How Abraham de Sola changed the course of Canadian Jewish history

Lithograph of Abraham de Sola. Feb. 3, 1872 newspaper. (Mcgill University Archives Prooo3000)

By around 1890, Montreal’s Shearith Israel was more commonly known as the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, and still is in the present day. The synagogue took its name and lead from the Sephardic synagogue in New York established in 1654, as well as Bevis Marks in London—despite the fact that nearly all of its founders were Ashkenazic Jews.

In 1846, Shearith Israel’s trustees—with assistance from the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in New York and London—embarked on a search for the ideal candidate to lead the Montreal congregation. The successful prospect had to be able to deliver sermons in English. From a list of three possible candidates, the trustees chose 21-year-old Abraham de Sola, who was not an ordained rabbi and used the title “Reverend.” He accepted the offer and never looked back. With the “bearing of [an] ancient high priest,” de Sola was Canada’s first true Jewish religious leader. He influenced all those who crossed his path, and rightly commanded respect from Jews and Christians alike as a “gentleman of high intellectual powers.”

De Sola was born in London in 1825. His family’s Sephardic origins went back to 15th-century Spain and Portugal; his great-great-great grandfather David de Sola was tortured in the Portuguese Inquisition, and David’s son Aaron (Abraham’s great-great-grandfather) fled Portugal for the safety of London in the 1740s. Both Abraham’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Raphael Meldola, and his father, David Aaron de Sola, were rabbinical scholars associated with the Sephardic Bevis Marks synagogue—Meldola as chief rabbi and de Sola as a non-ordained hazzan.

Both, too, wrote influential religious commentaries. David Aaron de Sola was especially prolific, translating the Hebrew Scriptures into English and authoring books on Sephardic history and culture. Abraham was tutored by his father as well as by Dr. Louis Loewe, a German Jewish academic and “Oriental” (Middle Eastern and Asian) language expert. The intellectual drive, work ethic, and religious philosophies of his grandfather, father, and teacher had a powerful impact on young Abraham. So, too, did the liberal education he received at the City of London School. By the time he was a teenager, Abraham was a model anglicized Orthodox Jew.

After accepting the post at Shearith Israel, de Sola journeyed to New York and then Montreal the following January, a trip that took 43 days. Montreal in 1847 was no longer the mere town it had been in 1800. Now it was the largest city in British North America, and the key urban centre of the United Province of Canada—in 1840, the British had passed the Act of Union, uniting Upper and Lower Canada (now designated Canada West and Canada East respectively)—with a population that had more than quadrupled in four and half decades to about 50,000. It was a thriving city dominated by the English, Scottish, Irish, and French, and home to less than 250 Jews. Culturally, Montreal in the pre-Confederation period was definitely a British city. “The English language was everywhere,” the city’s historian Paul-André Linteau notes. “Protestant churches, schools, and associations multiplied. The city’s architecture was transformed as it began to draw on British inspiration.”

Following his father’s approach, de Sola freely used English in his sermons and writings, but disdained any attempts to “Protestantize” Judaism—with organ music, for example, or bar mitzvahs that resembled confirmations—as the growing Reform movement advocated.

His view was more moderate on the religious debate that ultimately laid the foundations for the Conservative branch of Judaism. In this enduring and contentious dispute, de Sola was a follower of the German Ashkenazic Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–88), who melded Orthodox Judaism with the modern world.

Unlike the pious Hasidim who deliberately isolated themselves, Hirsch maintained it was possible to be a devout Jew and also receive a secular education, attend theatre, and read German literature. His motto was, in Hebrew, “Torah im derekh eretz”—that Torah, or Jewish law, should accommodate to derekh eretz, the general norms of the non-Jewish world—a precept that de Sola preached and practised throughout his life. “I too am a reformer as far as endeavours which I believe to be consistent and legal in the manner of synagogue worship are concerned,” he later wrote to his friend and mentor Isaac Leeser, the lay leader of the Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. “I don’t think the cause of orthodoxy would suffer much did Conservative synagogues introduce quiet and respectability in their services . . . Orthodoxy by nature and by character is respectable. Absurd and inconsistent novelty in the synagogue is disreputable in its very essence.”

Within five years of arriving in Montreal, de Sola had married Esther Joseph, the youngest daughter of the successful fur and tobacco merchant Henry (Harry) Joseph of Berthier-en-Haut (Berthierville), a nephew of Aaron Hart and the son-in-law of Levy Solomons. According to educator Dr. Susan Landau-Chark, Esther could be considered Montreal’s first rebbetzin (a title for a rabbi’s wife).


She and Abraham were provided with a house next to the synagogue and in time would have seven children—among them Meldola, who followed his father as the religious leader at Shearith Israel, and Clarence, a wealthy businessman and early Zionist leader.

One of Abraham de Sola’s responsibilities was to promote and foster Judaism among families in which intermarriage was frequent. Indeed, he tackled his new position with the zealousness of a workaholic, emulating his father’s drive and scholarship. And when not leading regular services at the synagogue and diplomatically dealing with the various contentious religious and member-related issues that the role entailed, he kept himself busy with other tasks and initiatives.

Within a few months of his appointment he had started a synagogue Sunday Hebrew school for children, and then in 1874 he was the driving force behind opening the first Jewish private day and boarding school in Canada. The Spanish and Portuguese free school offered religious instruction in Hebrew as well as classes in English. Most unusual of all, especially given Shearith Israel’s poor finances, the school was free and open to Jewish children regardless of whether their parents were members of the congregation or not. The school—and subsequent attempts to establish other Jewish schools in Montreal—was not without its problems, though, due to the bickering within the community and the challenges of navigating through the minefield of Quebec’s dual Catholic and Protestant school system.

Like his father, Abraham de Sola was a prolific scholar. He wrote articles and books on Jewish law, the plight of Jews in Persia (Iran), chronicles of Jews in Poland and France, and explored scientific and medical aspects of the Scriptures—among other diverse subjects that drew his interest. Ahead of his time, he argued that providing women with painkilling medication during childbirth was not, as was believed, contrary to the Scriptures.

He regularly contributed to Jewish newsletters like the Occident, the first English-language Jewish journal in the United States, established by his friend Isaac Leeser in 1843.

And he lectured on Hebrew, rabbinic, and Middle Eastern literature at McGill University, after he was recruited by William Dawson, McGill’s esteemed principal. None of these pursuits—including his synagogue position—paid him much money, and he perpetually struggled to support his family financially. On more than one occasion, he contemplated job offers from synagogues in the United States, yet each time the Shearith Israel trustees convinced him to stay and raised sufficient funds to keep him happy, if temporarily.

McGill, like many Canadian universities and colleges, was later tainted with anti-Semitism, but not in the mid-19th century, when the number of Jews in Montreal was insignificant in comparison to the period after the First World War. De Sola told Leeser that Dawson “has a claim on Jews. He respects Hebrew learning and the Hebrew language . . . He is a man of depth, and he is out on our side.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. In 1858, McGill awarded de Sola with an honorary Doctor of Laws—another Jewish first in England and North America—proof to him, as he told Alexander Levy, the president of Shearith Israel, of “the cheering fact that in Montreal at least there is no bar, unless our want of self-respect erect it, to prevent the Israelite from reaching the goal which all right thinking men aspire to attain.”

He was further assured of the correctness of his opinion when in the spring of 1864 he was asked to impart his wisdom in the convocation address. And then, in 1872, in a singular distinction and an indication of his respected reputation outside Montreal, he was invited—possibly by U.S. President Ulysses Grant, hoping to ease tensions with Britain arising from the Civil War years—to offer a prayer for the opening session of Congress. He was not the first Jew asked to do this, but he was the first British subject and foreigner to be accorded such an honour.

Abraham de Sola’s energy was high and his interests were varied. He participated in Montreal’s Mercantile Library, Literary Club, Mechanics Institute, and Natural History Society, which elected him president in 1867–68. As small groups of German and Polish Jews, many who were impoverished, arrived in the city—some via the United States—they increased Montreal’s Jewish (or “Israelite”) population to approximately 950 by 1881 (the number had decreased in the 1870s and then rebounded). In response, de Sola established the Hebrew Philanthropic Society, with assistance from community leaders such as Moses Hays, to raise money for the newcomers.

Still, he was a Sephardic snob on the subject of “backward” Polish Jews, who he referred to as “Pollacks.” In 1859, he had refused to attend the ceremony for the official laying of the cornerstone for the new English, German, and Polish congregation synagogue on St. Constant Street (now Rue de Bullion), though this was likely less a disagreement about religious customs and owed more to the fact that de Sola had got caught up in a financial dispute between members of his board and the board of the Ashkenazic synagogue. (Rabbinical disagreements aside, the members of the two synagogues did work together on the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society, which was founded in 1863 and was the community’s first major Jewish charitable organization.)

He had similar attitudes toward French Canadians, noting in 1861 with typical Anglo superiority that the Canadian habitants were “doubtless a worthy, happy, contented [people] so far as creature comforts, and, perhaps, business transactions, are concerned . . . yet few would charge them with too much intellectuality, enterprise, or with a too free spirit of inquiry either in matters spiritual or secular.”

In 1874, the philanthropic society, which subscribed to the principal “Union is Strength,” divvied up $542 between 42 immigrant families. The Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society, which de Sola also helped organize, did its part, too. As his reputation grew beyond the city, de Sola, who corresponded regularly with Isaac Leeser as well as Sir Moses Montefiore, the British financier and philanthropist, linked Montreal with the worldwide Jewish community. Still, ignorance about Canada’s relatively small Jewish population and its key leaders persisted. In an 1886 feature article about established Anglo Jewish families in the Jewish Chronicle of London, the most widely read English-language Jewish newspaper of the era, de Sola, who had died four years earlier on trip to New York, barely got a mention.


Excerpted from Seeking the Fabled City by Allan Levine. Copyright © 2018 Allan Levine. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.
Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.