CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island — Can a tiny Jewish community of no more than 50, in a Canadian province of 180,000, find happiness and Judaism during the High Holy Days? If you're one of the Jews of Prince Edward Island, the answer is a definite yes.
One of Canada's prettiest, smallest and poorest provinces, PEI is really something to see. Stunning beaches dot the landscape, some encircled by the iron-rich red clay cliffs that give the island its distinctive look. Natural habitats abound. There are 20 golf courses serving residents and tourists, including many Americans who flock to this part of Eastern Canada during the summer months.
"Anne of Green Gables" creator Lucy Maud Montgomery hailed from PEI — and Anne resonates everywhere, particularly in the picturesque Green Gables House in the Cavendish region.
And, yes, there are Jews here, too. No synagogue, mind you — the only Canadian province not to have at least one. The closest one is found in Moncton, New Brunswick, some two hours away by car. Yet the island Jews make do as best they can.
One veteran community member, Joe Naylor, even manages to keep kosher. Quite a feat, seemingly, but local stores like the Sobey's grocery chain have been stocking the required kosher foods at Passover. Naylor and his wife, Jane, bring a freezer-full of kosher meat in from Montreal once a year. A regional kosher farmer's cheese is not marked as such, but a rabbi in Halifax, Nova Scotia, keeps a vigilant eye on its production.
Naylor was born in Toronto and educated in Munich, Germany. He is a source of inspiration, education and leadership for the Jewish islanders. He'll tell you how there was a branch here of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews in the latter part of the 19th century — but no Jews to try to convert.
The first recorded Jewish settler arrived at the turn of the 20th century and, Naylor reveals, a newspaper reported that the Jews of Charlottetown, the capital, celebrated Passover in 1908. That's about the time the Block brothers, Louis, Israel and Abie, arrived from Latvia, sired three families and became prominent entrepreneurs. Sarah, the widow of Abie's son Maurice, still resides on the island.
In 1998, when Naylor was presented with the Atlantic Jewish Council's community service award, he noted in his acceptance speech that "Jews don't come to Prince Edward Island for 'Yiddishkeit.' "
"(But) we have learned a lot living on PEI, and I thought I might pass on a bit of those lessons to you, in case you come from a small community to which our experience might be relevant and helpful."
Since 1996, Rabbi David Ellis has taken care of the islanders' spiritual needs. Ellis serves the smaller maritime communities from his base at the Atlantic Jewish Council in Halifax. In addition to performing a bar mitzvah on the island that year, Ellis also led High Holy Day services.
"We held the services at a B&B, and it was really unique," Ellis said. "We even went down to the ocean for tashlich," the service at the end of Rosh Hashanah when Jews cast away their sins.
The rabbi pointed out that the tiny community is unique in other ways.
"Although the people are not that observant, they come at Judaism from an intellectual point of view," he said. "They have had a study group for a number of years.
"What's especially nice is that PEI's community members look out for one another. If someone is sick, everyone goes to the hospital to visit."
Ellis said he believes the reason so little anti-Semitism exists on the island is that there are "members of other ethnic groups here as well, trying to preserve their heritage."
"They can understand where Jews are coming from and, hence, there is very little hatred."
Still, island life for Jews here is different than life in many other North American locales. In "The Heart," a story in his 1993 anthology "Dancing at the Club Holocaust," author J.J. Steinfeld describes an encounter between an island bartender and a Jewish patron named Isaac, whom the bartender had identified as German.
"German Jews are not Germans," Isaac declared.
"Sorry, what do I know," the bartender quickly apologized. "We don't have many Jewish people on the island. To tell you the truth, I don't remember ever serving one."
"We're lucky to have 25 on the whole island," the man on Isaac's left offered with a head shake of authority, appearing to count elusive Jews in the air.
"Maybe 30, 35, tops," the bartender added.
"At least you got a minyan," Isaac said to everyone's confusion.
On PEI, it's at least that much. And a whole lot more.