History of the Jewish Cemetery

Situated on a hill on the traditional and ancestral land of the Lekwungen Peoples in
beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, the Jewish Cemetery of Victoria was established in 1860 and is still in use today.

Website: Jewish Cemetery Of Victoria, British Columbia

In this section we present highlights from the history of the cemetery and of some of the Jews who rest there.

The first major wave of Jewish immigration began in the spring of 1858.  They came primarily as merchants in response to the Gold Rush.  A small group of Jewish merchants met at Katy Gambitz’s dry goods store on Yates Street on May 29, 1859 and founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society.  They formed two committees, one to establish a Jewish Cemetery, the other to build they synagogue. In October 1859 land was purchased from the Hudson Bay Company’s Chief Factor, Roderick Finlayson.  The cemetery was consecrated in February 1860.

It was often difficult to maintain the cemetery as the economic climate of Victoria shifted and the Jewish population ebbed and flowed.  There were two fires at the cemetery.  Due to the deteriorating condition of the cemetery. Beginning in 1895 during their heyday, the Hebrew Ladies took responsibility for maintaining the cemetery.  Under their direction attempts were made to beautify the cemetery. Paths were established and landscaping was done. However, just after the turn of the century there was another economic collapse in Victoria and the cemetery was neglected once again.

Due to the long time of neglect and the accompanying level of disarray, by the later 1940’s there was talk of abandoning the cemetery and moving the graves to Royal Oak.  Instead, Sidney Levy, Morris Greene and Alice Mallek organized a Cemetery Committee and trust fund. They arranged to have the cemetery cleaned, graves remarked, the road improved, and new gates installed. Descendants were contacted for help.

In 2000 Geoffrey Perkins was hired as a caretaker, and his partner Joy Wilkins has been helping him as a volunteer since 2004. An irrigation system was installed in 2003 and updated in 2016.

On December 30, 2011, vandals spray-painted graffiti on five gravestones. In response, the following Sunday over 600 people, both Jews and non-Jews, gathered at the cemetery for a “Vigil of Respect” conducted by Rabbi Harry Brechner.

In 2015 Erin-Lee McGuire, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Victoria, began teaching the course, “Heritage and Historical Archaeology” which included field work at the Jewish Cemetery.  Through the use of modern technology, Prof McGuire and her students have been able to reveal inscriptions on the older gravestones which had been made illegible by wind, rain and time.

Summer of 2016 brought another change to the cemetery.  It sits on a rocky outcrop of bedrock smoothed by receding glaciers.  This has limited the space available for graves.  With a grant from the Jewish Cemetery Trust the rock was blasted in July 2016.  Many of the rocks were tucked away.  The plan is to use larger rocks to create a memorial rock wall as a way to remember families or people who once lived in Victoria but are buried elsewhere.  Clean fill and seeding completed the work.

The Jewish Cemetery is managed by Congregation Emanu-El, Canada’s oldest synagogue in continuous use.

Roll of Persons Buried in Hebrew Cemetery, 1861-1866

A page from the “Roll of Persons Buried in Hebrew Cemetery (indexed), 1861-1866” in the Jewish Museum & Archives of BC. View the full document at archives.jewishmuseum.ca