VANCOUVER — A grand ceremony to dedicate British Columbia’s first synagogue will be reenacted on June 2, exactly 150 years to the day following the establishment of Congregation Emanu-El in downtown Victoria, the picturesque capital of Canada’s western-most province.
Established during the Gold Rush era when Victoria (then Fort Victoria) was a Vancouver Island British military station and fur trading post, the city, founded in 1843, had quickly grown into a busy port town, attracting a Jewish population that was soon in need of Jewish communal infrastructure.
In 1860 a Jewish cemetery – the oldest in Western Canada – was established when a 1.5 acre parcel of land was purchased and donated by Eastern European Jewish immigrant, Lewis Lewis, a Victoria merchant and community leader who had arrived to the city just two years earlier.
Then, in 1863, Victoria’s synagogue was built on Blanshard Street at the corner of Pandora in the center of the city with the assistance of a number of non-Jews who gave donations towards the construction. The synagogue remains at the same location until this very day.
Although subsequent decades would see the bulk of BC’s Jewish community shift to the mainland in the city of Vancouver and its suburbs – particularly after the 1866 merger of the Vancouver Island Colony and the mainland into the single Colony of British Columbia – the islanders in Victoria are still a modest Jewish presence. Congregation Emanu-El continues to serve Victoria’s Conservative-affiliated Jews.
Refurbished in 1982, the designated Canadian national heritage site has recently been seeking financial support to pay for much-needed structural repairs to its roof, floors, and windows to ensure the synagogue building – which holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously serving synagogue in Canada – remains viable well into the future. This effort remains a major focus of the synagogue’s leadership. Proceeds raised from the already sold-out gala evening on June 2 are earmarked towards this aim.
The 150 years of Victoria’s synagogue actually makes it older than Canada itself. Built less than a decade before British Columbia became a province of Canada, a country established in 1867, the synagogue played a prominent role in Victoria’s Jewish community’s life and in the city’s development through its synagogue membership roster.
From its earliest days, the synagogue had very prominent congregants, including such notables as Lumley Franklin, Canada’s first Jewish mayor; Henry Nathan Jr., the first Jewish Member of Parliament elected to a seat in the Canadian House of Commons; and Samuel Schultz, Canada’s first Jewish judge.
Given this history, the upcoming June 2nd commemoration of the synagogue’s founding is certain to become a historical event in its own right.
Victoria’s mayor, Dean Fortin, along with city councilors, members of the British Columbia Legislature, and members of Canada’s national Parliament, as well as Victoria Freemasons, will lead a morning parade that begins at the Freemasons’ Temple at Fisgard and Douglas at 11:15, accompanied by the music of the Naden Band from the Royal Canadian Navy. Celebrants will be dressed in period costume, complete with top hats, frock coats, long skirts and bonnets.
Following the reenactment of the laying of the cornerstone at 12:30, the synagogue will be open for a historical exhibit of artifacts depicting Jewish life over the past century and a half, including the original corporate seal of the congregation from the 1860s.
The evening’s gala celebration will begin at 6 in the historic Empress Hotel overlooking Victoria Harbour. Keynote speaker is Canada’s former federal Justice Minister, law professor, and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Irwin Cotler, discussing the topic of “Jewish Values and the Pursuit of Justice.”
Philip Nathan Flash is among those planning to travel to Victoria for the milestone anniversary. At 94, the retired Boeing engineer in Seattle, Washington will be accompanied by his two children, Cynthia Flash Hemphill and Edward Flash, and his 98-year-old sister, Evelyn (Flash) Nickerson, together with members of her family.
Philip Flash was born in Victoria in 1919 and his sister, Evelyn, in 1915. Their great-grandfather was Lewis Lewis (1828-1904), who not only donated the land for Victoria’s Jewish cemetery and founded the first Masonic lodge in Victoria, but was also president of Victoria’s synagogue for many years.
While Philip’s parents relocated the Flash family to Seattle in 1921, he remains very proud of his Canadian ancestor’s connection to Victoria and its synagogue.
As a young man from Eastern Europe, Lewis Lewis was first drawn to the Californian Gold Rush. After it dried up, in 1858 he headed north with some one hundred other Jewish migrants, to Victoria and BC’s burgeoning Gold Rush.
According to Cynthia, Philip’s daughter, Lewis Lewis and his wife Rachael had two boys and a girl. Their daughter, Rosina Lewis, married Edward Philip Nathan and had two daughters. The Nathan’s daughter Rachel married Sam Flash, and had two children, Philip Nathan Flash and Evelyn (Flash) Nickerson of Seattle.
Just last August, the Flash family came to Victoria to donate portraits of Lewis Lewis and his wife that they had found carefully rolled up in Philip’s home. Painted in 1889, these pristine silk portraits are now part of the Royal British Columbia Museum’s permanent collection. Cynthia says copies of these portraits will be part of the synagogue’s collection.
(As for how their ancestor got his name, synagogue congregant Todd Litman explains as part of a book he is writing about the synagogue’s history. When asked by the US immigration official upon Lewis Jeretzky’s arrival from Europe what was his name, he replied, “Lewis.” When the official then asked for his surname, he again replied “Lewis” since the difference between name and surname were unclear prior to acquiring the nuances of English.)
Compared to some synagogues in other parts of the world, 150 years might seem like a blink of an eye along the horizon of time, but for Canada this is a momentous milestone. Besides being Canada’s oldest surviving synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El remains Victoria’s largest. Rabbi Harry Brechner, spiritual leader of Victoria’s synagogue, invites “all Victorians to join us in the spirit of community involvement and cooperation that led to the founding of our synagogue.”