Reaching for new audiences
Michael Schwartz speaks at the launch of East End Stories on June 24. (photo from JMABC)
When Louis and Emma Gold arrived in Granville, precursor to Vancouver, the merchant family from Kentucky became the first members of what would grow into the booming Jewish community in the Lower Mainland.
Like most of the first Jewish immigrants to British Columbia, the Golds moved to the eastern end of downtown, where they opened a general store. Two waves of European Jews would come to Vancouver in the late 19th century and the Strathcona neighbourhood would become their home. It was an era during which new Jewish arrivals to North America largely found employment as merchants or doing various trades and Vancouver’s East End provided affordable and accessible housing for the working class.
“So many immigrant communities passed through there,” said Michael Schwartz, director of community engagement for the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
The Jewish history of Strathcona is no secret, and the museum has offered walking tours of the neighbourhood for decades, beginning with a self-guided one in 1986, which grew into the current monthly guided tour. But, while those familiar with Jewish Vancouver may already know about the community’s past, Schwartz is hoping that a new school curriculum and video series created by the JMABC will make that history significantly more accessible.
East End Stories, completed in June, includes six short online videos and a 43-page study guide intended for use with students in grades 7 through 9. In addition to making some of the information offered on the walking tour available to those who can’t attend in person, Schwartz said the project also unveiled new information about early Vancouver Jews.
“It gave us the opportunity to do more research, to dig deeper, to find stuff we hadn’t before,” he told the Independent.
The result is the six videos, covering the first arrivals, the early community institutions and history of philanthropy, as well as Vancouver’s second mayor – David Oppenheimer – entrepreneur and philanthropist Jack Diamond, and the Grossman family. (Among other things, Max Grossman started this community newspaper.) Each running just under five minutes and offering encyclopedia-style capsule histories, the videos feature narrators from the local community. Schwartz said the photographs used were drawn from 17 archives across the world, including ones in California, Jerusalem and Poland.
The study guide covers the material in each video but is structured slightly more broadly, wrapping the Oppenheimer and Diamond biographies into a single lesson focused on how Jews shaped Vancouver, for example.
Schwartz said the impetus for creating the educational resources came after a vice-principal in the city asked whether there was a way to bring the information from the walking tour to classrooms at his school, as the logistics of bringing dozens of students to the neighbourhood itself was too complex. The museum offered the school replicas of wall panels that appear along the tour, but the study guide goes further, and meets current provincial guidelines for social studies curricula. Schwartz said museum staff will attend the B.C. Teachers Federation Conference in October to publicize the project, which was made possible by a $50,000 grant from the Canada 150 grant program.
“That provided the anchor funding and we were able to build the rest of the budget with smaller grants,” Schwartz explained. “It had always been a wish list thing and, when this funding opportunity arose, I thought, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’”
The lesson plans are intended to be used in conjunction with other Vancouver ethnic histories and video series created by Orbit Films, the company that produced East End Stories. The other histories are Black Strathcona, Nikkei Stories, which focuses on Japanese Canadians in Vancouver and Steveston, and South Asian Stories.
“All these different communities … faced struggle, rose to the occasion and relied on each other to be able to do that,” said Schwartz.
Highlighting the Jewish community’s roots in Vancouver and the similarities that the community shares with other immigrant groups is one of the goals of East End Stories, Schwartz said, adding that it could help combat certain stereotypes about Canadian Jews.
“Jews are assumed to have always been successful and that’s just not true,” he said. As can be seen in East End Stories, “many of us are stable or in some cases successful today [but] that’s new history.”
The videos and study guide also highlight a period of Jewish history in the Lower Mainland that was different for the way in which Jews were geographically concentrated in a certain quarter of the city, a phenomenon that remained true even after Jews largely left Strathcona but which has changed in recent decades.
Schwartz said that, during the 1950s, the community left Strathcona and clustered around Oakridge and Kerrisdale. The Baby Boomer generation dispersed but would return to the community to visit parents and attend community functions. But, while community institutions like the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver remain along the Oak Street corridor, fewer Vancouver Jews are calling the area home.
“We’re in a moment of transition,” Schwartz said. “We’re seeing a decline in gathering places and institutions where people come together.”
While online resources like the East End Stories videos, which are available on the Jewish Museum’s website, jewishmuseum.ca, can help bring people together figuratively and in shared knowledge and history, Schwartz said that in-person activities like those enabled by the walking tours and the classroom guide remain essential.
“There’s Jewish history in all corners of the city and it’s important for us to be present in not particularly Jewish areas to share the history of our community and spark dialogue about diverse histories of the city,” Schwartz said.
Arno Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver. He has covered Canadian Jewish issues for JTA and the Times of Israel.