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Jewish walking tour tells story of how Vancouver has evolved

Strathcona once home to much of city’s Jewish community
Michael Schwartz, coordinator of programs and development at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C., frequently leads tours of historical Jewish Vancouver.

Given the extraordinary and controversial changes we are seeing by the week, it is easy to forget how new Vancouver is and how rapid change has come in a city just 13 decades old.

It may seem that the demolitions and construction today are unusual, and perhaps they are, but Vancouver neighbourhoods have transformed with remarkable swiftness at various times in our history. Following the trajectory of the comparatively small but quite cohesive Jewish community of Vancouver over the past century illustrates microcosmically how quickly things can change in the city and among its component ethnic or religious communities.

Michael Schwartz, coordinator of programs and development at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C., frequently leads tours of historical Jewish Vancouver. One such walking tour takes place Sunday (though Schwartz himself is not guiding it; details at The trek begins at Pender and Heatley streets, in Strathcona. Here, to the surprise of many, stands the now-condo-ized first synagogue in the city. B’nai Yehuda, Sons of Israel, was an Orthodox Jewish place of worship that was the heart of Jewish community for the first half of the 20th century.

Vancouver’s Jewish community emerged through the immigration of people from… Victoria. It seems bizarre that Vancouver would be populated by Canadians moving east, but Victoria and New Westminster were the metropolises until the Canadian Pacific Railway made the decision that Vancouver (then called Granville or, colloquially, Gastown), not New West, would be the Terminal City. The announcement led to a flurry of economic development around Burrard Inlet. Some who had found business success in Victoria — where Canada’s oldest continuously operating synagogue still holds services — sensed new possibility on the mainland.

The Jews of Victoria had not come west, but rather north, from California. After the mid-century gold rush there, Jews were among the many who were attracted by tales of glittering fortunes in the Cariboo and the Klondike. Some of the Jews were goldminers, others were provisioners — merchants who offered everything one might need for the shlep to find gold. Among these were David Oppenheimer and his four brothers. Originally from Bavaria, Oppenheimer migrated to New Orleans, California, Victoria and finally Vancouver, where he became the city’s second mayor but, as Schwartz says, “really our first mayor of any great consequence.”

Oppenheimer is responsible for the creation of much of the city’s infrastructure, including sewers, running water, the police and the rudiments of the city we know now. Concurrently, he and his brothers operated a network of general stores throughout the province, supplied from a central warehouse in Gastown. The warehouse still stands — it is part of the tour — and is now a recording studio owned by Bryan Adams.

While the business of the nascent city of Vancouver took place in what we now call Gastown, family life for many centred around Strathcona, a few blocks away, which was a genuine melting pot of immigrant communities. Tucked between Japantown to the north, Chinatown to the west, the traditional black neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley to the southwest, Strathcona was the reception area for members of the many diverse communities that did not constitute numbers great enough to have their own identified “towns” — Jews from Eastern Europe, Italians, Ukrainians and many others.

Those immigrant communities would disperse across Metro Vancouver in the coming generations, but following the trajectory of the Jewish community is a fascinating story of how the city, and the communities within it, have evolved.

Early streetcar lines looped up Main Street, across Broadway and back across False Creek over a precursor to the Granville Street bridge. This created what we now call transit hubs, including Mount Pleasant and Fairview, the latter of which proved attractive to some Jewish residents of Strathcona. To the west of Vancouver General Hospital, at Oak and 11th, the B.C. Lung Association today occupies a charming red brick heritage building. This was the Jewish Community Centre that predates the current one at 41st and Oak. In fact, a drive up Oak Street tells the story of Jewish migration southward. At Oak and 19th is Schara Tzedeck synagogue, which, in 1948, became the successor to B’nai Yehuda as more of the city’s observant Jews headed west from Strathcona.

A year later, Beth Israel synagogue, representing the Conservative branch of Judaism, opened at Oak and 28th. Within a generation or two, the population had migrated further south, so that the centre of gravity shifted from Fairview to Oakridge, which is still associated in the minds of many Vancouverites as the heart of the Jewish community. The Jewish Community Centre is at Oak and 41st. The Reform synagogue, Temple Sholom, is even further south on Oak, near 57th. The Jewish museum has an upcoming online exhibit on Jewish Oakridge. Yet it is perhaps with a sense of anticipatory nostalgia, if there is such a thing, that the museum is turning its sights on the neighbourhood. Most of the Jewish community’s infrastructure is still within a few dozen blocks of 41st and Oak, but the population is increasingly dispersed.

It came as a shock to community officials 20 years ago when census results showed a sudden and dramatic growth of the Jewish population in Richmond. It seems the kids who had grown up in Oakridge were driven over the bridges by real estate prices and, now, their kids are fleeing further afield to find affordable housing.

“Walking through Strathcona,” says Schwartz, “gives you a sense of perspective that the community grows and changes and moves as necessary, as demanded by space and cost of living, from place to place.”

Jewish history is one of migration, a phenomenon that continues even in the limited confines of Metro Vancouver. As he considers the way his community has moved in the past century, Schwartz asks: “Where is next?”