By Dr. Stephen Speisman

A Jewish presence in Toronto was evident as early as the 1830s and by the mid-1850s, there were eighteen Jewish families in the city. Primarily of English origin, some having come via Quebec or the United States, these first families established the first synagogue in Toronto in 1856. The congregation consisted of craftsmen, small shopkeepers and merchant importers.

Following the 1880s, religious persecution and economic hardship attributable to the Industrial Revolution forced large numbers of Jews to leave Eastern Europe --- Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Austria-Hungary, Romanian.1 Those who settled in Toronto, as elsewhere in North America, quickly outnumbered the original Jewish inhabitants and established their own religious, cultural, educational and social institutions.

By 1900, synagogues had begun to proliferate, at first divided by country of origin and later, as the population increased, by regions and towns in Eastern Europe. These congregations --- orthodox without exception -- set up in private dwellings or storefronts (shtiblach) and later in vacated churches and purpose-built structures.

In the decades prior to the First World War, Jewish afternoon schools, both secular and religious were founded, as well as YiddishYiddish: [literally, "Jewish"] language spoken by Jews in Eastern Europe. Yiddish is a blend of Hebrew and German, but is written using Hebrew characters. theatres, a newspaper, and mutual-benefit societies.

These East European Jews began as peddlers, artisans or factory workers in the clothing industry, although some later opened small retail shops and factories, ultimately achieving greater status as wholesalers, waste processors or real estate investors. Their children would eventually enter the professions.

Although the English Jews settled east of Yonge Street, in still-fashionable streets which had not yet begun to deteriorate, the East European immigrants found both housing and employment in St. John’s Ward, a slum between Teraulay Street (now Bay) and University Avenue, which came to be known simply as “The Ward”. Here, the Jews attempted to create many of the features of their old homes in Europe. The Ward became, in many ways, a North American shtetlShtetl: small, close-knit village of Jews, usually in Eastern Europe. ---- a Jewish village --- where people gathered in restaurants, groceries and confectionery shops. It all fostered a sense of security in a hostile environment where these poverty-stricken immigrants evoked fear in the minds of the native Anglo-Saxon citizens, who passed through the Ward by streetcar on the way to the fashionable downtown stores.

For traditional Jews, the synagogue was also a place of refuge. It was a social centre where one could interact with those who shared the same experience, who knew your family in the alter heimAlter Heim: Yiddish for 'old country', a term used by immigrants to refer to their communities in Eastern Europe. The synagogue often offered free loans, assistance to the sick and destitute, a cemetery and place where one could achieve the social status unavailable outside its walls. A peddler could become a president, a gabbaiGabbai: treasurer of the synagogue. The Gabbai was entrusted with the responsibility of collecting funds for charity from congregants. (warden) or the holder of some other respected office. And of course, it was a place to study the divine word and to pray to their Creator, with whom many felt an intimate relationship.

The house or storefront synagogue often consisted of a large room where the men prayed (with long tables and chairs rather than benches), a women’s section, perhaps on the main floor surrounded by a partition or curtain, or an upstairs room with a grate in the floor, through which one could follow the service downstairs. A small kitchen was usually located adjacent to the main room for the preparation of refreshments following the services. A weekday chapel would have to wait until larger premises were available.

Few of these congregations could afford a rabbi or cantor in these early years. Most of the functions were carried out by volunteers but assisted if possible by a paid sexton who might also serve as reader, teacher and janitor.

As the Jews grew more prosperous, they sought to escape the Ward, moving to areas where there were backyards and parks in which their children could play, houses large enough to accommodate recently-arrived relatives from Europe, and indoor plumbing.

Since accessibility to the Ward was originally a factor, as employment and relatives often remained there, the Jews moved westward, following the streetcar lines along College and Dundas streets between McCaul and Bathurst. Spadina Avenue became the core thoroughfare and by 1917, a full-blown outdoor market had developed just west of it, along Kensington Avenue, Baldwin St. and Augusta Avenue. On Spadina, itself, the portion south of Dundas became a centre for the garment industry, with many of the factories now operated by Jews, and the area north of Dundas offering stores and restaurants to serve the local residents. By the late 1920s, most of the Jewish population had vacated the Ward, establishing their businesses in the Spadina Avenue/Kensington Market district, bringing their institutions with them or establishing new ones.

There were a number of exceptions to this pattern of movement. One was the Jewish community at "The Junction", where a group of families settled at the turn of the twentieth century, to be close to the industries that clustered along the railway lines or, as peddlers in the countryside, to get a head start on those peddlers traveling from the Ward.

In addition, there were pockets of Jews in Cabbagetown and in the Beaches, primarily shopkeepers who lived in those areas to be close to their businesses. The Beach community was supplemented by prosperous Jews who lived in the central part of the city, but who had summer cottages along the streets radiating north from Lake Ontario.

The Spadina Avenue/Kensington Market area remained the heartland of the Toronto Jewry until the mid-1950s, when a movement northward began, primarily following Bathurst Street into Downsview and Bathurst Manor, then to Finch Avenue and Steeles, and into Thornhill. While large numbers in the community continue to move even farther north into York Region, primarily between Dufferin Street and Leslie, Jews never abandoned the downtown area. In recent decades, downtown congregations have been revived, several new Jewish schools have been established, the renewed Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre has become a Jewish cultural centre and the downtown Jewish population has increased substantially.



1 The Industrial Revolution came late to Eastern Europe, its effects not being felt in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Those Jews who were artisans and petty merchants simply could not compete with factories and railways.

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View of Spadina Avenue, north from Queen Street (1910)
View of Spadina Avenue, north from Queen Street (1910)

Young boy in front of a house (1919)

Dundas Street, west of Bay Street (c. 1925)

Photograph of Dundas Street looking north to Royce Avenue (1925)

Photograph of Brunswick Avenue north of Harbord Street (1899)

Queen Street at Woodbine Avenue, 1919.

The Kensington area - Wards 4 and 5 (1923)

West Toronto Junction - Ward 7 (1912)

The Annex – Wards 4 and 5 (1923)

Map of the Beach area, 1924.


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