Reflections on the centenary of a historic Canadian visit by the chief rabbi of the U.K.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom (Credit|: Wikipedia)

One hundred years ago, Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom paid a landmark visit to Canada as part of pastoral tour of Empire Jewry in 1920-21. He arrived in Canada on July 4, 1921 and toured for six weeks.

Rabbi Hertz, who was Chief Rabbi from 1913 until his death in 1946, had the idea of a global tour after seeing the Prince of Wales’ visit to Canada following the First World War. He wanted to do something similar, and to visit smaller communities.

He was away for almost 11 months, a real sacrifice, leaving behind his wife and six children. As well as Canada, the other destinations were the Jewish communities in the dominions of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In total, the tour covered 42 communities and 40,000 miles.

The visit to Canada was the final stop of Rabbi Hertz’s tour by boat. He arrived after a stop in the Pacific in Fiji, where a few Jewish families were living. This was later than planned but his schedule had been thrown by inclement weather.

There had been much excitement and anticipation of the visit. A letter in April 1920 to Rabbi Hertz from the Hebrew Congregation of Lethbridge declared: “You have been reported in the Canadian press that you are about to undertake a tour through Canada. If you are correctly reported, the Hebrew congregation of this city take this rare and pleasing opportunity to extend to you their hearty and most cordial invitation to include them in your itinerary.”

Canada had a Jewish population of 125,000 at the time, more than the other three dominions on the rabbi’s itinerary put together.

In Western Canada, Rabbi Hertz’s packed schedule included stops in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. He was accompanied by Rev. Herbert Samuel of Winnipeg, whose community numbered 12,000, and at the time was the only English-trained preacher in Western Canada.

 The pace of the tour was unrelenting. Rev. Samuel wrote to Mrs. Hertz: “In the twenty-three days that the Chief Rabbi spent in Western Canada, he preached eleven sermons and spoke at thirteen meetings. He addressed six Canadian clubs, delivering four Bible lectures, inspecting and addressing seven Talmud Torahs, undergoing four formal receptions, being entertained by four Lieutenant-Governors, received by seven Mayors and visiting three Premiers.”

Rabbi Hertz was given a warm welcome. In Winnipeg, for instance, the city hall was illuminated with the message for three nights: “Welcome Dr. Hertz.”

He was impressed by the standards of education from his tour. He later wrote: “The most gratifying feature of these Western communities that are but of yesterday is the zeal for Talmud Torah displayed by the recent immigrants. They believe with the old Rabbis, that the duty of religious education outweighs in importance all other duties.” 

The Chief Rabbi then headed east, carrying out many engagements in Toronto (Jewish population of 35,000) and Montreal, the oldest and largest community in the country (45,000 Jews). One highlight was his address to 2,000 children in a park in Montreal.

The final stop was the long trek to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The travelling party managed to narrowly avoid forest fires in Sydney, N.S. at the time. Rabbi Hertz was again well received by the locals, who appreciated the efforts he had gone to.

In a message, the mayor of Halifax stated: “You come to us as the Chief representative of one of the many elements that constitute the great British peoples. You come primarily on a pastoral visit to those of your flock who are Citizens among us… You are now bringing to a close possibly the greatest journey of your career.” The last engagement of the tour was a Bible lecture at St John, N.B.

Rabbi Hertz left Canada on Aug. 16, 1921 and after a brief stop in New York, he arrived back in the U.K. at Southampton on Aug. 30. Writing afterwards, he reflected on his great international adventure: “I had preached love and loyalty to the Empire wherever I went, and sown the seeds of Jewish idealism and spirituality in all the far-off places I had visited.”

Satisfied with the success of his globe-trotting, he was granted a private audience with King George V at Buckingham Palace in November.

The “Imperial tour” is one the things Rabbi Hertz remains most famous for, along with his commentary on the Humash. It solidified the bonds between the U.K. and her dominions, and also gave him and his office prestige on the world stage.

A century on, it’s interesting to reflect that a modern-day equivalent world tour may well take in a diversity of communities, such as the Caribbean and India, and not just the “white Commonwealth.” The sun may have set on the British empire but 100 years after Rabbi Hertz’s landmark tour, the ties between Jewish communities across the Commonwealth remain strong.

 Zaki Cooper is on the Diplomatic Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Jewish Council.