The Story of Toronto’s First Jewish Congregation
For Jewish Heritage Month, we look back on the small group of Jewish Torontonians who came together and created a community.
Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
In the mid-1800s, the Jewish population in Toronto was very small. But even a small group needs somewhere to pray. In 1851, the census put the total population of the city at 30,775. Twenty years later, the Jewish population was only 157 people and the city’s total was at 56,000. But in between those two surveys, Jewish families came together to found the first congregation in the city, which is also the first in Canada West (now, roughly, Ontario).
Before they had a temple, the Jewish population in Toronto first bought a cemetery site. The Toronto Hebrew Congregation bought the land at Gerrard and Pape streets from Sir John Beverley Robinson in 1849. It was the first Jewish cemetery west of Montreal and it was used for burials until the 1930s. A few years later, in 1856, Jewish families from Europe and England formed a congregation and assumed responsibility for the cemetery in 1858.
There were probably about 60 Jewish Torontonians when the congregation was founded. The Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque commemorating the founding of the congregation says 17 families came together to form what became Holy Blossom, while Holy Blossom Temple’s history page on its website says it was 17 individuals, which, given that there were only around 60 people, seems more likely.
The congregation first held services at a building on the corner of Richmond and Yonge above what was then Coombe’s Drugstore on Rosh Hashanah (September 29, 1856). The congregation used a Sefer Torah on loan from the only other Canadian synagogue, which was in Montreal. There is a 1991 Toronto Historical Board plaque at the site of the original location of Holy Blossom that notes that the congregation was founded in year 5615 of the Jewish calendar. A year later, a Torah arrived as a gift from a family in Montreal and came with a pointer (a yad) inscribed with “The Holy Congregation, Blossoms of Holiness, in the city of Toronto.” Nobody is quite sure why “blossoms of holiness” was written on the yad, but the name stuck and became official in 1871.
By 1876, the congregation had grown and it moved into a new location on Richmond, which, as the plaque notes, was the first building built as a synagogue in Ontario. The congregation was orthodox at this time and expanded quickly as more Jewish immigrants began arriving from Eastern Europe in the 1880s, many fleeing pogroms in Russia. In 1897, the 199-family congregation moved to a new location on Bond Street, which is now a church.
(Right: A postcard from 1911 with the Holy Blossom Synagogue on Bond Street. Photo from the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, Item 1388. Photo used courtesy of the Ontario Jewish Archives.)
The synagogue on Bond Street was packed for the opening ceremonies and the Globe reported that every seat was full with members of the Jewish community and non-Jewish Torontonians all attending. It described it as a building of “great beauty” and devoted a large section of a page a few days later to an illustration of the building, designed by architect J.W. Siddall.
In 1920, the congregation has its first American rabbi, Barnett Brickner, who was a graduate of the Hebrew Union College, which was associated with the Reform movement. The congregation became affiliated with the American Union of Hebrew Congregations in 1921 and, as historian Irving Abella put it while writing about the congregation’s first 150 years, “Holy Blossom now felt fully released to pursue its Reform orientation and to become less European and more North American in its outlook.”
The Holy Blossom congregation moved a final time in 1938 to the current location on Bathurst Street.
May is Jewish Heritage Month in Ontario.