Congregation Emanu-El's History
Below is a snapshot history of Congregation Emanu-El (formerly, "Temple Emanu-El"). You can also download a longer history of the synagogue (PDF) which was created for the 150th anniversary restoration project. For further historical information, please see the 150th Anniversary section of this website.
In the 1850's, during the time of gold prospectors, fur traders, and steamships, the Jewish community of Victoria began. The first Jews came in 1858, mostly from San Francisco. Gold prospectors had to stop in Victoria, the capital, to obtain mining licenses, and then go on to the mainland where gold was discovered.
The first Jews came with these prospectors, and supplied the mining camps with food, clothing, household goods, and tools. In the 1850's, there were about 200 Jews in Victoria.
The first need of the community was a cemetery. The Victoria Hebrew Benevolent Society (the first Jewish organization in Western Canada) purchased a burial site on Cedar Hill Road which at that time was on the edge of town. On Feb. 5, 1860, the cemetery was founded. That same cemetery still serves our community today.
The congregation “Emanu-El of Victoria, Vancouver Island” came into being in 1862, and members purchased the present site of the synagogue just after that. The cornerstone-laying ceremony took place June 2, 1863. This was a gala celebration and was attended by the mayor, town council, Chief Justice, the Freemasons, Hebrew Benevolent, French Benevolent and St. Andrews Societies, bands and choirs. Our synagogue today is the oldest house of worship in British Columbia and the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Canada.
The building was designed by John Wright, the first professional architect in Victoria.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population in Victoria declined as Vancouver took on more global importance. By the mid-1940′s, there were only 10-15 paid up families at Congregation Emanu-El. The synagogue was 80 years old by then, and was badly deteriorated. In an effort to save it from being condemned, the original brick exterior was covered with stucco, the windows were blocked in and a false ceiling was installed to allow for adequate heating.
This preserved the synagogue until 1978, when a group of volunteers decided to restore the synagogue to its original condition. The cost of this restoration was $370,000.00, more than half of which came from the Victoria Jewish community. This restoration was completed in 1982 with a multicultural and multi-ethnic celebration similar to the original dedication in 1863.
The Victoria Jewish Community kept growing, and another addition to the synagogue was completed in 2003, to accommodate the social and cultural needs of the congregation. By 2004, the congregation had grown to about 215 families who are enjoying our much used building.