Oral histories of the members of the Old Sherbrooke Jewish Community.
A project to carry out oral histories on the members of the original old Jewish Comunity of Sherbrooke has begun. The project is being sponsored by the Society d’Histoire de Sherbrooke with the participation Sherbrooke Jewish Community History Project Group.
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The Proposal for an Oral History of the Jewish Community of Sherbrooke, Quebec.
It is hard to believe that between 1870 and 1970 a dynamic Jewish community called Sherbrooke, Quebec, home, because few remnants of it exist today. Jews began to settle there during the 1870s and, by the early 1900s they constituted a large cohesive community. The mass familial migration of a group of families from one town, Ostropol, Ukraine, explains this development. In particular, the arrival of Moses and Leah Echenberg and their two eldest children in 1893 signaled the beginning of this demographic change. By sponsoring and financing the travel of their blood relatives, extended family members, and friends, they, as well as those who followed, helped to transplant their Eastern European shtetl of Ostropol to Sherbrooke. Interestingly, they preferred Sherbrooke over the big city of Montreal because it more closely resembled the town they had left behind.
This first generation of Orthodox Jewish entrepreneurs established a congregation, Agudath Achim, in 1907 and opened a variety of businesses, which came to dominate Sherbrooke’s downtown Wellington Street. In 1921, the community numbered over 300. They established a core of middle-class entrepreneurial families that resided in the city’s North Ward and prospered through most of the twentieth century.
Although there continues to be a small number of Jews in Sherbrooke, including recent Sephardic Francophone immigrants from North Africa and others who have re-established the original congregation of Agudath Achim, very few members of the original remain. This disappearance is due to the death of its early settlers and the mass exodus of most of those who belonged to later generations; a lack of opportunities, among other reasons, led many to larger Canadian and American cities.
While the early history of this Jewish community is similar to others in Canada, Sherbrooke’s Jews also found themselves in a different situation because they were forced to negotiate a place for themselves among the town’s French-Canadian majority and powerful English-speaking elite. Rather than ghettoizing themselves, in contrast to other places, they worked hard to integrate their shtetl into the larger community. These Jews spoke both languages, in addition to Yiddish, but they tended to align themselves with Sherbrooke’s Anglophones, send their children to English Protestant schools, and live in the town’s predominantly English-speaking North Ward. That said, we continue to know little about the complicated and varied everyday experiences of those who belonged to this community. What was it like to be a Jew in Sherbrooke? How did Jews negotiate a place for themselves within a city dominated by French-Canadians with a strong Anglophone elite? Did anti-Semitism or other forms of discrimination affect their experiences? Why did this vibrant, close-knit community all but vanish?
Conducting life story oral history interviews with Jews who grew up in Sherbrooke between 1930 and 1960 will begin to shed some light on these questions. Interviewees will also include a number of non-Jews who interacted with members of the community in myriad ways. Taken together, these interviews will speak to the diverse experiences of those who belonged to this ethnic minority. Many of Sherbrooke’s Jewish exiles are looking forward to reminiscing about the past, especially given that most continue to maintain a strong emotional connection to both this place and its once vibrant community. In addition to their memories of small-town familial and communal experiences, this multi-generational oral history project will explore the ties that continue to bind these people to Sherbrooke and the longing they still feel for their old community.