Montreal's Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue fêtes 250 years of culture
In 1768, about 20 Jewish immigrants from England and Germany formed a small congregation on St. James Street in Montreal’s Old Port, where the courthouse now stands.
And despite its paltry beginnings, to its patrons, the Shearith Israel Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue represented the birth of the Jewish community in Montreal.
“In the beginning, it was a Portuguese synagogue,” explained synagogue president Edmond Elbaz. “The Rabbi was of Portuguese descent, and then you had the Spanish people that came, and they formed jointly the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue.”
They soon outgrew the original building, so in 1832, the synagogue moved a few blocks away to Chenneville Street. And in 1947, another relocation to St. Kevin in Snowdon—then becoming the hub of the Jewish community.
The current building looks much like any other synagogue – an ordinary exterior, most would say. But its interior reveals a rich and diverse culture, including Torahs dating back 400 years and photos of the synagogue’s first members.
After laying down roots in Snowdon, the congregation thrived.
“They felt welcome and they integrated into the community and did wonders,” Elbaz said.
But the 250 year journey hasn’t been without its challenges.
Between the 1980’s and today, the Jewish community fell from 120,000 people to roughly 80,000.
Today’s growth comes from new immigrants: Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians who all come together under one roof to, as Elbaz puts it, “pray in harmony [and] live in harmony.”
But community leaders say that even that is sometimes not enough – these days, more young people choose to be secular; it’s the Rabbi’s job to find some way to get them involved.
“Saturday mornings, we had young people come to me and say ‘you know what? I’m not interested in a 3.5 hour service, it’s meaningless to me,’” said interim Rabbi Avi Finegold. “So let’s find a thing that works for you on a Saturday morning that says ‘you know what? I’ll come to that.’”
Next month, the synagogue's 250th anniversary will be marked with an exhibit at City Hall, with more celebrations to come in May.
“We would like the Montreal community as a whole to know who we are and what we are, and what we’ve done, and the contribution of the Jews in the Montreal scene,” said Rose Schwartz, coordinator for the congregation’s anniversary.