Halifax was founded in 1749 for strategic reasons by the British Government. By the spring of 1750, there were already Jewish people living in Halifax. By 1752, there were approximately thirty Jews in Halifax. Some Jews had come from the colonies to the south, whereas others had come from Europe. Many years passed before there was a settled, stable Jewish community in Halifax due to a slowing of immigration, assimilation and an economic depression which forced some families to emigrate to other parts of Canada.
Shortly after Canadian Confederation in 1867, Jews came to Halifax and formed the nucleus of a permanent Jewish community. During the last fifteen years of the 19th Century, there were many Jewish men of business in Halifax. These residents realized the need for an organized Jewish community, with its own House of Worship and the other facilities necessary to maintain a Jewish home and community. In September of 1890, with only eighteen Jews, the Baron de Hirsch Hebrew Benevolent Society was formed. This earliest Congregation conducted services in rented halls and homes.
The name was chosen to honour the great Jewish philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, of Munich. In 1895, by Private Member’s Bill in the Nova Scotia Legislature, Chapter 157, the Charter for the Baron de Hirsch Hebrew Benevolent Society was obtained. Thus, the first Jewish Orthodox Congregation east of Montreal was formally incorporated. In 1894, the Congregation purchased a church on the corner of Starr and Hurd Streets, which was repaired and repainted at a cost of $1,000. The building was dedicated on February 19th, 1895 and one of the very first functions held in the new Synagogue immediately following the dedication was a wedding ceremony.
Until 1914, this Synagogue at 19 Starr Street was the only house of worship for the Jewish community in the area. The earliest recollection of Talmud Torah Classes dates back to approximately 1905.
A major turning point in the history of Halifax and the Jewish Community was occasioned by the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917, when the munitions ship Mount Blanc collided with the freighter Imo at the narrows of Halifax Harbour. Massive loss of life, personal injuries and property damage resulted as never seen before nor again in this region. Although the Starr Street Shul was damaged beyond repair, the Sefer Torahs were spared and were removed and used for the next few years in various halls and rented premises for the interim.
After the explosion, the Jewish community immediately started looking into building another Synagogue. On July 14, 1920, the cornerstone was laid for the Robie Street Shul. The first wedding was held there a mere two years later.
By mid-century, faced with a growing membership, the Board of Governors purchased land at the corner of Oxford Street and Coburg Road, our present location, from members of the Congregation. On April 12, 1956 a ground breaking ceremony took place and the Beth Israel Synagogue building was finished in time for High Holy Day Services on September 14, 1957.
Our current building houses a Daily Chapel, a Sanctuary with seating for 600, a large social hall, kosher kitchen, a Talmud Torah, a Sisterhood Gift Shop and Mikvah. Our cemetery, located at the corner of Connaught Avenue and Windsor Street is the final resting place for 530 members as well as 10 victims of the Titanic disaster. We also have an Eruv that encompasses much of the Halifax Peninsula.
The Baron de Hirsch Hebrew Benevolent Society commemorated its 100th Anniversary in 1990, during a year long celebration, Simcha 100. As a centennial project, the Synagogue commissioned two sets of large stained glass windows; the south window depicts Jewish holidays and ceremonies and the north window depicts events in Jewish History.
The Beth Israel Synagogue currently has a vibrant membership of approximately 180 families, with the only daily Minyan east of Montreal, as well as regular classes and services for a growing Community.