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Congregation Emanu-El is a progressive Conservative synagogue in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Congregation Emanu-El is composed of an eclectic group of 200 families who come together to create a dynamic and spiritual expression of Jewish life. It is a place of love and growth where deep friendships are forged and nourished. Congregation Emanu-El believes in connecting people to one another and to their Jewish roots and traditions, as well as nourishing feelings of community, security and belonging. In 2013 Congregation Emanu-El celebrated its 150th anniversary as the oldest continuously active synagogue in Canada and western North America. Since 1863, the congregation has grown from about 50 families to nearly 200 families, despite the advent of three new congregations in the city over the last 10 or so years: Aish HaTorah (modern Orthodox), Kolot Mayim (Reform) and Chabad of Vancouver Island. It is popularly believed that there are now 2,500-3,500 Jews on Vancouver Island, although many of them are unaffiliated.
In the 1850's, during the time of gold prospectors, fur traders, and steamships, the Jewish community of Victoria began. The first Jews came in 1858, mostly from San Francisco. Gold prospectors had to stop in Victoria, the capital, to obtain mining licenses, and then go on to the mainland where gold was discovered. The first Jews came with these prospectors, and supplied the mining camps with food, clothing, household goods, and tools. In the 1850's, there were about 200 Jews in Victoria.
The first need of the community was a cemetery. The Victoria Hebrew Benevolent Society (the first Jewish organization in Western Canada) purchased a burial site on Cedar Hill Road which at that time was on the edge of town. On Feb. 5, 1860, the cemetery was founded. That same cemetery still serves the Jewish community today.
The congregation “Emanu-El of Victoria, Vancouver Island” came into being in 1862, and members purchased the present site of the synagogue for $730. The building was designed by principal architect John Wright, from the firm Wright & Sanders, the first professional architect in Victoria.
The cornerstone-laying ceremony took place June 2, 1863. This was a gala celebration and was attended by the mayor, town council, Chief Justice, the Freemasons, Hebrew Benevolent, French Benevolent and St. Andrews Societies, bands and choirs. The congregation was incorporated by an act of the Legislature of the Colony of Vancouver Island that received assent on July 7, 1864, as “The Emanuel of Victoria, Vancouver Island.”
In approximately 1893 the congregation purchased, for $350, a parcel of land to the south of the sanctuary and erected a wooden structure measuring 50 by 70 feet, called the Hebrew Ladies’ Hall, so named because it could not have been built without the Hebrew Ladies’ Association having raised a large part of the construction funds and because it was intended to facilitate the association in their further fundraising activities. This building functioned in many different roles: as a ballroom, space for bazaars, a school, a church and even a judo club. Later renamed Victoria Hall, by the 1970s, the then 80-year-old structure had deteriorated and was demolished in favour of a used car lot. The land was later used for the portable classrooms of Emanu-El’s Hebrew school, until the construction of the present Fisher Building (Congregation Emanu-El Education and Culture Centre).
In approximately 1900, another structure, a single-storey addition referred to as a “lean to,” was built onto the southeast corner of the sanctuary. The structure was extended to the street in the late 1940s, when the synagogue was “modernized.” This space, still very much in use today, has served multiple purposes over the last 100 years: from kitchen to classroom to meeting space to children’s play area.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population in Victoria declined as Vancouver took on more global importance. By the mid-1940′s, there were only 10-15 families at Congregation Emanu-El. The synagogue was 80 years old by then, and was badly deteriorated. In an effort to save it from being condemned, the original brick exterior was covered with stucco, the windows were blocked in and a false ceiling was installed to allow for adequate heating. A rededication ceremony at the Emanu‐El Synagogue was held on March 17, 1948.
This preserved the synagogue until 1978, when a group of volunteers decided to restore the synagogue to its original condition. This was a time when there was a new public appreciation of heritage. In 1977, the provincial Heritage Conservation Branch was founded, responsible for the planning and management of provincial heritage resources. The Branch's Restoration Services Division would play a crucial role in the synagogue restoration. In 1978, "The Committee to Restore Canada's Oldest Synagogue" was organized and consisted of Martin Levin as Chairman with a membership of Harry Brown, Neil Gold, Michael Goldberg, Alan Klenman, Ben Levinson, Gene Miller, Felix Reuben and later Martin Bernstein. The Committee enlists the aid and expertise of the Heritage Conservation Branch of the Provincial Government which is to prove invaluable throughout the four year restoration project.
The project of revitalizing the Synagogue included: removing old paint and stucco; duplicating antique bricks of irregular shapes; recreating doors; shipping stained glass from Europe; remaking hundreds of elaborate spindles for the gallery railing and restoring a rose window that could not be removed from the wall. Although some of the fabric of the building, such as the doors, was lost forever, the blocked‐off windows were not lost, and much of the interior that was shut away by the false ceiling survived.
The restoration was made possible by the support of various organizations including the British Columbia Heritage Trust. Every effort was made to restore the Synagogue as authentically as possible, for example: new bricks, to replace those defaced in preparation for the stucco, were hand made by the Hidden Brick Company in Vancouver, Washington; hundreds of new spindles for the balcony were hand turned by David’s Classic Wood‐Works, of Victoria; and local stained‐glass artist, Andrew Leone, repaired and recreated the windows and dome. The new stained glass in the ceiling was supported on Plexiglas, with a rectangular glass structure on top to protect it, and allow for inspection. The wooden floor was dug out and a skim coat of concrete placed on the exposed ground before the new floor was installed. Commitment to authenticity led the Heritage Branch to petition the Fire Marshall to make concessions concerning the provision of facilities in compliance with the current code. Both the interior and exterior of the synagogue today would, it seems, be instantly recognisable to the Jewish citizens of Victoria who worshipped there one hundred and fifty years ago. In the end the cost of this restoration was $370,000.00, more than half of which came from the Victoria Jewish community. This restoration was completed in 1982 with a multicultural and multi-ethnic celebration similar to the original dedication in 1863.
On June 26, 1983, the Government of Canada mounted a plaque recognizing the "national historical and architectural significance of Congregation Emanu‐El Temple."
The Victoria Jewish Community kept growing and in 1994, the Board of the Congregation Emanu‐El established a Task Force to examine the possibility of expanding the Synagogue. A Building Committee was formed upon the vote of the Board, tasked with the responsibility of securing conceptual drawings and any technical studies or surveys required to assess the options of constructing an addition to the Synagogue. The addition to the Synagogue became the Matanah G’Dolah Project and was the Capital Building and Fundraising Campaign of Congregation Emanu‐El. In 2003, the project was realized when the addition, the Al and Sylvia Fisher Building, the Congregation Emanu-El Educational and Cultural Centre opened. By 2004, the congregation had grown to about 215 families.
On June 2, 2013 Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El celebrated its 150th anniversary with a day of festivities, including a reenactment of the original parade that marked the laying of the synagogue’s cornerstone on June 2, 1863. The parade formed at the corner of Fisgard and Douglas (the Freemason temple) and set off at noon with the Royal Canadian Navy’s Naden Band leading. The parade paused at City Hall to pick up Mayor Dean Fortin and some city councilors before arriving at the intersection of Pandora and Blanshard streets. There, the commemoration of the laying of the cornerstone took place – Fortin, Israel’s Ambassador to Canada Miriam Ziv, the grand master of Freemasons in British Columbia and other dignitaries marked this historic occasion and welcomed the 150th year of Congregation Emanu-El, the oldest synagogue in Canada in continuous use.
As Congregation Emanu-El was preparing for a 150th anniversary commemoration and celebration, including festivities and events held throughout 2013, it was also time to restore and maintain the building so that it will last another 150 years. The congregation’s focus then, are twofold: joy for the present, and care for the future. Donald Luxton and Associates (Vancouver) was selected as the heritage conservation consultant. The scope of work included, in approximate order of priority, the need to repair and reinforce the roof structure; restore the windows and increase the R-value, the degree of resistance to the passage of heat through a material, in order to reduce heat loss; replace the outmoded electro-mechanical heating controls with a programmable electronic system; upgrade the fire/smoke detection system to promote early warning; replace the front entrance and modify it to provide universal access; enhance the security of the aron kodesh to provide fire, theft, flood and earthquake protection for the sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls); and renew the well-worn wooden floor. Compared to the 1982-era restoration, these projects are mostly out of sight and out of mind. In the end, the cost of this restoration will be approximately $950,000.
Once these projects have been completed, thus ensuring the integrity of the building envelope, it is believed that the Emanu-El sanctuary will be in a sufficient state of repair that a 20-year cycle of periodic preventive maintenance inspections and repairs should see the building through its next 150 years.