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There’s a rich history of the Jewish community of Newfoundland and Labrador, and much tradition on “the rock.”

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The Jewish community in Newfoundland and Labrador has had a long history, writes Corey Margolese.

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There is a tradition in Newfoundland, whereby one can become an honorary Newfoundlander by kissing a cod (yes, the fish) and drinking a shot of screech, a high-proof, homemade moonshine. It’s called screeching-in. As far as I know, the Jews of Newfoundland and Labrador do not have the same tradition, but you know that if they did, it would be over herring and Manischewitz wine.

The Jewish community in Newfoundland and Labrador has a long history. It is believed by many that the first Jewish settler arrived in the St. John’s area around the turn of the 19th century. He was believed to have been a fur trader from England. There is some evidence of other families settling outside of St. John’s in the early half of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the Jewish community started to blossom in St. John’s.

Shortly before 1909, Israel Perlin, an immigrant from the United States, arrived in St. John’s. In the year 1909, Perlin was instrumental in founding the first synagogue in Newfoundland, the Hebrew Congregation of Newfoundland. In 1935, according to the census, the first to include Jews as a separate religious denomination, there were 215 reported Jews living in Newfoundland, the majority in St. John’s. By 1971, there were 360 recorded Jewish residents.

Services were held at the original Hebrew Congregation of Newfoundland, and as the community grew, in other rented spaces around town until 1931. That was when the first Beth El synagogue was built. As the community grew further, a new Beth El synagogue was built to accommodate the larger community. Much of the funds to build the new synagogue were donated by philanthropist Edmond de Rothschild, who was made an honorary member in 1966.

Beth El was renovated in 2001, and opened before the tragic events of 9/11, days before Rosh Hashanah. Shul members opened their homes and their hearts to the many Jewish passengers stranded there.

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Pre-COVID-19, Beth El held services every Friday night and Shabbat mornings and on all Jewish holidays. Several years ago, Beth El started a new tradition. The Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, the congregation holds services at Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. At the conclusion of services, they sound the shofar and head over to the congregation’s cemetery where they hold a memorial ceremony for their lost ones.

In 2006, the Jewish Community Havura was formed. This group was formed by individuals who wanted to develop an inclusive Jewish community that spoke to the unaffiliated. They hold a Shabbat service and dinner every second week at members’ homes, and host holiday services and events as well.

The Havura and Beth El partner on an annual Holocaust memorial service, and Havura produces various holiday parties, community events, adult education classes, and a Hebrew school throughout the year.

But celebrating together is not new for this community. According to Rabbi Chernitsky of Chabad-Lubavitch of Newfoundland, yeshiva students have been travelling to Newfoundland for decades, helping Jews rejoice, and have always been welcomed with open arms.

Rabbi Chanan Chernitsky with his wife Tuba and their four kids on Purim 2019 | Photo supplied

They were so welcoming that Rabbi Chernitsky and his family moved to St. John’s and opened a Chabad house there in 2017. Chabad is very mindful of the fact that they are the “new kid on the block” in St. John’s. They are cognizant of the fact that there are other Jewish organizations with a long history in St. John’s, and seek to enhance the community’s Jewish experience by “filling in the gaps”, not disrupt it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on the events of the St. John’s Jewish community, which Rabbi Chernitsky estimates at upwards of 500. Of course, Chabad and others are still offering regular programming over Zoom, but many are noticing the dreaded “Zoom fatigue.” In a relatively small community, such as this one, it’s hard to overcome.

Chabad conducted a number of services online pre-Passover and had a special class called DIY Passover Seder which they recorded, and posted on their Facebook page. In the meanwhile, they plan and they wait for things to return to some semblance of normalcy, and look forward to the High Holy Days in September.    

Consider a visit to St. John’s Jewish community, where you can be screeched in, and as an honorary Newfoundlander, wish all “long may your big jib draw.”

Corey Margolese is the founder of JTeach.ca, a not-for-profit organization that offers training and resources in the dangers of antisemitism, Holocaust education, and in Judaic traditions, culture and religion. He is a public school teacher.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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