Jewish Community of Winnipeg – 1911-1920 part one

The Origins of Winnipeg’s Jewish Community

This brief overview cannot do justice to what may very well be one of the most colourful, tumultuous and inspiring periods in the history of Winnipeg Jewry; inspiring by virtue of the fact that the various organizational entities that constituted the community’s makeup created and adapted various strategies in confronting and addressing the trials and tribulations of daily life which all too often included the stinging invectives of antisemitism. Regardless of the value systems deployed, there is no doubt that Winnipeg Jews sought to exert control over their environment by amalgamating customs and traditions from their lands of origins with the dictates and influences of Canadian life.

While Yiddishists and Hebraists, socialists and Zionists, nationalists and internationalists, believers and non-believers vied for the mind and soul of the community, each in their own unique ways contributed the ingredients that established a strong and enduring Jewish identity.
The 1916 census reports that 87% of Winnipeg Jews resided in the North End while the rest were scattered throughout the central and southern areas of the city. Jim Blanchard notes that in 1912 the highest concentration was north of the CPR in an area bounded by Selkirk and Jarvis avenues and Main and Robinson streets. Among non-Jews it was known as the New Jerusalem or the more pejorative “Jew Town” while Jews referred to it as Mitzraim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, also meaning “narrow places,” in other words—a place from which to escape. Most Jews were working class or small merchants and tradespeople.
A plethora of organizations jotted the Jewish landscape resulting in an elaborate and intricate network that fostered initiatives which cultivated individual, sectional and collective interests.
For example, the Esther Robinson Orphanage, so-named after the mother of its founder and largest donor R. S. Robinson was created in 1913, followed closely by the Canadian Jewish Orphanage.  Their amalgamation became the basis for the future Jewish Orphanage of Western Canada which opened on Matheson Avenue in 1920.
The community also took on the responsibility of offering assistance to orphans and other Jewish victims of war. This led to the formation of the Western Jewish Fund for the Relief of War Sufferers in 1916. Some of the members of the Western Jewish Fund were also involved with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Formed in 1912, HIAS was established in response to the increasing number of Jewish arrivals. It provided short term financial aid to immigrants until they were able to find work, and operated a kitchen on Selkirk Avenue which offered free meals and lobbied the Canadian government to loosen restrictions on immigration.
While considerable attention was being paid to caring for orphans, Arthur Chiel notes that in 1912 a group of women activists began to explore the feasibility of establishing a home that would address the needs of the aged. By 1915 the community raised sufficient funds to rent two semi-detached homes on Euclid avenue. Soon after, the space could not meet the growing demand and a campaign was launched to purchase a lot on Manitoba Avenue. The official opening of the Jewish Old Folks’ Home of Western Canada, whose mandate was to Jewish communities from Fort William, Ontario to Alberta, took place in November 1919.