Monday, April 14, 2014

Check out the OJA's New Website!

The Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre has a new and improved website, accessible now at! This website includes several exciting new features, most notably a searchable online database of archival descriptions and an interactive map of Jewish neighbourhoods. Visitors to this site can now access over 25,000 entries describing the records in the holdings of the OJA, including textual records, photographs, videos, architectural drawings, objects, oral histories and more. The new website will also be the future site for the OJA's blog, so be sure to visit often for more exciting news.

This dynamic and engaging website is suitable for all levels of cultural exploration, from in-depth scholarly research to casual browsing. OJA Director Dara Solomon says, “One of the most important goals of this project was to make the incredible collections of the OJA accessible to everyone—our grandparents, our school-aged children, and of course, the scholars of Ontario’s Jewish history and heritage. This goal was kept in mind throughout the project’s development and is obvious in its design, easy-to-use navigation, and browseable content.” The website boasts a streamlined design and search functionality, allowing users to quickly and easily access the OJA’s diverse range of records documenting Jewish heritage in Ontario. Nearly 4,000 photographs and dozens of oral history and film clips are accessible through the site.

Curated content in the website’s themed section highlights historically significant people (artists, community leaders), organizations and topics, such as architect Benjamin Brown, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS), and anti-Semitism. This section tells the stories of the community’s history in accessible language and showcases archival material such as hand written letters, speeches, drawings, and photographs.

The Online Exhibitions section celebrates the OJA’s award-winning cultural displays from its 40-year history and provides even further access into the depths of the organization’s archival records. These exhibitions include Toronto’s First Synagogues and Ontario’s Small Jewish Communities. Plus, the groundbreaking Landmarks feature allows users to search for significant building sites on an interactive map of the province and to learn through text, photographs and oral history clips about Toronto’s Jewish built heritage. The website will premiere with the sites of Kensington Market, and other neighbourhoods and Jewish centres will be added over time. The design is mobile-friendly, meaning that visitors to the site can explore Jewish heritage from wherever they choose and on any device. Whether you are at the day school or the synagogue, the community centre or camp, or just walking down a street, the province’s Jewish history is at your fingertips.

The creation of the OJA’s new website was made possible through funding provided by the Government of Ontario. Additional funding was provided by a group of generous community supporters.

With the launch of this website, the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre becomes the central portal for Jewish heritage in Ontario, bringing the community together through meaningful dialogue about a shared past and providing scholars and academics from around the world with access to the rare textual and graphic material documenting this province’s rich Jewish history. OJA Director, “We are absolutely thrilled to make the richness of the OJA collection accessible through this innovative and engaging website. We hope to make the diversity of the Ontario Jewish experience relevant for a 21st century audience and to encourage visitors to the website to consider their own pasts and to contribute their voices to this ongoing story.”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Research at the OJA

The OJA answers approximately 400 research requests each year. Our researchers are as diverse as our holdings and include academics, genealogists, students, filmmakers, popular historians, veterans, professionals, and curiosity seekers. Some research requests are relatively quick and easy to address but some researchers have complicated information needs that require the use of multiple collections and a lengthy stay at the OJA. One such recent researcher was Thomas Blampied.
Photo by M. Blampied.
Courtesy of Thomas Blampied.

Thomas is currently a student at the University of York in the United Kingdom where he is pursuing a BA in History. He is also an author and photographer. In addition to Jewish history, he focuses primarily on 20th century world history. He also specializes in rail transportation, has published three books on Ontario railways and is currently writing a fourth. His railway photographs have been published on three continents. Thomas recently spent three weeks at the OJA researching the Toronto Jewish community. Of his experience at the OJA, Thomas writes:

Thanks to the records at the OJA, notably the United Jewish Welfare Fund fonds (UJWF), the Zionist Organization of Canada fonds (ZOC) and the papers of Morrie Latchman, I was able to complete the bulk of the research for my undergraduate dissertation. My research project, The Transformation of Jewish Identity in Toronto: 1948-1975, examines how events in Toronto and in Israel influenced fundraising and identity in Toronto's Jewish community.

This period saw important changes in Jewish identity. The creation of the State of Israel and its subsequent challenges (such as the Suez Crisis, 1967 and 1973 wars and increasing immigration) were very important issues for Jews in Toronto. In Toronto itself, the persistence of far-right activists, the increase in Christian missionaries and the introduction of multicultural policies affected the Jewish community and redefined Jewish identity.

Starting with the United Jewish Appeal in 1948, the fundraising allocations for local welfare causes and Israeli development were nearly equally divided. Over time, this division began to change and by the mid 1970s, the allocation was strongly weighted towards the survival and development of the State of Israel, reaching its most dramatic point in 1974, when over 80% of the donations were allocated to Israel. By charting this trend through the fundraising and allocation records held at the OJA, I was able to identify major changes in priorities (and likely in identity) based on changes in the amount of money raised and how it was allocated. This in turn helped to indicate which events triggered these changes. My work has found a definite shift towards Israel, but also a complicated balance between helping Israel and looking after the community in Toronto. My completed dissertation is due to be submitted in the Spring of 2014.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Labor Lyceum Heritage Plaquing Event

Last Wednesday evening, with a crowd of about 100 people, Heritage Toronto in partnership with UJA Federation’s Ontario Jewish Archives unveiled a new Heritage Toronto plaque for the Labor Lyceum, the epicentre of political activism for Toronto’s textile workers from the 1920s through the 1960s. J.B. Salsberg, a lifelong labour activist, wrote that “no single institution and no single building on Spadina – the main street of Jewish Toronto – was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew” than was the Labor Lyceum. 

The plaque will be installed at the southwest corner of Spadina and St. Andrew. Due to the rain, the event was held inside the beautiful “Minsker” synagogue. Remarks were made by OJA chair Eric Slavens who previously served on the board of Heritage Toronto where he initiated the Jewish plaquing initiative and raised the funds to make it possible.

Toronto city council member Adam Vaughan reminisced about his early days as a councilor when former city councilor Howard Moscoe drove him up Bathurst to see the current-day shuls and then took him down to the Market to show him where the community originated. MPP Mike Colle spoke about the significance of Jewish Heritage Month.

Guest speaker Harry Arthurs, former dean of Osgoode Law School, labour historian, and grandson of Henry Dworkin, founder of the Labor Lyceum, spoke eloquently about the role his grandfather, an enterprising businessman, played in the community. The Dworkin Travel agency helped bring hundreds of Jewish immigrants to Toronto from the looming dangers of Europe. Additionally, Dworkin along with his partner Sam Easser, encouraged garment union workers to purchase shares for the construction of the Labor Lyceum Association at five dollars each. In 1924, the Association purchased two houses at 344 and 246 Spadina Avenue. Five years later, they added meeting rooms. In addition to the labour activity, the seasonal nature of the textile industry meant that workers could socialize and strategize at the Labor Lyceum during slow work periods.

The plaque commemoration was followed by the Ontario Jewish Archives’ Sense of Spadina tour that focused on the role Jews played in the garment district and union movement. Participants enjoyed seeing the sites of the former Jewish neighbourhood and learning about Toronto Jewish life in the Kensington Market area. Sign up for an upcoming public tour:

Attendees in front of the Anshei Minsk Synagogue, May 22, 2013.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Toronto’s First Israel Parade Through the Lens of Dr. John Ackerman

Ackerman family, ca. 1937.
Photo courtesy David Ackerman.
The OJA recently acquired hundreds of photographs and films taken by Dr. John Ackerman (1921-2008). Born in Toronto to Jacob and Mindel Ackerman, Dr. Ackerman took up photography as a hobby in his teens. In 1939, he won a photo contest during the visit of King George VI by capturing a winning shot of the royal. With the prize money he purchased a better camera and darkroom supplies. Although he later became a dentist, he remained passionate about photography throughout his life and brought his camera with him, it seems, everywhere he went. For over 60 years he photographed family and community events, his neighborhood near Dundas and Elizabeth Street, trips to popular summer destinations such as Crystal Beach and Belle Ewart, his parent’s grocery store business, and his time in the Canadian military.

Ackerman, ca. 1944.
OJA, accession #2012-9/7.
Included among these remarkable photographs are rare images of Toronto’s first Israel parade, which took place on Sunday May 16, 1948 – two days after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s Independence. The parade, sponsored by the United Zionist Council of Toronto, was both a celebration of Israel’s formation and a demonstration asking Canada to recognize the Jewish state and help it become a member of the United Nations. Dr. Ackerman was among the estimated 20,000 people who took part in this historic celebration, which moved along College Street to Maple Leaf Gardens where it culminated in a massive rally. The photos Dr. Ackerman took on this day are not only remarkable for their professional quality and composition, but also because the range of photographs he took (over 25 images) capture various facets of the day.

OJA, accession #2013-4/6.
 OJA, accession #2013-4/6.
Looking through the images one is struck by the parade’s massive scale. Throngs of people can be seen not only taking part in the parade, but also lining the streets and watching from the windows of nearby buildings. Also seen is the large range of Jewish organizations that took part, including B’nai Brith, United Jewish Peoples Order, the Jewish Folk School, and a group of veterans who fought in Palestine during the First World War.

The photos capture the sense of excitement and pride felt by the community after its 2,000 year long struggle for a Jewish state: Israeli flags are seen displayed in the windows of Jewish owned shops, a man enthusiastically waves the newspaper announcement towards Dr. Ackerman’s camera, a marching band performs for onlookers, a truck used by S. Mirsky for his moving business is seen outfitted for the occasion with loud speakers and signs of jubilee, and both young and old community members can be spotted celebrating together. Taken together, these images bring to life the parade’s sights, sounds, and general atmosphere of celebration. This group of photos is a major acquisition for the Ontario Jewish Archives, as it documents the local response to an event of global significance.

OJA, accession #2013-4/6.
Today, Toronto’s Jewish community continues to rally together in support of Israel in UJA Federation’s annual Walk With Israel. The Walk, which takes place this year on May 26th, raises funds to sustain UJA’s social welfare and educational programs in the state and provide aid to vulnerable regions. The photos Dr. Ackerman captured 65 years ago, serve as a reminder of the community’s continuing solidarity with Israel. Register here for this year’s walk:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Remembering Syd Wise at the Ontario Jewish Archives

For fifteen years, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Ontario Jewish Archives had the honour of working with a committed and charming volunteer named Dr. Syd Wise who passed away peacefully at North York General on January 31st at age 97. Dr. Wise was a pediatrician in Toronto for over six decades, taking care of thousands of children over multiple generations. He set up his practice in the late 1940s after returning to Toronto from serving in the U.S military during the Second World War. Regularly bumping into his grown up former patients, he would say, “That’s one of my babies.”

OJA Archivist George Wharton who manages the volunteers recalls, “I’ll always remember Syd and his accomplishments while volunteering at the OJA for two reasons. Of course his phenomenal memories of the faces and lives of three generations of the Toronto Jewish community made him our finest and most treasured single font of information about Toronto Jewry. But just as important were his constantly-displayed charm, wit, modesty and caring concern. It was a privilege to have worked with him.”

Archivist Donna Bernardo-Ceriz describes the joy of working with Syd, “He had the most incredible memory. He was able to identify people in photos that were more than 50 years old. To me, this was another example of how Syd truly cared for the people he met during his life. He was genuinely interested in your story and would remember you years later.” Ellen Scheinberg, the OJA’s former director echoes that sentiment, “…His expertise was indispensable and his enthusiasm and commitment to the volunteer group and Archives was greatly appreciated... He was a special individual who will be dearly missed.”

Syd Wise (left) and his siblings in front of their father Anshel Wise's cigar store and "steamship office"
100 Dundas Street West, 1922. OJA, #2010-5/2.

Unfortunately, I only had the opportunity to know Syd for a short period after joining the OJA last May as the new director. However, I have since learned a great deal about him—and through his story—about Jewish life in Toronto. Over the years, Syd donated many personal records related to the family. There are photos of Syd as a young boy at Camp Yungvelt and photos of Mimi cooking cabbage rolls for the Hadassah Bazaar. Syd also donated records related to his father, Anshel Wise’s business, a cigar store and steamship agency, which helped bring thousands of immigrants to Canada in the 1920s.

Though Syd will be missed dearly by all of us, his legacy will live on at the Ontario Jewish Archives.

—Dara Solomon
Director, Ontario Jewish Archives

Friday, December 7, 2012

Festival of Lights

The OJA recently put a call out to the community for your Chanukah photos for the debut of an exciting music video created by the OJA and the critically acclaimed children’s band Oozakazoo. The video is now online, just in time for this year’s eight-day Festival of Lights on December 9, 2012.

This video celebrates the centuries-old tradition of lighting the Chanukah candles to commemorate the act of fighting for what you believe in, the triumph of the Chanukah story.


For a complete list of photos and videos that appear in the Festival of Lights music video, click here.

Represented in this video are families, youth groups, synagogues, schools, and other Jewish organizations celebrating the holiday of Chanukah. Woven within this holiday story are photographs that document the community’s ongoing commitment to building a brighter future which, over the years, has included advocating for the freedom of Soviet Jewry, supporting immigrants, standing up for Israel, helping those in need, and improving the lives of the most vulnerable in our community. All of these stories are found in the Ontario Jewish Archives.

The photos submitted will be added to the Archives’ permanent holdings, as part of the chronicle of Jewish life in our province. To learn how to donate additional material to the OJA, please visit our website.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Conflict and Commemoration at the OJA

This year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Commemorative events are set to take place across the country this summer and while the Ontario Jewish Archives does not hold any material relevant to this war, conflict as a broader theme is ever-present within a number of fascinating archival collections. Material documenting the Jewish community’s involvement in a number of civil and human rights struggles has been consistently sought after by researchers at the OJA. As a result, we have focused on ensuring greater access to those collections that provide a better understanding of the many conflicts confronted by the Jewish community of Ontario during the 20th Century.

The records speak to a century-long story of struggle: the struggle of immigration to a new land; of integration into larger established communities; of caring for the vulnerable poor, sick and aged; against hatred and discrimination; for equitable treatment and opportunities; and for rights and freedoms for those in Canada and for those living in foreign lands. These collections have allowed the OJA the opportunity to help commemorate those very sacrifices and achievements that have helped shape Ontario’s Jewish community.

Among the records are those documenting the creation and development of the local Jewish fundraising organization and our parent body, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These help to illustrate the united philanthropic activities of the Jewish community beginning in the second decade of the 20th Century and document the care for the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, the funding of Jewish education, the provision of aid during times of strife, and the erection of Jewish community centres. The records also tell us about the leaders, donors, benefactors and dissenters, while exploring past harmonies and conflicts within the community. Much of the early development of the UJA Federation was in response to various world conflicts and the need to provide opportunities and infrastructure for those who fled these conflicts to create a new start in Canada.

United Jewish Appeal campaign booklet, 1947.
OJA, accession 2008-6/6.

The records of the Canadian Jewish Congress' Community Relations Committee document efforts to fight anti-Semitism and civil inequalities in Ontario. The blanket theme of anti-Semitism is one of the most commonly researched topics at the OJA and this series of records is the best source of information on the community's efforts to combat it, both pre- and post-Second World War. Beginning in 1938, this committee was mandated with investigating incidents in the community, advocating on behalf of equitable treatment, and lobbying for improvements to better protect citizens from racial and other prejudices. These records are commonly used to examine past efforts of Jewish organizations, community leaders, lawyers and politicians to combat racism, prejudice and endemic inequalities and to develop a more open Canadian society.

No Jews Wanted sign, Jackson's Point, Ontario, 1938.
OJA, photo #1181.

Another CJC Committee, the Committee for Soviet Jewry document the efforts of Toronto and Canada’s Jewish communities to ameliorate the effects of Russia’s anti-Semitic policies and activities during the 1970s and 1980s. They bring to light the massive efforts of Canada's Jewish communities to assist their brethren trapped in the USSR during these two decades when they were cruelly persecuted by the Soviet government. Historians continue to utilize these records, uncovering remarkable stories of unequalled Jewish activism, which effectively embarrassed the Soviet government into the release of several high-profile Russian Jewish dissenters.

Demonstrators along  Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin's motorcade route,
Toronto, Oct. 1971. OJA, fonds 17, series 3-5, file 7, item 3.

Finally, there are the records documenting the efforts of Jewish Canadians to support Canada’s war efforts during the 20th Century. A number of recent outreach initiatives with Jewish veterans groups in Toronto have resulted in a stark increase to our military holdings. Exhibits and commemorative events have enabled us to build partnerships with the veterans groups and thus acquire new material related to their wartime experiences. Through the Historica Dominion Institute’s Memory Project, the OJA was also able reach out to Jewish veterans in an effort to record a number of those experiences for posterity.

David Green prepares for his interview at the Lipa Green Centre,
May 13, 2010. Photo by Michael Rajzman.

The processing of records documenting the extent of the involvement of Canada's Jews in 20th Century conflicts has been critical in unearthing the documentary evidence to support further research and future events meant to celebrate and remember those efforts. The records also continue to benefit researchers of all categories, from students to community members, to historians, and to our major communal organizations.

Conflict, we are reminded, has a way of uniting a community, of creating a sense of belonging against a common adversary. To study a community’s struggles and sacrifices is also to study their communal beliefs, their will, and their power or lack of power within a society. Much can be learned by examining the issues that a community deems important enough to fight over and perhaps this is why these particular records have garnered so much interest from researchers.

(Adapted from a recent presentation given by Donna Bernardo-Ceriz at the Archives Association of Ontario annual conference in Toronto, June 16, 2012)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A New Director Joins the OJA

I am absolutely delighted to join the Ontario Jewish Archives as Director and to introduce myself to both the Jewish communities of Ontario and to the national and international networks of archives. I look forward to guiding this extraordinary organization into the next chapter of its distinguished history. After living away from Toronto for close to thirteen years, I am thrilled to return to a vibrant cosmopolitan city alive with thriving cultural institutions of all shapes and sizes, neighbourhoods with distinctive character, and delicious restaurants!

Throughout my career, I have been committed to engaging audiences with stories that present multiple perspectives on Jewish culture, tradition, and history. Working with artists, scholars, students, archivists, and collectors, I create experiences that make Jewish values and ideas relevant and accessible to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. I look forward to bringing these skills to the OJA, an institution that is bursting with stories waiting to be told. Over my first few weeks here, I have had the pleasure (with the support of my crackerjack team of archivists—Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, Melissa Caza, and George Wharton) of discovering some of these stories. Not only have I learned so much about the foundation of the Jewish community but also about the building of the City of Toronto, the province of Ontario, and even about my own family. The OJA is rich in legends, mysteries, tales, and a few bubbe-meise and I look forward to sharing them with you.

I plan to start connecting audiences with a selection from our archives right away through a newly launched Facebook page: I invite you to join me as I explore the Archives. I will regularly post photos, video, and other records along with comments and questions so you too can engage with the material and learn something new. And, I want to create a dialogue so please add your own photos and comments. And, remember, we do want to collect these stories in the Archives, not just online. If you are interested in donating materials, please contact us:

I look forward to creating exhibitions on all of the UJA’s campuses and in other venues that further explore the collection and engage visitors in unexpected and surprising ways. I plan to invite visual artists and writers to create new works of art inspired by items in the Archives.

Another one of my goals is to strengthen the collection and fill in the existing gaps. We definitely need more documentation from the recent past, 1970s to the present and I want to make sure that the Archives represents both affiliated and unaffiliated members of the community. I plan to reach out to the Day Schools, the Sephardic community, the various summer camps, the gay and lesbian community, the synagogues, the creative community, and the youth and student organizations that are all so central to the Jewish experience in Ontario. These partnerships with the OJA are so important in preserving the community’s stories but also in making them more accessible to a wide range of users.

This is the moment to transform the OJA into a dynamic resource that reflects both the past and the present and that fully embraces the unlimited potential of today’s technology. I hope you will join us at the OJA to learn more about the past and the present. Our stories are your stories!

Dara Solomon
Director, Ontario Jewish Archives