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Manitoba History: The Jewish Orphanage of Western Canada and the Economics of Religious Communal Identity

by Sharon Graham
History Department, University of Manitoba

Number 81, Summer 2016

The Jewish Orphan Home of Western Canada was the sole Jewish orphanage that served the far-flung Jewish communities of Western Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia from 1917 until it was closed in 1948. During these thirty years, children were sent to the home on Matheson Avenue in Winnipeg’s middle-class North Western section by provincial court authorities, widowed parents, and by rural parents who used the Orphanage as a boarding school. The Orphanage was supported by the individual donations of Jews across a huge geographic span, from the metropolis of Winnipeg to tiny communities of a few families. Although the Orphanage was staffed with a Supervisor and his wife, nurses and religious teachers, the volunteer leadership was compelled to participate in the raising and education of its children. Was this compulsion due to the religious commandments for Jews to educate the poor children of their community and to preserve the transmission of the religion not only to their own offspring but to all Jewish children? Or was it a way of creating a new Canadian Jewish identity, one that incorporated the modern Canadian state with Jewish traditions?

The Jewish Orphanage of Western Canada originated in 1912, when there was a rumour in the community that Jewish children were being housed in local non-Jewish orphanages. Concerned that these children would be lost to the community, two separate groups, one made up of B’nai B’rith (an international Jewish male fraternal organization) members and a group of Jewish woman, and the other consisting of Mr. Reuben Robinson who wanted an institution dedicated to the memory of his mother, decided to found Jewish orphanages. [1] There were two orphanages until 1917, when a compromise was negotiated between the two groups and a new supervisor and his wife were hired. A large new building was built on Matheson Avenue in 1920.

The Jewish Orphanage of Western Canada building at 123 Matheson Avenue, Winnipeg, date unknown.

The Jewish Orphanage of Western Canada building at 123 Matheson Avenue, Winnipeg, date unknown.
Source: Jewish Heritage Centre 619 #2

The Orphanage was a patriarchal institution, with a male supervisor (with a wife by his side) at the head of all activities. His role was not only to manage the Orphanage, but also to act as the comptroller and chief fundraiser. [2] The second supervisor, Aaron Osovsky, was a good manager and fundraiser, but other less positive aspects of his supervision were overlooked by the Board. Under Osovsky the children lived under a strict and tightly packed schedule, with corporal punishment for any infraction of the rules. Rabbi Reuben Slonim, who wrote a complicated memoir of his time in the Orphanage, depicted Osovsky as a man who helped Slonim immensely and thus garnered his respect, but who was also cruel and abusive. In addition to abuse at the hands of Osovsky, the children also had to endure bullying at the hands of other children. Slonim describes a strict hierarchy of big kids over the little kids, a hierarchy that was unmerciful. [3]

If the psychological atmosphere of the Orphanage could be merciless, the physical plant itself, the meals and the clothing were all more than adequate. [4] Children received regular medical and dental care from a roster of physicians and dentists that operated as a formal health committee. With such careful oversight and a policy of quarantining those ill from communicable diseases, the children experienced childhood illnesses but there appear to have been very few deaths.

Jewish identity was reinforced in the children by religious practice as well education. The children had their own synagogue and celebrated every holiday as well as the Sabbath. The Orphanage was Orthodox in practice, although the girls were included in the skilled choir, much to the chagrin of Rabbi Khanovitch, the Orthodox rabbi par excellence in Winnipeg who was technically the institution’s rabbinic authority. [5] The cantor and choirmaster, Sam Ostrow, was a meticulous teacher and the choir performed at other synagogues in the city. The Jewish dietary laws were observed. The boys (and some girls) attended a religious school on the grounds in the afternoons. During the day they attended the local public schools.

After Osovsky left the orphanage in 1934, Harry E. Wilder was hired as superintendent. He had long been a supporter of the Orphanage but he was also amenable to change. [6] In 1939, Wilder and the Board of Directors commissioned a report from Irving Furst, Superintendent of the Jewish Children’s Bureau of Chicago. Furst castigated the Winnipeg Jewish community for continuing the orphanage when American child bureaus had been moving steadily toward the foster home system. His report asked some very prescient questions: why was the Jewish community funding the orphanage when most of the orphans had responsible parents who were merely suffering illness or poverty? [7] Why not fund help for sick parents or give financial help directly to parents and avoid breaking up families? According to his review, about 50% of the children who came into the Orphanage could have stayed within their families if the community had focussed on helping them before a crisis was reached. [8] The report triggered a debate about the future of the orphanage that lasted throughout the 1940s. In 1948, it was finally closed, but negotiations with members of the board and the Jewish community were fractious.

Why did the Jews of Western Canada feel compelled to fund an Orphanage? The reasons lie in both the needs of the modern state to address issues of poverty, especially urban poverty, and in Jewish religious practice. As Jacob Katz wrote in his seminal overview of Jewish communities in Early Modern Europe, Jewish society was traditional in that it “based itself on knowledge and values drawn from the past,” but this valuation of the past meant that for these Jews, “the future ... became a time, when, it was hoped, the values of the past would be restored.” [9] Therefore, the socialization of all Jewish children was vital to the Jewish community. Early Modern Jewish communities had many charitable confraternities, some of which focussed on supporting scholars or in funding education for either the children of the poor or of the whole community, known as Talmud Torah societies. These confraternities not only distributed tzedakah, or communal charity, they also allowed for Jews of all backgrounds to experience communal leadership roles. [10]

In the European context, this focus on Jewish education shifted to become a battleground over modernization. The Enlightenment affected Jews in Europe either through direct state intervention or through the work of Jewish intellectuals who sought to reconcile Judaism with modernity. Enlightenment-inspired state interventions in Jewish life were based on the premise that while individual Jews could be free to practice Judaism, the existence of an organized Jewish community could only be tolerated as long as the goals of the State were given priority. Austria’s Emperor Josef’s 1782 Edict of Tolerance, for example, was not really very tolerant; the number of Jews permitted to live in Vienna would remain the same, but Jewish communities would be permitted to create their own state schools under the auspices of local authorities. [11] In other jurisdictions, such as Berlin, Jews did not formally receive full civil rights until the 19th century.

However, Jewish Enlightenment thinkers forged on without State approval, hoping to modernize the Jewish community and Judaism itself. Their most notable experiments occurred within Jewish education, with the establishment of the Berlin Freischule in 1778 by wealthy lay leaders of the community. This Freischule was revolutionary because it incorporated secular studies into the curriculum, encouraged the use of German and biblical Hebrew and emphasized Torah over Talmud, the corpus of Jewish law. [12] The founders of the school, requiring official approval, wrote to the King of Prussia, explaining that they wished to “make the Jews men of culture and to educate them to become useful subjects of the state.” [13]

All of these efforts fulfilled religious obligations and ensured that the modern state and Jewish culture could co-exist; they also avoided antisemitic attacks of Jewish parasitism—another reason for Jewish communal charity during the 19th century. Historian Derek Penslar has studied how Jewish leaders in Western Europe provided charity to their poor not only because Jews were often barred from receiving other, church-based forms of aid, but also because they wished to keep the Jewish poor out of the public eye. The maintenance of Jewish charities unified Jews in common causes and created a form of communal identity. [14]

The concern for providing an education for Jewish children was of central importance to the modern Jewish experience, from Berlin to Winnipeg. But how did the massive project of not only formally educating, but also gathering, housing, feeding and socializing children from across four provinces work financially? Parents, of course, contributed. Most of the children at the Orphanage were not full orphans; some were rural boarders and most of the others were half-orphans. Rural parents sent their children to board in Winnipeg so that they could acquire religious and high school education, and their parents were expected to pay as much toward their children’s care as possible. The surviving parents of the half-orphans were also asked to make a contribution toward their children’s care, even if the amount was only a token of the full cost. The Orphanage also collected children who were sent as wards of the Crown by the authorities in the Prairie Provinces, aided by the B’nai B’rith members of the small Jewish communities sprinkled across the West. [15] The province of Manitoba did provide some financial grants toward the institution, indicating that the state was pleased with the outcomes of the Jewish orphanage, but the rest of the budgetary shortfalls were made up by donations. Part of the duties of the Superintendent was an annual fundraising trip; every summer he would travel the Western Provinces by train, to solicit donations from the rural Jewish communities. [16]

An annual report of the Orphanage from 1925-1926 shows donations that came in from some towns that had only between one and ten Jewish families. For example, the Jews of Drumheller, Alberta donated a total of $69.00 to the Orphanage that year. [17] The amounts were small, with the highest being $12.00 and the lowest contribution $3.00, but considering that the Orphanage claimed to spend around $0.30 per child per day on food, these donations were able to give significant aid. As a bonus, the Jews of Drumheller were now able to see their names in the annual report. Isolated, possibly without any formal Jewish institutions save a small B’nai B’rith group and an occasional prayer quorum, the Jews of Drumheller were still able to fulfil the commandment of educating the community’s children. And since the Orphanage was a new, modern institution, these far-flung Jews were able to connect themselves with the very best their community had to offer.

Winnipeg’s Jews were able to give more than dollars. The Board of Directors, Ladies’ Auxiliary, and other associated groups were devoted to the children of the Orphanage. In addition to the Hebrew school and choir practices, the Orphanage had kindergartens, Cub Scout and Girl Guide groups run by community volunteers. [18] Individual Board members were on site so often they were remembered fondly by alumni of the Orphanage for many years. Most especially cherished were Mr. and Mrs. David Spivak. This devotion to the Orphanage not only allowed leaders such as the Spivaks to fulfill a religious commandment but also to garner social standing within the Canadian Jewish community.

All of this paints an idyllic picture, but there were dissenting voices that questioned the need for an Orphanage. For example, in 1919, at the same time that the site on Matheson Avenue was being built, a pamphlet was circulated in Winnipeg calling for an extension of government support for widowed mothers in order to prevent family separations. This pamphlet, which does not seem to have ties to any religious group, said, “No worthy widow should be compelled to break up her family and place her children in an institution. She should be pensioned by the state and enabled to support her family till they become wage earners.” [19] Child welfare in Winnipeg was born soon after, administered by the city and a corps of semi-professionals and volunteers.

Response to the recommendation that the Orphanage be closed and the Jewish community house only orphans and wards in foster homes was mixed. Although there was some vocal opposition, a number of Orphanage alumni were reported to have met to voice their favour for the plan to de-institutionalize the Western Provinces’ orphans. [20] David Spivak fought hard, from 1939 until the very closing of the Orphanage in 1948. In a Yiddish language article written in 1945, Spivak stated that the decrease in the number of children in the Orphanage was because there were not enough children being accepted, in order to keep the population of the institution artificially low, although he acknowledged that rising prosperity may have been a factor. Spivak also felt that children were being sent home too freely. [21] Clearly, Spivak thought that children should have been held within the bosom of the institution as long as possible. Acting as a tireless fundraiser and volunteer was so important to Spivak’s identity that he could not envision a time during which the Orphanage did not exist.

That time, of course, did come. The Orphanage site became a Jewish Community Centre and its work was then carried out by the Winnipeg Jewish Child and Family Service, an agency that still exists today. Canadian Jewish culture as a whole shifted towards the professionalization of its employees. In addition, the focus of the Canadian Jewish community also shifted after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. The Orphanage’s alumni began holding reunions in the 1980s and fundraising for charitable purposes themselves. But instead of reaching into their pockets and digging deeply to support poor Jewish children in a stately home in Winnipeg, their donations went toward scholarship funds for students in Winnipeg and for poor students at Ben Gurion University in Israel. In the 1991 Alumni Bulletin, the author and the main force behind the group, Heshey Braunstein, wrote, “My folks were immigrants from Europe. What if they had remained in Europe and I was born there!...Would I have survived the death camps and gone through living hell…Yes it is only an accident of fate where we are born and how our lives wind up. I did okay in the past, but I found that life in the present can be beautiful. How so? By following these words – ‘Living is Giving.’” Braunstein then concluded by asking, “If we don’t come to Israel’s rescue now – Who will?” [22] The Orphanage alumni no longer needed to support Jewish children from the Prairies. Instead, they poured their love and expressions of gratitude to God and the Jewish community by supporting the State of Israel. Canadian Jewish identity had changed for good.

A group believed to be alumni of the Jewish Orphanage celebrating the 80th birthday of David Spivak.

A group believed to be alumni of the Jewish Orphanage celebrating the 80th birthday of David Spivak.
Source: Jewish Heritage Centre 619

Notes

1. H. E. Wilder, The Jewish Orphanage and Children’s Aid of Western Canada: Historical Sketch. Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, JHC10, File 10, pp. 1–3.

2. Levine, p. 174.

3. Slonim, pp. 47–50.

4. Ibid., pp. 13–15.

5. Slonim, p. 30.

6. Levine, p. 175.

7. Furst, pp. 34–36.

8. Ibid., p. 12.

9. Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. Trans., Bernard Dov Cooperman, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000, p. 156.

10. Ibid., pp. 135–140.

11. Josef II, “The Edict of Tolerance (2 January 1782),” in The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 36–39.

12. Shmule Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment, trans. Chaya Naor, Philadelphia, University of Philadelphia Press, 2002, pp. 122–126.

13. As quoted in Feiner, p. 125.

14. Derek Penslar, Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, pp. 103–105.

15. Furst, p. 4.

16. The annual trip by the director of the orphanage is described by a later superintendent’s wife, Mrs. H. E. Wilder, in the Annual Report of the Jewish Orphanage and Children’s Aid of Western Canada 1934-1935. Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, JHC10, File 1, p. 9.

17. Annual Report, Jewish Orphanage and Children’s Aid of Western Canada, 1925–1926. Winnipeg, MB: 1926, 29. JHC 10 F1.

18. Jewish Orphanage and Children’s Aid of Western Canada Report for the Year 1923–1924. Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, JHC 10, File 1, pp. 9, 20, 23, 30.

19. F. J. Billiardé, Canada’s Greatest Asset: Are We Safeguarding it? A Vital Question for all Canadians! Winnipeg, 1919, p. 3. University of Manitoba Archives, Tribune File 1537.

20. “Orphanage Alumni Favors Foster Homes,” Jewish Post, 16 November 1945.

21. “Summary of article in Israelite Press, 4 April 1945, by Mr. D. Spivak, entitled, ‘The Truth About the Situation in the Orphanage.’” JHC 10, F6.

22. Winnipeg Jewish Orphanage Alumni Bulletin 26, 1 January 1991, JHC 550 F2.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Jewish Orphanage and Children’s Aid of Western Canada Park and Plaque (Matheson Avenue East, Winnipeg)

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 21 July 2020

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