Victor Helfand was born in Toronto’s old Mount Sinai Hospital in 1948. As a young man, he travelled throughout Europe and North Africa and even lived on a kibbutz in central Israel for a time. In 1968, he took up photography. Three years later, in 1971, he exhibited his work for the first time. And while Victor ended up making his living as an entrepreneur—first in urban planning then in e-commerce—his passion for photography never wavered.
One day, while sitting in synagogue, Victor was moved by the sight of a female friend serving as a gabbai at the bimah. Growing up, Victor never saw women at the bimah. He asked the same friend if he could photograph her, and thus began Victor’s Women of the Bimah photography series.
As its title suggests, Women of Bimah consists of photographs of Jewish women participating in synagogue life. The first photographs, which depict Jewish women reading from the Torah and praying at the bimah, were taken at Victor’s own synagogue, First Narayever Congregation, an independent, egalitarian shul located in downtown Toronto. From there, Victor’s project expanded to include other synagogues in Toronto and, later, synagogues located outside the city: Miami, Florida; Boston, Massachusetts; and Berlin, Germany, to name several cities. Speaking to the Canadian Jewish News some years back, Victor said, “For me, personally, being a child of Holocaust survivors, it was so meaningful to be there [Berlin].”
In 2017, twenty-four photographs from the series were displayed at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photograph Festival. One year later, in August 2018, Victor donated 108 gigabytes’ worth of digital records to the OJA alongside seventeen beautiful prints. This material has already been showcased by the OJA in its Women + exhibitions hosted at University of Toronto’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and most recently at the Ronald and Nancy Kalifer Culture Hub at Baycrest.
In addition to the exhibition at the Scotiabank CONTACT Photograph Festival, Victor has launched a number of other exhibitions, including Perspective (1971), Salon (2012 and 2014), Marriage Bureau (2013), 3 Generations (2015), Back to the Land (2015 and 2017), and Group Show (2015). The OJA hopes to acquire other photographic series from Victor that will then become part of the Victor Helfand fonds.
While the OJA’s holdings include thousands of photographs of Ontario synagogues, we have fewer photographs of people worshipping in synagogues. Thus, in addition to affording researchers a fascinating window into the spiritual lives of Jewish women in and outside Toronto in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, the photographs also illustrate how synagogues were used in worship during the same period.