Restoring Canada’s Oldest Standing Synagogue, 1982
As first published in The Bulletin, June 3, 1982 (pages 9‐10)
When we began our project in 1978 to restore Victoria’s Synagogue, now Canada’s oldest standing synagogue, all of us knew that we had taken on an immense project and that the chances of failure were greater than the likelihood of success.
Where were we to find the estimated quarter of a million dollars to pay for it? Our mandate from the congregation required that we raise the money entirely through voluntary contributions, not through any kind of special levy upon our annual dues; and that we proceed only as the monies were raised. As well, the complexity and difficulty of restoring a building now into its second century, were daunting.
Yet as chairman of Emanuel’s newly created Restoration Committee, I was very fortunate in the unusual people who were willing to work on such a project. They included Henry Brown, a retired businessman and treasurer of the Congregation; Michael Goldberg, a downtown businessman; Allan Klenman, a realtor and president of the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia; Ben Levinson, an architect, Gene Miller, publisher; and Felix Reuben, a lawyer.
None of us knew anything about raising money or, with the exception of Ben Levinson, anything about restoring old buildings. Some of us regularly attended shul, others only infrequently. One of us wasn’t even a member of the congregation. Yet all of us were determined to success in our undertaking.
This isn’t the place to provide a full accounting of our fund‐raising strategies. Those who have engaged in this arcane pursuit will recognize that: occasionally we were left near bitter tears at a mean‐spirited response to our efforts; sometimes in uproarious laughter at the unpredictable and bizarre behavior of some people around money; and frequently with deep gratitude and jubilation at the generosity of the human spirit.
We received a grant of $50,000 from the B.C. Heritage Trust, the largest single grant given by that body to date. Subsequently, we received a supplementary grant of $25,000 from the Trust and only a few weeks ago were awarded a $7,000 grant to recreate the original fence around the synagogue. The Bronfman foundation gave us two grants of $10,000 each. Arthur Fouks of Vancouver facilitated our contact with members of the Vancouver Jewish community where we ultimately raised some $30,000. The City of Victoria provided us with a special decorative sidewalk around the synagogue plus a $5,000 grant.
We organized benefit concerts and a benefit dinner, none of which had been previously attempted in Victoria. Many ordinary citizens of different religions, or of no religion, responded to our many appearances on television and radio to publicize the restoration by sending in donations.
Yet with all of this assistance, we knew the bulk of the money would have to be raised from our own local Jewish community. As a result of intense efforts by our committee and many others, every single member of the community contributed to the restoration at least once, many twice and a few – three times. Of the project’s ultimate cost ($350,000) approximately half was raised within our own Victoria Jewish community. This is the largest amount ever given by our community, and a startling sum when you consider the annual budget of our synagogue was only $20,000 a few short years ago.
(If there are any generous souls out there, we are still $15,000 short of the total funds required!) When we had managed to raise an initial $100,000, we resolved to begin work. In April 1980 at a small ceremony, Premier Bill Bennett launched the Restoration Project.
With the stucco off, we discovered that the 11 different kinds of fancy shaped brick which were incorporated into the original facade had been knocked off to provide a flat surface for the stucco’s adhesion. The massive central doors had been taken out and had disappeared. A similar fate had befallen the seven foot skylight.
With the invaluable assistance of consultants from the Heritage Conservation Branch of the Provincial Government we set to work to find the specialized materials, the skilled craftsman and artisans, the rare artifacts that were required to restore Emmanuel Synagogue to its beauty and character of 1863. We ended by using materials and the help of people from all over North America.Our overriding purpose and fundamental goal was always a restoration of complete fidelity and authenticity. Testimony to the success of that goal was provided this past February when we were awarded a prize for the most significant heritage project in Greater Victoria by the Lieutenant‐ Governor in a ceremony at Government House.
For all of us who have worked on the restoration of our House of Worship, it was never a matter of dollars and cents or of bricks and mortar, although we spent countless hours and seemingly innumerable meetings dealing with these practical questions. It was a matter of keeping faith with our founders who had built so well over a century ago for the future of Jewish life on the West coast. It was a question of recreating the beauty and harmony of the sanctuary envisaged by our pioneers. It was also a way of contributing to the special historical character of our city that has taken particular pains to preserve its past and its heritage buildings.
Perhaps at the deepest level of our Jewish psyche, having survived as a people against all odds for 4,000 years, the restoration was a way of asserting that we are still capable of undertaking the improbably and succeeding, despite the forces arrayed against us.
To commemorate our success, we are re‐enacting the ceremony of 119 years ago. On Sunday, June 6, 1982, there will be a procession throughout downtown Victoria. Led by a band, followed by the Congregation of the Synagogue and the ethnic societies, we will parade to the Masonic Temple where a thousand Masons will be waiting to join us. All together we will march to the synagogue site arriving at 2 p.m. where we will re‐enact the ceremonies of 119 years ago.
The Premier of the Province, Chief Justice Nathan Nemetz, the Mayor of Victoria, and Dave Barrett, Leader of the Opposition, have all graciously consented to speak during ceremonies. Rabbi W. Solomon and the Choir of Beth Israel Synagogue in Vancouver will participate in the planned events.
Once again, we have invited all of Victoria and our friends from Vancouver to turn out to share our pride in our restored and resplendent synagogue.
During the four years of the Restoration, with the several benefit concerts we organized and frequent television and radio appearances, the history of the Jewish Community and Emanuel synagogue have become well known. As chairman of the committee to restore Canada’s oldest synagogue, I have been invited and have spoken to over two dozen different groups ranging in size from 13 to 300 and including Rotary Club, Women’s Canadian Club, United Church Women, classes of school children and associations for seniors.
To acknowledge the contribution of different Church groups – in the same way we received donations 119 years ago – we held open House at the synagogue on two separate evenings, inviting Christian Clergy and lay people. Two hundred and fifty came on evening and nearly 400 the second, so many, indeed, that we had to turn a few away. Most had never been in a synagogue before. These were memorable evenings both for the honesty of the discussion and the warmth and genuine appreciation that emanated from our invited visitors. An unanticipated by‐product of our Restoration effort has certainly been to educate and build bridges to the Christian community.
My first glimpse of this took place over a year ago when I addressed the Women’s Canadian Club. Afterwards a woman came up to tell me she was so proud of our restored synagogue. And then embarrasses, she apologized and said, “Of course, I mean your synagogue.”
I assured that it was not only the Jewish Community’ synagogue but also that it had been our (meaning all of Victoria’s) synagogue 119 years ago and it surely was again. Moreover, we hold that it is a vital part of the national patrimony of all Canadian Jewry and indeed that it belongs to Canadians of every faith who cherish our past.
We believe that if, as Jews, we still await the coming of the Messiah, with the Restoration of Canada’s oldest synagogue, Victoria is more than ever – outside of Israel – the best place to wait. Come and wait with us, and especially attend the festivities this Sunday, June 6, when we believe that we will be hastening His coming.
Photo circa 1979. [The stucco exterior was added in 1948 to preserve the building and the upper balcony, it's windows and ceiling, were concealed to reduce maintence costs.]