Jews of the North

Approximately 335,000 people reported being Jewish in the 2021 Canadian census. About 0.6 per cent of that population lives in Northern Canada. It’s a pindrop in the vast global landscape and a minute fraction of an already small ethno-religious minority. Many would think there’s little to report when wanting to learn about Jews of the north. 

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Surprisingly, Northern Canada’s past and present carry many Jewish stories. In Whitehorse, Yukon, Jews have rich historical ties to the Klondike Gold Rush; and the future looks bright for Jews who recently started to call the frigid terrain of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories home.

Rick Karp never imagined that when he relocated to Whitehorse in 1985 he would, more than a decade later, discover a Jewish historical goldmine. After teaching for close to 14 years he moved with his wife, Joy, to open the first McDonald’s in northern Canada. Joy had successfully managed multiple McDonald’s locations in Kingston, Ontario and in 1978 she created what became the worldwide training program for the franchise

Karp and his wife were preoccupied with the restaurant for many years and it took some time before they met other Jews in the city. “It wasn’t until the mid to late-90s that we would celebrate holidays together,” he said. “Now around 42 of us get together to celebrate all the High Holidays at each other’s homes.” 

But in 1997 a fortuitous moment entered his life when a man from the U.S. came into the McDonald’s asking for Rick Karp at the counter. 

“The man had somehow found out about me and told me there was a Jewish cemetery in Dawson City, but he was unable to find it,” Karp said.

The man was going to go back to the U.S. and conduct more research about it in order to claim the site for his synagogue. Karp provided the man his contact details and said, “best of luck.” But really, he thought, “someone from the U.S. isn’t claiming that in our backyard!” 

Shortly after this encounter, Karp created the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon. He took it upon himself, with the help of Arthur Mitchell and Howard Kushner, to find the cemetery. With new information in hand, Karp and his friends set out to Dawson City. Soon into their excursion, after tripping on what they thought was a tree stump, they quickly discovered it was the entrance to the cemetery. They hired a graduate student to research who is buried in the cemetery, and to help restore the site.

“It had been vacant for 75 years,” Karp recalled. “It was completely overgrown with bushes and plants.” 

By August 1998, the cemetery was rededicated. Congregants from all over Canada joined former Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray in the ceremony. A rabbi from Vancouver flew over and it was the first time a full Torah was brought to the Yukon, Karp said. 

After the ceremony, he believed the detective work was over and resumed normal life. But the graduate student discovered another historical gem from his research on those interred in the cemetery: Jews in Dawson City played a key role in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898

The research unearthed that 200 Jews lived in the city during this time and dozens contributed to the economic and social fabric of North America. Among them was Sid Grauman and his father, David, who wanted to try and build a theatre in the north. They both headed for the Yukon in 1898 when Sid was 19. Sid made a living selling newspapers and reading the articles out loud to the miners for a fee, according to reports. Eventually the father and son moved to California and created the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre of Los Angeles. 

“Isn’t it remarkable?” Karp said. “There’s dozens more stories like it.” 

With funding from the Yukon government, Karp under the leadership and research of a local historian Dr. Brent Slobodin, along with others, developed a booklet of their findings which toured the country, attracting attention from Jewish archives across Canada. The booklet is currently being updated with more names and historical details to be released in the spring. 

Karp and Nicky Rosenberg (treasurer for the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon) hope to have their findings on display at different museums, especially the ANU, Museum of Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where Rosenberg has some connections. He’s been an active member of Yukon’s Jewish community ever since arriving from Israel in 2012.

While rich history and traditions have developed in Whitehorse, just under 2,000 kilometres away new Jewish rituals are being developed in Yellowknife. One novel tradition for a family comes in the form of an ice menorah, an annual sculptural creation by Zackary Bordman and his family who moved from Ontario to the capital in 2018. 

Bordman and his wife Meg Casson headed north for work purposes—both are family doctors and found employment at the local hospital, which is eager for medical professionals due to staffing shortages. Casson already had family there, but the stay for the couple was meant to be short-term. 

“It’s never easy leaving family and friends but we were up for the adventure,” reflected Bordman. 

The couple was lucky, Bordman said, when it came to finding the Jewish community. They rented a house from a family going on a year-long sabbatical who connected the inbound Ontarians to their neighbours, who happened to be Jewish. 

“We first connected during Sukkot,” Bordman said. “It was very welcoming to know we could celebrate the holidays with others and gave me a great sense of ease knowing the Jewish community was close by.” 

While the exact number of Jews in the Northwest Territories isn’t known, Bordman said the annual Hanukkah party hosts at least 50 people. 

“We’ve met a whole bunch of interfaith families and the region boasts a number of Jewish physicians and health professionals,” Bordman noted. “I’d say there’s close to 100 Jews, maybe more.” Although, the number is contested amongst his Jewish peers in the territories. 

The community often gets together for Jewish holidays, with families hosting at different households. But the holiday with the most time-intensive tradition is Hanukkah due to the famed ice menorah. 

“Hanukkah is a great time in Yellowknife, because there’s only sunlight from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There’s plenty of darkness for the festival of lights,” he said. 

Bordman makes eight ice candle holders and a shamash using a plastic two-litre water pitcher. The pitcher gets filled 90 per cent of the way and is left to freeze outside, which only takes a few hours in the minus 30 degree weather. The key to success comes by freezing the water to the perfect point, which is when, as he described, the sides and bottom are fully frozen but the middle must still be liquid so the water can be poured out to make the space hollow for a candle to fit in. 

“You can add food colouring which can be fun when you add the candles,” he said. “Coincidentally, our friends had been doing this for many years but I didn’t know that when I started mine. Funnily enough, they had just stopped making theirs the year I began making mine.” 

It’s a new tradition for Bordman that is indicative of how people adapt to the cold climate to keep special rituals alive. 

Now, with a three-year old and an 18 month old it’s an activity for the kids to enjoy as well.

The Bordman family’s menorah. Photo courtesy of Zackary Bordman.

What makes the Jewish community in Yellowknife special for Bordman is it’s one he’s actively chosen. Growing up in Toronto and attending Jewish school, he was automatically connected to other Jews. But in a much smaller community, it’s one he’s decided to meaningfully take part in. 

“Back in Toronto there are hundreds of events to choose from and in some ways it’s easier because you have so much choice,” he reflected. “Here it’s small and limited, but you end up reaching out to each other more and it feels like a more special way to connect.” 

The sentiment is shared by Karp and Rosenberg in Whitehorse, who feel the smaller community feels more immediate and caring. 

“We look out for each other more. We look after one another,” Rosenberg said. 

There’s a beauty and mystique to the magical terrain of northern Canada that some people fall in love with. For these three individuals, it’s become home. What’s poignant, is that tied into the icy landscape are the stories of Jews who resided there over a hundred years ago, who left their mark. And now, new traditions are created from the glacial environment. Menorahs rise from the ice. Holidays are celebrated in community members’ homes. Jewish legacies are remembered and new ones are forged. 

“We’ve given people an understanding of the history and way of life for Jews of the north,” Karp said. 

Header image photo courtesy of Zackary Bordman.

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