Jewish Life and Belonging on Cape Breton Island

As a child of Jewish parents, with roots in the community, I knew that the Jewish population on Cape Breton Island was dwindling. However, I had not realised the full extent of the exodus of families to larger cities in Canada, mostly here in Toronto. What was once an island with four synagogues - in Sydney, Whitney Pier, Glace Bay and New Waterford - now has only one in use.

A Diaspora Within The Diaspora

Former and present residents often describe the story of Jews on Cape Breton Island as bittersweet. The success of finding gainful employment led to the eventual dissolution of their communities. What is left are the stories of arrival at the turn of the century by boat; the spark of economic prosperity leading to financial success amongst Jews on the island; memories of childhood and adolescence; friendships made within the community and across ethnic divisions; experiences of discrimination and racism; stories of leaving for higher education and major Canadian cities. For Jews, the diaspora is a constant reference to Israel, "the homeland". The subject of diaspora is covered by scholars of Judaic studies, Holocaust historians and sociologists. The Ashkenazi communities, of which the majority of Jews settled in the Maritimes are from, originated from a group of 350 people (according to recent genetic studies by Carmi et al 2014). The community has centred its procreation around survival, moving past violent persecution in the Middle East and Europe. To be a Jew in the 20th century is to bear witness to these atrocities. With the weight of persecution in Europe on their backs, Jews arriving in Maritime Canada managed to live and prosper, providing their descendants with the resources to live in political and financial security in North America.

A Legacy of The Silent Generation

A history of the Jewish people begins with the Halifax Pier. From 1928 to 1971, over one million migrants and refugees came through Pier 21 from Europe. Notable amongst these migrants were large amounts of East and Central Europeans: Polish, German, Ukrainian, Croatian, Serbian, citizens of former Soviet states and from other countries whose borders were in flux during the 19th and 20th century. Many families left due to ethnic discrimination and civil instability. Jews began arriving in Nova Scotia from East Europe and settling in Sydney, Glace Bay and New Waterford in the 1890s (Zatzman 2007 pp17). By 1901, the largest community of Jews on Cape Breton were in Glace Bay, with 134 individuals counted during the census (Ibid). Families such as the Abramson’s, the Benjamin’s, the Eker’s, the Green’s, the Levowitz’s, and the Wolf’s arrived on the island. Amongst their professions were merchants, traders, tailors, shoemakers and peddlers. In many cases, individuals would leave on their own to find work, saving enough money to bring the rest of the family decades later.

The prevailing narrative of Cape Breton’s cultural history has been dominated by caucasian Irish and Scottish settlers, the first communities to develop sustainable infrastructure on the island. European settlements and developments were fuelled by staple trades and subsistence agriculture in the 1700s (Hornsby 1989). Jewish settlement took place much later in Cape Breton’s settled history. The first Jews arrived at the turn of the 19th century, coming from the Halifax pier. Like many families from Russia, Poland and Germany, names were anglicised by migration officers, or adopted names prior to arrival, which had been given to family members already in North America. Despite the massive migration to Toronto, which has resulted in what is currently the second largest Diaspora Jewish community in the world, many Jewish families opted to settle in smaller town where work in industry was steadily rising. Where mining and manufacturing were driving the economy, Jewish men were able to find work in medicine, law, and retail. These professions often afforded trips to Halifax, Montreal and Toronto, where Jewish families would eventually migrate to in the later 20th century.

B’reishit: A Story About Endings

Upon arrival in Cape Breton, one of the first stories I heard from the Jewish community was about the Cheder, the religious school. Every Sunday, the boys would go to the school right next to The Congregation Sons of Israel, for Torah study with the Rabbi. Now in Glace Bay the Rabbi would not stay for long, rarely lasting longer than a few months, or a year. Each Rabbi would begin their Torah teachings with the first book of the Torah, B’reishit, or, Genesis. After a few months, the Rabbi would leave for another synagogue, often moving to bigger cities with more opportunities for a permanent position in a larger community. A new Rabbi would come to town, and would logically start Torah study with the first book, B’reishit. This would go on for years, and some of the boys began to think that the only book of the Torah was B’reishit. Growing up, they only learned the beginning.

The Jews of Cape Breton developed extraordinary connections with other communities from around the world. Though it was very rare for a Jew to work in the mines or the steel plant, stores own by Jewish community members played an important role in the miner’s and steel plant workers lives. When the company stores increased prices or a strike would prevent workers from buying goods, Jewish stores would extend credit to them.

These communities have a shared heritage and migratory pattern: a self-dissolving community for the economic betterment of their children. Though second generation families on the island took over the family business, they rarely passed it on to their children. Rather, third generation Jews were encouraged to take up post-secondary education at universities in Halifax (Dalhousie University, Saint Mary's University, and University of King's College), Montreal (McGill University, Concordia University), and Toronto (University of Toronto and York University). The families’ will was to have their children receive higher education, have the freedom to choose their own professional paths, take jobs in major metropolitan cities. Baby boomers were encouraged to pursue advanced degrees, and take up professions in medicine, law and accounting. 

Diversity Cape Breton is a web portal and living archive: a web site that exists for the benefit of community members, with room for growth. Members of the community are welcome to add their testimonial to the site, to educate future generations about this chapter of Jewish life in Canada. Coming soon will be a post about the exhibit “Jewish Life on Cape Breton Island,” which took place at the Gales Gallery, York University in May 2014.

- Ely Rosenblum