadian society but also the importance of teaching Jewish history to our younger generations, who will now be at least two generations removed from the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. I make these comments in light of the recent anti-Semitic rallies in Charlottesville, which my Jewish friends described as sad but not surprising, as well as the growing strength of the BDS movement on our university campuses.
Hate crimes against those of the Jewish faith are still the highest per capita in Canada. A hate crime is a hate crime is a hate crime, and any number of hate crimes greater than zero is too many. We must not ignore crimes committed against one group. Otherwise, we normalize the hatred.
We see evidence of this attitude in the treatment of the BDS movement in this place. When a motion was brought forward to condemn the BDS movement in Canada, I was shocked that many in the House refused to vote for the motion to condemn BDS. The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement makes little effort to separate the Israeli government from those of the Jewish faith, and consequently, treats them as one and the same. It is fair to criticize the policy decisions of the government of the day, which we do in this place all the time. It is unacceptable to treat those of a certain faith as the same as a certain government. BDS fails to make this distinction and encourages unchecked hatred across Canada.
This summer I travelled to Auschwitz and saw first-hand this monument to human tragedy. I want to share with the House the overwhelming emotion I felt when I visited the death camp. I was struck by the simple mechanics of the Holocaust, the cold and mechanical efficiency of the Nazi genocide machine.
My son and I travelled to Warsaw as well, and we visited the site of the old ghetto. The destruction was so thorough that no buildings remain, just a small portion of the wall the Nazis built around the ghetto. My son has just entered university to study poli-sci, and I am glad he will be able to gain a necessary perspective about world history and the capability of humankind to commit truly unspeakable atrocities.
The BDS movement is particularly active in Canadian universities, and I am glad there will be one more educated voice on campus fighting this insidious form of anti-Semitism.
We cannot allow the atrocities of the past to be repeated. Remembering the contributions of the Jewish people to our country is a good step toward combatting anti-Semitism today. I am thankful for the contributions to Edmonton and to Canada by those of the Jewish faith. I am proud to stand today to support this motion to establish the month of May as Jewish heritage month.