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Thursday, September 3, 2015

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Montreal’s Israeli community smaller, more well-established

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Arlazar Eliashiv

Montreal’s Israeli expatriate community – which is both more established than Toronto’s and, at an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people, much smaller – isn’t the focus of any specific attention by Federation CJA here.

Daniel Malca, director of the Combined Jewish Appeal’s Sephardic campaign, said the federation doesn’t have any programs directed at Israelis, but he added that he has been “talking to many, many people” to see what their needs are, if any, and that the federation is in the initial stages of reaching out to the Israeli community.

Years ago, the YM-YWHA, a federation agency, ran Betsavta (together in Hebrew), an outreach program for Israelis.

Today, the main link between Israelis and the organized Jewish community is through the Hebrew cultural committee of the Jewish Public Library (JPL), which organizes occasional events in that language, including an annual theatre production, films and lectures.

The most regular activities for Israelis are organized by the Israeli consulate, under its Habayit Haisraeli (Israeli House) program.

Its director, Sefi Melchior, now in her third year in Montreal, notes that Habayit Haisraeli is sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Absorption, whose first goal is to help Israelis who want to return to Israel.

In other words, the objective is not to integrate them into the Montreal Jewish community.

Melchior said she provides both practical assistance and emotional support to those considering going back to Israel. She said about 30 to 40 do so each year, and until a five-year program ended last year, many took advantage of special incentives offered by the Israeli government to former citizens.

Melchior is not sure how many emigrate here annually, as newcomers don’t necessarily make themselves known to the consulate. “I don’t know the numbers – [it’s] not in the hundreds, maybe 20,” she said.

Habayit Haisraeli tries to keep Israelis connected to their heritage through social and cultural activities organized throughout the year, such as holiday parties, storytelling for children, and, for teens, meetings through the Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair.

New is a discussion group for parents, she said, where they can express concerns about maintaining their children’s Israeli identity abroad.

“I’m not here to necessarily convince people to go back to Israel, but I do want to help them keep this Israeli ingredient in their lives,” Melchior said.

Some, she said, speak about feelings of guilt over leaving Israel, or regret over the loss of family ties, and she is there to listen to them.

Determining how many “Israelis” live in Montreal is difficult, as is defining who is Israeli, given that many, including Russians and North Africans, lived in Israel for short periods.

The consulate estimates that there are between 8,000 to 10,000 Israelis in the Montreal area, going by the number who come to renew passports, Melchior said.

In the federal government’s 2011 National Household Survey, the voluntary questionnaire that replaced the census, 4,380 Montreal-area respondents listed Hebrew as their mother tongue, according to results made public last spring.

In recent years, there has not been a discernable influx of Israeli immigrants, and many of Montreal’s Israelis have lived here for decades.

Melchior thinks Israelis do not really represent a “community” here, especially not among younger people.

“Those who have lived here 30 or 40 years have a stronger connection [with one another], they have more of a community, they have their own Israeli cultural events,” she said. “Younger families do not go to these events.”

Israeli-born Arlazar Eliashiv has lived in Montreal longer than he cared to pinpoint. He believes Israelis are generally well integrated into the Montreal Jewish community and don’t need an organization of their own.

He pointed out that events geared toward Israelis are open to the wider Jewish community as well. When the JPL Hebrew cultural committee runs films or plays, they routinely feature English subtitles to encourage everyone to come to them.

“The Israelis are not marginalized,” he said. Quite a few Israelis, for example, are involved in organizing the annual downtown Yom Ha’atzmaut rally.

Eliashiv was principal of United Talmud Torahs and Herzliah High School, among the founders of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, and is currently the president of the Canadian Zionist Federation, Eastern region.

He said the relatively modest Israeli presence in Montreal can’t be compared to the one in Toronto or some U.S. cities.

Before asking the federation to support programming for Israelis, Eliashiv said it must be considered what the federation’s expectations would be in return. “What is it that they [the federation] would want?”

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