It’s the oldest Jewish congregation in Canada and among the first in North America. Turning 250 is not only an extraordinary milestone for Montreal’s Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, but an event that should be recognized by the entire Jewish community and all Montrealers, say the organizers of the shul’s yearlong celebration.
The Corporation of Spanish & Portuguese Jews/Shearith Israel of Montreal was founded in 1768 by Simon Levy and Aaron Hart, who were among the earliest Jewish settlers in Quebec, in rented space on St. James Street (now St-Jacques).
Approximately 15 to 20 members prayed there, including the David, Joseph, Hays, Solomon and Wolff families, who became prominent figures in Montreal.
Although they came from England, Germany and the American colonies, they followed a Sephardi rite because they traced their ancestry to Spain and Portugal.
The congregation built its first synagogue in 1777, where the Palais de Justice now stands.
Today, the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue is the spiritual home of a culturally diverse 750 families, who co-exist harmoniously, according to president Edmond Elbaz.
Although about 90 per cent are Sephardi, they come from many places, including Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt. There are actually three congregations praying under one roof each Shabbat: the core group, the Lebanese and the Ashkenazi Congregation Chevra Shaas, which moved into the building in 2006, due to declining membership. It counts a sizeable Ethiopian community among its numbers.
In the past couple of years, a hand has been extended to recently arrived immigrants from France, who are offered a complimentary year-long membership. About 10 families are now attending services, said Elbaz.
Interestingly, the congregation has had an Ashkenazi rabbi since the early 20th century and, in fact, its membership was predominantly Ashkenazi until waves of immigration from North Africa and Iraq began coming in the late 1950s. It was the only Sephardi synagogue in Montreal for many years.
A big draw from the 1960s was the arrival of Cantor Salomon Amzallag, a favourite of the king of Morocco, who had a secondary career as a popular international singer.
Current interim Rabbi Avi Finegold notes that he is the first, at least partially Sephardi spiritual leader the congregation has had in a very long time (his mother is Sephardi).
Montreal did not have a second synagogue until 1846, when the Ashkenazi Congregation Shaar Hashomayim was established, with many of its founders splitting from the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue.
Interestingly, Rabbi Finegold’s wife, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, works at the Shaar Hashomayim.
The Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue has been at its current location since 1947, when it moved from its downtown location. The main sanctuary, today known as the Mashaal Sanctuary, was completed in 1960.
The slogan of the anniversary celebration is the bilingual “Honouring the Past/Tournée vers le futur,” which Elbaz said recognizes that the synagogue must attract younger people, if it is going to remain vital – a difficult task when the community demographics are unfavourable.
The leadership has determined that it will maintain the traditional Orthodox Sephardi rite (which is somewhat different from the Moroccan tradition), while embracing modernity, in an attempt to make the services more accessible, he said.
“Our doors are always open,” said Elbaz, who has been associated with the congregation for close to 40 years. “We welcome everyone, from all cultures and backgrounds, to come and be part of our community.
Our doors are always open.
– Edmond Elbaz
“We want this to be a community centre, not only a place to daven, a place where families feel comfortable.”
The anniversary celebrations will be officially launched on Jan. 18 with the commissioning of a Sefer Torah that is expected to be completed by September. Its casing, to be designed by an artist, will reflect the congregation’s history.
The very first Sefer Torah, which is now housed at Library and Archives Canada, will be borrowed for the inauguration of the new one.
The synagogue has about 60 scrolls now, many of them in storage, each with distinct provenances, Rabbi Finegold said.
In March, the anniversary will be marked at Montreal city hall with the opening of an exhibition on the synagogue’s history.
A big gala is set for May 10, which will feature the legendary singer Enrico Macias, an Algerian-born Sephardi and a favourite among Quebecers. Rabbi Howard Joseph, who served the community for four decades starting in 1970, and Norma Joseph will be honoured at the event.
A special invitation is being extended to the dozen or so other Spanish and Portuguese synagogues around the world. A weekend of activities will follow the gala.
In June, a series of lectures about various communities begins with guest speaker David Dangoor. The new documentary he produced, Remember Baghdad, about the last days of the Jews of Iraq, will be screened. Dangoor fled the country as a child with his family in 1959.
Also in the works is a concert in November that will feature Cantor Daniel Benlolo, who returned to Montreal last summer after more than 20 years in Ottawa.