Jews in Early Victoria

Early settler history of Victoria was set in motion by the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and defined by a series of gold rushes.

By 1824 the western headquarters for the HBC was located on the northern bank of the Columbia. The fur trading fort was called Fort Vancouver, now Vancouver, Washington.

James Douglas, chief factor for the HBC, came to the traditional and ancestral land of the Lekwungen speaking Nations in search of a suitable place to relocate the HBC’s western headquarters. With negotiations to settle territories between the United States and Britain taking place, and the suspicion that the 49th parallel would become the border, James Douglas wanted to move the British owned company off American soil.

In 1843, the HBC headquarters was transferred. Known as Camosack, (Rush of Water) by the Indigenous peoples, on June 10, 1843, the fort was officially renamed “Fort Victoria” after the British monarch.
As the goal of the move was to create a fort of refuge from American imperialism, James Douglas’ responsibilities centered on subsistence and survival. As a remote outpost of the British Empire, it fell to Douglas and his officers to create and maintain Victoria as a HBC company town.

As many of the HBC fur trappers and traders were francophone or Métis, in Victoria’s early days, the dominant language was French. That changed radically in 1858 when gold was found along the Fraser River on the mainland.

News of the discovery reached San Francisco as the 1849 California Gold Rush was petering out. Thousands of prospectors were looking for the next gold strike and poised to move at a moment’s notice. In the summer of 1858 between 20,000 and 30,000 people descended on Victoria. English speakers primarily Americans, transformed Victoria from a small, remote, sleepy hamlet to a dirty, bustling, wild, port town.

During the summer of 1858, a handful of Jews arrived with the masses from San Francisco. The majority were looking for new business opportunities. Until this historical moment, Jewish immigration had been marked by poor Jews escaping oppression, war and bigotry arriving with very little. This was not the case in Victoria.

The gold rush in California gave Jews the opportunity to learn English if the didn’t already know it, and to become acculturated to American culture and values. Free from restrictions placed on them in Europe, Jews were able to use their creativity and imagination to develop strong business acumen. Jewish men of that generation were particularly skilled in finding niche markets, or identifying needs and creating a business. Jews were traders, merchants and wholesalers. They learned what supplies, equipment, food, and clothing were needed to stock mining camps, and gold rush settlements. Jews also paid attention to the fashions of the day and were skilled at marketing and displaying their wares.

Jews established their own business networks and had credit in San Francisco, New York City, London and Europe. Their business savvy and world wide connections allowed Jews to create their own business alliances and trading partnerships independent of existing networks. Often business negotiations were done in Yiddish, further strengthening their business associations.

For the most part, Jews were resourceful, innovative and ambitious. They came to Victoria with money to invest, and merchandise to sell. Jewish immigrants were well prepared, used to hard work and long hours. Family members were sent to Victoria with goods to sell and funds to open a Victoria branch of their San Francisco store. By the end of the first year there were sixty-eight Jewish businesses, forty of which were extensions of an existing family business.

Due to their race, depth of knowledge, literacy, business connections and financial wealth, Jews enjoyed an unprecedented level of acceptance. Their finely tuned understanding of gold rush economy gave them knowledge and skills which they easily transferred from San Francisco to Victoria. Unlike typical Jewish immigration patterns, Jews were able to integrate directly into Victoria’s middle-class or higher. Their businesses were part of the mercantile backbone of the city. Jews were members and founding members of the fraternal organizations, involved in politics, and helped to develop the arts and culture. Jewish women organized attended to the needs of the Jewish community. They were instrumental in creating and running local hospitals.

Within that general framework, there were differences and conflict. The Jewish community in San Francisco was divided along religious and ethnic lines. And that was also transferred to Victoria. The largest number of Jews come from Eastern Europe, and were often peddlers. They were not as affluent as the Jews with German ancestry. German Jews had also been exposed to Reform Judaism and preferred those rituals and observances to the more traditional ways of the Eastern European Jews.

There were also Jews with British backgrounds, either directly from the British Isles, or indirectly via San Francisco. British subjects were especially well received by James Douglas. His fear of American expansionism led him to change his focus from running a HBC fur trading fort, to establishing a British colony. Recreating British society required British institutions. Douglas relied on ANY British citizen, Jewish or not, as advisors, and appointed them as land agents and legislators.

The Franklin brothers were early British Jewish immigrants to Victoria They were appointed as the first government auctioneers.

Being British opened political doors for both brothers. Selim served three terms in the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island; the first Jew to have a seat there. Lumley was elected the second mayor of Victoria; the first Jewish mayor of a city in British North America. Both men were active and popular. They helped found the Victoria Philharmonic Society and often sang together.

Franklin River in B.C. in the Port Alberni area and Franklin Street in Victoria are thought to have been named after the brothers.

On August 2, 1858 Jewish men gathered at Katy Gambitz’s Dry Goods and drapery store on Yates near Langley (Government of Canada building today). They met for months to socialize and to organize the community. The following spring on May 29, 1859 they officially founded the First Hebrew Victoria Benevolent Society, the earliest Jewish Organization in Western Canada. They formed a committee to create a Jewish Cemetery and another to build a synagogue.

Shortly after the men formed their benevolent society, the women created the Victoria Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society. The Hebrew Ladies organized balls and bazaars which were very successful at raising the funds necessary to sustain the community. The Hebrew Ladies would eventually run the Hebrew School, look after the Jewish Cemetery, and attend to the social and health needs of the community. Their fundraising efforts helped to keep the Jewish community solvent throughout the various boom and bust cycles that characterized gold rush frontier towns.

On October 1, 1859, the Weekly Victoria Gazette reported that 0.7 hectares of land was purchased from the Hudson Bay Company’s Chief Factor, Roderick Finlayson as a ‘suitable site’ for the cemetery. In February 1860, following a well attended ceremony Victoria became the home of the first Jewish cemetery in western Canada; the oldest non-Indigenous cemetery in continuous use in the province.

Establishing a synagogue presented a challenge. Religious differences surfaced between the more traditional Jews whose ancestry was from Eastern Europe and the Reform observances of the German Jews. This problem was resolved in San Francisco by creating two congregations. However, there weren’t enough Jews in Victoria to support that solution.

After five years of negotiations, in June 1863 two cornerstones for the synagogue were laid in a well attended public event. Members of the congregation, the Germania Singing Club, St. Andrew’s Society, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, French Benevolent Society and members of two Masonic Lodges, Mayor Thomas Harris, Chief Justice Cameron, and much of the town attended. Meyer Malowanski, a Jewish tobacconist, opened the ceremony with prayers in Hebrew. Speeches followed and then Meyer laid a cornerstone on behalf of the congregation. A second cornerstone was placed by the Right Worshipful Master Robert Burnaby of the Victoria Masonic Lodge. Enough work was completed by that fall for the first High Holiday services to be held in the building. In November, 1863 the finishing touches were complete and the synagogue building became the centerpiece of the Jewish community. It is the oldest synagogue building in continuous use in Canada.