New exhibit showcases highs, lows of Canadian Jewish Experience

By Anna Sophia Vollmerhausen

Did you know that Toronto-born rapper Drake is Jewish? Or that the Hart Trophy, awarded annually since 1924 to the most valuable player in the NHL, is named after Cecil Hart, a former Jewish head coach of the Montreal Canadiens?

If not, then a visit to the Canadian Jewish Experience exhibition may be in order.

Tova Lynch is one of the main organizers of the CJE, which officially opened at its downtown location at 30 Metcalfe St., across from Parliament Hill, on April 4.

The exhibition features nine bilingual panels highlighting Jewish contributions to various areas of life in Canada, from business to the arts, to architecture, sports, the war effort, politics and more. The exhibit is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission is free.

According to the exhibition, prior to Confederation in 1867, there were fewer than 1,000 Jewish people living in Canada. Their numbers steadily increased over the years as more Jews fled religious persecution and violence, particularly in Eastern Europe.

The most recent data available from Statistics Canada shows that Jews made up about one per cent of Canada’s population, or nearly 330,000 people, in 2011.

But Canada was no exception when it came to anti-Semitism, particularly in the lead up to the Second World War. In 1939, the government refused to accept nearly 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on board the St. Louis, many of whom later died in concentration camps.

According to Lynch, the main goal of the exhibit is education.

“I think there are a lot of stereotypes about Jews and, unfortunately, the number of anti-Semitic incidents have gone up (recently),” she said.

In Ottawa alone last November, anti-Semitic messages were spray painted on synagogues, schools and even on a rabbi’s front door in the Glebe.

Cities such as Montreal and Toronto also reported having to remove spray-painted swastikas and anti-Semitic phrases from buildings during the same month.

“We want to show that Jews are like everyone else — we want to share with everyone else,” Lynch said. “We believe in building bridges and we (want) to celebrate the sesquicentennial.”

According to Lynch, the hope is to educate people about the various achievements of Jewish-Canadians over the years, while also giving the Jewish community a chance to celebrate. While Canadian Jewish Experience will only be in Ottawa until the end of the year, she said the team behind the exhibit are planning to turn it into a mobile attraction that can travel across the country.

“Obviously we have a lot to celebrate, and we are very happy to be part of Canada, and I know that Canada is proud of the Jewish community,” said Lynch. “It’s a two way street.”

Plans for the exhibition began in 2015, with a major fundraising initiative that sought to raise $2.9 million. Despite receiving no government funding, and having to adjust the initial vision for the exhibition, Lynch said they are proud of what they and their donors have been able to create in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“It’s a big day for Canada, and if it’s a big day for Canada, it’s a big day for the Jewish community, who were very happy to live in Canada,” Lynch said. “It was just something very natural for us to do . . . we felt that we wanted to thank Canada for giving us such a very positive home.”