Mr. Speaker, I, too, want to start by thanking the member for York Centre for sponsoring this bill to recognize May as Canadian Jewish heritage month.
Perhaps it is a surprise to some listeners that one of the three Victoria MPs is speaking to the bill. When it comes to thinking about Judaism in Canada, Greater Victoria is not often the first place Canadians think of, given the very large Jewish communities in both Toronto and Montreal. It may surprise listeners to learn that Victoria has both the oldest and the newest synagogues in Canada.
Congregation Emanu-El Jewish synagogue located in downtown Victoria, while not technically the first synagogue in Canada, is certainly the oldest in western Canada. Having been founded in 1863, it is the oldest synagogue in continuous operation in Canada, now more than 154 years.
Congregation Emanu-El marked its 150th anniversary in 2013, with the return of its Torah scrolls which had been sent to London for restoration. These two scrolls, which contain the five books of Moses written on calf skin in Hebrew, are known to have originally arrived in Victoria via San Francisco more than 150 years ago, but their origin has remained a mystery.
When they were sent out for restoration, analysis of the scrolls, especially features such as the stitching and the thread work, as well as the calligraphy, helped scholars determine they were more than 300 years old, and the style of calligraphy meant they were likely produced in Germany.
An interesting side note on the restoration of the Victoria Torah was the key role of Avielah Barclay, who grew up in Victoria, and was inspired by the age of the Torah in her local synagogue. As a result, she went to Israel to find a Hebrew ritual scribe, known as a sofer, who would mentor her as a woman.
In doing so, she thus became, not the first woman sofer, but perhaps the first in 250 years. I understand there are now 10 women studying to become a sofer, accepting the challenge not only to learn the more than 4,000 rules for writing a Torah, but also to understand the import of those rules and annotations, and the background that accompanies each of the handwritten Torah.
The first Jews came to Victoria with the gold rush in the 1850s, and by the end of that decade, there were more than 200 Jews living in Victoria. Their first community project, as in many communities, was the establishment of a Jewish cemetery in 1860, a cemetery which still serves the community to this day.
The Congregation Emanu-El came together in 1862, and shortly thereafter, in 1863, purchased the site for the synagogue and began construction. Congregation Emanu-El has been on the same site since 1863. The building was restored in a five-year project from 1978 to 1983, and then expanded with a new addition in 2004, all the while keeping its very prominent place in downtown Victoria and its status as the oldest house of worship of any kind in British Columbia.
Rabbi Harry Brechner has been the rabbi at Congregation Emanu-el since 2001. It has been a great pleasure and privilege for me to get to know him and his congregation better over my time as an MP, although the synagogue is located in the adjoining riding.
Today, perhaps, I am going to focus a bit too much on bricks and books history, but having returned just recently from Eastern Europe, where so many million Jews died in the Holocaust, I cannot help thinking how all the great post-war accomplishments of Jewish society and culture have come in the face of the enormous challenges of ongoing anti-Semitism and in the shadow of the Holocaust.
As I mentioned, as well as having the oldest synagogue in Canada, Greater Victoria is home to Canada's newest synagogue, located just on the boundary of my riding. I was pleased to attend the cornerstone laying for the Chabad Centre for Jewish Life and Learning. on August 24, 2016. I was awed to see the $3 million project completed just one year later, with the opening of the centre which contains a synagogue, Hebrew school, library, kosher kitchen, and much-needed day care.
As Rabbi Meir Kaplan came to Victoria to establish the Chabad congregation, based on Hasidic traditions and an outreach model, only 16 years ago, the accomplishment is truly amazing. As well as being the newest synagogue in Canada, the Chabad Centre will soon have the newest Torah in Canada.
In June of this year the community held a ceremony to celebrate the beginning of the writing of a new Victoria Torah, a very special ceremony which I was privileged to attend. The process will continue in Jerusalem and is expected to be completed sometime in 2018, as a result of generous financial support from the community, and in particular, generous support from Dr. Stan Shortt and Mrs. Lindy Shortt, who have dedicated this Torah in memory of their grand grandparents, Herschel and Sarah Gassner, and Moshe and Rushka Kleinwachs.
As their member of Parliament, I was very honoured to be asked to contribute to the project by writing one letter in this new Torah, though this took place under the firm guidance of a sofer who allowed me to place my hand on his as we wrote the letter together, because if I made a mistake, I would have to start over.
It may seem strange that I am saying so few words today about the contributions of the Jewish community of greater Victoria when there have been so many. Every place I go in the community, where there is a need, the Jewish community is present, whether in the charitable or volunteer sector, or public life where Jews serve as elected representatives, or work as teachers, professors, scholars, artists, or business people.
I know that one of my colleagues pointed out that Victoria MP Henry Nathan, elected in 1872, was the first Jewish MP to take a seat in the House. Not only does Victoria have the oldest synagogue, but also had the first Jewish MP.
Let me take a moment to draw attention to three contemporary members of the Jewish community in Victoria. First, I want to acknowledge former B.C. Premier Dave Barrett, the first Jewish premier in Canada and first MP to hold the federal seat I was first elected to, Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca.
Second, I want to mention the woman who I think is the greatest painter Victoria has ever produced, Phyllis Serota, and no, I have not forgotten Emily Carr.
Last and less likely to be famous, as he is a teacher, is my friend and former colleague at Camosun College, Peter Maidstone, who mentored and inspired hundreds of students in sociology and Pacific Rim studies in a teaching career spanning three decades at Camosun.
I will stop with these three examples of contributions to our community both because my time in the House is, as always, limited and because this to me is the purpose of Jewish heritage month as we go forward, to celebrate the many contributions of Jews to our communities and Canada as a whole.
Again today I have emphasized the long presence of the Jewish community in Victoria. Just as mainstream Eurocentric views of the building of Canada almost always leave out first nations, they also cause us to think of all ethnic groups as somehow newcomers and as other than Canadian and, therefore, as somehow less important or less legitimate. Whether we are talking about the Victoria synagogue that predates Confederation or the more than century old Victoria Sikh temple, greater Victoria has always been a multi-ethnic, multicultural community, even if we have not always succeeded in being a fully inclusive society.
It is my hope and belief that the creation of Jewish heritage month will help contribute to better understanding of just how diverse we Canadians are, and in doing so contribute to building a Canada free from hatred and division.