Scheuer, Edmund

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SCHEUER, EDMUND (1847–1943), Canadian religious reformer and activist. Considered by many the "father of Reform Judaism in Canada," Scheuer was born in Bernkastel in the Prussian Rhineland and received his education there and across the river in Metz, in France. At the age of 17, he moved to Paris, attracted, according to some accounts, by the greater freedom accorded to Jews in France. There he entered the jewelry export business, acting as agent for a Hamilton, Ontario, firm owned by his brother-in-law, Herman Levy. In Paris, Scheuer was still a Sabbath observer, although he joined the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the organization founded for the purpose, inter alia, of spreading French culture among Jews outside France.

When the Franco-Prussian War interrupted his business, Scheuer emigrated to Canada and joined his brother-in-law's firm. Within months of his arrival in Hamilton in 1871, he was named treasurer of Anshe Sholom Synagogue, one of the very few synagogues in Canada where Jews of German origin predominated, and which was open to the Reform Movement which had swept over similar congregations in the United States. The next year Scheuer organized a Sabbath school, the first in Ontario, which he led until he moved to Toronto in 1886. From 1876 to 1886, he served as president of the congregation, which he nudged steadily in the direction of Reform. He also organized a chapter of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the only one ever established in Canada. His activities in Hamilton illustrate two of Scheuer's interrelated passions with regard to Jewish life: Jewish education and the acculturation of immigrants.

In Toronto, Scheuer joined Holy Blossom, the still traditional synagogue of the established, acculturating Jews; there, too, he became the most forceful advocate of "American" Reform. And there, too, he organized a Sabbath school, perhaps the first "modern" Jewish school in the city. He served the synagogue in a variety of offices, including, in 1896, treasurer of the building committee for the new temple on Bond Street. In 1939, when the move to suburban Forest Hill was made, Scheuer, the only surviving member of the earlier campaign, was made honorary chair of the building committee.

But Scheuer's activities in Toronto ranged far beyond the temple's precincts. He was one of the organizers of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and served as its first president from 1917 to 1921. This, too, was an "Americanizing" move, following the lead of communities in the United States which were amalgamating and professionalizing their charitable efforts in these years. Scheuer also led the Zionist Free School for Girls, which met at an Orthodox synagogue, and worked to counter the influence of missionaries and socialists among Jewish young people.

In Toronto, Scheuer pursued the goal of acculturation in several ways. As school principal, he shaped the curriculum to emphasize ethics rather than Jewish particularity. For 40 years, he served as president of the Toronto chapter of the Anglo-Jewish Association, the British equivalent of the Alliance Israélite Universelle and a more suitable vehicle for Jewish acculturation in English Canada. For decades, he served as a justice of the peace, and he belonged to the Empire and Canadian clubs and the Toronto Board of Trade. In the 1930s, as fascist and Nazi sympathizers grew in numbers in Canada, Scheuer typically urged fellow Jews "to remain calm." Days before a violent riot in Toronto in 1933, he assured them that "Canadian laws – thank God – are just, our police excellent and well able to protect any class of citizens being molested by hoodlums." He was proved wrong, as the police stood by and allowed the violence to proceed.

The rising tide of antisemitism in Canada in the 1930s caused Scheuer to alter course somewhat. He became active in the Canadian Jewish Congress reorganized in 1933 to fight antisemitism and served as an honorary vice president from 1934 to 1939. He ceased writing letters to newspapers in defense of Jews and Judaism, once a civic task to which he devoted much time and energy. Now he preferred "background" meetings with editors and publishers as less likely to inflame.

Scheuer's life stretched almost a century from the liberal revolutions of 1848 through most of World War ii, and it is no surprise that he had to adjust some of his early assumptions. But he remained to the end of his life both an advocate of modernization and acculturation in Jewish life and a dedicated and proud Jew. He could at the same time be "the father of Reform Judaism in Canada," at a time when Reform was not popular among Canadian Jews, and still the "grand old man of [all of] Toronto Jewry."

[Michael Brown (2nd ed.)]