Aaron Hart (c. 1724-1800) was the patriarch of one of a few families who founded Quebec’s Jewish community in the eighteenth century. Although he is often credited as “the first Jew in Quebec”, this title is not strictly accurate. Nonetheless, few of Aaron Hart’s predecessors or contemporaries achieved the same level of business success that secured his place in the annals of history. Little is known about his beginnings, but it is most likely that he was born in London, England to German parents originally named Hirsch; he arrived in Montreal, by way of Jamaica and New York, in 1760. The timing of Hart’s arrival is significant: under French rule the colony was strictly Roman Catholic, so when the British captured Montreal, Hart became one of the very first Jews to settle permanently in Quebec. Indeed, some accounts even place him as a lieutenant in British general Amherst’s battalion, although it is more likely that he was a sutler (a civilian purveyor of army goods), following the troops to Trois-Rivières in 1761.
Hart’s 1763 appointment as postmaster of Trois-Rivières appears to be the first instance of a Jew holding office in Quebec. He became the most successful and famous of the many Jews who began working in importing and in fur trading in Quebec that decade; his ventures also included real estate and a diverse wholesale store. In the years after the British conquest, Hart built his wealth by lending goods to French seigneurs, which eventually enabled him to acquire many fiefs and seigneuries (including Bécancour, for which his son Samuel was named). These properties were passed down to his sons before the seigneurial system was abolished in the 1850s.
Hart retained close ties to Jewish communities outside Trois-Rivières. Although he seems to have been more involved with a synagogue in New York, he helped found the Shearith Israel Synagogue in Montreal in 1768. With roots firmly planted in Montreal, his son, Benjamin Hart, was very influential in the early years of Shearith Israel, the heart of the community for 100 years, and still in existence today. Aaron Hart and his wife Dorothea raised eight children in an observant Jewish household, but did not establish the family dynasty in Trois-Rivières they had imagined: most of the Hart children moved to Montreal or the United States and some converted to Christianity. One of his children, Moses Hart, actually attempted to create a new religion. A notable exception was son Ezekiel Hart, who stayed in Trois-Rivières and became the first Jew elected to public office in the entire British Empire, although he was not able to take his seat.
Compiled by Sarah Woolf
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*Image courtesy of the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives.