by Debby Shoctor
(Also see A History of Jews in Western Canada)
Edmonton, Alberta was first incorporated as a town in 1892. At that time, there were about 700 permanent residents. Founded on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River on the site of the former Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Edmonton, it soon began to attract a growing populace. Abraham and Rebecca Cristall, Edmonton’s first Jews, arrived in 1893. Their children, George and Rose, were the first Jewish children born in Edmonton. Abe became a successful businessman, and helped to bring more Jews over from his native Bessarabia.
By 1901, there were 17 Jewish citizens in Edmonton. In 1904, Edmonton became incorporated as a city, and in 1905, Alberta officially became a province and the CN Railway arrived. In 1905, William “Boss” Diamond came to Edmonton. He had come to join his brother Jacob, Alberta’s first Jewish citizen (1889), in Calgary, in 1892. He set up in the clothing business in competition with Abe Cristall, but the two of them worked together to forge the foundation of Edmonton’s budding Jewish Community. Together with eight other men they formed the Edmonton Hebrew Association in 1906. They hired Rabbi Hyman Goldstick of Pilton, Latvia to be Rabbi, Shochet and Mohel for both the Edmonton and Calgary Jewish Communities. In 1907, Abe Cristall purchased land on the south side for a Jewish cemetery and the Chevra Kadisha was formed. In 1912, the foundations were laid for the Beth Israel Synagogue on the corner of 95th St. and Rowland Road. Abe Cristall served as the first president, and William Diamond as the second, a position he held for 31 years.
In 1912, the Edmonton Talmud Torah Society was founded, with classes being held in the basement of the Synagogue. In 1925, the Society erected its own building at 103rd St. and Jasper Avenue, and in 1933 it was incorporated as the first Hebrew day school in Canada.
In 1928, a second congregation was started in the basement of the Talmud Torah building, which later became the Beth Shalom congregation (conservative). In 1932, it was formally organized and they engaged Rabbi Jacob Eisen, who became the first English-speaking Rabbi West of Winnipeg. Also at that time, the Peretz or New Yiddish School was organized and opened in a building at 10135-95 St. An offshoot of the Arbeiter Ring, which started in Edmonton in 1922, it had its heyday in the early 1930s, but had to close in 1939 due to declining enrollment.
In 1938, just before the start of World War II, a 13-year old boy named Peter Owen became the only Jewish child let into Canada alone during the war years, by a special Order-in-Council. He was sponsored by Edmonton Lawyer H.A. Friedman, and adopted by the family, eventually becoming a prominent lawyer himself and a permanent resident of the city. By 1941, Edmonton’s population had increased to 93,817, and the Jewish population stood at 1,449. Of the 120 men and women from Edmonton’s Jewish Community who served during World War II, eleven were killed in action. The post-war years saw rapid growth in both the Jewish and general population of Edmonton. As a result, a new Beth Shalom Synagogue was built on Jasper Ave. at 119th St, in 1951.
A new Beth Israel Synagogue building was constructed on 118 St. in 1953, as well as a new Talmud Torah Building on 132nd St. that same year, reflecting the population shift of the Jewish Community from downtown to the West End. In 1954, the Edmonton Jewish Community Council was formed as an umbrella organization for the community, and served as such for 28 years. On September 20, 1982, the Community Council merged with Edmonton United Jewish Appeal to become the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. Alberta’s booming oil-based economy brought increased Jewish and general immigration over the next two decades, with major influxes from other provinces in Canada, and from places such as Hungary, Russia and South Africa.
From a Jewish population of 1,748 in 1951, the community grew to 2,910 in 1971 and to 5,430 in 1991. Today it stands at around 6,000. All of these new immigrants brought with them the organizations which contribute to Edmonton’s vibrant Jewish Community. Local branches of many prominent Jewish organizations exist in the city today including the Canadian Zionist Federation, Edmonton Hadassah-WIZO, chapters of ORT and Na’amat, B’nai Brith and Emunah, all of whom were founded essentially to help the fledgling State of Israel. Local offices of the Jewish National Fund are located at the Edmonton Jewish Community Centre, founded in 1970. The Edmonton chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women was responsible for founding the City’s Jewish Senior’s Drop-in Centre (formerly the Golden Age Club) in 1954, as well as Jewish Family Services. The community’s third Congregation, Temple Beth Ora Reform Congregation, was founded in 1979, and is housed at the Jewish Community Centre. Beth Tzedek, a new Conservative Congregation, and offshoot of Beth Shalom, was started in 1989, and holds services at the Talmud Torah.
In 1999, a new building for Edmonton Talmud Torah was erected on 175 St. and the next year, a new Beth Israel Synagogue was built around 169th street, reflecting a further westward shift in population. In the fall of 2004, Edmonton elected its first Jewish mayor, Stephen Mandel. Stephen had previously served as a City Councilor, continuing a long tradition of Jewish City Councilors, including Dr. Morris Weinlos, Helen Paull, Mel Binder, Tooker Gomberg and former MLA Karen Leibovici. There has always been a strong tradition of civic involvement in the Edmonton Jewish Community, with members serving on the boards and executives of many local arts, cultural, educational and fundraising organizations, as well as in the Judiciary.
The Jewish Archives and Historical Society of Edmonton and Northern Alberta (JAHSENA) was founded in 1996 to preserve and promote the history of this vibrant Jewish Community. The Society has published “The First Century of Jewish Life in Edmonton and Northern Alberta, 1893-1993”, compiled and edited by Uri Rosenzweig, in 2000, and in 2004 produced the documentary film, “From Pedlars to Patriarchs: A Legacy Remembered,” written and directed by Dan Kauffman.