1. Who are the Jews in the national community? Where did they come from? How many are there? What is their geographical distribution within the country?
Canada has a substantial Jewish community, the fifth largest in the world. More significantly, it expanded by almost 15% in the 1990s. It numbers approximately 360,000 Jews out of a total Canadian population of some 29,000,000. Most of the community consists of Ashkenazi Jews who came from Europe, although there is a substantial sub-group of North African, French-speaking Jews in Montreal.
The origins of the community are relatively recent. The first Jews arrived in the second half of the eighteenth century, after the British took Canada from the French and allowed Jews to settle there. The original Jews settled in Montreal, which has remained one of the main centers until today. Until the mid-nineteenth century, most of the Jewish population lived in Montreal, but an influx of Jews from Central and Western Europe, shortly followed by a wave of Lithuanian Jews, saw the immigrants spreading out to other towns and cities. Many Jews also arrived in Canada during the Eastern European emigration at the end of the nineteenth century. If there were 6,000 Jews around 1890, there were just over 125,000 in 1921, with almost all the newcomers coming from Russia and, to a lesser extent, Rumania.
From this time onward, immigration was seriously restricted. The next wave only arrived in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in the form of tens of thousands of refugees. In 1956, following the failed Hungarian revolution against the Soviet Union, many thousands of Hungarians were admitted to Canada including some four thousand, five hundred Jews; shortly after this there was a sizeable immigration of Jews from Morocco and other North African countries. More recent immigration waves have included many Jews from the former Soviet Union and Israeli Jews. There are now estimated to be approximately 30,000 ex-Israeli Jews settled in Canada.
Geographically, there are two main centers, in Montreal and Toronto. Until twenty years ago, they were similar in size, but the concern among many Jews about the Quebec nationalist movement, with its threats of secession from Canada, has resulted in Toronto’s becoming the larger of the two. Approximately 175,000 Jews live in Toronto, compared with 100,000 in Montreal. Only three other centers, Vancouver, Winnipeg and the Canadian capital Ottawa, have more than 10,000 Jews each, with Vancouver’s community numbering 30,000.
2. How can they be defined economically? What are their professions and occupations?
Apart from a few idiosyncratic details specific to the Canadian story, the Jewish community has generally followed the typical occupational and professional pattern that we have witnessed already in other Western countries. Some of the first Canadian Jewish settlers became involved with the military and served in the British forces at the beginning of their rule. This reflects the close relationship between the Jews and the British at the beginning of the period. Among the refugees that arrived in the post-Holocaust period, several thousand tailors and furriers came in under a special arrangement with the government: these were professions that answered the perceived needs of the country at that time.
In addition, similarly to Argentina - although on a smaller scale - we see a number of Jewish farming villages that were set up around the end of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth century. These constituted a not insignificant sector of the country’s Jews in the early years, but most collapsed at the time of the Great Depression.
If we look at the community today, we find many in professions, government and civil service, light industry and trade. In addition, cultural fields, communications and academia all show a considerable Jewish presence.
3. What is the religious orientation of the Jewish community?
The significant factor in the Canadian community is that it may be considered a more traditional version of North American Jewry. The breakdown of Jews into the three main streams of Orthodoxy, Conservatism and Reform stands at approximately 40%, 40% and 20%, but the average Conservative congregation, for example, is likely to be more traditional and observant than its equivalent congregation south of the border. There are Haredi congregations, especially of Belz, Lubavich and Satmar Chassidim, in and around Montreal and Toronto. One suggestion for the higher average degree of tradition in Canada is connected with the pronounced multi-culturalism of Canadian society. Caught between different groups of the population, Jews tend to be more aware of their own heritage and of the legitimacy of preserving it. Montreal’s leading Conservative congregation recently seceded from the North American movement and announced its independence, resisting the general trend towards egalitarianism in the Conservative movement.
4. What Jewish educational and cultural life is there in the community?
Jewish education is well organized in Canada. In Toronto and Montreal, there are about a dozen day schools as well as a number of yeshivot. In Toronto around 40% of Jewish children go to Jewish elementary schools and 12% go to high schools. The figures in Montreal are higher: 60% and 30% respectively. There are also a few other schools in the smaller communities. In addition, there are youth movements and organizations, and a good network of camps in the field of informal education. The field of Jewish Studies is less developed in the universities than in the U.S; nevertheless, there are courses in many institutions and McGill, Toronto and York universities all have strong Jewish Studies departments. Unlike the situation in the United States, there is no specifically Jewish university. The main centers for professional Jewish education, rabbinical or general, are in the United States and Canadian Jews tend to go there to study.
There is a strong and vibrant Jewish culture in Canada, especially in Toronto and Montreal, and this is reflected in the number of Jewish newspapers and periodicals that are published in the country - more than twenty. Canadian Jews tend to be proud of their Jewish culture and to seek opportunities to celebrate it, a result of the pride in multi-culturalism that has such deep roots throughout the country.
5. What is the situation of assimilation and intermarriage in the community?
We have already suggested that there is less assimilation in the community than in the United States. There is no question that many of the same influences that we find throughout the Western world are influencing the younger generations. Assimilation is higher than in past generations, however, and is rising. So is the rate of intermarriage, although this too is lower than that in the American Jewish community.
6. Are there any major historical circumstances that affected the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from the community?
As in the United States, almost the entire growth and development of the community is connected with external historical events. However, if the American Jewish community traces itself back to the Spanish experience of expulsion and inquisition, the origins of the Canadian community are connected to the British conquest of French Canada in the mid-eighteenth century. Following this, the growth of the community follows the broad contours of the Eastern European Jewish experience, with the addition of the French de-colonization of North Africa that led to immigration in the late 1950s.
The other main factor is Israel. Some 7,500 Jews from Canada have made aliyah since 1948. The number of Israeli Jews who have settled in Canada is around 30,000. Once again, this is not unlike the situation in the United States, but it should be noted that, in terms of percentages, the group of ex-Israelis is far larger, amounting to some 8% of the total community.
7. Are there welfare problems within the Jewish community? Are there welfare organizations within the community?
One of the tendencies of successful communities is to brush welfare problems under the carpet and deny their existence. Since all communities tend to have such problems, denial of their existence says more about community attitudes than the reality in which they are living. In the last year or so, Canada’s Jews have begun to examine problems of poverty within the community more seriously. According to recent figures, an authoritative estimate is that the poor account for some 17% of the community. This is about the same percentage as is found in the general population. The three main vulnerable groups are recent immigrants, the elderly and single mothers. The rate among senior citizens is over 20%.
A number of official community agencies, e.g. the Jewish Family and Child Services, help the disadvantaged and several voluntary groups supplement their work. However, as officials have made statements to the effect that the community as a whole has not tackled the problem with sufficient resolve, it seems likely that the issue will begin to receive higher priority.
8. What is the feeling of physical security of the Jewish community? Has there been, and is there today, a problem of anti-Semitism?
The Canadian Jewish community has experienced relatively little anti-Semitism. The main period of anti-Semitic agitation was the decade of the 1930s, when anti-Jewish rhetoric featured on the agenda of a number of groups and organizations. More recent periods have seen a small, but active, far right with the usual xenophobia and anti-Semitism, but these have found little echo in the official political culture. Anti-Semitic political sentiments surface occasionally in the right wing of the conservative political parties, but the official conservative leaders tend to distance themselves firmly from such ideas. A few years back, some found the nationalism of the Quebec separatists worrying, but this anxiety appears to have evaporated.
The last year, however, has seen a return of anti-Jewish feeling in some sectors of the population, which has been expressed in sporadic attacks on Jews and Jewish property, including synagogues and cemeteries. Generally, these attacks can be traced to the hostility engendered by the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as we have seen in relation to other countries. Nonetheless, it is clear that the story is more complex than that. The number of anti-Jewish incidents was already rising in 1999, the year before the intifada. In general, however, it seems that the majority of Jews do not feel overly anxious on this score.
9. What are the main problems on the agenda of the Jewish community?
The problem of assimilation will inevitably crop up in any discussion of community trends in any Western community, and the Canadian community is no different. Assimilation and intermarriage are problems within the community and cannot be dismissed out of hand. The fact that they exist at a far lower level than in, e.g., the U.S. does not mean that they are not cause for concern. The starting point of the Canadian Jewish community is different and the demands that it makes on its members tends to be high.
However, it should be said that the Canadian community seems to be in a relatively good place. The Jews are generally doing well and their high-quality educational and cultural institutions seem to be functioning successfully in a well-developed economy. It is possible, however, that the very success of Canadian Jewry in creating institutions that can provide the underpinnings for a rich Jewish life is the basis of the community’s largest problem. Out of this reality must come increased aspirations - more than is possible to expect with the more widely-scattered American community - that most of the younger generation will enjoy the existing institutions and eventually become involved in community life. This may not be so simple to realize, however, as Jewish schools are prohibitively costly for some. In fact, ‘being Jewish’ in the contemporary Canadian world is a very expensive business. Immense resources are necessary for realizing these hopes and probably beyond the means of the community as it now stands, despite its financial wealth.
10. What are the demographic trends within the community? Can anything be said about the future of the community?
As mentioned earlier, the Canadian Jewish community is perhaps the fastest growing Diaspora community in the world. In the last forty years, the population has increased from 260,000 to 360,000, a rise of almost 40%. Most of this increase is due to immigration, but it shows Canada as a desirable destination for Jews. Much of the attraction is not specifically because of the Jewish question: Canada itself is seen as an attractive place in which to live. Not only is the community is getting larger, however; in many ways, it is also showing increased strength. In demographic terms, it seems likely that more Jews will join the community from Israel than will leave the community for Israel.
It is extremely difficult to talk about future trends in a community that largely depends on immigration for growth, because there are too many unknown factors. What does seem certain is that Canada will remain an attractive country for Jews looking for an alternative place to live. Despite the usual intra-communal disputes and tensions, and the fact that different immigrant groups often look askance at one another, the Canadian Jewish story seems to prove that a Jewish community can integrate its diverse groups and create a whole that is truly bigger than the sum of its constituent parts. It seems reasonable to assume that this trend will continue.
Canadian Jewish Congress
Samuel Bronfman House
1590 Avenue Dr. Penfield
Montreal Que H3G 1C5
Tel. 514 931 7531, Fax 514 931 0548