Every year before Rosh Hashanah, members of the Jewish community of St. John’s, N.L., travel to nearby Cape Spear, the most easterly point of land on the continent, to conduct a Shacharit morning prayer service while overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, thus becoming the first Jews in North America to greet the new year.
That’s one of numerous points of distinction of this small Jewish community, which today numbers only a few dozen families. The community may never have been large – it peaked at an estimated 75 to 100 families some time in the 1940s or 1950s – but it is certainly one of the oldest in Canada.
The first Jews arrived in Newfoundland in the 1770s. “They were trading for fish and also seal furs and seal oil, which was used in lamps,” said Robin McGrath, author of Salt Fish and Shmattes: History of the Jews of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1770.
Many in the modern community are descended from peddlers and shopkeepers who arrived from Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, according to Dr. Douglas Wilansky, who was born in St. John’s in 1929, the son of a Belarusian-born rabbi and his wife who ran Wilansky and Sons Limited. “My father was the rabbi for a period,” he said. “My parents ran the clothing store and my mother also had another store. There were perhaps 10 or 15 Jewish stores in town.”
Like many children of immigrants, Dr. Wilansky left Newfoundland in 1949, the year the former British colony became part of Canada. After graduating from medical school, he became founding chief of medicine (emeritus) at Toronto’s Etobicoke General Hospital, a position from which he recently retired. But he still goes back to St. John’s every year.
As it happens, Claire Frankel-Salama, current president of St. John’s Beth El Synagogue, also has strong connections to Toronto. “I’m a Bathurst Street girl,” she said, despite the fact that she’s lived in St. John’s for 30 years. She’s a lecturer at Memorial University and her husband, Messod Salama, is a full professor.
“When we came here, it was the tail end of a certain era,” she said. “There were a lot of Jewish businesses at one time and there were still some shopkeepers on Water Street. The Holocaust survivors and others who came here after the war sent their kids to universities in Montreal and Toronto, then they followed their kids and left.” (Philip Riteman, a Holocaust survivor who stayed, is a renowned public speaker on the Holocaust who was awarded an honorary PhD by Memorial University several years ago.)
A memorable moment in the community’s history occurred during the 9/11 crisis of 2001. The community went into full service mode to assist the many Jewish passengers who were stranded when their jets were forced to land here and in Gander.
The synagogue has weekly services and was recently the scene of a Purim party and a lively bat mitzvah last August. But the congregation never rebounded after a group splintered away about 10 years ago and formed a separate organization called Chavura.
Representatives of Chabad have also started visiting in recent years and a Chabad-connected rabbi has even been sending small presents on Jewish holidays, including shmurah matzah at Passover. One year the main shipping route from Sidney N.S. and the mainland was blocked when ice prevented the ferries from crossing the strait, Frankel-Salama recalled. “The only matzah we had for that seder was the matzah from Rabbi Gorelik,” she said.
There is a kosher fruit winery on the island, but kosher grape wine must be ordered from Toronto. Kosher beef is hard to come by but a local Sobey’s supermarket imports kosher chicken for the community. “We’ve had struggles moving from Chai to Marvid chicken like everyone else,” Frankel-Salama said. “We eat a lot of fish – the fish here is wonderful.”
The first Jews to the island came from England in the late 18th century, and historian-writer McGrath found a lot about them in the records of the synagogue in Plymouth, England. Simon Solomon, the first Jew in the St. John’s area, was the first postmaster of Newfoundland, she said. “He was also a jeweller and a member of the dissenting church. He came to St. John’s from Devon, England in 1792.”
A retired Eskimologist who spent 25 years living in Baffin Island, McGrath was born and raised in St. John’s, and spoke to The CJN from her current home in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her novel, The Winterhouse, which is salted with the early history of Newfoundland’s Jewish community, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award in 2009.
“As a child growing up, the Jews were extremely important to me and my cultural development,” she said. “I didn’t grow up as a Jew but they were all around me. They were just very interesting, lively, cultured people, adventuresome and cultivated too.”
This is the fourth in an occasional series on Jewish life in various small towns across Canada.