Nova Scotia is a visual and cultural treat for anyone looking for a unique
Canadian adventure. Situated among the Atlantic Maritime provinces along
Canada’s eastern seaboard, it offers a unique blend of natural scenic wonders
and strong Celtic cultural influences. Nova Scotia – Latin for New Scotland – is
also a source of considerable Canadian history. Although European settlements
were established by both the French and British in the early 17th century,
British influence proved more enduring, particularly after the 1749 founding of
Tens of thousands of Scots, English, Irish and Welsh arrived in
Nova Scotia in the early 19th century.
This European influx was augmented
by thousands of United Empire Loyalists – former soldiers and refugees who
remained loyal to the British crown – who fled the American Revolution to settle
in Britishruled Canada. Many ended up in Nova Scotia, especially the island of
Cape Breton, where coal and steel industries were prominent.
19th century and well into the 20th, more Europeans arrived on Canada’s eastern
shores, including Jews from Poland, Lithuania, Germany and Russia.
like New York, Halifax served as the gateway for European immigrants entering
Canada, and much like New York’s Ellis Island, Halifax’s Pier 21 was Canada’s
major point of entry between 1928 and 1971.
Arriving by sea, about a
million and a half immigrants passed through the pier before they settled in
towns and cities across the nation, and, in the process, enriching Canada’s
Among these new immigrants to Nova Scotia were my
father, Dr. Edward Wolak, his younger brother Irv and their parents Jacob and
Rosa. Having survived the Holocaust in Poland, they arrived in Canada in the
1950s after changing their surname from Wohlman to Wolak in response to
prevailing postwar Polish anti- Semitism.
Reaching Pier 21 after a very
bumpy winter’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean, they went west like most new
arrivals in Canada – in my family’s case, heading for Vancouver, after a stop in
Winnipeg to visit relatives who had emigrated prior to World War I from the
shtetls of the eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire.
No longer a port of
immigration, Pier 21 now serves as Canada’s Immigration Museum. Full of
fascinating exhibits and personal stories documenting Canada’s diverse immigrant
communities, casual visitors, history buffs and those in search of their family
roots will find Pier 21 of considerable interest. There are many interactive
displays as well as learning opportunities for immigration and family
Beyond Pier 21, Halifax has many other fascinating and
worthwhile sites to see, including the impressive and imposing Citadel.
strategic hilltop British military base constructed in the 1740s to repel the
French and secure Halifax’s burgeoning harbor, it grew over the ensuing decades
to defend against potential land-based invasions from the US. These days,
Halifax’s Citadel is a peaceful Canadian national historic site attracting
tourists the world over who come to visit the Army Museum and see authentically
dressed actors portraying imposing kilt-wearing soldiers of yesteryear,
revisiting an age when Halifax was a major garrison in the British
Although Nova Scotia is not one of Canada’s most populous
provinces – this distinction goes to Ontario and Quebec – it was among Canada’s
first four provinces at the time of the country’s founding in 1867 (today there
are 10 provinces and three territories).
Nova Scotia’s capital, Halifax,
home to a contemporary population of about 300,000, helped play an important
role in shaping Canada’s national character.
However, not all immigrants
who arrived at Pier 21 left for other parts of the country. Many stayed in Nova
Scotia, especially Halifax, including a Jewish community that remains just under
Although modest in number, the Jews of Halifax proudly represent
the largest Canadian Jewish community east of Montreal.
traces of Jewish history can be found in Halifax, especially along Oxford
Street. While perhaps a dozen Jews inhabited Halifax at its founding, a formal
community with Jewish infrastructure and Jewish organizations did not take shape
until after Canadian Confederation in 1867.
In 1894, Halifax’s Baron de
Hirsch Congregation, at the corner of Starr and Hurd Streets, was the first
Orthodox congregation established east of Montreal.
Halifax Explosion of 1917 caused the destruction of the Halifax synagogue
(though its Torahs survived). After relocating a number of times, the shul
ultimately established itself, in 1957, at the corner of Coburg Road and Oxford
Street, where it remains under the new name, Beth Israel Synagogue.
situated on Oxford Street is Sha’ar Shalom Congregation.
1953 to serve Halifax’s growing Conservative Jewish community, Sha’ar Shalom
provides its members and visitors egalitarian Shabbat and holiday services. In
1995, Chabad came to downtown Halifax to serve its Jewish community, including
the large unaffiliated student population at Dalhousie University and smaller
Jewish communities throughout the Maritimes.
Tourists should venture
beyond the urban center of Halifax northeast towards the rustic and scenic Cape
Breton Island. No trip to Nova Scotia is complete without a stop in Cape Breton,
with its colorful fishing villages and traditional Celtic music. Although Celtic
culture remains dominant, a remnant of Maritime Jewish history can still be
Cape Breton, once a thriving center of Jewish culture, has
declined significantly in recent decades, largely due to domestic migration. The
only functioning synagogue is Temple Sons of Israel on Whitney Avenue in Sydney,
the largest city on the island. This past summer, Cape Breton’s oldest
synagogue, Glace Bay’s Congregation Sons of Israel, permanently closed its
doors. The old coal mining town of Glace Bay no longer had enough men to form a
minyan in this former Orthodox shul. Seeking a more urban existence, the Jewish
population dwindled over the years as children and grandchildren of the original
Eastern European Jewish settlers moved to Halifax and to cities across
After more than a century of service to the community, the Glace
Bay synagogue’s menora, Torah ark and other artifacts were transferred to nearby
Whitney Pier Historical Museum, situated in one of the more
scenic areas of Sydney’s Cape Breton County, is well worth
Established in 1988, the museum houses a collection of
photographs, paintings and old newspapers relating the history of Whitney Pier,
all preserved in a building that was once a large synagogue – Adath Israel –
which closed in 1986.
Constructed around a former steel plant, Whitney
Pier had been home to a diverse ethnic community – including many Jews – who
came to work in Cape Breton’s industries. The museum features a full wall
devoted to the Whitney Pier Jewish community. As a testament to the mix of
ethnic groups, one can still find tartan kippot for sale in the
The writer is a freelancer and photographer in Vancouver.
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