Exhibition highlights Jewish history in Canada

From left to right: Dr. Mark Kristmanson, CEO of the National Capital Commission; Supreme Court Justice Michael J. Moldaver; Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau; Rabbi Reuven Bulka, Rabbi Emeritus of Machzikei Hadas Synagogue; Catherine Bélanger; Tova Lynch, chair of CJE; Linda Kerzner, chair, Jewish Federation of Ottawa; Cantor Daniel Benlolo of Congregation Kehilat Beth Israel open the exhibition.

By Anna Sophia Vollmerhausen 

Did you know that Toronto-born rapper Drake is Jewish? Or that the Hart Trophy, awarded annually since 1924 to the most valuable player in the NHL, was donated by the family of Cecil Hart, a former Jewish head coach of the Montreal Canadiens?

If not, then a visit to the Canadian Jewish Experience exhibition may be in order.

Tova Lynch is one of the main organizers of the CJE which can be viewed at 30 Metcalfe St., across from Parliament Hill, until the end of the year.

The exhibition features nine bilingual panels highlighting Jewish contributions to various areas of life in Canada, in business, the arts, architecture, sports, the war effort, politics and more. The exhibit is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission is free.

Before Confederation in 1867, there were fewer than 1,000 Jews living in Canada. Their numbers steadily increased over the years as more Jews fled religious persecution and violence, particularly in Eastern Europe. The most recent data available from Statistics Canada shows that Jews made up about one per cent of Canada’s population, or nearly 330,000 people, in 2011.

But Canada was no exception when it came to anti-Semitism, particularly in the lead up to the Second World War. In 1939, the government refused to accept nearly 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on board the St. Louis, many of whom later died in concentration camps.

According to Lynch, the main goal of the exhibit is education.

“I think there are a lot of stereotypes about Jews, and unfortunately, the number of anti-Semitic incidents have gone up (recently),” she said.

In Ottawa alone last November, anti-Semitic messages were spray-painted on synagogues, schools and even on a rabbi’s front door in the Glebe.

Cities such as Montreal and Toronto also reported having to remove spray-painted swastikas and other anti-Semitic phrases from buildings during the same month.

“We want to show that Jews are like everyone else — we want to share with everyone else,” Lynch said. “We believe in building bridges and we (want) to celebrate the sesquicentennial.”

Her hope is to educate people about the various achievements and accomplishments of Jewish-Canadians over the years, while also giving the Jewish community a chance to celebrate.

And, there’s a lot to celebrate: Jewish musicians such as Leonard Cohen and Rush’s lead vocalist Geddy Lee, novelists such as Mordecai Richler, actors such as William Shatner, and producers like Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels have all made significant contributions to Canada’s arts scene.

Many Jews who came to Canada in the 20th century have established businesses that operate to this day. For example, Morris Shumiatcher founded Smithbilt Hats in 1918; now, almost 100 years later, the company still produces the iconic white cowboy hats that are a staple at the Calgary Stampede. In Ottawa, for example, the Greenberg family founded the Ottawa-based property development company the Minto Group.

While the Canadian Jewish Experience will only be in Ottawa until the end of the year, Lynch said the team behind the exhibit are planning to turn it into a mobile attraction that can travel across the country.

“Obviously we have a lot to celebrate, and we are very happy to be part of Canada, and I know that Canada is proud of the Jewish community,” Lynch said. “It’s a two way street.”

Plans for the exhibition began in 2015, with a major fundraising initiative that sought to raise $2.9 million. Despite receiving no government funding, and having to adjust the initial vision for the exhibition, Lynch said they are proud of what they and their donors have been able to create in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“It’s a big day for Canada, and if it’s a big day for Canada, it’s a big day for the Jewish community who were very happy to live in Canada,” Lynch said. “It was just something very natural for us to do . . . we felt that we wanted to thank Canada for giving us such a very positive home.”

Anna Sophia Vollmerhausen is a journalist student attending Carleton University.

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