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The Jewish Experience in Canada Today: A Presentation on the 2018 Srvey of the Jews in Canada

03/10/2020 08:55:12 PM


In 2018, the Environics Institute for Survey Research conducted the first ever survey of Canadian Jewry, inspired by the 2013 Pew Study of American Jews. On March 4, 2020, OrH and the Soloway JCC hosted an event featuring an overview of the report’s six themes by one of the project’s principals, ORH member Keith Neuman.
A succinct yet rich presentation of the survey’s key findings was followed by a thoughtfully probing panel discussion moderated by OrH member Joel Westheimer, exploring questions raised by the research. Rabbi Deborah Zuker of Kehillat Beth Israel, Carleton University professor and media commentator Mira Sucharov, and OrH member Sarah Caspi from Jewish Family Services Ottawa each offered probing reflections from their respective perspectives as congregational rabbi, political science professor, and social service agency executive director.
The report itself was released in 2019 and was conducted in four Canadian cities representing over 80% of Canada’s Jewish population: Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. In addition to serving as a set of benchmark findings about Canadian Jewry, by following the overall pattern of questions crafted for the American study, the results also provide fascinating data about the Canadian and American communities’ contrasts and similarities.
While I couldn’t possibly capture the dynamism of the reflections, and conversation that unfolded throughout the evening, I can offer excerpts from my opening and closing remarks, the list of themes explored on the survey, and some of the questions brought to the table by the panelists. You can read an executive summary or to dive into the full report here.

From my welcoming remarks: As a rabbi trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and serving a congregation affiliated with Reconstructing Judaism, I think about the issues explored in this study a great deal.  I work on and wrestle with questions around Jewish identity, core values, and the challenge of serving the Jewish people on a daily basis. 

And like any Jewish professional these days, I’m aware of how swiftly, and how massively, the paradigms of Jewish communal life are shifting.  I’m also aware as a Canadian who was trained in the United States that there are some subtle as well as some clear differences between the two communities, and was especially intrigued and challenged by what the study tells us about our particularity.

A recent article commenting on Jewish life south of the border offers these observations: “The Jewish community is dramatically more diverse than we once realized it was: One in every seven to eight Jews is a person of color; we have a sizeable LGBTQIA+ population; and the number of Jewish-adjacent individuals in our communities is growing. At the same time, religious affiliation is in decline, more houses of worship are shutting their doors than opening up for business, and “Jews of no religion” are on the rise.”

How these factors, and others, play out in Canadian Jewish life are of deep interest to me.

Rabbi Deborah Zuker:  I was struck by the data regarding day school attendance and assimilation. It looks to me like day schools are an enormous investment with a relatively small return; for example, after 9 years of Jewish Day School, you are 8% less likely to have a Christmas tree and 7% less likely to marry a non-Jew. Is heavily promoting day school the right ‘intervention’ to ensure healthy Jewish communities?

Mira Sucharov: I appreciated the use of the phrasing “strength of personal attachment to Israel.” I’d like to probe the relationship between how we understand “attachment to Israel” in light of attitudes about Israeli politics and policies. When we ask about “attachment to Israel” do we all mean the same thing? Can you be attached and critical?

Sarah Caspi: I come from the perspective of often working with Jewish individuals and families who are not always part of the formal Jewish community. How do the results help us shape service delivery, and how as a community can we support those who continue to feel marginalized, such as those who are low income, struggling with addictions and mental health, women fleeing abuse, folks with disabilities, etc.? 
From my closing remarks: What a rich evening of learning and conversation. Thank you, the audience, for your thoughtful attention and questions. Thank you to my friends and colleagues, including our OrH members, who spoke and presented this evening – and I do want to note the gender composition of our panelists and observe: this is what the present, and the future, of discourse in our community should look like.
The most striking finding in the study, for me, was learning that what Canadian Jews consider most essential to being Jewish – to a significant extent - is leading and ethical and moral life. By contrast, attending synagogue was among the least essential.
This links with our perceptions around discrimination, revealed in the finding that Canadian Jews are highly aware, and far more aware than our American counterparts, of discrimination against Indigenous peoples, Muslims and racialized communities. Layered with a strongly expressed commitment to social justice, I hear from this a clarion call to synagogues and denominations to pay attention to what we must do in our communities in the decades ahead if we are to continue to meet our peoples’ deepest self-understanding.
The study’s findings led me to wonder what we would learn if we could find out more about Spiritual Typologies, rather than denominational affiliation. Singing and dancing; meditation and contemplative or devotional practices; creatively engaging ritual activities; spiritually-motivated social action – these and more are some of the modalities through which Jews relish in their Jewish-ness, both “inside” and “outside” our communal institutions.
To be a Jew, says Mordecai Kaplan biographer Mel Scult, is to identify with the great drama that is the life of the Jewish people. May this great endeavor that is our engagement with Jewish peoplehood flourish in the details of our communities, and in the stories we tell.

Fri, July 30 2021 21 Av 5781