BS: Describe your religious affiliation.
BS: Do you consider yourself a religious man?
FS: No I, I don’t consider myself religious, although I am observant. We are members of Or Shalom a, what is considered a Jewish Renewal community, where, I, it’s, yeah pretty well. Or Shalom, Jewish Renewal, which in this case it means a way of, to my understanding at least, at least this is what I find, a way of combining the spirit, the enthusiasm that, that we found in the Orthodox synagogue, that kind of close knit, ‘haimishness,’ the homeliness of the people along with a, with an understanding of what is happening with a more egalitarian, broad minded, acceptance of change as an important part of our lives and incorporating that into the life of our religious community. I, Or Shalom to me has always been more community, than rather an institution of religion and which is, and I think most people who attend feel the same thing.
ID: Now I’d like to move into your, you are a member of Beth Hamidrash and
I’d like to know how you got involved. I know you’re a regular attender of services.
AM: Well, Beth Hamidrash again is one of the projects in with I am the
founding director of the society, but the whole thing started again like many other things. There was a teacher at Talmud Torah who wanted to do something Sephardic. I forgot his name, he is a Rabbi now in California, and he came to me and says, Albert, you know for the same reason, we should have something Sephardic here and all that. So, anyway we got our first services in my house and in other houses in the beginning there were a few of us. Then, because I was involved with the Centre and other things like that, our first Yom Kipper, Rosh Hashanah, I rented the nursery at the JCC to have our first services. Then of course other people took the mantle and things like that and then there was a group of Ashkenazi which they were passing away and they gave us their synagogue for one dollar. This is one of the, we started our first [society], we started our first constitution which I signed. And after the thing again like everything else once it’s going, then other people took the mantle. I only came and worked for the board always when I see something is not working a little bit, I get involved, when it’s working, I get out. So at the present time you know, a few years I was on the board, now I am not. There are better people now.
ID: So, there was a small number of Sephardic Jews when you first came here.
AM: Oh, there were many Sephardic Jews when I came here, and then little by
little they more and more came, but then because Vancouver is very expensive we have many Sephardic Jews in Richmond, in Coquitlam, in other places. But there is a community, Sephardic, but not all of them…Beth Hamidrash needs more members, it’s a small community keeping an ideal and were struggling with the budgets and all that, but we still are the only western Sephardic voice.
ID: When you say western, you mean like west…
AM: From Ottawa, from Toronto, Montreal to here.
AM: Yeah, so…
ID: So, where…I know there are Sephardic Jews in Edmonton
AM: Oh there are…Yeah, but...
ID: But they don’t, there’s not…
AM: But they don’t have like an identity like a Sephardic synagogue organization and things like that.
ID: So who were...
AM: So, so my involvement lately with that is to bring back the history and the folk lore. So I have been giving a lot of workshops on the history, Ladino music and customs. It’s one of the new hobbies, after I retired, I needed a hobby and I decided to get to know more about my culture. And then I begun to sharing it with other by giving workshops in Ladino, in Sephardic, music and singing.
ID: So who are the movers and shakers now in the Sephardic…
AM: Oh, now they have a third generation. A young group, very, yeah, is very good because now we have got people who have grown up with the synagogue for a long time, and the problem with our synagogue like many other people is that we have a small base, you know, like 50, 60 paid members. And to keep a building and a rabbi and all that, so half of our time is the struggle to raise money, and half of our time is like that. But we try to keep as much as we can the customs and that from the Sephardic thing.
CP: Harry, at one time you told me that your sister Chava’s husband, Abrasha Wosk, was instrumental in starting the first Jewish burial chapel. Tell me about that would you?
CP: He had something to do with it didn’t he?
HN: No, my brother-in-law, Abrasha Wosk was the first one to buy an old store on Broadway East to make a Jewish chapel. Before that we had to…depend on the Christian chapel at 11th and Granville.
CP: Oh yes.
HN: I forgot the name of it. We had a lot of difficulties and sometimes we couldn’t get the chapel in Vancouver, and we had to go to Westminster to perform, to get our services.
CP: Oh, I remember that, my aunt was buried from Roselawn, I think it was, in New Westminster. So?
HN: So, due to that, so he went to bought the building on Broadway and we used it for some time until a chance came. A Christian chapel was available on Broadway, which was not to be sold, they wouldn’t sell it to a Christian.
CP: This was Broadway and Alma, was it?
HN: Broadway and Alma. So, Abrasha bought it at a bargain price at $25,000. He paid his own deposit on it and then he called on the community to complete the deal.
CP: He took it upon himself to buy it knowing that there was a need for it and hoping that the community would...
HN: Well, the chapel was worth at least $100,000.
CP: Really, yeah.
HN: Beautiful chapel. He could have made a profit, he was offered a profit but he refused it. He says he’s working for the community and that was his contribution.
AJ: We had a, we had a synagogue. My grandmother brought a sacred Torah over from Russia with her. And they built a synagogue around the Torah. And we were the only synagogue between us and Regina which was 72 miles away. And people from the, people from the de Hirsh colony came to our synagogue, people in the surrounding towns. There were towns all over, 8, 10, 12 miles apart from each other and many of those people came to our town on the High Holidays. We had the synagogue, we had a rabbi who also acted as a mohel [person in charge of conducting circumcisions], he acted as the…
LR: Shochet [kosher butcher].
AJ: Shochet. He did everything.
LR: Wow. So growing up, I mean, your parents must have been fairly religious to have maintained…
AJ: Yes they were, yes they were.
LR: …everything while they were in such a small town in Canada.
AJ: Yes, that’s right. It was very important to them.
LR: And do they come from an Orthodox background then?
LR: And your father did he have any Jewish education back in the Ukraine, cheder [Jewish elementary school education], or yeshiva [Jewish higher education] or…
AJ: Well he had a Bar Mitzvah, he could read, he could doven [pray], he was certainly at home in a synagogue.
LR: Yeah, and he could read Hebrew.
LR: And spoke Yiddish I’m sure.
LR: Any other languages?
AJ: He spoke Yiddish and Russian.
LR: And Russian. And your mother…
AJ: And of course they learned to speak English, the same thing.
LR: The same thing. And was it difficult to keep kosher I’m guessing probably in such a small town?
AJ: No, well we had this [rabbi].
LR: Right, right and he was local, he lived right in the actual town?
AJ: He lived right in our town.
LR: Oh, that’s wonderful.
AJ: He was supported by the small Jewish community.
LR: Right, right, and so how many people in terms of numbers in the Jewish community were there?
AJ: We were about 12 families that lived in the town.
Interviewer: Marvin Weintraub & Cyril E. Leonoff
MW: Yes, well I remember very vividly your first visit to Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi, when you came up from Spokane for the interview, for the position, I didn’t know that you were interested in [working in] Seattle also at the time. I’m glad we didn’t know, otherwise you would have gotten a much better deal with us! Can you recollect, now you didn’t come until the fall, I think August ?
PS: In August, yes.
MW: Of that year, and by the time you both came I had the honour of being the first to welcome you, I was president of the Congregation at that time.
WS: Yes that’s right. To us you were the image of the Congregation.
MW: Oh yes.
PS: You succeeded Albert Koch right?
MW: Albert Koch was the president prior to me.
PS: When we were hired.
WS: That image hasn’t suffered at all.
MW: Thank you. Can you recollect any of your impressions of our Congregation and of our Jewish community at that time when you first joined us?
WS: Well not only I recollect my own impressions but all of the echoes in the community of what Beth Israel was to various people. And one of the things that at first shocked me was to know that there were many, many people who referred to our, to Beth Israel as the Reform Congregation.
MW: Really? I hadn’t heard that.
WS: I assumed that this was out of a lack of knowledge as to the difference between reform and conservative, but I think it was not entirely that, I think there was the impression that by contrast to Schara Tzedeck…
PS: Which by the way, apart from Beth Hamidrash which was very small, were the only synagogues in town. Beth Israel, Schara Tzedeck and the small Beth Hamidrash.
WS: The two synagogues, that’s right, people found it easy to sort of make things black and white. There’s so many grey areas in both congregations…
MW: This upset you, did it?
WS: At first. Not to the point where I felt crestfallen or anything like that but I felt that we’d have to do some image building here, and it wasn’t only for the purpose of giving the impression of being just as frum or Orthodox as you, but I intended to make the impression and the reality that conservative Judaism was not only just as authentic but just as intensive in many ways, not in only one direction, and could be more meaningful if it reached out to the community. So my…
MW: So this became your [deliberate] program as a result of that.
WS: My task was to see if we could approximate that goal.
MS: Yeah, I think it started off…you see my dad was never very religious growing up. He was the only boy after four older sisters and he was like the Messiah and so, but he was kind of a bad boy, not like a bad, bad boy but like a jazz guy and out late. And he moved here from Winnipeg and he never was interested in his Judaism and ironically you know, he met my mom who was also a jazz aficionado, like a blonde haired non-Jewish girl who liked jazz and that’s how they met. And then obviously they got serious but he knew that, “Okay, now if I’m going to get married I’d better, she’d better convert,” and my mom was actually very open to it because her parents, my grandparents, were very open, amazing people. So she already actually had an affinity for Judaism and what it stood for. So of course she was the boss, my mom, and she created the Jewish house even though my dad would be like, “Are you kidding me, we’re going to keep kosher.” But of course along the way they got more and more involved and more and more religious. I remember when we joined Beth Israel synagogue, I was probably in Grade 1, and in those days new members got to sit on the bimah [a raised platform in a synagogue] and my dad and I got to sit on the bimah and it was actually one of the most memorable moment of my Jewish life is being so proud to sit in this beautiful and sitting on the bimah.
So anyways the first involvement I think my parents had in the Jewish community was probably through the synagogue and they got involved. At one time my dad was president of the Men’s Club, my mom was president of the Sisterhood and I was president of USY [United Synagogue Youth, and then my dad went onto the board of the synagogue and he was involved in JNF [Jewish National Fund] and did a lot of work for the Jewish Family Service Agency. He started the Jewish Film Festival, that was one of his big things, when he was president of the Jewish Festival of the Arts he got the Jewish Film Festival off the ground. So he was very interested in cultural arts and my mom was very involved with the Sisterhood, Women’s League on the regional level and she went to Sisterhood conventions and was very involved in Hadassah. Until the day she died she was doing the books for her Hadassah chapter.
MF: I was brought up in a strongly ethnic community. Our first home when we arrived was on Georgia Street near Campbell Avenue. And lived there a short while. One of my, my oldest sister Rose was born there. Our second home was in the 700 block Union Street. Our neighbours in the first home, we had a very fine negro family. In fact, if you’ve heard of an artist Collins, what’s her name, Collins the singer. I’ve forgot her first name. She was, her parents lived right next door to us and they were lovely people. And our neighbours there were at that time mostly Italians and Russians. And this family of coloured people, very fine folks. On Union Street our neighbours on both sides were Russian Orthodox persuasion. And some of the early Jewish pioneers lived on Georgia on the 7, 6, and 500 block, on Keefer Street in the same 7, 6, and 500 blocks. And the Schara Tzedeck synagogue had not been built yet at that particular time. We used to hold services up to my earliest recollections in the 600 block Union Street in an old store. And two doors away lived the [McCarnon] family, [Jerry McCarnon] the boxer. At school [Jimmy Samuels] was in my class, his father lived in the area. It was just a rented store at the time that I recollect. [We had a movement with aim to] buy a building of our own which we first had one that still exists on Heatley Avenue and between Pender and what’s the next street, I forget, you must know the street…
DM: Pender and Keefer.
MF: Pender. Keefer, right! Between Pender and Keefer and that served as the synagogue for quite a while.
SC: I think I’ve mentioned before that Rabbi Pastinsky brought us to Vancouver because we were only one of two Jewish families living in New Westminster. That was in 1933. Our more of an involvement with the Jewish community started. We used to go to school at Strathcona and take two lunches. One was for the noon hour lunch and the other was after a two hour Hebrew class or Yiddish, I can’t remember which—our second lunch and then we would have two hours of Hebrew or Yiddish.
NK: Can you I ask you who’s ‘we’?
SC: The children, the young people, everyone lived…
NK: Your friends?
SC: No, all of the Jewish, there were only five hundred Jewish in the city, which meant that there were a few only not that many young children. All of the kids went to the Heatley Avenue synagogue. Jewish…
NK: Friends from school?
SC: Mm hmm. I believe Mr. Katznelson was the principal and Ms. Jaffe, Sylvia Jaffe was our teacher. We went for three years and then the Jewish community moved from the Schara Tzedeck which as I said was the only synagogue, the Orthodox, it moved from there to Oak Street.
SB: I was married in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-four. There wasn’t too many Jewish people in the city, but what there was usually concentrated at the Schara Tzedeck shul at the corner of Heatley and Pender Street. That was the centre of all social affairs and that was, a few years afterwards, the community centre was built on Oak Street. And that place then was the place where all the Jewish people had their social affairs. But the shul on Pender Street and Dunlevy was the only one in Vancouver at the time where on special Jewish holidays the people came to daven and hold prayers and meet others. A few years after I arrived they built another shul in the area now…
AK: Where the present Schara Tzedeck is?
SB: Yes, yes, you know where it is?
AK: At Oak and 16th.
SB: Oak and 16th. And then they built the other shul, Beth Israel, and they had a few different rabbis since that shul has been built. During those years, from 1924, many Jewish people came to Vancouver from all parts of Canada. At the first shul at Pender and Dunlevy the number of Jewish people living in Vancouver was very limited, but as the years went by and the people living here told their friends how beautiful the climate was and so on, by the year 1930 there was about 10,000 Jewish people in the city of Vancouver. People of very Orthodox and others progressive but they all came to the same shul. Later on a more progressive school opened up on Broadway. It was called the Peretz School. They done away with a lot of Orthodox principles, it was quite modern, so parents sent their children to the Peretz School where they were taught Jewish and Hebrew, and not many of the Orthodox things that the…learnt years ago. Most of the activities at that time was carried on at the Schara Tzedeck synagogue, social affairs and so on ‘til eight or ten years later the first community centre was built on Oak Street near Broadway. That was a gathering place for all social affairs. But on special holidays the very sacred ones and so on, all the Jewish people in the city of Vancouver until the community centre was built, met at the Schara Tzedeck at the corner of Heatley and Pender.