One Document at a Time: Capturing the History of Jews Helping Immigrants to Canada

As a summer intern at the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA) my assignment for the last few months was to curate an exhibit celebrating 100 years of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) to accompany Pier 21’s Refuge Tent Canada exhibition, which JIAS Toronto will be hosting this fall as part of their anniversary celebration. Refuge Tent Canada is a small, bilingual exhibit designed to resemble a tent that is the same size as a typical shelter used in refugee camps today.

I’ve spent the past two months diving into the JIAS fonds preserved at the OJA and telling the story of JIAS and Jewish immigration to Canada in more detail. A fonds, for those unaware, is the entire body of records created by an organization, family, or individual. You can imagine, some are pretty massive! The JIAS fonds is made up of 31.8 metres of textual records (archives are measured in metres not pages due to varying page sizes over time) and 319 photographs stored in 109 boxes. While about 80 of these boxes are individual immigrant case files with restricted access due to privacy and confidentiality, it is still copious amounts of reading.

Jewish immigrants on board the General Sturgis (Halifax, NS), 6 Feb. 1948. Ontario Jewish Archives, item 628.

I spent the first month at the archives looking through old meeting minutes, correspondences, and news articles. I’ve always found archival research appealing because of its ability to provide detailed and personal pictures of history. However, it does have the downside of needing some prior knowledge of said history. I discovered that in archival letters and memos people often referred to current events in shorthand, assuming that the reader would know what they are referring to. However, these references are difficult to make sense of for someone reading them decades later. Having a timeline of events or a Google tab at the ready is key. For example, JIAS documents from the 1920s consistently mention restrictive government “quotas” limiting Jewish immigration without elaborating. Upon a more in-depth search, I discovered that Canada updated its Immigration Act in 1919 by adding a section which allowed immigration to be prohibited or limited on the basis of nationality, race, or class. 

Group of Jewish immigrants from ship “Regina” at Halifax, 1927. Ontario Jewish Archives, item 1541.

Archives can have the unfortunate reputation for being quiet, dusty places disconnected from reality. Don’t get me wrong, reading through meeting minutes is pretty boring. However, within those documents, you start to discover and unravel threads of a life story or major event. Archival research is about pulling on those threads and watching as they lead you through letters, maps, photographs, personal notes, legal records. These primary materials will slowly build a full picture. The thrill of finally unravelling a story is a joy I find unique to archival research.

OJA storage vault, May 2022. Photograph by Avi Margolis.

It has been a pleasure for me to work with the OJA. As a Jewish student I have always been interested in local and community history. During my undergraduate anthropology degree, I created a research project examining Jewish family purity (niddah) laws. I find that having an empathetic, insider perspective is incredibly helpful when a researcher is hoping to make connections and discuss private details. The OJA was also one of my first encounters with one of my favourite methods of historiography, oral history, when I went to their launch of the Southern African Legacy Project with my family in 2018.

Oral history involves in-depth interviews with individuals to study the entirety of their lives and obtaining individual perspectives on history. It involves embracing non-objective understandings of truth. Oral history is what first opened my eyes to different cultural “ways of knowing.” Oral history can often embrace Indigenous storytelling knowledge traditions, which traditional Western historiography rejects as it seeks clear objectivity. The OJA’s collection includes many oral histories of Jews who immigrated to Canada, which share the intimate details of what it feels like to be an immigrant. After getting a general picture of the history, my next phase of research was to look through the oral history collections for people who had been involved with JIAS, either as a staff member or as an immigrant. In many cases, people were both. Immigrants who were aided by JIAS often went on to work with and support the organization to help future immigrants, leading to the JIAS slogan, “Immigrants established JIAS, so that JIAS could establish immigrants.”

Maurice Benzacar, nicknamed “Mr. JIAS.” A Moroccan Jewish immigrant who went on to work at JIAS as Director of Settlement welcomes the Joseph (Sankar) family immigrating from India, 1968. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 9, series 12, file 60.

So, what are Jewish ways of knowing? How do we learn and understand our past? Judaism has the Tanakh, Mishnah, and Gemara as written sources with rules which must be followed, but there is also a rich tradition of constant interpretation and reinterpretation in daily practice. As the saying goes, minhag avoteinu beyadeinu” (our ancestors’ customs are in our hands). Or as Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof would say, “Tradition!” The Torah commands Jews to “love the stranger among you, because you were once strangers in Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). This commandment has served as a call to action for organizations such as JIAS which helps both Jews and non-Jews settle in Canada. JIAS staff over the past 100 years have worked to always be ready to welcome immigrants from the moment they arrive in Canada. The call to love the refugee is one that has been drastically reinforced in Jews by the tragedies of the Holocaust. We know firsthand what it is like to be the unwanted people, with nowhere safe to land, and so we work to prevent anyone else from facing that same fate. Individual Jews, congregations, and JIAS have been some of the first on the scene in refugee crises such as Operation Lifeline, which welcomed 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in 1979, the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, or the current war in Ukraine.

JIAS staff conference, 1980. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 9, series 12, file 52.

JIAS’ 100th Anniversary exhibition includes many personal stories and excerpts from some of the archives’ oral histories. This is because the history of any institution is actually the history of a collection of individuals. Recognizing these individual narratives adds meaning and depth and will hopefully enrich the experience for visitors. One of the theories behind oral history and many storytelling historic traditions is that the human mind is built to remember stories. Think about your favourite movie from your childhood—you probably remember it much better than your high school history class. A story which resonates with you emotionally can stay in your memory for a lifetime. My hope is that this exhibit helps to personalize immigration stories and pass them along to new generations.

To learn more about Canadian immigration, refugees, and JIAS, visit the exhibition on display at Holy Blossom Temple this fall. See JIAS 100th Anniversary for details.

Header image is provided by the OJA: Group of Jewish immigrants from ship “Regina” at Halifax, 1927. Ontario Jewish Archives, item 1541.

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