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Thursday, October 23, 2014

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Are the March to Jerusalem and Israel street fest finished?

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A scene from the last March to Jerusa-lem in 2012

MONTREAL — Two back-to-back Montreal Jewish community events – the annual March to Jerusalem and the YM-YWHA Israel Street Festival – were annual rites of spring for more than four decades.

But for the second straight year, neither will be taking place, and it seems uncertain whether they’ll ever happen again, at least in the same form.

Yair Szlak, the professional at Federation CJA in charge of the march, and CEO Deborah Corber spoke to the CJN via email just prior to the federation’s recent Israel Mega Mission, which brought almost 600 people to Israel.

Szlak, said the federation was “looking to integrate [the March to Jerusalem] as part of the follow-up plan for the Mega Mission,” which he said included a May 15 march in Jerusalem itself.

“However, a march as it used to be will most likely not take place,” he said, adding he would be available for further comment in early June, after his return.

Community reaction was mixed about the possible demise of the two events.

“I think it’s awful,” commented Cynthia Weinstein in an email. “I did it with my family every year since I was a child.”

Lori Cohen, who described herself as an active community volunteer, always supported the solidarity march, “but if schools and community don’t participate, then it’s hard to keep it going.”

She said while efforts of organizers have remained “tremendous,” the interest among walkers has declined, as have the dollars raised.

The cancellation of the two events again this year appears to signal the end of an era and is taking place in the context of decreasing turnouts and the annual Israel Day rally having supplanted the march as the Jewish community’s main pro-Israel mass event.

As for the Y, officials there said that instead of the street festival, the Y is planning a future fair-like mega-event that will showcase all-things Israeli.

The Y is also focusing on its Diller teen program and using other means to re-brand and revitalize its image.

“The idea is to create a buzz,” said Harold Penn, the Y’s director of community services. “We want to be the ‘in’ place” by using social media and other means to keep programming and activities relevant, popular and engaging.

Certainly, things have changed for both events since the early 1970s, when 10,000 Jewish Montrealers would walk 26 kilometres through the city and get their “passports” stamped at numerous stops before ending up at “Masada” atop Beaver Lake. The walk was then followed by the street festival at the Y.

It was all about music, noise, dancing, walking, strollers and families, and the two events often topped local newscasts on Sunday evening.

But the march and street festival both suffered a decline in numbers in recent years. For several of those years, a scaled-back version of the march took place in Jewish neighbourhoods west of Decarie Boulevard before returning to “the mountain” in 2011 and 2012 in a 10-km format.

In 2008 and 2009, the two events were either not held in the same vicinity or were held on different dates because of a purported conflict in scheduling with the Tour de l’Ile cycling event.

Last year, Federation CJA said it could not secure a date for the march due to “other large-scale events occurring in June.”

May 25, which would have been theoretically possible as a date for the street festival this year, Westbury Avenue was cordoned off for the third annual “Hockey de rue” street hockey tournament, a major event that divided proceeds between the Y and the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation.

 “I understand that the last time [the March to Jerusalem] was held, there were fewer than 1,000 people,” said Atie Waxman, the Y’s director of communications and marketing.

Weinstein said it was “the only event of the year to socialize and reconnect with Montreal Jews regardless of the school your child goes to, the shul you belong to, or your age.”

Steven White, a 46-year-old father of two, was wistful about the prospect of the march disappearing.

“I would spend weeks ahead of time collecting sponsors… and felt good about raising money for Israel,” he said of his childhood experiences.

“I took my twins in their early years in strollers and continued the tradition of taking my kids rain or shine on the march. It would be a terrible shame if we no longer had it.”

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