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Canada's oldest synagogue - in Victoria - is crumbling

Canada's oldest synagogue - a standing testament to the Victoria community's openheartedness, according to its members - is crumbling. Time and the elements have eaten into the roof of the Congregation Emanu-El building at 1461 Blanshard St.

Canada's oldest synagogue - a standing testament to the Victoria community's openheartedness, according to its members - is crumbling.

Time and the elements have eaten into the roof of the Congregation Emanu-El building at 1461 Blanshard St., a national heritage site that celebrates its 150th anniversary next year.

Cracks are appearing inside the worship space and safety inspectors might even force its closure in the next few years.

Members are planning a celebrity gala and auction on Nov. 22 to raise an estimated $400,000 to repair the building. Up for sale will be items such as signed prints from poet-singer Leonard Cohen and Saltspring Island artist Robert Bateman, along with items donated by local businesses.

Jean Dragushan, vice-president of Congregation Emanu-El, said the donations and support are enormously gratifying. The 200 member families are determined to do all they can to preserve the synagogue. "People are very attached to this building," Dragushan said. "For me and many other people, we get very emotional about this space and what it means to us."

The history of the synagogue goes back to 1858, when a few Jewish families arrived from San Francisco during the Fraser River gold rush. In 1863, the cornerstone of the building at the corner of Blanshard and Pandora was laid, making it now the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Canada.

According to Rabbi Harry Brechner, citizens of Victoria stepped up to help the new Jewish arrivals build their spiritual home.

Brechner said unlike Christian churches launched with government land grants, the synagogue received no such largesse.

The congregation had to raise the $730 to buy the land. But when the time came to start building, Victorians of all faiths, hearing of the unequal treatment, stepped in to help with construction costs.

"So this has always really been our home," Brechner said.

When the cornerstone was set in place, the whole community celebrated with a parade, songs and a military band. The British Colonist, a forerunner to the Times Colonist, wrote that "the ceremonies of the day were participated in by all classes of our community with a hearty goodwill and brotherly feeling."

In 1866, Lumley Franklin was elected the second mayor of Victoria, the first Jewish mayor of a city in what was then British North America. Only six years earlier, Franklin's brother Selim had been elected to what was then the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island, only the third Jew to be elected to a legislature in British North America.

Another first came a few years later. In 1871, Henry Nathan Jr. was elected as a Victoria member of parliament, becoming the first Jew to sit in the Canadian House of Commons.

And in 1914, Congregation Emanu-El's Samuel Schultz became the first Jewish judge in Canada.

Brechner said the synagogue's determination to remain in downtown Victoria - rather than selling the site and moving to an outlying area - is a sign of its ongoing commitment to the city.

"Remaining here has fuelled a lot of social action and care," he said.

While the 3,000-odd Victoria-area Jews gather in various community centres, Congregation Emanu-El is the only dedicated synagogue in the area.

Even during the 1940s, when the number of Jewish families in Victoria shrank to the point where it became a challenge to hold services, the congregation remained.

After the war, the congregation made a decision in 1948 to "modernize" the brick building with a weatherproof covering of stucco.

Even the building's original stained-glass windows were covered over.

The stucco was later stripped in a restoration project completed in 1982. In 2003 the adjacent brick Congregation Emanu-El Educational and Cultural Centre was completed.

The restored synagogue building has since received a local Hallmark Society Award, a Heritage Canada Award, and an American Association for State and Local History Award.

Brechner, who is from New York, said Congregation Emanu-El and its member families now form an incredibly dynamic assembly, one strongly connected to the area.

That connection is clear by the decorations inside, where pictures of Vancouver Island animals, such as cougars and eagles, sit below Hebrew script. The branches of an arbutus tree are bent into a Menorah, the candelabrum used during Hanukkah.

"You can feel the energy of all the people who have prayed here before," Brech-ner said. "And there is a desire to continue that kind of energy and preserve its spiritual framework and its cultural framework."

The fundraiser, dubbed Help the Fiddler Fix the Roof, takes place at 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at the DaVinci Centre, 195 Bay St.

Tickets are $50 and include food and beverages. Information and tickets are available online at congregationemanu-el.ca.

rwatts@timescolonist.com