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Shalom, Newfoundland: A Jewish Culture Guide

Although the Jewish community of St. John’s is small in number, like all inhabitants of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, they are fiercely proud of their heritage and traditions.

By: Sarah Bauder
Published: October 29th, 2013 in Culture » Society » News

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador

It is believed that the first Jews to settle in Newfoundland and Labrador (yes, home of the Newfoundland and Labrador Retriever dogs, respectively) were a small number of Sephardic traders and merchants who arrived in the latter part of the 18th century, and early 19th century. A larger wave of Jewish immigrants from Central Europe settled on the island in the mid-19th century. A third wave of Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, immigrated to Newfoundland during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Most settled in St. John’s; working as shopkeepers, peddlers, or in its garment industry. Likewise, some became traders and peddlers who traveled throughout the island. One such individual who was instrumental in Newfoundland’s Jewish community, was Israel Perlin. Arriving from Minsk, Belarus by way of the United States in the early 1890’s, Perlin initially traveled throughout the island peddling dry goods, and trading with locals.

In 1893, he had become successful enough to open a wholesale store of his own in St. John’s. Perlin employed many Jewish immigrants over the years as peddlers, who sold a variety of his goods throughout Newfoundland. In 1909, he helped found the island’s first synagogue, the Hebrew Congregation of Newfoundland, which would meet in rented spaces throughout St. John’s.

Between 1934 and 1947, it is estimated that several thousand Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, attempted to immigrate to Newfoundland and Labrador. Yet, what for the restrictive Canadian immigration laws of the time, very few Jewish immigrants were permitted to enter Canada. However, that changed in 1948, when the Canadian government opened its borders to European Jewish survivors from the Displaced Persons camps.

Inside Beth El Synagogue

The first freestanding building of the Beth El Synagogue was completed in 1931, on Henry Street in downtown St. John’s. In 1959, construction commenced on a new location for the synagogue on Elizabeth Avenue, and was officially opened in 1960. It was given a major renovation in 2001. Originally Orthodox, Beth El became Conservative, then egalitarian Conservative.

With betwixt 40 to 50 members (25 families in total), the synagogue operates a small school for Sunday Hebrew classes, has a kosher kitchen, and has an active Outreach programme. Its annual Holocaust Memorial service often draws hundreds of participants. Not only is Beth El the only synagogue in Newfoundland, but also it has the distinction of being the easternmost synagogue on the continent of North America.

In 2006, an egalitarian religious, social, and cultural organization called The Jewish Community Havura was created. The Havura was founded to develop “an inclusive and egalitarian community with programmes and services to accommodate many different approaches to Judaism, including a commitment to social justice issues” in the St. John’s and surrounding area.

Since its inception, membership has grown from 20 to 40, and the organization offers and supports everything from all levels of Jewish education, to High Holiday celebrations, to outreach activities. The Havura works in conjunction with Beth El Synagogue to hold the annual Holocaust Memorial service.

Bird's eye view of St. John's

Not only is St. John’s the capital of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, but it’s also considered by many to be the oldest city to be founded by the English in all of North America. Likewise, Newfoundland is the most easterly part of the entire continent. Although the Jewish community of St. John’s is small in number, like all inhabitants of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, they are fiercely proud of their heritage and traditions. With the opportunity to witness the first sunrise in North America, that ought to be incentive enough to visit the province and its capital city.

Related articles: Shalom, Newfoundland, Labrador, St. John's, Jewish, Judiasm, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Culture Guide, Travel Guide, Tourism, Vacation, Cruise, Synagogue, Shul
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