Auction to help save Canada’s oldest synagogue

Items from celebrities such as Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood up for bid

Rabbi Harry Brechner and Jean Dragufhan

Works by famous local and nationally renowned artists will be on the auction block, along with many other items, as Canada’s oldest synagogue raises money for much-needed repairs.

Congregation Emanu-El, 1461 Blanshard St., is a designated National Heritage Site and, as it approaches 150 years old, is the oldest synagogue in Canada in continuous use.

There is a history of community involvement with the synagogue that stretches back to its beginnings. When it was built in 1863, people came together from throughout Victoria to help raise funds for the small community of Jewish residents who were committed to establishing the synagogue.

“There were more than 200 people who made contributions towards the synagogue,” board vice president Jean Dragushan said. “That’s quite impressive given that there were only about 35 members of the synagogue at that time. So it just shows you the level of community support.”

The congregation hopes to once again rally support from the wider community for its Nov. 22 auction to raise money to go towards repairs, namely for the roof. The building is showing its age and a large crack has formed in the centre of an arch toward the back of the synagogue.

The roof, which is the original, is shifting and the whole structure needs to be stabilized

“If we can’t do that, the building itself is in great danger,” Dragushan said. “It’s alarming if you look inside because the crack is getting so large, chunks of plaster are now falling off. We’re still OK, but I don’t know for how long.”

The synagogue reached out to celebrities both local and from afar, along with local businesses, for items to auction. They answered generously and the synagogue now has more than 100 items for its auction.

Among them are a number of works of art from some big names in the art world. One is a signed print donated by Leonard Cohen, which comes with a certificate of authenticity. The work is the first in a series of 50 prints by the legendary Jewish-Canadian songwriter, poet and artist.

“We wrote him and asked him and he responded,” Dragushan said.

Prints were also donated by local artists Robert Bateman and Phyllis Serota. Other celebrities who contributed items are Margaret Atwood, Marc Garneau and Morley Safer.

Also available are holiday packages to the Wickaninnish Inn and Pacific Sands Beach Resort in Tofino, tickets to events in Victoria, gift certificates for dinners in various restaurants, spa days, cooking classes and items from a variety of business.

“We got some wonderful responses,” Dragushan said. “There’s a whole range of items that will be up for auction so people can have something small, they can bid on something large.”

The goal is to raise $25,000 through the evening. In total the synagogue is trying to raise $900,000 to complete all needed repairs, including restoring stained glass windows, replacing the front porch and improving the seismic stability of the building.

Synagogue organizers are also planning events for 2013 to celebrate the 150th anniversary.

Tickets for the live auction are $50 and include hors d’oeuvres, care of The London Chef, and drinks. Legendary Victoria auctioneer Eric Charman will be leading the live auction.

Tickets are available online at or by mail at Congregation Emanu-El, 1461 Blanshard St., Victoria, V8W 2J3.

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