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The Synagogue in Cape Breton
Temple Sons of Israel (Conservative)
PO Box 311
Sydney, NS B1P 6H2
Phone: (902) 539-1769
Fax: (902) 562-7942
Contact: Martin Chernin – (902) 539-1769
The History of the Jewish Community of Cape Breton
No Atlantic Canadian Jewish community has shown such a diverse history in so short a time as that of greater Cape Breton; and the rise and fall thereof has been equally rapid. From a community of 162 in 1901, to its peak of 939 in 1941, Cape Breton now finds approximately 87 Jewish homes.
Cape Breton would appear to be a single entity in history and community, and yet, the Jewish community of the island possesses a history of four different communities: Glace Bay, Sydney, Whitney Pier, and New Waterford.
Mr. H. Brody was the first Jewish settler in Glace Bay, arriving in the 1890s. At that time the coal company in Glace Bay advertised in European papers and offered free passage to Canada in return for work in the mines. Few Jewish immigrants stayed very long in the mines. Most became peddlers quite quickly, eventually moving into retail businesses near the mines where they competed against the company stores.
The community met in the home of Mr. S. Fine who was their accepted leader, and in 1900 the group decided to build a synagogue. The synagogue was completed at a cost of $5,000 in 1902, making it the first synagogue actually constructed in the Atlantic Provinces.
With a shochat, a Hebrew Ladies Aid Society (1904), and a school in the basement, the community thrived and grew. By 1928, the Talmud Torah moved to a new building that served community activities for the coming decades. Contributions to the early Zionist movement in Canada were stronger in Cape Breton than any other community east of Montreal.
The Jewish community of Glace Bay appeared to move from strength to strength until a declining population predetermined the future end of the community. Until the mid-1970s a Hebrew school for the young people of the community was maintained but at present there are too few children in the community to continue a separate school. The few children that are Hebrew school age are now taken to Sydney.
The history of the Sydney Jewish community is in fact the history of Whitney Pier. The Jews who arrived in the late 1890s and early 1900s were mostly Russian Jews who came to Canada to escape pogroms and with a growing steel industry, Sydney was attractive to immigrant peddlers and retailers.
The home of the parents of Mrs. Feder was used until the orthodox synagogue was built in 1913 on Mount Pleasant Avenue. A fire destroyed the building in 1960, but it was rebuilt in 1962 on the original foundation. A Young Men’s Hebrew Association(YMHA) was established several years later, at which time all social and cultural activities shifted from the synagogue to the Y.
The Jewish population of Sydney grew from twenty-two in 1901 to 425 in 1931 (includes Whitney Pier).
In 1919 the Temple Sons of Israel congregation was established by eighteen younger and more conservative members of the Whitney Pier community.
As in Glace Bay, the first Jewish immigrants to New Waterford came in the early 1900s thanks to opportunities arising from the coal industry. The first organized Jewish community of about ten families settled in the town at this time.
The synagogue was built in 1922, with a Hebrew school and a residence for the Rabbi in the same building. The building became the centre for social, cultural and community activities.
With little immigration to New Waterford, the Jewish population peaked at 99 in 1941. After the Second World War, Jews began to leave as the economic base of the larger community began to decline with the closing of the mines. This trend continued, leading up to the 1967 sale of the synagogue. The remaining families joined synagogues in either Glace Bay or Sydney.
Today the remaining Jewish Community of Cape Breton is a more senior community. Much of the younger generation has moved to Halifax or Upper Canada. However, Cape Breton remains among the strongest Zionist areas in all of Canada. Their commitment to Israel per capita is among the best in our country and their legacy of Jewish life survives in the hearts of Cape Bretoners throughout Canada.
Cape Breton is presently served by the AJC Chaplain, Rabbi David Ellis.
Medjuck, Sheva. (1986). Jews of Atlantic Canada. St. John’s: Breakwater Books Ltd.