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How southwest Calgary became a Jewish hub

This is the Little Synagogue at Heritage Park arriving at its new home in 2008. The structure was formerly called the Montefiore Institute, a synagogue built in 1916 in the Montefiore settlement of southeastern Alberta. Pictured are members of the Little Synagogue on the Prairie Society. (Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta - image credit)

Southwest Calgary — with communities like Woodbine, Woodlands and Cedarbrae — is home to roughly 6,000 Jewish people. That's about two-thirds of the citywide population of Jewish people.

But there's a lot more to the Jewish presence than people, a Calgary historian says.

"The Jewish community goes back in Calgary to 1889," Harry Sanders told the Calgary Eyeopener in a Wednesday interview.

"In fact, there were Jews building the railway from Medicine Hat to Calgary in 1883, and there was a Jewish shop operating out of a tent selling goods to the railway workers as the railhead moved. So the community is that old, but it was in the central city as most things were. So it's just part of the broader suburban development. The big developers were building new neighbourhoods in the southwest."

Ron Switzer/Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta
Ron Switzer/Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta

Sanders is Jewish and a board member of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta.

He says the high concentration of Jewish people in the southwest quadrant makes sense because there's infrastructure there.

"Most of the Jewish institutions, most of Jewish organized life and institutional life is in this constituency," Sanders said, referring to the Calgary-Glenmore provincial riding.

"Most of the young people are here. The Calgary Jewish Community Centre, or Paperny Family JCC, opened in 1979 in Pump Hill. I remember when they built Glenmore Landing. The Safeway there has the biggest kosher section I have ever seen in my life."

Ron Switzer/Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta
Ron Switzer/Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta

Two Jewish schools are in the riding along with multiple congregations, he added.

"There are three synagogue buildings and three synagogue congregations, but they don't match up. One congregation doesn't have a building, they meet in the Jewish centre, and one of the synagogue buildings doesn't have a congregation. It's the old one from southeastern Alberta that was moved into Heritage Park back in 2008, so it's the little synagogue in Heritage Park, used for special occasions."

And Sanders has a connection to one of those special occasions.

"My son had the second bar mitzvah in that little [Heritage Park] synagogue in all of Calgary. That was a particularly special memory."

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

He says the large presence of Jewish people in southwest Calgary even has a comedic side.

"When our kids went to the Jewish Academy, we lived in Marda Loop, so the big commute for us is across the Glenmore Causeway. If ever there was an accident there, the kids were marked late," Sanders said.

"But 14th Street, which takes most of the Jews from where they live in Woodbine, Woodlands, Cedarbrae, north along 14th Street to the Jewish school, if there was ever an accident or problem along 14th Street, well they would hold attendance, because that's a Jewish street."

With May being the relatively new Canadian Jewish Heritage Month, Sanders says now could be a great opportunity to inform.

"It's an opportunity to tell Calgarians that the city is more diverse than they think," he said.

"It's the sixth largest Jewish community in Canada. It's an opportunity to step forward and tell our story and say who we are."