A look at the Jewish pioneers in Vancouver

There is much history to be found in Vancouver, and this is no less pertinent in the case of the city’s Jewish community and its resilient pioneers.

Michael Schwartz, director of community engagement at the Jewish Museum will be conducting walking tours of Vancouver’s Jewish landmarks on July 14 and August 25.

He explains that these brave men and women brought their culture across the globe to carve out a niche for themselves and those to come.


As most immigration stories go, this one begins with resources. ‘The gold rushes of British Columbia, starting in 1858, brought with them a diverse assortment of adventurers, explorers and prospectors,’ begins the online exhibit titled On These Shores on the website of the Jewish Museum and Archives B.C.

Michael Schwartz, director of community engagement at the Jewish Museum. | Photo by Ryan Jones

“There have been many Jewish waves of migration to Vancouver,” says Schwartz. “The end of the Californian gold rush brought many prospectors from San Francisco. Although Jews were generally not prospectors, they were shopkeepers and entrepreneurs within this milieu of rich economic potential – essentially providing services and support to the prospectors.”

The late 1800s saw the first waves of migration from Eastern Europe – what is now Russia, Poland and Eastern Ukraine – due to the pogroms that were taking place in the region at the time. The uneasy anti-Semitic stirrings that foreshadowed the Holocaust in the 1930s brought the largest wave of migration to British Columbia.

“Then,” Schwartz continues, “you also see smaller disruptive global events, such as the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the collapse of the USSR between the late 1980s to the early 1990s, and the wars in Yugoslavia. You have many Jews leaving Ethiopia between the 1970s and early 2000s and an ongoing wave of South African Jews arriving in Vancouver. The late 1970s through the 1990s saw Jews leaving South American countries such as Chile, Argentina and Mexico following the political instability there.”

Onward to Vancouver

The earliest immigrants settled in Victoria, though eventually, a few regions within what would become Vancouver saw Jewish immigrants form tiny communities. Strathcona was one such example.

Gold House. | Photo courtesy of Vancouver Public Library

“If you look at a map of Vancouver,” says Schwartz, “keeping in mind that it was mostly just forest in the late 1800s, the city began in what was then called Granville, a small township which we now know as Gastown. Strathcona, situated on swampy, undesirable land, became the working class neighbourhood for people of all ethnic backgrounds. The middle of the neighbourhood saw Europeans of every stripe: Italians, Ukrainians and Jews. Meanwhile, the West End was the high-class neighbourhood with British and Scottish immigrants, along with a few Jewish families that managed to integrate into it.”

Vancouver today bears only vestiges, faded fingerprints of history, albeit still discernible in land and architecture. Cultural landmarks are important to a community, and the Jewish community in Vancouver was no exception.

“The eventual social mobility of the early community let us, in the 1920s and 1930s, move to areas like Mt. Pleasant and Fairview,” Schwartz explains. “The first synagogue still stands in Strathcona, although it was turned into condos in the 1970s. It still looks as it did, and there is a courtyard now where the sanctuary used to be.”

In Gastown, there are buildings that were Jewish-owned businesses. The Neighbourhood House, which was run by the National Council of Jewish Women, still exists. In Fairview, at 11th and Oak, there stands the Lung Association building, which was the Jewish Community Centre, built in 1928. 1948 saw three major buildings constructed: the Schara Tzedeck Synagogue, the Talmud Torah and Beth Israel, which all still operate out of the same spaces, although they have been renovated.

“[Early arrivals] came fleeing something, or needing to start over, or in an entrepreneurial frenzy. It takes a certain drive to do that kind of thing,” says Schwartz.

Given the lack of many physical structures, the Jewish Museum likes to draw attention to the structure of culture and community that the Jewish pioneers set up and the achievements that they managed to see through.

“We can see what community means and how it can transcend generations,” says Schwartz. “It is the network of relying closely on each other that provides individual families with a sense of belonging.”

For more information, please visit www.jewishmuseum.ca or www.vancouverheritagefoundation.org