BENJAMIN, ALFRED DAVID, businessman and philanthropist; b. 9 Aug. 1848 in Melbourne (Australia), third son of David Benjamin and Esther Solomon; m. 6 April 1886 Rosetta Levy in London, England, and they had a son and two daughters; d. 8 Jan. 1900 in Toronto.
At the time of Alfred David Benjamin’s birth, his father, a merchant-banker and successful participant in the Australian gold-rush, had likely retired from business. In 1854 he returned to London to devote himself full time to communal service. Alfred was educated at Alphonse Hartog’s school in Camden Town (London) and later at University College School. Though in 1867 he passed the University of London’s first examination for a ba, earning a prize in French, he did not advance to earn the degree.
Immigrating to Montreal in 1873, Benjamin remained there for a few years, returned to London for a year, and finally settled in Toronto in 1878. There he became, with his father’s financial backing, a partner in the wholesale hardware firm of M. and L. Samuel and Company and, upon the death of Lewis Samuel* in 1887, he assumed the leadership of the firm. A member of the Board of Trade, Benjamin was a respected member of the local commercial community; an obituary would describe him as a “genial and benevolent man, . . . honoured for his upright business principles.” In addition to heading the Samuel company, he served as president of both the Metallic Roofing Company and the Toronto Silver Plate Company. A Liberal-Conservative in politics, he was a member of the Albany Club and of the Oddfellows.
It was, however, within the Jewish community that Benjamin’s major communal interests lay, and his wise investments in a mine in the Cœur d’Alene Mountains, Idaho, and in other enterprises afforded him the substance and leisure to devote himself to philanthropic work. An orthodox Jew, he taught in the religious school at his synagogue, Holy Blossom, and from 1882 until his death he served almost continuously as president of the congregation. He was a major contributor to the subscription fund for its new synagogue, opened in 1897 on Bond Street; he and his brother Frank D. contributed $10,000 and he raised much of the additional funds to construct the building, which involved visits to England, the United States, and other parts of Canada. He served as well as vice-president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society and the men’s charity society of Holy Blossom, and as treasurer of the local Zionist society and of the Toronto branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association, which assisted Jewish immigrants wishing to settle in western Canada.
Benjamin was a major opponent of the proposal in 1897 to introduce Christian instruction into the public schools of Toronto. Along with the Reverend Abraham Lazarus of Holy Blossom and Edmund Scheuer, he presented a brief to the school board expressing the view of their congregation that the step would create unnecessary division among the city’s citizens.
Benjamin was one of the few established Jews in Toronto who attempted to forge a link between his community, represented by Holy Blossom, and the East European Jews who had been arriving since the 1880s and settling in St John’s Ward. For instance, he helped the Austrian congregation, Shomrai Shabboth, acquire the church building that was to serve as their synagogue. In 1899 he accepted the presidency of the Talmud Torah Association, an organization of East European Jews which attempted to found a communal religious school in Toronto, and each Friday afternoon he wandered the streets seeking out Jewish news-boys and purchasing all their papers so that they could inaugurate the Sabbath with their families.
An enthusiastic cyclist, Benjamin was injured in a fall from his bicycle in November 1899 and, after weeks of incapacitation, he died of heart failure at his home on Sherbourne Street in January. His funeral was described in the Toronto Evening Star as “one of the largest . . . a private citizen ever received in Toronto.”
GRO (London), Reg. of marriages in the registration district of Paddington ([London]), no.134 (6 April 1886). Private arch., S. A. Speisman (Toronto), Recorded interviews with Arthur Cohen, Toronto, 15, 20 Dec. 1971. PRO, RG 9/11: ff.86–87. University College (London), Records of University College School, 1864–65, and University College, 1865–67. Univ. of London Arch., Examination reg., 1866–67. Jewish Chronicle (London), 12 Jan. 1900. Canadian Jewish Times (Montreal), 18 Aug., 29 Sept. 1899. Daily Mail and Empire, 12 June 1897, 9 Jan. 1900. Globe, 4 June 1897, 9 Jan. 1900. Toronto Evening Star, 8, 10 Jan. 1900. Toronto World, 4 June 1897, 10 Jan. 1900. The Jew in Canada: a complete record of Canadian Jewry from the days of the French régime to the present time, ed. A. D. Hart (Toronto and Montreal, 1926). Sigmund Samuel, In return: the autobiography of Sigmund Samuel ([Toronto], 1963). S. A. Speisman, The Jews of Toronto: a history to 1937 (Toronto, 1979).