Kolot Mayim

Not the First Time There Was Reform Judaism in Victoria

Reform Jews have been an essential and important component in the history of Victoria. Their business acumen, philanthropy, and civic mindedness helped establish our city. Their progressive ideas sometimes put them at odds with Orthodox Jews, and created an ongoing tension that was an undercurrent in Congregation Emanu-el’s history for about 100 years.

The Reform movement began in Germany in the 1800s in response to a desire within the Jewish community to modernize rituals and religious practice. Early reformers were attempting to preserve their Jewish identity by adapting the religion to conform to modern sensibilities. Any changes to orthodoxy had to be approved by the rabbinic authority of the day. However, only small changes to accepted religious expression were allowed.

In the 1840s the founders of the Reform Movement went to the United States where they became the rabbinic authority. In the United States, the founders were able to more fully develop the teachings of the Reform Movement. German Jews who followed their Rabbis, or who immigrated to the United States to better their lives were exposed to Reform ideals.

When gold was discovered in San Francisco, many German Jews made the long and often arduous trek to San Francisco for new business opportunities. They brought Reform ideals to the frontier town. As is common to Jews in the Diaspora, German Jews took aspects from the frontier culture and used them to reinterpret Reform ideology. They were a close knit community most of whom came from western Germany, the Rhineland, Saar, or Bavaria and were very successful in establishing trade networks and prosperous retail establishments. Some, like the Levy Strauss Company, are still in operation today.

Jews with Eastern European roots also came to San Francisco for the gold rush. They tended to hold strongly to their Orthodox teachings. Together with the German Jews, they created a thriving Jewish community.  However, differences in opinion about liturgy lead them to establish two synagogues in the spring of 1851. The Orthodox Jews established Congregation Sherith Israel, and the Reform created Temple Emanu-el.

When news of the discovery of gold on the Frasier River reached San Francisco some Jews came to Victoria. Often a younger relative would be sent to Victoria to open up a branch office of the family business. For the most part, the German Jews who came here brought more money to invest along with their Reform ideals. Named after the Reform synagogue, Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-el, once called Temple Emanu-el, has two Kabbalistic Torah Scrolls.  Scribes, Avielah Barklay and Marc Michaels, think these scrolls may have come from Germany.

The story of the Reinhart family is typical of German Jewish immigration to Victoria. Arriving in 1858, Mr. Simon Reinhart, originally from Bavaria, and his wife, Mrs. Pauline (Del Banco Lazarus) Reinhart were one of the first Jewish families in Victoria. With strong business connections in San Francisco, Simon Reinhart established the Victoria branch of his wholesale liquor business. His wealth also allowed him to partner with a relative in operating a general store on the New Westminster waterfront supplying

Pauline Reinhart had been a founding treasurer of the Ladies’ United Hebrew Benevolent Society in San Francisco. Using her skills she became a charter and very active member of the Hebrew Ladies Society of Victoria. She, and a number of other Jewish women, was also on the General Committee of the Female Infirmary. Pauline Reinhart was well known for her gracious entertaining in their fashionable Humboldt Street home. Like many of the city residents, the Reinhart family left during the economic collapse of 1866.

In early gold rush days, there were relatively fewer families like the Reinharts immigrating to Victoria. The majority of the Jews who came from San Francisco were of Eastern European origin. They were the ones who formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society, organized the Jewish community, created the cemetery, and bought the land for the synagogue.

As it had been in San Francisco, differences in religious expression again brought great debate.  Victoria’s Jewish population wasn’t large enough to create two synagogues; it took four years for the Jewish pioneers to form a congregation. On June 2, 1863, there was a cornerstone laying ceremony for Temple Emanu-el of Victoria. The Romanesque Revival style of architecture chosen for the synagogue was popular in Germany at the time.

The first Rabbi that was hired by the synagogue’s predominantly Orthodox board of directors was Orthodox. His contract had just been renewed when the gold rush busted and the economy in Victoria crashed. Many people, including prominent Jewish merchants, left Victoria, and without the funds to pay the Rabbi, he moved away as well.

For about thirty years members of the community lead services at Temple Emanu-el. In 1891 there where were enough funds to hire their second full time Rabbi.  Solomon Philo was a Reform rabbi who was affiliated with the Reform Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati.  He came via San Francisco with his wife Regina and their two musical daughters.

While he was very supportive and much championed by the Hebrew Ladies Society, Rabbi Philo often ran afoul of the board. He prevailed in his battle with the board and was allowed to sparingly incorporate music in the services and have his daughters sing in the choir. Rabbi Philo was chided for teaching Hebrew School without a head covering.  The board felt that Rabbi Philo was too Reform for the congregation and offered to buy him out of his contract for $300. He refused.  When his contract expired, it was not renewed.

He went to Vancouver to establish a Temple Emanu-el there, but met with a similar fate. However, his wife Regina was so well liked that when the Hebrew Ladies Society transformed into the Victoria chapter of B’nai B’rith Women, they named themselves The Regina Philo Chapter in honour of the Rebbitzen (Rabbi’s wife). Their two daughters married local men and stayed in Victoria.

Rabbi Philo’s tenure was possibly the hey-day of the Reform Movement in Victoria, until recently. Without a full time Rabbi, the congregation of Temple (Congregation) Emanu-el tried to balance the religious philosophies of the Orthodox and Reform perspectives. Congregation Emanu-el began to drift in a Conservative direction. This solution was not religious enough for some and too religious for others. As the population grew, the Jewish community splintered.

In 1996, Joel Fagan and his wife Sandy left Calgary and arrived in Victoria. He contacted the Jewish Community Center (JCC) to inquire about a Reform Congregation. The staff at the JCC had been collecting names and contact information from people who had expressed an interest in Reform Judaism and passed that information onto Joel. In response to his outreach about 20 people gathered at the JCC and decided to hold monthly Shabbat services.

Under Joel Fagan’s gentle guidance, Kolot Mayim was formed. Student Rabbi, Mari Chernoff, was the congregations’ first spiritual leader. She is credited with establishing a non-judgemental space for Kolot Mayim. As a long time folk singer, Rabbi Chernoff incorporated music as a core part of her services. Louis Sherman was so moved by the music and spirituality at Kolot Mayim that he used part of his inheritance to purchase a fully restored 100 year old Torah scroll and donated it to Kolot Mayim.

The Reform Movement has changed over time, as has Kolot Mayim. There have been a number of lay leaders and Rabbis leading Kolot Mayim; however, the seeds of the congregation were sown in pioneer days.