Vancouver — from frontier to cosmopolitan center

During the 2010 Winter Olympics, British Columbia’s vibrant city of Vancouver captivated the attention of television viewers worldwide because of its attractive cityscapes and thrilling downhill skiing in Whistler, a picturesque mountain resort just two hours’ drive north.

Situated between the Pacific Ocean and snow-capped mountains, Vancouver is celebrated for its cultural and architectural diversity. Eye-catching structures include the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library on West Georgia Street, an impressive building modeled on Rome’s Colosseum and designed by Israeli Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.

Vancouver’s many museums — especially the Museum of Anthropology and Vancouver Art Gallery — and its Symphony Orchestra are also world renowned.

Vancouver was not always so cosmopolitan.

Once a frontier town on the outskirts of the more populated eastern cities of North America, Vancouver’s development was fuelled by substantial immigration and investment, making Vancouver the largest city in the province of British Columbia.

In all of Canada, only Toronto and Montreal are larger than Vancouver, and the same goes for their Jewish populations.

The Jewish community of Vancouver swelled after World War II, with migrants arriving from colder parts of Canada, the United States and Europe. The city’s population growth paralleled the city’s evolution from a small hick town to the major metropolis it is today.

With about 25,000 Jews, Vancouver’s community is modest compared to those of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, yet it supports a diverse array of synagogues, Jewish day schools, a Jewish Community Center, several delis and one brand-new upscale kosher restaurant — the Maple Grill — that has already become a hot spot for locals and tourists, both Jewish and not.

Even before the war, Jewish influence proved significant to Vancouver’s growth.

Incorporated in 1886, Vancouver’s second mayor was David Oppenheimer, a Jewish immigrant from Germany known as the “father of Vancouver” because his period in power — from 1888 through 1891 — was arguably the most productive in the city’s history.

Oppenheimer’s leadership helped shape Vancouver’s general character. He organized the city’s water supply, spearheaded the paving of streets and sidewalks, and initiated the installation of streetcars and the construction of the city’s first bridges. He also successfully lobbied for a city hospital and more parks.

Because the Oppenheimer family had achieved considerable wealth in many business ventures during and after the Gold Rush, David, a generous philanthropist, took no pay for his mayoral duties. He even donated personal landholdings for the establishment of city parks and schools, and offered land for the city’s first synagogue.

Though there were a couple of temporary congregations established in the late 19th century, a synagogue building would not appear in Vancouver until 1911.

Before then, the closest synagogue was Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El on Vancouver Island. Built in 1863 on Blanshard Street, it remains a national heritage site, the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in Canada and along the West Coast of North America. Although Victoria was the provincial capital, Vancouver would ultimately attract the greatest share of settlers, including British Columbia’s growing Jewish population.

During Oppenheimer’s first term in office, in 1888, the thousand-acre Stanley Park was officially opened. Among North America’s largest urban parks, it remains visually spectacular and immensely popular. A rustic area adjacent to an urban downtown core, the park attracts hundreds of thousands each year to its many recreational areas, trails, restaurants and natural old-growth forest.

Although the Stanley Park Zoo was phased out in the 1990s (a concession to local voters), the Vancouver Aquarium — now Canada’s largest — is a major highlight of the park.

Another highlight of the city is its 13.7-mile seawall, 5.5 miles of which border Stanley Park. All year round, Vancouver’s moderate climate attracts masses of walkers, cyclists and inline skaters to the seawall.

In homage to the influence of Vancouver’s Jewish mayor, a prominent bronze monument in memory of David Oppenheimer stands in Stanley Park near the entrance at Beach Street.

The center of Vancouver’s Jewish community was originally next to Chinatown, where Congregation B’nai Yehudah, the city’s first synagogue, was constructed in 1911 at the corner of East Pender and Heatley streets in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighborhood. The Orthodox shul, renamed Schara Tzedeck Synagogue in 1917, was replaced in 1921 with a new and larger building.

Despite the Jewish community’s fondness for Chinese food, Vancouver’s Jewish life soon shifted west along Oak Street, where new neighborhoods, especially Oakridge, were on the rise. Among other sites of importance to the Jewish community, synagogues quickly followed, making Oak Street a case study in contemporary Jewish sociology.

A shul representing nearly every contemporary Jewish denomination can be found there. From north to south, Oak is dotted with such large and impressive buildings as Congregation Schara Tzedeck (Orthodox) at 19th Avenue (having relocated from Strathcona to its current structure in 1948), Congregation Beth Israel (Conservative) at 28th Avenue, the Lubavitch Centre (Chasidic) at 41st Avenue and Temple Sholom (Reform) at 55th Avenue. Each was constructed in this same order between the 1940s and 1980s. Just a couple of blocks east of Oak, at Heather and 16th, is Congregation Beth Hamidrash, the only Sephardic Orthodox synagogue west of Toronto. Jewish secular life, stressing the study of Yiddish and Jewish cultural traditions, is also represented in Oakridge by the Peretz Centre on Ash Street.

By the 1990s, the city’s rising population and increased diversity led to the opening of new synagogues. Beside Vancouver’s largest and well-established Oak Street shuls, Congregation Or Shalom (Renewal) brought the return of an official Jewish presence to the east side of town, establishing its synagogue on Fraser Street at 10th Avenue. The Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel (Traditional) opened its doors on West Broadway. The Kollel is well known for its weekly Shabbat-eve Carlebach-style services, which are followed by dinners that attract large crowds of locals and visitors.

Since the 1970s, in response to skyrocketing Vancouver real estate prices, Jews began to spread beyond the shtetl of Oak Street and into the suburbs. As a result, numerous shuls sprang up in the southern, northern and eastern parts of greater Vancouver.

The largest include Beth Tikvah (Conservative), Eitz Chaim Congregation and Young Israel (both Orthodox) in Richmond, Congregation Har-El (Conservative) in West Vancouver and Congregation Sha’arai Mizrah (Reform) in Coquitlam.

Chabad Houses can also be found throughout Vancouver, from suburban White Rock/South Surrey and Richmond, to downtown Vancouver — which, as the downtown’s sole Jewish house of worship, became the unofficial “Jewish Pavilion” during the Olympic Games.

While suburban Jews represent a substantial segment of the local Jewish community, Vancouver remains the focal point of Jewish life throughout the metropolitan area. At the crossroads of 41st and Oak is the city’s large Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, where Nava’s, a kosher dairy cafe, serves a dedicated clientele.

Other kosher delis and restaurants include Omnitzky’s at nearby Cambie and 42nd, Sabra’s Glatt Kosher Restaurant and Bakery on Oak and 23rd, Garden City Bakery in Richmond and Mount Royal Bagel Factory in North Vancouver. Non-kosher Jewish delis are also prevalent, none more popular than Kaplan’s Star Deli, which, for decades, has been a popular local meeting spot at Oak and 42nd.

The newest Jewish culinary contribution to Vancouver is the Maple Grill, located on the ground floor of Broadway’s Kollel building. Its upscale gourmet menu attracts as many patrons representing diverse ethnicities and religions as those who come to enjoy its exotic kosher menu, offering a non-deli selection of eclectic dishes unlike any other kosher establishment in town.

Despite its dazzling modernity, Vancouver has not ignored tradition. Surrounding a very large area of town, comprising the city’s synagogues, delis and restaurants, is a virtually invisible eruv — marking a traditional enclosure in which Torah-observant Jews can carry items without violating laws of Shabbat. Vancouver’s only mikvah is located at Congregation Schara Tzedeck.

Evolving from a village at the start of Mayor Oppenheimer’s tenure into the world-class city it is today, there is much to see and do in Vancouver. But for those who want to explore, Vancouver also serves as a gateway to other popular destinations such as Whistler, Vancouver Island and cruises to Alaska. Because one visit to the city will inspire many more, Jewish tourists can rest assured that there is just as much to see and do within Vancouver’s vibrant Jewish community as there is in the rest of Vancouver. Its restaurants, sights and sounds are certain to please even the most discerning international traveler.

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

Tel Aviv Emerges From Capital’s Shadow

Why aren’t you living in Jerusalem?”

I used to date a guy from Tel Aviv, and whenever we’d spend the weekends in my city, the capital of Israel, he’d get this question thrown at him every place we went.

“Are you a student?” people would ask, bemused. My Anglo immigrant friends could not understand why anyone would move to Israel and choose to live in Tel Aviv instead of the capital.

So many American Jews — from the ones that live in Israel to those who visit occasionally — love Jerusalem but know nothing about Tel Aviv, which is a sister city to Los Angeles.

“It’s just like New York, and if I want New York I’ll stay home,” they say, ignorantly.

Tel Aviv is one of the hippest cities in the world. Unfortunately, probably the only people who know this happen to live there. Tel Avivians are a breed unto themselves: cosmopolitan, fashionable, absurdist and cynical, these hipsters are so phat they make cool seem outdated. They are a new category of Israeli stereotype, different from the ones we are with: the kibbutznik, the Chasid, the settler, the soldier, etc.

Israel has always been somewhat of a stereotype or ideal to those who don’t live there. And Jerusalem — its capital status not always recognized by the rest of the world — is the epitome of that ideal. With its religious icons like the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and its sparkling white architecture of Jerusalem stone, in history, appearance and political importance it has outshined for years its sister city of Tel Aviv.

But now Tel Aviv’s second-tier status may change, as UNESCO — The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — will inaugurate Tel Aviv as a World Heritage Site on June 6, 2004, for its treasure of Bauhaus architecture.

Tel Aviv includes 4,000 buildings representative of the modern movement — a synthesis of architectural styles popular in Europe during the early 20th century, heavily influenced by the Bauhaus School of Art and Design. These buildings, built between 1931-1948, were designed by immigrant architects trained in Europe, who adapted the modern style to suit Tel Aviv’s culture and climate.

Bauhaus, which is also called International Style, is typified in Tel Aviv by right angles, flat roofs, stilt columns, balconies and asymmetry. Tel Aviv, which was established as a suburban alternative to Jaffa in 1909, with Jaffa becoming part in 1949, adapted Bauhaus because of the emphasis on practicality over style, and its stress on the social aspects, like housing for workers. Bauhaus was also quicker and cheaper to build; in addition, 17 Bauhaus architects lived in Tel Aviv. The buildings were painted white, giving Tel Aviv the nickname “The White City.”

The city was constructed based on an urban plan by Sir Patrick Geddes. Today, though, many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair. With its new designation as a World Heritage site, some might be restored. As part of the World Heritage Convention treaty adopted by UNESCO in 1972, the organization works to protect and preserve cultural and natural sites around the world considered of outstanding value to humanity.

“In these challenging times, receiving this extraordinary honor from UNESCO not only helps preserve our rich architectural heritage, but also reaffirms Tel Aviv’s place on the map as a choice cultural destination,” said Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv, prior to the June 6-8 celebration, which will include photography and urban planning exhibits, an architectural conference, a folk-song singalong, a party at the Tel Aviv Port and a boat race from Jaffa to Herzliya.

Tel Aviv is also the business capital of Israel. With more than 50 percent of Israel’s jobs in banking and finance, the city provides an overall source of employment for 14 percent of Israel’s workforce. Tel Aviv-Yafo is home to 400,000 residents, spread over an area of 50 square kilometers. That’s what gives the city its hustle — and at times pretentiousness: we are important people, with important ad campaigns/diamond deals/stock trades/TV shows to get done.

But Tel Aviv is really not like New York. In contrast to the more “uptight” Jerusalemites — as Tel Avivians call the politically charged city residents — Tel Aviv really has the most laid back people in the world.

It’s easy to see this combination of business and pleasure, for example, at the strip of hotels on Hayarkon Street. The Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel & Towers, named the best business hotel in Tel Aviv by Travel & Leisure, September 2002 edition, overlooks the sparkling Mediterranean and the lively promenade, not too far from Old Jaffa.

Just across the street from the Sheraton, modestly hidden behind a small storefront, is Israel’s top hairdresser, Shai Greenberg, who has won awards around the world for his innovation. But his real claim to fame is in North Tel Aviv, at Spa2b, one of the country’s first “day spas.” While Israel has long had spas at the Dead Sea, and two new ones up north, Spa2b represents the latest trend in Israeli health/wealth/fitness, the one-stop-shop day spa.

“We try to be first, the best in everything,” says Sharon Epstein, chair and marketing director of the spa, which offers hair, nail, waxing, massage and beauty treatments, a unique concept for the Israeli market.

Some of the latest and unique treatments include a Euyurveda Water treatment: After you change and robe yourself up in plush terry and slippers, you enter a small, softly lit room and lay on a hot marble slab. A masseuse scrubs you down with hot water and soap for five minutes. Then you step into a small rectangular mikvah-like station and submerge in hot water as a torrential outpouring covers your head, like a waterfall. The final five-minute station is a shower with dozens of hot-spraying jets. The procedures are designed to open pores, for whatever your main treatment is. Package prices run the gamut from about $80 to $400.

Spas, in a way, are about creating a market for Israelis, who only in the past few decades have acquired wealth and the habits of the wealthy. While there are now a number of day spas in Tel Aviv, it’s less about competition, Epstein says, than introducing to Israel the concept of pampering yourself.

“We’re trying to teach clients to understand that [to get treated] on a regular basis that changes everything,” Epstein said.

In these trying times, with the second intifada coming up to its fourth year, even the generally business-oriented, politically removed Tel Avivians feel terror’s toll.

“I’ll tell you something: during the hardest times of the pigua,” Epstein says, using the Hebrew word for terror attack, “we were in our peak. There’s something contrary — the worse things are, the more they’ll run away to a spa.”

For more information contact on Spa2b, visit or call 011-972-3-644.0090. For more information on Tel Aviv
celebrations, visit For information on
booking a Bauhaus tour, contact either the Association for Tourism in Tel
Aviv-Jaffa 011-972-3516-6188, or the Bauhaus Center, 011-972- 3-522-0249. For
more information on the Sheraton Tel Aviv visit .