Discovering Jewish Life Past and Present in Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia has much to offer the Jewish traveler. Though few Jews still live in the province, Jewish history and memory endure. Our visit focused on many of the area's historic sites and rich stories.
Our weeklong journey began in the port city of Halifax, known as the gateway to Canada. It was here that, from 1928 to 1971, more than one million immigrants entered the country through the Pier 21 processing center. Since 1999, when it was declared a National Historic Site, “Canada’s Ellis Island” has operated as a museum and resource center in tribute to the country’s multicultural character.
Our personal guide was Marianne Ferguson, whose dark blue museum guide uniform is decorated with a “Shalom” pin in Hebrew and English. As a young child, she and her family fled the port city of Danzig, Poland, and landed in Halifax harbor. They were among very few Jews allowed into Canada during World War II, when a strict quota policy admitted only a small number of doctors and farmers. Marianne’s father, a pharmacist who’d kept a hobby animal farm in Poland, obtained one of the rare visas. He spent his first seven years in Canada working on a rural dairy farm and later opened a real estate business in Halifax.
Marianne has never forgotten how well her family was received at Pier 21.
Sadie Fineberg, a representative of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society who spoke seven languages, spent more than forty years welcoming people of all nationalities to Canada, among them 1,100 Jewish orphans and 15,000 DPs after the Second World War—and, of course, Marianne’s family, whom she helped find lodging at a boardinghouse run by a woman who spoke Yiddish. After Fineberg retired, Marianne’s mother succeeded her as the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society’s representative at Pier 21.
And it was a Jewish woman who spearheaded the fundraising effort to create the Pier 21 museum.
Legendary fundraiser Dr. Ruth Goldbloom, a member of the Order of Canada, raised $4.5 million and the Canadian government matched the funds to restore the abandoned building. At the time of our visit, exhibits included photographs and models of the various ships that ferried immigrants to Canada; a full-scale model of a railroad car that carried the new arrivals across the country; and a reception area where visitors can role-play immigrants who are questioned by volunteer “immigration officers.” In addition, the museum’s library and resource center will gladly assist people in tracing their family roots in Canada.
Lovers of history will also enjoy a visit to Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
In the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, vessels were dispatched from Halifax, the nearest major port, to search for victims’ bodies. Of the 209 bodies that were eventually recovered, 150 were buried in Halifax cemeteries. (The other 59 bodies, among them Jewish philanthropist and Macy’s department store co-owner Isador Straus, were shipped home for burial.) Notably, 10 of the Titanic victims were buried in Halifax’s Jewish Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, but to this day it remains unknown whether any of them were in fact Jews.
Blair Beed, author of Titanic Victims in Halifax Graveyards (2001), reports that the local rabbi, in a rush to identify Jewish victims and bury them within the prescribed time under Jewish law, spirited away 10 male bodies awaiting interment in the Protestant graveyard and instead interred them in the Jewish cemetery. Eight of the 10 have never been identified. The ninth, Frederick Wormald, was later discovered to be a member of the Church of England; the tenth, Michael Navratil, was a Catholic traveling under the false name Louis M. Hoffman to hide the fact that he had abducted his two sons from his estranged wife. Both of the abducted boys survived the disaster and were reunited with their mother in France. Eighty-four years later, one of the sons visited Halifax, arranging for a Roman Catholic priest to say a blessing at his father’s grave in the Jewish cemetery.
The Maritime Museum also commemorates the Halifax Explosion.
On the morning of December 6, 1917, the French merchant ship Mount Blanc, loaded with munitions, collided in Halifax harbor with the Norwegian ship Imo, carrying relief supplies. The resulting explosion—the largest before Hiroshima—set off a tsunami wave and a fire which killed nearly 2,000 people and injured 9,000, destroyed 1,630 buildings and damaged 12,000 more. Many Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed, but inexplicably—some say miraculously—not one of the city’s approximately 400 Jews perished. Halifax’s Orthodox synagogue, the Star Street Shul, was damaged beyond repair (its Sefer Torahs were spared); the community prayed in temporary venues until 1920, when the Robie Street Shul was built.
There are no Liberal congregations in Nova Scotia, as few of the 19th-century Jewish immigrants arrived from Germany, the cradle of Reform Judaism. Nevertheless, Jews born and raised in the province are among the leaders of the Reform Movement in Canada, including the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and ARZA Canada.
Cape Breton Island, at the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, is known for its spectacular highlands, ocean scenery, picturesque fishing villages—and fiddle music.
Nowhere is that musical tradition more alive than at the Normaway Inn in Margaree Valley, where several nights a week summer visitors and locals join together in the barn that serves as a performance space for rousing Celtic music and dancing. Innkeeper David MacDonald recounts how in 1984 he invited a handful of local musicians—among them Rita McNeil, Rodney McDonald, and Buddy McMaster—to play at the inn. Travel writers “discovered” these artists and gave them widespread exposure—now they’re known throughout the world.
Today the Jewish population of Cape Breton numbers about 100 and the average age is 60. Most are descendants of Jews who arrived from Poland, Russia, and Lithuania at the turn of the 19th century during an economic boom fueled by the island’s mines and coal-fueled factories. By the 1940s, Cape Breton’s Jewish population had peaked at 935 families. It has fallen ever since, exacerbated in the 1980s by the closing of coal mines and the steel plant in Whitney Pier (a part of Sydney, Cape Breton’s largest urban center).
The synagogue in Whitney Pier, Adath Israel, closed in 1986 and now houses the Whitney Pier Historical Museum, which celebrates the town’s cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. Creator Evelyn Davis, z"l, and her husband, Harold Davis, z"l, were the last Jews of Whitney Pier; they died in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Evelyn long worked behind the counter of the yarn shop she inherited from her father and served on the national board of Hadassah in Canada.
The decline of Sydney’s Jewish community mirrors that of much of Nova Scotia.
In the first half of the 20th century, Nova Scotia’s Jews—who’d worked their way up from peddlers to shopkeepers—created thriving Jewish communities. As universities were closed to all but a few Jewish students, most of their children remained in the merchant class. But their grandchildren, the baby boomers, explains Jon Goldberg, former executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC), “went off to college and never came back. The professional opportunities in Nova Scotia could not match those of Toronto or Montreal.”
Following the grandchildren were the parents and grandparents, who sold their homes and businesses and moved west to keep the families together. Still, Goldberg says, Halifax has managed to maintain a Jewish population of approximately 1,500 to 1,700 people since World War II. The community has also been enhanced by the arrival of several hundred Jewish college students, mostly from Toronto, who attend local universities. Another bright spot is the AJC’s Camp Kadimah, with a summer population of nearly 500 campers and staff.
Though the Jewish population of Nova Scotia is in decline, some who remain have no plans ever to leave. Take poet-songwriter Leon Dubinsky, who grew up in Sydney and lives on a seaside property in Cape Breton’s Englishtown. He’s best known for his song “Rise Again,” recorded by The Rankins and performed as a hymn by many church choirs across Canada. Written in 1984 as a hopeful tune for the musical The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island during a severe economic downturn, it begins:
When the waves roll on over the waters
And the ocean cries
We look to our sons and daughters
To explain our lives
As if a child could tell us why
That as sure as the sunrise
As sure as the sea
As sure as the wind in the trees
We rise again in the faces of our children
We rise again in the waves out on the ocean
And we rise again….
The song has become the anthem of Canadian Jewish students on the “March of the Living” as they enter the former Auschwitz death camp. (It is on the CD The Sounds of Nova Scotia (Vol. I) from Amazon.com.)
The day he wrote "Rise Again," Dubinsky recalls, he was watching his ailing father observing his grandchildren playing in a swimming pool. Dubinsky’s father had immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine, settling in Cape Breton; he would die a year later, in 1985. The words just came to him, Dubinsky says, explaining that “waves roll on over the waters / and the ocean cries” refers to the cycles of immigration and the struggles of the uprooted who must begin anew in a strange land. The immigrant’s son, Leon Dubinsky, grew up at Temple Sons of Israel in Sydney, where he developed his love of music while singing in the Sons of Israel choir.
Jewish life and Jewish memory endure in Nova Scotia, even in places where only a handful of Jews remain. The annual Holocaust Memorial Day in Sydney is attended by 300+ people, 95 percent of whom are not Jewish. The volunteers and most of the visitors at the Whitney Pier Historical Museum are not Jewish.
And in St. Matthew’s Church (Protestant) in the Cape Breton town of Inverness, three of eight stained-glass windows honor the three Jewish soldiers from the town who died in the Second World War: Sergeant Sam Feinstein (his name accompanied by the symbol of a burning bush); his brother, Private Nathan Feinstein (by a dove); and Lieutenant Jack Levine (by a Mogen David). Church leaders memorialized the Jewish soldiers along with the other five men who perished "because the town had no synagogue," says Inverness resident Alex MacKay, "and it would be wrong not to honor the memory of all of the town's soldiers who had gone to school together and died for their country."
The spirit of Jewish Nova Scotia lives on—in those who have chosen to remain, in those who have moved on, in those who remember, and, as songwriter Leon Dubinsky reminds us, "in the voices of our song."
- Scenic 19th-Century Fishing Village and Lighthouse (Peggys Cove): This fishing village on St. Margaret’s Bay, about a half-hour drive from downtown Halifax, is home to the 1914 octagonal lighthouse, one of the most photographed structures in Atlantic Canada.
- Hector Heritage Quay (Pictou): The Hector Heritage Quay museum commemorates the 1773 voyage of the Hector, the first ship of Scottish immigrants to Nova Scotia. Visitors can board a full-scale floating replica.
- Alexander Graham Bell Museum (Baddeck, Cape Breton): Upon visiting Cape Breton in 1885, Alexander Graham Bell was reminded of the landscape of his native Scotland; he and his wife Mabel decided to make Baddeck their second home. State-of-the-art models, replicas, photo displays, artifacts, and films illuminate the fascinating life and work of one of the world’s most renowned inventors—revealing, for example, that it was Bell’s lifelong interest in the deaf which led to his inventing the telephone.
- A Voyage in Time (Fortress Louisbourg, Cape Breton): Experience how soldiers and settlers once lived on the frontier of the New World with a visit to the largest reconstructed mid-18th-century French fortified town in North America, inhabited by actor guides in period dress who never step out of character.
- Red Shoe Pub (Mabou, Cape Breton): For great food and music, go to the pub operated by three Rankin sisters, members of one of Canada’s legendary musical families. This summer the Red Shoe is hosting Rob Maclean, Mairi Rankin, Pius MacIsaac, and other top Nova Scotia musicians.
- Pictou Lodge Resort (Pictou): This log cabin-style resort overlooks a panoramic view of the Northumberland Strait. During our visit the resort held a kite festival that enhanced the colorful scene of painted Adirondack chairs lined up on the cliffs overlooking the beaches below. Activities include kayaking and biking. Gourmet restaurant.
- Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa (Cape Breton): High on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the scenic Cabot Trail, the Keltic Lodge on Ingonish Beach commands spectacular views. Visitors can take a whale-watching cruise and go sea kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, and golfing. Fine dining and first-class service.
- Normaway Inn, Margaree Valley (Cape Breton): The pastoral quality of the river valley surrounding this 19th-century inn imbues tranquility. Summer nights come alive with famous fiddlers and dancing at the Music Barn. Gourmet meals (tip: try the porridge bread and oatcakes for breakfast).
- Prince George Hotel (Halifax): The staff of this four-star hotel in the heart of downtown Halifax is super-friendly and hospitable, recommending such fine restaurants along the nearby harbor boardwalk as the Five Fishermen and Salty’s.
Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large and the former editoer of Reform Judaism magazine. Judith Hirt-Manheimer served as copyeditor of Reform Judaism magazine, where this article was first published.