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Jewish Journal

Vancouver — from frontier to cosmopolitan center

by Arthur Wolak

March 15, 2011 | 5:31 pm

Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. Photo: Arthur Wolak

Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. Photo: Arthur Wolak

During the 2010 Winter Olympics, British Columbia’s vibrant city of Vancouver captivated the attention of television viewers worldwide because of its attractive cityscapes and thrilling downhill skiing in Whistler, a picturesque mountain resort just two hours’ drive north.

Situated between the Pacific Ocean and snow-capped mountains, Vancouver is celebrated for its cultural and architectural diversity. Eye-catching structures include the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library on West Georgia Street, an impressive building modeled on Rome’s Colosseum and designed by Israeli Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.

Vancouver’s many museums — especially the Museum of Anthropology and Vancouver Art Gallery — and its Symphony Orchestra are also world renowned.

Vancouver was not always so cosmopolitan.

Once a frontier town on the outskirts of the more populated eastern cities of North America, Vancouver’s development was fuelled by substantial immigration and investment, making Vancouver the largest city in the province of British Columbia.

In all of Canada, only Toronto and Montreal are larger than Vancouver, and the same goes for their Jewish populations.

The Jewish community of Vancouver swelled after World War II, with migrants arriving from colder parts of Canada, the United States and Europe. The city’s population growth paralleled the city’s evolution from a small hick town to the major metropolis it is today.

With about 25,000 Jews, Vancouver’s community is modest compared to those of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, yet it supports a diverse array of synagogues, Jewish day schools, a Jewish Community Center, several delis and one brand-new upscale kosher restaurant — the Maple Grill — that has already become a hot spot for locals and tourists, both Jewish and not.

Even before the war, Jewish influence proved significant to Vancouver’s growth.

Incorporated in 1886, Vancouver’s second mayor was David Oppenheimer, a Jewish immigrant from Germany known as the “father of Vancouver” because his period in power — from 1888 through 1891 — was arguably the most productive in the city’s history.

Oppenheimer’s leadership helped shape Vancouver’s general character. He organized the city’s water supply, spearheaded the paving of streets and sidewalks, and initiated the installation of streetcars and the construction of the city’s first bridges. He also successfully lobbied for a city hospital and more parks.

Because the Oppenheimer family had achieved considerable wealth in many business ventures during and after the Gold Rush, David, a generous philanthropist, took no pay for his mayoral duties. He even donated personal landholdings for the establishment of city parks and schools, and offered land for the city’s first synagogue.

Though there were a couple of temporary congregations established in the late 19th century, a synagogue building would not appear in Vancouver until 1911.

Before then, the closest synagogue was Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El on Vancouver Island. Built in 1863 on Blanshard Street, it remains a national heritage site, the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in Canada and along the West Coast of North America. Although Victoria was the provincial capital, Vancouver would ultimately attract the greatest share of settlers, including British Columbia’s growing Jewish population.

During Oppenheimer’s first term in office, in 1888, the thousand-acre Stanley Park was officially opened. Among North America’s largest urban parks, it remains visually spectacular and immensely popular. A rustic area adjacent to an urban downtown core, the park attracts hundreds of thousands each year to its many recreational areas, trails, restaurants and natural old-growth forest.

Although the Stanley Park Zoo was phased out in the 1990s (a concession to local voters), the Vancouver Aquarium — now Canada’s largest — is a major highlight of the park.

Another highlight of the city is its 13.7-mile seawall, 5.5 miles of which border Stanley Park. All year round, Vancouver’s moderate climate attracts masses of walkers, cyclists and inline skaters to the seawall.

In homage to the influence of Vancouver’s Jewish mayor, a prominent bronze monument in memory of David Oppenheimer stands in Stanley Park near the entrance at Beach Street.

The center of Vancouver’s Jewish community was originally next to Chinatown, where Congregation B’nai Yehudah, the city’s first synagogue, was constructed in 1911 at the corner of East Pender and Heatley streets in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighborhood. The Orthodox shul, renamed Schara Tzedeck Synagogue in 1917, was replaced in 1921 with a new and larger building.

Despite the Jewish community’s fondness for Chinese food, Vancouver’s Jewish life soon shifted west along Oak Street, where new neighborhoods, especially Oakridge, were on the rise. Among other sites of importance to the Jewish community, synagogues quickly followed, making Oak Street a case study in contemporary Jewish sociology.

A shul representing nearly every contemporary Jewish denomination can be found there. From north to south, Oak is dotted with such large and impressive buildings as Congregation Schara Tzedeck (Orthodox) at 19th Avenue (having relocated from Strathcona to its current structure in 1948), Congregation Beth Israel (Conservative) at 28th Avenue, the Lubavitch Centre (Chasidic) at 41st Avenue and Temple Sholom (Reform) at 55th Avenue. Each was constructed in this same order between the 1940s and 1980s. Just a couple of blocks east of Oak, at Heather and 16th, is Congregation Beth Hamidrash, the only Sephardic Orthodox synagogue west of Toronto. Jewish secular life, stressing the study of Yiddish and Jewish cultural traditions, is also represented in Oakridge by the Peretz Centre on Ash Street.

By the 1990s, the city’s rising population and increased diversity led to the opening of new synagogues. Beside Vancouver’s largest and well-established Oak Street shuls, Congregation Or Shalom (Renewal) brought the return of an official Jewish presence to the east side of town, establishing its synagogue on Fraser Street at 10th Avenue. The Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel (Traditional) opened its doors on West Broadway. The Kollel is well known for its weekly Shabbat-eve Carlebach-style services, which are followed by dinners that attract large crowds of locals and visitors.

Since the 1970s, in response to skyrocketing Vancouver real estate prices, Jews began to spread beyond the shtetl of Oak Street and into the suburbs. As a result, numerous shuls sprang up in the southern, northern and eastern parts of greater Vancouver.

The largest include Beth Tikvah (Conservative), Eitz Chaim Congregation and Young Israel (both Orthodox) in Richmond, Congregation Har-El (Conservative) in West Vancouver and Congregation Sha’arai Mizrah (Reform) in Coquitlam.

Chabad Houses can also be found throughout Vancouver, from suburban White Rock/South Surrey and Richmond, to downtown Vancouver — which, as the downtown’s sole Jewish house of worship, became the unofficial “Jewish Pavilion” during the Olympic Games.

While suburban Jews represent a substantial segment of the local Jewish community, Vancouver remains the focal point of Jewish life throughout the metropolitan area. At the crossroads of 41st and Oak is the city’s large Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, where Nava’s, a kosher dairy cafe, serves a dedicated clientele.

Other kosher delis and restaurants include Omnitzky’s at nearby Cambie and 42nd, Sabra’s Glatt Kosher Restaurant and Bakery on Oak and 23rd, Garden City Bakery in Richmond and Mount Royal Bagel Factory in North Vancouver. Non-kosher Jewish delis are also prevalent, none more popular than Kaplan’s Star Deli, which, for decades, has been a popular local meeting spot at Oak and 42nd.

The newest Jewish culinary contribution to Vancouver is the Maple Grill, located on the ground floor of Broadway’s Kollel building. Its upscale gourmet menu attracts as many patrons representing diverse ethnicities and religions as those who come to enjoy its exotic kosher menu, offering a non-deli selection of eclectic dishes unlike any other kosher establishment in town.

Despite its dazzling modernity, Vancouver has not ignored tradition. Surrounding a very large area of town, comprising the city’s synagogues, delis and restaurants, is a virtually invisible eruv — marking a traditional enclosure in which Torah-observant Jews can carry items without violating laws of Shabbat. Vancouver’s only mikvah is located at Congregation Schara Tzedeck.

Evolving from a village at the start of Mayor Oppenheimer’s tenure into the world-class city it is today, there is much to see and do in Vancouver. But for those who want to explore, Vancouver also serves as a gateway to other popular destinations such as Whistler, Vancouver Island and cruises to Alaska. Because one visit to the city will inspire many more, Jewish tourists can rest assured that there is just as much to see and do within Vancouver’s vibrant Jewish community as there is in the rest of Vancouver. Its restaurants, sights and sounds are certain to please even the most discerning international traveler.

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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