Prince Edward Island is the only province in Canada to not have a synagogue or rabbi. While they are glad to have a rabbi come for funerals and other occasions they don’t feel the need or have the resources for a rabbi on the island.
For Leo Mednick, the President of the PEI Jewish Community, the concern seems to be that a rabbi would impose their own beliefs or say the Jewish islanders aren’t practicing properly.
“We’re not a religious community,” Mednick told me in an interview. “We have very few prayer sessions. It’s really about the holidays and meeting up.”
Every year on Passover the majority of the Jewish community in PEI come together to celebrate the holiday at a rented banquet hall with food from Scoop and Save—the only store nearby that provides kosher options. Even the matzah needs to be pre-ordered and shipped in.
Anywhere from 40 to 70-ish people come from the 80 to 100-ish Jewish people living on the island—it’s not fully known how big the Jewish population actually is, but out of PEI’s population of 160,000, it’s a small percentage. While the group may be tight knit, Jewish members from around the world come and go, ensuring that various Jewish cultures are incorporated into the community.
The first recorded Jewish settlers on PEI arrived at the turn of the 20th century. According to Dr. Joseph Naylor, the first elected President of the PEI Jewish Community—in his historical background of the Jewish life on PEI—a newspaper item from 1908 reports a celebration of Passover by the Jews of Charlottetown. During that time, three brothers, Louis, Israel, and Abie Block arrived from Riga, Latvia. They established three families and became “prominent entrepreneurs under difficult, pioneer conditions.”
There were approximately a dozen other Jewish families who operated businesses for short periods before World War II. During the war the number of Jews increased temporarily when the Air Training Station was active.
The majority of the members of the Jewish community who are still on the island today arrived in the 1970s or later. Medjuck notes that a Torah scroll was borrowed in 1975 for the first known High Holy Day services—the first time a Torah had been brought to the island—and again in 1976 for the first known Bar Mitzvah celebration. The community formally organized itself in 1993, with Dr. Joseph Naylor being elected first president.
Now, the Jewish community has Jews come from Israel, India, Jamaica, and the U.S., which is where Mednick and community member Leslie Sacks are from.
“So many people, from so many different places, with different traditions,” Sacks said in her Brooklyn accent. “This place is truly magical, I can’t describe it.”
While it is a magical community, it’s one Mednick isn’t used to. “I come from an Orthodox upbringing. My father was a rabbi, and I attended Yeshiva University in New York. But what this community is about, is the people. There’s intermarriage; I myself married someone Catholic, and people who have converted—we’re the periphy of the Jewish communiy. But everyone likes the environment here, and we enjoy being a part of it.”
At six years old Mednick’s family moved from New Jersey back to his mother’s home city Montreal. His father was born in Belarus and went to the U.S. to attend Yeshiva University. Mednick followed in his father’s footsteps, attending the same university for four years. He then lived in Toronto for 35 years, where he met his wife from PEI.
As her parents were getting older the couple decided to move to the island in 2007. It wasn’t until his sister told him three years into his stay that there was in fact a Jewish community he should acquaint himself with.
“I spoke to the president at that time and started to attend some of the functions. Six months later I joined the executive committee and a year or so later I became the president,” Mednick explained.
Because there isn’t a synagogue, the community celebrates the High Holidays by going to each other’s homes for the services. Purim and Hanukkah are also large celebrations, but the biggest of all is Passover, which is how it’s been for “a long time.”
However last year the communal Seder did not take place, and neither will it this year due to the pandemic. Even doing something virtually isn’t planned, because the spirit of the gathering can’t be captured. When it’s safe to congregate again, the holiday will be celebrated in its usual fashion.
“A lot of people remember Seders in their own family and they bring those memories with them. I still remember going to my grandmother’s Seders when I was little. The effect the Seder has on your life is something you’ll always remember,” Mednick described.
For Sacks, who’s been on the island for 14 years, the Passover get together is also an opportunity for non-Jews to come and learn about Judaism.
“It’s important for us to show people in PEI who we are. They don’t have to be afraid,” Sacks said.
Since relocating to PEI she has encountered two acts of anti-Semitism: a swatiska displayed on a house, which MP Sean Casey took care of “immediately” and a reported incident of someone seeing a swastika flag, which police officers addressed.
Sacks noted that after the Pittsburgh shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, they decided to have a candlelight ceremony, expecting just the Jewish community to show up—instead 300 people attended to pay their respects.
“An Imam and Father George showed up. . . it’s that kind of place where people of different faiths are friendly with one another, it’s just the kind of place.”
Sacks decided to move to PEI after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. As a travel agent, she knew about many different locations which could potentially be her new home. She wanted an environment that ensured a greater measure of safety and security after her experience in New York.
She visited PEI in 2004 and “never looked back.”
“Everyone talks to you and wants to know why you’re here,” Sacks added. She joined the executive committee for the PEI Jewish Community and quickly became an active member.
While the Jewish community has discussed having a synagogue, there isn’t enough money, and people are weary of a rabbi dictating how life should be run. Sacks says people leave it to her and Mednick to organize, due to their Jewish backgrounds, and as the “unofficial bubbe of PEI” Sacks provides the warmth and comfort many seek in the community.
Mednick also said he’s unsure of how the Jewish community would feel towards having a rabbi or synagogue, especially with difficulties in forming a minyan. “I don’t think there’s any interest in having a rabbi and the shul being the centre of the community. A community centre would be good to build. That would be a good start and we could have occasional services.”
But the PEI Jewish Community president said that many of the Jews come with a knowledge of the main songs from the High Holiday services. He recalled when he first heard Avinu Malkeinu recited by members without much assistance.
“There’s a feeling there,” Mednick explained. “You can just feel it.” And from his and Sack’s recounting of the PEI Jews way of life, it’s the feeling of togetherness and a sense of belonging that permeates to all who are fortunate to encounter the Jewish community in PEI.
*This article has been amended to more accurately portray the sources intentions on mentioning the need for a rabbi in the community.
Header image of PEI from Shutterstock. Design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.