Dr. Stephen Speisman
A Jewish presence in Toronto was evident as early as the
1830s and by the mid-1850s, there were eighteen Jewish
families in the city. Primarily of English origin, some
having come via Quebec or the United States, these first
families established the first synagogue in Toronto in
1856. The congregation consisted of craftsmen, small shopkeepers
and merchant importers.
Following the 1880s, religious persecution and economic
hardship attributable to the Industrial Revolution forced
large numbers of Jews to leave Eastern Europe --- Lithuania,
Russia, Poland, Austria-Hungary, Romanian.1
Those who settled in Toronto, as elsewhere in North America,
quickly outnumbered the original Jewish inhabitants and
established their own religious, cultural, educational
and social institutions.
By 1900, synagogues had begun to proliferate, at first
divided by country of origin and later, as the population
increased, by regions and towns in Eastern Europe. These
congregations --- orthodox without exception -- set up
in private dwellings or storefronts (shtiblach) and later
in vacated churches and purpose-built structures.
In the decades prior to the First World War, Jewish afternoon
schools, both secular and religious were founded, as well
theatres, a newspaper, and mutual-benefit societies.
These East European Jews began as peddlers, artisans or
factory workers in the clothing industry, although some
later opened small retail shops and factories, ultimately
achieving greater status as wholesalers, waste processors
or real estate investors. Their children would eventually
enter the professions.
Although the English Jews settled east of Yonge Street,
in still-fashionable streets which had not yet begun to
deteriorate, the East European immigrants found both housing
and employment in St. John’s Ward, a slum between
Teraulay Street (now Bay) and University Avenue, which
came to be known simply as “The Ward”. Here,
the Jews attempted to create many of the features of their
old homes in Europe. The Ward became, in many ways, a
North American shtetl
---- a Jewish village --- where people gathered in restaurants,
groceries and confectionery shops. It all fostered a sense
of security in a hostile environment where these poverty-stricken
immigrants evoked fear in the minds of the native Anglo-Saxon
citizens, who passed through the Ward by streetcar on
the way to the fashionable downtown stores.
For traditional Jews, the synagogue was also a place of
refuge. It was a social centre where one could interact
with those who shared the same experience, who knew your
family in the alter heim.
The synagogue often offered free loans, assistance to
the sick and destitute, a cemetery and place where one
could achieve the social status unavailable outside its
walls. A peddler could become a president, a gabbai
(warden) or the holder of some other respected office.
And of course, it was a place to study the divine word
and to pray to their Creator, with whom many felt an intimate
The house or storefront synagogue often consisted of a
large room where the men prayed (with long tables and
chairs rather than benches), a women’s section,
perhaps on the main floor surrounded by a partition or
curtain, or an upstairs room with a grate in the floor,
through which one could follow the service downstairs.
A small kitchen was usually located adjacent to the main
room for the preparation of refreshments following the
services. A weekday chapel would have to wait until larger
premises were available.
Few of these congregations could afford a rabbi or cantor
in these early years. Most of the functions were carried
out by volunteers but assisted if possible by a paid sexton
who might also serve as reader, teacher and janitor.
As the Jews grew more prosperous, they sought to escape
the Ward, moving to areas where there were backyards and
parks in which their children could play, houses large
enough to accommodate recently-arrived relatives from
Europe, and indoor plumbing.
Since accessibility to the Ward was originally a factor,
as employment and relatives often remained there, the
Jews moved westward, following the streetcar lines along
College and Dundas streets between McCaul and Bathurst.
Spadina Avenue became the core thoroughfare and by 1917,
a full-blown outdoor market had developed just west of
it, along Kensington Avenue, Baldwin St. and Augusta Avenue.
On Spadina, itself, the portion south of Dundas became
a centre for the garment industry, with many of the factories
now operated by Jews, and the area north of Dundas offering
stores and restaurants to serve the local residents. By
the late 1920s, most of the Jewish population had vacated
the Ward, establishing their businesses in the Spadina
Avenue/Kensington Market district, bringing their institutions
with them or establishing new ones.
were a number of exceptions to this pattern of movement.
One was the Jewish community at "The Junction",
where a group of families settled at the turn of the twentieth
century, to be close to the industries that clustered
along the railway lines or, as peddlers in the countryside,
to get a head start on those peddlers traveling from the
In addition, there were pockets of Jews in Cabbagetown
and in the Beaches, primarily shopkeepers who lived in
those areas to be close to their businesses. The Beach
community was supplemented by prosperous Jews who lived
in the central part of the city, but who had summer cottages
along the streets radiating north from Lake Ontario.
The Spadina Avenue/Kensington Market area remained the
heartland of the Toronto Jewry until the mid-1950s, when
a movement northward began, primarily following Bathurst
Street into Downsview and Bathurst Manor, then to Finch
Avenue and Steeles, and into Thornhill. While large numbers in the community continue to move even farther north into York Region, primarily between Dufferin Street and Leslie, Jews never abandoned the downtown area. In recent decades, downtown congregations have been revived, several new Jewish schools have been established, the renewed Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre has become a Jewish cultural centre and the downtown Jewish population has increased substantially.
The Industrial Revolution came late to Eastern Europe,
its effects not being felt in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian
empires until the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Those Jews who were artisans and petty merchants simply
could not compete with factories and railways.
Site Map Contact
View of Spadina Avenue, north from Queen Street (1910)
Young boy in front of a house (1919)
Dundas Street, west of Bay Street (c. 1925)
Photograph of Dundas Street looking north to Royce Avenue
Photograph of Brunswick Avenue north of Harbord Street
Queen Street at Woodbine Avenue, 1919.
The Kensington area - Wards 4 and 5 (1923)
West Toronto Junction - Ward 7 (1912)
The Annex – Wards 4 and 5 (1923)
Map of the Beach area, 1924.