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Synagogue History

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Emanu-El Synagogue, Circa 1866-1870


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Emanu-El Synagogue, Circa 1900


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Emanu-El Synagogue, 1948

of Victoria Archives)

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Emanu-El Synagogue, Circa 1985



Emanu-El Synagogue, 2003

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Emanu-El Synagogue, 2014


Victoria’s Jewish community was established in 1858 when the first Jewish settlers arrived. Members were primarily of English, Austrian, German and Polish origin. Well‐educated and ambitious, this small group soon established themselves as traders, merchants and wholesalers. Most, if not all, had migrated first to California during its gold rush period during the late 1840s and early 1850s before moving north to Victoria. Unlike the majority of other fortune seekers, they were motivated less by the quest for gold than by commercial interest and the potential markets for supplies and services being generated by the rush.


Architects Wright & Sanders issue a tender call for the new building. Contracts are issued to Mr.  T. Baker for brick and slating, and Lee & Co. for the stonework. The cornerstone is laid in a grand public ceremony on June 2nd. Consecration occurs on September 13, 1863.


In 1891, plans are prepared for the construction of a Sunday school and hall to the south of the Synagogue. In 1892 architect Thomas Hooper issues a tender call for the school house. The construction contract is given to Mr. Riddle in December. The school house opens the following year.


Lean-to constructed in 1910. The hall is demolished in 1969.


A dwindling congregation stuccoed the exterior of the Sanctuary rather than remediating damage/wear to the brickwork, and dropped the ceiling so as to make heating the interior less costly. These were unavoidable money-saving measures that put off the day major repairs would have to be done, especially to the brickwork. The central doors are removed, a false ceiling is placed in the interior, the windows are blocked up and the central skylight is removed.


The Congregation “Emanu‐El of Victoria, Vancouver Island” is officially formed. It purchases a piece of land, “suitable in all respects for $730.00” for a future Synagogue. A call for architects is issued.


The B.C. Heritage Trust announces a grant of $50,000 to the restoration of the Synagogue. Ultimately, the Trust gives $82,000 to the Synagogue. The Annual General Meeting of the Congregation unanimously approves the restoration project. Fund‐raising is launched. Every single member of the Synagogue contributes to the restoration producing the largest amount ever raised in Victoria.


The completion of the restoration is celebrated with a re‐enactment of the events of 1863 with a procession, the ethnic societies, the Masons and Provincial and Civic dignitaries. Again the City of Victoria turns out for the occasion. The final cost of the restoration is $367,000.

The congregation received three awards for the restoration: The Hallmark Society Award, Heritage Canada Award, American Association for State and Local History Award.


In April, Premier William Bennett officially launches the restoration.


The Committee to Restore Canada’s Oldest Synagogue is organized. 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 Canadian Government designates the Synagogue a site of national historic significance.


The Board of the Congregation voted unanimously in favour of establishing a Task Force to assess the Building Options available to the congregation. A Building Committee is formed.


A community meeting was held and those in attendance supported the concept of building next to the shul; schematic drawings for a new addition to the Synagogue are created.


Another concentrated community effort results in the completion of the Al & Sylvia Fisher Building, the congregation’s social hall annex and Educational and Cultural Centre, replacing the 110-year-old wooden school and Hebrew Ladies Hall.


A committee is formed to prepare for the 150th anniversary of Emanu-El of Victoria.


The Board created the 150th Anniversary committee, chaired by Ed Fitch and Barbara Pelman.  We celebrated with successful musical and theatrical events, lectures, auction, and a gala dinner at the Empress.  We reenacted the original 1863 cornerstone laying ceremony with a parade from the Masonic Temple along Douglas and Blanshard, accompanied by Royal Navy Band and much fanfare.  We had a remarkable fundraising campaign that raised $791,000, of which 30% were government grants and 70% were donations!  This enabled us to save the structural integrity of our building.  The roof structure was remediated and reinforced so it would stop pushing the walls outwards, which had caused external and interior wall cracks. The worn asphalt shingles were replaced with historically correct purple slate, quarried in Wales. Parts of the interior of the synagogue are renovated such as the central oculus (round window) in the ceiling and all the exterior windows. A  large Magen David was installed above the glass pyramid on the roof.  One-third of the fir flooring was replaced and the entire floor was refinished.  The “light from the East” was revealed inside the Ark. Obsolete electro-mechanical heating controls were removed and replaced with digital controls to be managed from the front office computer.


Who We Are Today

Congregation Emanu-El is a dynamic, embracing, and supportive congregational family

We strive to generate relevant Jewish culture infused with Torah wisdom and rich tradition.  We are also the stewards of a remarkable, 160-year-old heritage Sanctuary, whose walls are infused with generations of prayer and joy and life.  Today, Emanu-El is a progressive egalitarian congregation that supports and celebrates diversity.

​Congregation Emanu-El is a place for friendship, personal growth, spiritual exploration, and healing.  We are committed to Tikkun Olam, the repair of broken hearts and our broken world, through Chesed, acts of loving kindness, social action, and social justice.

As a collective we are courageous in action, progressive in thought and caring in relationships. We would love to meet you and introduce you to our synagogue family. 

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