Situated on a hill within the traditional and ancestral land of the Lekwungen Peoples in what is now Victoria, British Columbia, the Jewish Cemetery of Victoria was established in 1860. It is the oldest non-Indigenous cemetery still in use in the province.
Europeans settled here in 1842 when the Hudson Bay Company transferred its western headquarters from Ft. Vancouver, Washington to Victoria. Gold was discovered on the mainland in 1858. This coincided with the time that the gold rush in California was petering out and thousands of prospectors were itching for the next gold strike. The summer of 1858 saw between 20,000 and 30,000 people flood into this area, Jews among them. For the most part, Jews came primarily as merchants.
In 1859, Jewish men gathered at Katy Gambitz’s dry goods store on Yates Street, founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society and created a committee to oversee the creation of a Jewish Cemetery. On October 1, 1859, the Weekly Victoria Gazette reported that 0.7 hectares of land was purchased from the Hudson Bay Company’s Chief Factor, Roderick Finlayson as a ‘suitable site’ for the cemetery.
In February 1860, the first Jewish cemetery in western Canada was created in Victoria. People gathered at the Royal Hotel on Wharf Street and made their way to Cedar Hill Road. Carriages entered the site through the main gate, pedestrians came through two smaller Gothic style gates. The Vice President began the ceremony by calling out in Hebrew “Open the Gates of Heaven.” Members of the Hebrew Benevolent Society then formed a double line and walked around the site three times, reciting Psalms.
The original gate was designed by Architect Edward Mallandaine, and featured alternating white and black wooden pickets. By 1863 it required the first of many repairs. A stone fence was erected in 1993.
Early history of the cemetery is sketchy as there were two naturally occurring grass fires which destroyed many of the wood markers and some of the cemetery records. Surviving documentation contained names and plot numbers but the orientation of row numbers was unknown.
Maintaining the cemetery through the early years was difficult as the economic climate of Victoria shifted and the Jewish population ebbed and flowed. As a result, for many years the cemetery suffered from neglect. Beginning in 1895 and for a few years, the Hebrew Ladies Society took responsibility for the cemetery. In 1899 under their direction, Jewish businessmen H. Hirschel Cohen and Sol Oppenheimer donated funds. In an attempt to beautify the cemetery, Auctioneer Joshua Davies contributed plants, and his nephew Samuel Schultz (journalist, composer, star pitcher and the first Jewish Judge in Canada) provided labour. However, upkeep of the cemetery was abandoned due to an economic collapse in Victoria in the early 1900’s.
By mid-century, the grounds were completely overgrown. Some monuments remained but most of the graves had been denoted by wooden markers; those which survived the fires were rotting and deteriorating, and lay strewn throughout the cemetery. Due to the level of neglect there was talk of abandoning the site and moving the cemetery to Royal Roads. Instead, Alice Mallek, then the only women in the Victoria Chamber of Commerce and the first women to be president of Congregation Emanu-el, set up a trust fund. With Sidney Levy and Morris Greene, Alice Mallek organized a Cemetery Committee. They arranged to have the cemetery cleaned, the graves remarked, the road improved, and new gates installed. Their work has continued today under the care of a number of Cemetery Directors and the active engagement of members of the Cemetery Committee of Congregation Emanu-El.
In 2000, Geoffrey Perkins was hired as a caretaker, and his partner Joy Wilkins began to help in as a volunteer in 2004. Geoffrey stopped working at the Jewish Cemetery not long after Joy’s death on July 29, 2019.
An irrigation system was installed in the cemetery in 2003 and updated in 2016 and again in 2021.
On December 30, 2011, vandals spray-painted graffiti on five gravestones. In response, the following Sunday over 600 people, both Jews and non-Jews, gathered at the cemetery for a “Vigil of Respect” conducted by Rabbi Harry Brechner.
Erin-Lee McGuire, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Victoria, taught “Heritage and Historical Archaeology” in 2015 and again in 2016. This class included field work at the Jewish Cemetery.
Through the use of modern technology, Prof McGuire and her students have been able to reveal inscriptions on the older gravestones which had been made illegible by wind, rain and time. Some of their work is featured online at Picturing Cemeteries.
Rocky outcrops of. bedrock and large boulders left by receding glaciers had been a longstanding problem for the Jewish Cemetery. This large spine of rocks accounted for a significant amount of space which could otherwise be used as grave sites. Lack of funding has been a chronic problem, but with a loan from the Jewish Cemetery Trust in July 2016, some of the bedrock was blasted and removed. Some of the resulting boulders that were removed were used to create a retaining wall now known as the Zachor Remembrance Wall.
For information about the Pioneer Jewish experience Click:
Early Jewish History of Victoria