A Brief History of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue
The Corporation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews is the oldest Jewish institution in Montreal, in Quebec and in Canada. It traces its history back to the first Jewish settlers who began to arrive in 1760. The few families met for prayer in private homes until the Congregation was formally established in 1768. In 1993 there were an ongoing series of celebrations to mark the 225th anniversary. The Congregation is as old as Quebec itself.
The Congregation is one of the few oldest in North America a sister congregation to the other Spanish-Portuguese Congregations which comprise all the early Jewish settlements in North America such as in Curacao, New York, Philadelphia and Newport, Rhode Island. All these were established by adventurous traders who originated in the established communities of Amsterdam and London.
The Spanish-Portuguese tradition follows the rites and customs of those Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal beginning in 1492 who sought refuge in European lands. Other Sephardi (=Spanish or Iberian) Jews left for Mediterranean, mostly Moslem, lands. They became known as the Sephardi Oriental Jews. During the past fifty years many hundreds of families from these communities have come to Montreal and have joined the Congregation, reconnecting with their kin from whom they had been separated 500 years ago. Until the early 1960’s it was the only Sephardi congregation in Montreal and in Canada.
The historical significance of the Congregation was recognized by the Government of Canada when in the 1970’s the National Archives of Canada requested all early documents and minute books. The Congregation also presented its first Torah Scroll to the Archives as well. It was the first Scroll in Canada and is on display at the National Archives in Ottawa. It is currently traveling throughout the world with an exposition on the history of Jewish life in Canada entitled “A Coat of Many Colors.”
The Congregation today serves over 700 families who come from almost every country in the world in which Jews have ever lived. It is a multicultural community reflecting Montreal life and Canadian pluralism. Although established mainly by English speaking Jews it has now become a bilingual community due to the arrival of numerous French-speaking families from North
Africa and the Middle East.
The first Synagogue building was located in Old Montreal and was the first non-Catholic house of worship built in the city. In 1838 the Congregation moved to Chenneville Street and in 1890 to a beautiful edifice on Stanley Street. The Congregation is now housed in its fourth premises in the Snowdon-Cotes des Neiges area of Montreal since 1947.
The Congregation has carried with it many of the principal furnishings and artifacts from the early edifices. Unfortunately, the Stanley Street building was not preserved. Old photographs and personal accounts indicate that it was a magnificent structure and would have proven to be a worthy landmark of our Montreal patrimony.
The Synagogue is visited annually by many thousands of tourists. About fifty Quebecois schools, some from as far away as Thetford Mines and Quebec City, send students annually to see the oldest Jewish congregation and to learn of its traditions. Tourists from the United States, Europe, Israel and South America arrive either with bus tours or privately following the listing of the Synagogue in numerous guidebooks. Proximity to a Metro station and to major bus routes provide easy access.
For the Jewish holidays, especially during September and October, numerous visitors join relatives and friends to celebrate at the Synagogue. Four parallel services must be held in order to accommodate the two thousand people who wish to pray on the High Holydays. The beautiful and enthusiastic services make a lasting impression on all those who participate.
The Congregation of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue is especially aware of its unique history and place in Canadian life. As a dynamic congregation that has grown from 300 to 700 families in the past twenty-eight years many challenges face us. One of those challenges is to preserve our patrimony as we seek to serve our expanded membership. Recently completed renovations and expansion of our facilities including the reconstruction of a chapel according to the design of the classic Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue building that was on Stanley Street would reflect our efforts to both preserve our unique tradition and enhance our service. This new chapel is used on a daily basis and is extremely useful for the overflowing crowds at holiday times. We continue to consider our responsibility to be not only an active Jewish congregation but also an historic monument to Canadian and Quebec and Jewish life.
Rabbi Howard S. Joseph