Excerpts from “The last Jews from Sherbrooke” by Louise Abbott (Montreal Forum 3(3):2-6, March 2008)
Even before pograms caused them to flee the shtetls of Russia and other Eastern European nationsen masse in the late 1800s, Jews had settled in various locales in the Eastern Townships. The greatest number took up residence in the commercial centre of Sherbrooke.
An advocate named Reuben Hart arrived first; he was listed in the 1863 census. By 1881 twenty Jews were registered. They continued to arrive throughout the 1880s and 1890s. [...] In a pattern that repeated itself all over North America, Jewish newcomers often worked initially as peddlers. [...] “They had nothing but innate intelligence, a great deal of ambition, the desire to survive, and a sense of charity—an ability to give part of what they had to relatives to help them.”
As they prospered, most of these itinerant salesmen opened clothing stores, furniture stores, or other retail businesses on Wellington in downtown Sherbrooke. For several decades, Jews owned almost half of the stores on this street.
By 1907 the Jewish community had grown large enough to engage a rabbi, obtain a charter for their congregation and rent quarters for services and other activities. After we had wended our way from the cemetery and crossed the St. Francis River, Danny slowed down at Dufferin and Frontenac. “That corner had the building that housed our first little place of worship.”
Originally an anglophone stronghold, Sherbrooke had witnessed a demographic shift by the turn of the twentieth century; French Canadians had come to constitute the majority of the residents. Nonetheless, English-speaking locals remained economically and politically powerful, and it was with them that Jewish citizens aligned themselves. Jews usually started off in leased living quarters close to their shops. When they could afford it, they moved into the mostly middle-class, mostly English-speaking, North Ward.
Jewish children went to Protestant schools, and Yiddish gave way to English at home. Many Jewish parents did business with French Canadians, however, and urged their children to learn French. [...] A neo-classical brick building with white pillars on Montreal Street, Now a French Pentecostal church, was erected in 1920 as the Agudath Achim Synagogue and served families not only from Sherbrooke, but also from outlying towns like Coaticook, Drummondville, Lake Megantic, and Thetford Mines.
While the congregation was nominally Orthodox, secular Jewish institutions dominated synagogue life: B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, Hebrew Ladies’ Aid. A cheder, or elementary Hebrew school, was held after regular school classes and on Sunday mornings.
By 1921 the number of Jews in Sherbrooke had reached 265 in an overall population of 23,660. A wave of Jewish immigrants arrived that year and the next. For some, Sherbrooke was a final destination, for others, a stopover. By 1931 the number of Jews had slipped to 152. The Great Depression was one factor in the exodus. The search for Jewish spouses was another.
In 1937 clothing manufacturer Sam Rubin moved his operation from Montreal to Sherbrooke to resist unionization. About twenty-five Jewish families accompanied him, bringing “stronger ties to Judaism and to Yiddish culture,” according to Tannenbaum and Echenberg, and, in the younger generation, potential Jewish marriage partners.
Although forming a tightly knit community, Jews looked beyond their own ranks, too. Many served on the board of the Sherbrooke Hospital, the YMCA, the Rotary Club, and other Anglophone organizations. In both wars, many enlisted for military service.
During the post-war boom, the Jewish community remained vibrant. [...] In 1955, with three hundred-odd members, the Jewish community was confident enough of its future to construct a two-story extension to the synagogue to accommodate a Talmud Torah, or religious school for bar mitzvah preparation; meeting rooms; and other facilities. Just a year later, Sam Rubin sold his King Street plant to an American company. A year after that, as the needle trades in Quebec faltered, the plant closed. Most of the Jewish employees departed. In addition, the children of even deeply rooted Jews continued to go elsewhere for their education, marriage, and careers. Many became well-known professionals in Montreal, such as criminal lawyer Raphael Schachter, the grandson of the Rev. A. S. Mittleman, Agudath Achim’s spiritual leader from 1919 to 1954.
During the 1960s, shopping malls sprang up in the suburbs, and Wellington Street stores found it hard to compete. Some of the Jewish owners pulled up stakes. By 1967 the Sherbrooke Daily Record reported: “Sherbrooke’s Jewish community struggles to continue.”
The back-to-the-land movement and staff hiring at local CEGEPs, universities, and hospitals brought a few new congregants. Among them were artists Chick and Marsha Schwartz. They had left Montreal in 1977 to settle on a farm outside Stanstead and wanted their three sons to study for their bar mitzvah. They soon discovered that the Sherbrooke congregation no longer had a resident rabbi, and the Talmud Torah had all but collapsed. Marsha set about resurrecting classes with the assistance of the Heiligs’ daughter, Robin, then a Bishop’s University student.
It became more and more difficult, however, to draw a minyan, or quorum of ten adult males required to hold religious services, and the remaining synagogue members faced crippling maintenance and repair expenses for the building. They made the painful decision to sell it, directing the funds to a foundation established for the cemetery’s upkeep. About seventy people from near and far attended the last service in 1983. “It was a reunion and a farewell,” Claire recalled.
Some former congregants took to commuting to synagogues in Vermont or Montreal to worship and educate their children in Judaism. Others created the Eastern Townships Jewish Community. At its peak in the late 1980s, this informal group brought together fifty widely dispersed Jewish or interfaith Townships families. Members met in different homes for children’s instruction, special services, and communal celebrations.