A History of Jewish Montreal

Shalom Montreal -- Stories and Contributions of the Jewish Community is at Montreal’s McCord Museum, across from McGill University, until Nov. 11.

The exhibition showcases how Montreal’s diverse Jewish communities have participated in the city’s growth and development, including the remarkable Jewish achievements in various sectors, from arts and culture, health and science, legal and community groups, and business and real estate. It does an excellent job telling the story – through videos, photos, audio recordings, as well as numerous visual displays – of how the Jewish community grew and benefited not only Jews but also continues benefiting all Montrealers.

Montreal now boasts a Jewish population of 90,000. Jewish immigrants began settling there as far back as the 18th century. Between 1904 and 1914, Montreal saw the largest wave of Jewish immigration, with many Jews arriving to the city from Eastern Europe fleeing from antisemitism and violent pogroms. Yiddish culture flourished. More Jews settled in Montreal after the First World War, but far fewer due to Canada’s restrictive policy against Jewish immigrants. Then, after the Second World War, and with new policies in place, several thousand Holocaust survivors immigrated to Montreal, making Yiddish the third most commonly spoken language in the city after French and English.

At the same time, Sephardi Jews from Arab-Muslim countries, also fleeing persecution, arrived in Montreal, including some 10,000 Moroccan Jews who spoke French. This helped them find their place in Quebec, as they set up new institutions featuring their own cultural practices, which differed from those of the Ashkenazim, who had dominated for decades.

Jews of Montreal faced antisemitic policies in the predominantly Catholic and Protestant population, which prohibited Jews from attending Catholic schools, placed barriers for Jews in Protestant schools and even saw a Jewish quota placed in various faculties of McGill University between the 1930s and 1950s. Nonetheless, Jewish contributions to the larger community are recognized today for their positive impact on society in general.

These contributions are highlighted in the exhibition. Jewish architects – Max Kalman, Max Wolfe Roth, David Fred Lebensold and Moshe Safdie, among others – and artists became prominent through their design of important city buildings. Jewish philanthropists, such as the Azrielis, Bronfmans, Cummingses, Hornsteins, Pollacks, Segals and Steinbergs, paid for well-known Montreal educational, cultural, medical and other buildings benefiting all Montrealers. Jewish lawyers, such as Alan B. Gold, Anne-France Goldwater and Irwin Cotler, have promoted social equity, evident in many controversial cases. In 1919, the Canadian Jewish Congress was founded in Montreal – in 2009, the Quebec wing branched off as the Quebec Jewish Congress – providing support to human rights groups.

Jewish contributions to healthcare are particularly noteworthy, with research that has gone beyond the confines of Montreal to benefit the international community. Within the city, Jewish doctors, wanting to counter systemic Catholic and Protestant antisemitic policies, established the Jewish General Hospital in the 1930s. Considered one of the great hospitals in Quebec, it had Canada’s first non-discrimination policy, accepting patients and employees from all communities, and it still thrives today.

Montreal’s clothing industry flourished due to the influence of Jewish immigrants. In the 1930s, the industry employed 35% of Montreal Jewish workers, who were known for their garment skills. Later on, clothing companies founded in Montreal by Jewish families include Reitmans, Le Château, Canadelle, Peerless, Aldo, and clothing brands like Joseph Ribkoff and Parachute.

Shalom Montreal is well worth a visit. It uses entertaining and informative multimedia, along with many visual artifacts, to prove there is far more to Jewish Montreal than its legendary bagels and smoked meat.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Independent newspaper.

About the Author
Dr. Arthur Wolak is a business executive, writer, and member of the board of governors of Gratz College. He holds several university degrees including a BA (Psychology and History), an MA (History), an MBA (Management), an MA (Religious Studies), and a PhD in Management. He is the author of numerous articles and books on a wide range of issues, the most recent being The Development of Managerial Culture (London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan) and Religion and Contemporary Management (London & New York: Anthem Press), available in hardcover and ebook formats from all online retailers. He lives with his wife and three children in Canada.
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