ATLANTIC CANADA , designation for the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. The Jewish communities of Atlantic Canada often are overlooked in discussions of Canadian Jewry or simply lumped together with other small Jewish communities. Sometimes they even take on an exotic quality, as if there were something mystical about Jewish existence in Atlantic Canada. Yet Jewish life in the region continues to exist, and although it may not be as vibrant as in others, some communities in fact are thriving.
The Jewish community of Atlantic Canada is one of the oldest in Canada. In New Brunswick, Jewish settlement is traced back to Solomon Hart, who came to Saint John from England in 1856. Over the next decades this community grew and became a center of Jewish life in New Brunswick. The Moncton Jewish community was established by 22 families from Durbonne, Lithuania, who immigrated at or about the same time, while the Fredericton community is much more recent (the first family arrived around 1912).
The beginnings of a Jewish community in Nova Scotia can be traced back to the mid-1700s when there were approximately 30 Jews in Halifax. This small community disappeared by the mid-19th century and was not re-established until the 1880s. Halifax emerged during this period as the center of Jewish population in Nova Scotia. Halifax was also one of the major debarkation points for thousands of Jewish immigrants coming from Europe throughout the 20th century. There are very few Canadian Jews whose families did not arrive through Pier 21 in Halifax. For many, it was off the ships and onto the trains to destinations west.
The other area of significant Jewish settlement in Nova Scotia was Cape Breton, with Jewish communities in Sydney, Glace Bay, New Waterford, and Whitney Pier. Prince Edward Island never had more than a handful of Jews most of whom arrived after the 1920s. Their numbers limit Jewish organization there. Newfoundland's population, largely concentrated in St. John's, is more recent.
The Jewish population of Atlantic Canada is small, numbering only 3,915 persons in 2001 and constituting only 1.1% of the Jewish population of Canada. The vast majority (71%) of Jews in the region resided in Nova Scotia (2,780). The remaining Jewish population was distributed as follows: New Brunswick, 21.5%; Newfoundland and Labrador, 4.9%; and Prince Edward Island, 2.7%.
Over half of Atlantic Canadian Jews resided in Halifax. Pockets of Jewish population were found in the smaller cities (Fredericton, 290; Moncton, 265; Cape Breton, 235; St. John's, 145; and St. John, 135). These smaller communities, however, experienced population decline in the late 1990s, particularly Saint John, while Halifax experienced increases in Jewish population. Communities also varied greatly by age. For example, the median age in Saint John and Cape Breton was 57.1 and 62.0 respectively, while the median age for Halifax was 41.1. Half of Cape Breton's Jewish population – but only 16% of Halifax's population – was 65 years of age or older. As these demographics suggest, Halifax has become an important center for Jewish life in the region.
The viability of the region's Jewish communities must be set in the context of these demographic factors. Not only does Nova Scotia have the largest Jewish population of the region, it is the only Atlantic Province that has experienced positive growth in the last number of decades, growing by 21.1% since 1971. The Jewish populations of New Brunswick and Newfoundland, on the other hand, declined by 27.6% and 28.3% respectively. These demographics have important repercussions as they impact on mechanisms for Jewish identity such as visibility, integration, and institutional support structures.
Because of their numbers, Atlantic Canada Jews cannot be identified as living in certain residential areas or belonging to certain social clubs. Even in Halifax there are no homogenous Jewish neighborhoods. This lack of a critical mass means that Atlantic Jews lack collective visibility and also have become integrated into the larger society. While integration occurs everywhere in Canada, in Atlantic Canada, Jews participate not only in the impersonal aspects of the larger society such as politics and economics, but also in the more personal areas such as friendship networks and kinship ties through intermarriage. In the smaller communities of the region this participation is further encouraged by the limited number of fellow Jews.
One does not find in the smaller Jewish communities in Atlantic Canada the panoply of Jewish support systems, both religious and secular, that are found in metropolitan centers, e.g., synagogues, Jewish Ys, community centers, and day schools. In Atlantic Canada, there are synagogues only in a few communities. Only Moncton, Fredericton, and Halifax have both synagogues and rabbis (Halifax has two synagogues as well as Lubavitch activity). Cape Breton, Saint John, and St. John's synagogues do not have rabbis.
These factors would lead one to conclude that Jewish life in Atlantic Canada is highly precarious. While this is possibly true for centers with declining and aging Jewish populations, it is important to understand that the differences among the communities are not only quantitative differences but translate into qualitative differences in the struggle for viability of the Jewish communities. What supports this struggle and how are these differences manifested?
Mechanisms for Survival
(1) the synagogue
For religiously affiliated Jews in Atlantic Canada, synagogues, where they exist, are important conservers of Jewish life. The synagogue, as well as the rabbi, takes on a much more critical role in organized Jewish life than in larger centers where there are a variety of Jewish institutional connections. Communities where there are no synagogues and/or rabbis are less likely to grow and survive than those communities with active synagogues. Halifax has the most developed (but still limited) religious institutional base for maintaining Jewish identity. It is, however, difficult for the synagogue alone to address all aspects of Jewish identity. Nor does the synagogue address the needs of secular Jews. There are, however, a number of other mechanisms that reinforce Jewish life.
(2) the atlantic jewish council (ajc)
The ajc, created in 1975, serves as an umbrella organization for Jewish activities in the entire region, offering a range of services such as youth programming, campus services, young leadership, seniors' programming, conferences, chaplaincy, and Camp Kadimah (a Jewish Zionist camp in Nova Scotia). It not only affords a secular focus for Jewish identity, but also is an important link to the external Jewish community. The ajc's participation in national organizations such as the Canadian Jewish Congress, the United Israel Appeal, and Canada-Israel Committee reinforces the region's sense of belonging to the Canadian Jewish community. As such, the parameters of the Jewish community have grown beyond the geographical boundaries of Atlantic Canada. Aided by advanced communication and transportation, community can be disentangled from spatial constraints. Through participation in activities such as national organizations, national newspapers, and the Internet, important mechanisms for preservation of Jewish identity have been developed.
(3) interpersonal supports
In addition to these structural and institutional supports, there are unique interpersonal supports that are important in maintaining Jewish identity. In Atlantic Canada, Jews include all Jews in their communities and are friendly and welcoming to everyone. Whether this is necessitated by small numbers, or reflects the larger regional culture of hospitality, the result is the same – a better integration of Jews into the Jewish community. Having to rely on one's fellow Jews for services such as a minyan or shiva meals creates a sense of community that is not found in metropolitan centers. Jewishness cannot be taken for granted when one is not surrounded by Jews.
It is often surprising for Jews from other regions to recognize that there is Jewish life in Atlantic Canada. While some communities are aging and declining, and one is pessimistic about their future, for others there remains limited but ongoing Jewish life. Yet, often one hears from larger centers that if Jewish survival is important, Atlantic Jews should simply pack their bags and move west.
Advocates for a continued presence have responded to this challenge. They argue that Atlantic Jewry must be maintained and supported for reasons that go beyond the economic impracticability of relocation. Firstly, there is the Jewish responsibility that the entire Jewish community is obligated to help fellow Jews survive (both physically and spiritually). Secondly, there is much about Atlantic Jewry that is worthwhile maintaining, for example, the friendliness, national participation, and sense of community discussed earlier. Finally, Jews in Atlantic Canada carry the larger Canadian Jewish agenda to their communities. If there were no Jews in Moncton or Halifax to carry the torch for Jewish causes (e.g., Israel, antisemitism, etc.), then non-Jews in these cities would know nothing about Jewish issues. Because they are often friends and neighbors of political decision makers, they can carry the torch more successfully than Jews in larger communities. The Jewish community of Atlantic Canada, it is hoped, will remain a vital piece in the Canadian Jewish mosaic.
[Sheva Medjuck (2nd ed.)]