Cape Breton’s Jewish Communities of the Past and Present


by Amy MacDonald, with Marcia Ostashewski (Cape Breton University)

Cape Breton Island, located in the North Atlantic on Canada’s eastern shore, is home to diverse communities, each with their own unique and important stories to tell. The island is currently suffering from a lagging, post-industrial economy and few employment opportunities, but this was not always the case.

Early 20th Century

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Cape Breton’s flourishing steel and coal industries attracted immigrants from around the world, all of whom made important contributions to the island’s cultural heritage. Among these immigrants were hundreds of Jews who entered Canada through Pier 21 (now the Canadian Museum of Immigration) in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They travelled aboard ships from Eastern and Central Europe to escape ethnic discrimination and political instability in their homelands. Soon after arriving in Halifax, they made their way across the channel to Cape Breton Island and settled primarily in Sydney, Whitney Pier, Glace Bay and New Waterford.[1]

Most Jewish men arrived in Cape Breton on their own, initially working as peddlers. Later, they entered into retail businesses and then brought their families. Local residents remember that almost all of the commercial stores on the main streets in the island’s two main cities, Glace Bay and Sydney, belonged to Jews. Recently, most of these Jewish-owned stores have closed, Schwartz’ Furniture is an example of one that continues to thrive.[2]

 

The Jewish Congregations

Over time, strong and distinct Jewish communities were established across Cape Breton, each with its own synagogue. The earliest synagogue opened in Glace Bay in 1902, the Congregation of the Sons of Israel. Until recently, Glace Bay was home to the largest community of Cape Breton Jews. In 1901, the Jewish population in Glace Bay was 134, and by 1941 it had increased to 939. Sydney, New Waterford and Glace Bay followed similar migration and population growth trends. At its height, the island was home to over 400 Jewish families.[3]

The Jewish communities of Cape Breton were connected through their religion and heritage, but tensions also existed between the communities in Glace Bay, Sydney and Whitney Pier. Glace Bay and Whitney Pier remained Orthodox, while Sydney’s community moved to Conservatism, having men sit with the women at the shul. [4]Another notable difference was the duration of the rabbis’ stay in each community. Glace Bay faced a persistent problem of rabbis only staying a few months. As a consequence, Hebrew School students at the Congregation Sons of Israel never quite got past the first book of the Torah, as each new rabbi began with it and left before the book was completed.[5] In contrast, Leon Dubinsky and other members of Sydney’s Jewish community like to share stories about Rabbi Israel Kenner, who remained in the community for over thirty-five years, from 1927-72. Rabbi Kenner was a stabilizing force in the community. He was also an extremely influential figure for the Dubinsky clan, a family known for its musical talents, because he started the shul’s choir. Dubinsky and his siblings joined the choir when they were very young. Their love of music led two of the siblings to become music teachers, and Leon became a celebrated local songwriter. After Rabbi Kenner retired, Dubinsky’s sister, Evie, continued to lead the choir until her death in 2016.[6]

After World War II

Most of Cape Breton’s Jewish-owned businesses only lasted two generations. Children of Jewish families were often encouraged to move elsewhere to prosper. The financial success that was achieved by many of the Jewish families during the island’s economic boom, meant that they could afford to send their children to institutes of higher education. After World War II, many young Jews moved away from Cape Breton to university and never returned. They became lawyers and doctors, establishing families in larger city centres, such as Halifax, Montreal and Toronto. It is a truism to say that there are currently more Cape Breton Jews living in Toronto than in Sydney or Glace Bay.[7]

A pattern of outmigration is common across Cape Breton, and it has deeply affected the Jewish population on the island. All of the synagogues on Cape Breton Island are now closed, except for the one in Sydney, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. Most of the members of the Sydney congregation are seventy-five or older – again, Cape Breton’s population, on the whole, is aging. There is no full-time rabbi in Sydney’s synagogue, though a dedicated rabbi visits regularly from Halifax on festivals. The woman who led the religious services died in November 2016. In spite of these hardships, Cape Breton’s Jews remain very dedicated to their Jewish faith and proud of the important contributions they have made to Cape Breton’s economy, culture and history. They have also ensured that the Jewish cemeteries in Glace Bay and Sydney will be maintained long after their community members have passed on. In this way, members of the Jewish families of Cape Breton will always be able to come home to visit the graves of their ancestors.

Jewish Heritage Researcher Marcia Ostashewski

Although small in number, the members of Jewish communities on Cape Breton Island made important contributions to Cape Breton’s history. Yet their stories are often overshadowed by the prevailing cultural narrative of Scottish settlers who developed the first sustainable infrastructure on the island.[8] Working with local community members and an international research team, ethnomusicologist Dr. Marcia Ostashewski has been making an effort to address these gaps in the historical record. Together, they have developed the diversitycapebreton.ca web portal. The project’s main objective is to investigate the historical and contemporary expressive cultures of the island’s Central and Eastern European communities, focusing on their music and dance practices. The publicly-accessible web portal serves as a living archive which provides a platform for Cape Bretoners to share their contributions to the island’s rich heritage.

Curator Ely Lyonblum

The Jewish heritage portion of the portal was curated by Dr. Ely Lyonblum (formerly Rosenblum), who lives in Toronto. Lyonblum worked with Ostashewski’s research team as a graduate student. Over a period of three years, he recorded interviews, collected photos and documents for the web portal. The end result was a series of projects that all fall under the title of “Jewish Life on Cape Breton Island”: a CBC radio segment, a series of sound art pieces, and an exhibit. The exhibit, hosted at York University in Toronto in May 2014 showcased photos, documents, and sound recordings that had been created by members of Cape Breton’s Jewish communities over the decades. Lyonblum obtained these items from the local government archive and private collections of Jewish families living in the area.

For Lyonblum, this project offered opportunities to gain training in, and apply and develop skills in, ethnography and mediamaking. On a more personal level, this project also provided Lyonblum opportunities to learn more about Jewish experiences in Cape Breton. His grandfather ran a successful retail business in Glace Bay, and Lyonblum’s father spent his childhood and youth in this small city, before moving to Toronto to become a physician and researcher. Lyonblum says, “It’s a part of my family history, but I also think, for Jewish communities to have a strong sense of what kind of national identity they have, how they fit in to the idea of Canada as a multicultural country, as a place where you’re free to be whoever you are, [is important]. I think the stronger the sense we have of where our parents came from and the kinds of experiences they had in these small towns, the better we can mobilize communities in these larger cities.”[9]

 

Notes:

[1] Ely Rosenblum, “Jewish Life and Belonging on Cape Breton Island,” Diversitycapebreton.ca Blog, June 4, 2015, http://diversitycapebreton.ca/content/jewish-life-and-belonging-cape-breton-island.

[2] Ibid.; Shirley Chernin, Interview with Ely Rosenblum, Audio Interview, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, October 14, 2013.; Stan Epstein, Interview with Ely Rosenblum, Audio Interview, Toronto, Ontario, August 17, 2015.

[3] Sheva Medjuck, The Jews of Atlantic Canada (St. John’s, NL: Breakwater Books, 1986), 36-37.

[4] Shirley Chernin, Interview.

[5] Rosenblum, 2015.

[6] Leon Dubinsky, Interview with Ely Rosenblum, Audio Interview, Sydney, NS, October 14, 2013.

[7] Rosenblum, 2015; Simon and Norman Rosenblum, Interview with Ely Rosenblum, Audio Recording,

Toronto, Ont, n.d.

[8] Rosenblum, 2015.

[9] Sheri Shefa, “Former Cape Breton Jews Sought for Research Projects,” Canadian Jewish News, June 18, 2015, http://www.cjnews.com/news/canada/former-cape-breton-jews-sought-research-project. Accessed April 24, 2017.

Contact:


For more information about the Jewish community of Cape Breton, or to find out more about Dr. Ostashewski’s work, contact The Centre for Sound Communities (Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia, Canada): [email protected]