Revitalizing Vancouver

Although home to 16% of Canada's Jews, the Pacific Coast community struggles to fight assimilation.

vancouver skyline 298 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
vancouver skyline 298
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Vancouver, British Columbia's regal mountains and enviable location on the Pacific coast have made it an attractive destination for settlers for years. But it wasn't until 1840 that the first Jew, Latvian-born Adolph Friedman, arrived in what was then British territory. When 100 more finally joined him, it was the Fraser River Gold Rush that attracted them from their homes in England, Australia and California in 1858. Some started out as miners, but the majority became tradesmen, merchants and wholesalers who supplied the first gold rush towns and cities of British Columbia with provisions. The province's first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, was established in 1863 in the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, then the province's principal city and business center. In his address to the congregation, vice president Samuel Hoffman declared: "Who would have thought that in five years we should have a temple erected where then the aborigines were the lords of the domain?" The Russian pogroms of the 1880s completely changed the face of the province's Jewish community. Prior to their onset, the majority of Jewish migrants living in British Columbia hailed from Britain and the US and were well integrated into Anglo-Saxon society. When the pogroms began, impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe started arriving, with little or no grasp of English and only a few coins in their pockets. They brought their Ashkenazi rituals, Orthodoxy and an unquenchable thirst to survive. Their numbers grew until by 1920 they represented the majority of Vancouver's 250 Jewish families. Many became peddlers, selling their wares from a horse-drawn wagon until they accumulated the resources to open small stores. A few became esteemed members of the Vancouver business community, amassing great wealth and using it to benefit and enrich both the Jewish community and general society. Morris Wosk, a real-estate mogul and philanthropic pillar of the Vancouver Jewish community until his death in 2002, was one such immigrant. He arrived from Odessa in 1928 at the age of 10, started peddling at 13 and opened his first store soon after. With persistence and hard work the store grew to a dozen outlets throughout the city, its name, Wosk's, recalling the immigrant family's challenging beginning in Canada. Wosk moved into real-estate development in the 1940s, and as his fortune increased, he never forgot his father's advice. "My father told me, if you make 10 cents, put one cent away, give one cent to charity and spend the rest, if you have to," he recalled in one of the last media interviews he gave. Between 1967 and 2002, Morris Wosk's contributions exceeded $50 million. Meanwhile, the Vancouver area Jewish population continued to grow. Its numbers reached 5,700 by 1951, and its structure became firmly established with the construction of synagogues, a Jewish community center, a cemetery and more. That burgeoning growth continued, and today the Vancouver area is home to 22,595 Jews, 16 percent of all Canadian Jewry. But times have changed, and the devotion to Orthodoxy that characterized the Vancouver of the early 1900s has diminished considerably. TODAY, THE community faces a plethora of challenges, one of its largest being assimilation. The figures and trends generated by a 2001 census were startling, indicating that 41% of Jews are intermarried, and that the majority of new intermarriages are occurring among Jews aged 30 and younger. That intermarriage rate represents the highest of any major Jewish community in Canada. "Only three out of every 10 Jewish kids has any form of Jewish education, formal or informal," said Abba Brodt, director of planning for the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. "And half of all kids are growing up in intermarried households. It's a phenomenal challenge for our community." The challenge is exacerbated by the dispersion of the Jewish community over a large geographic area. Fifty years ago, most Jews lived in one clearly defined part of the city known as Oakridge. But with the dramatic escalation in property prices, families began moving into the outlying suburbs, where distance and long commutes made their participation in Jewish events more difficult. Today almost 50% of the Jewish population live outside the city of Vancouver and far from that central core. "The Jewish community is hugely affected by the skyrocketing housing costs," federation director Mark Gurvis said. "It represents a very great threat to our future viability, in terms of people's available discretionary income to participate in Jewish life and contribute to Jewish causes. Also, it fuels the continuing sprawl of our community to areas with less Jewish infrastructure to support Jewish life." Add to that the fragmentation of the Vancouver Jewish community along a number of lines - political, Zionistic, religious, demographic and by country of origin - and creating cohesion, common vision and unity of purpose is extraordinarily difficult. In this respect, when Vancouver won the bid to host the summer 2006 JCC Maccabi Games, it was nothing short of a blessing. "The games represented a watershed moment for the community, with over 1,000 volunteers involved, over 500 host families and 10,000 people gathering for the opening ceremonies," Gurvis said. "We must have had 25 percent of our community or more gathered there, which is just a very unusual phenomenon in any community." RABBI PHILLIP BREGMAN of Temple Sholom, a Reform synagogue, has lived in Vancouver more than 26 years. He's watched his congregation grow from 70 families to 700, and he remains intensely positive about the future of the community. "This is a fabulous place to live, and more people should come here," he said. "Does it have its issues and concerns? Show me a Jewish community that doesn't. However, I'm interested in the spirit and the soul of the Jewish people, and it's alive here in Vancouver despite all the other issues we may have to deal with." To address some of those issues, in 2000 Rabbi Avraham Feigelstock spearheaded the development of the Ohel Ya'akov Community Kollel as a place where Jewish adults from all backgrounds could socialize and be educated on Jewish matters. "I realized that you only target a certain number of people as a congregational rabbi, and that if we didn't do something to create a stronger Jewish presence and make Vancouver a more Jewish community, the chances of our survival in the long range were kind of scary," he said. When he examined other communities of a similar size, he noticed immediately that with the right people in its employ, a kollel could make a world of difference. And things have changed in the six years since Ohel Ya'akov was first initiated. It has free weekly Friday night dinners that draw up to 150, most of them unaffiliated Jewish singles. It also holds monthly pub nights to encourage singles to socialize in a Jewish environment. "We have 200 people coming through our doors every week for a class or some kind of program," Feigelstock said. "It leads me to believe that in the past, other organizations were not as effective as we have been in reaching out and connecting these people." The kollel has been developing a program for Jewish children in Vancouver public schools, which they can attend during their lunch hour for a free lunch and some Jewish interaction. "We now have a yeshiva here, three new kosher institutions in town, we've attracted new rabbis and we've got more people interested in Judaism," Feigelstock said. "Once you get people thinking about their Judaism and get them closer to their roots, it's amazing to see what happens."