Despite ongoing efforts by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to integrate the city’s 50,000 Israelis into the organized Jewish community, Galya Sarner, the federation’s Israeli-Canadian Project director, said that although there have been many successes, there’s still a long way to go.
“I think it’s going to take time. We’re not there yet,” said the Israeli-born Sarner, who moved to Toronto in 2005, with her Canadian-born husband Robert – the director of communications for Roots Canada and a former Israel-based journalist and columnist for The CJN – and their three children.
After decades of exclusion and alienation from the Jewish community and its institutions that greeted the first waves of Israeli immigrants to the city, the federation, under the leadership of outgoing CEO and president Ted Sokolsky, has sought to make meaningful connections with Israelis in Toronto, Sarner told The CJN.
Due to a perception by Diaspora Jews and the Israeli government that leaving Israel went against the Zionist ideal of having strength in numbers in the Jewish State, Israelis were once made to feel shame for leaving their homeland.
Today, both the federation and the Israeli government realize that the Israeli diaspora can be a benefit to Zionism.
“Israelis finally got recognition from the Israeli government saying… ‘We do want you back in Israel… but we know that you have an important role in the Diaspora as ambassadors for the State of Israel. You do bring Israeli education to other countries. You can be the devek, the glue, that brings people together,”
The beginning of the outreach effort, Sarner said, was a 2005 public apology by Sokolsky at the General Assembly of North American Jewish federations, held that year in Toronto, in which he asked for Israelis’ forgiveness for what was seen as a paternalistic and distant attitude toward them in the past.
Today, Sarner said, with all the programming available at the Schwartz-Reisman Centre in Vaughan, which serves about 7,000 members, the community is moving in the right direction.
“We see Israelis more and more integrated into the federation. They have been taking on leadership roles. We care about their advice. We very, very much respect their leadership and [willingness] to volunteer,” Sarner said.
“The last two years, I’ve been running a committee… called the Israeli Council, made up of a group of about 10 to 15 professionals. We share ideas, exchange ideas.”
What makes Toronto’s Israeli community outreach effort unique is the lead role the federation plays in creating and promoting programs that run under the Israeli-Canadian Project’s cultural arm. By contrast, in most other North American centres with large Israeli populations, organizations that serve Israeli expatriates operate independently of local federations.
The Toronto effort has garnered attention: in November, it was one of a number of topics explored at a conference in New Jersey hosted by Moatza Mekomit, a newly formed umbrella organization for the New York area’s Israeli community, together with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israeli Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Israeli American Council.
Some of the successful programs running in Toronto include the Israeli Cinema Club, which presents Israeli movies with English subtitles; Yeadim, a leadership program in Hebrew for high school students that encourages participants to connect to their Israeli identity as well as the Toronto Jewish community; a cooking class called Taste Israel With Galya Sarner; and the Israeli Scouts of Toronto (Shevet Hermon), a program for students in grades 3 to 12.
“What keeps me going are the stories behind the stories, and when people come forward to say, ‘Galya, I want to volunteer. I want to be part of it. I want to make a difference like you made a difference,’” she said.
During one Israeli Scouts event late last year, Sarner noticed that one of the volunteers – an Israeli mother whose daughter was taking part in the program – was crying.
“I asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ She explained that her daughter was going to Associated [Hebrew Schools] – she was subsidized by UJA, but at a certain point, she still couldn’t afford it, so she had to pull her daughter out.
“For some reason she wasn’t connected to the Israeli community, but she heard about the Israeli Scouts. She said, ‘I was lost… [But] this is how I was able to make new friends, reconnect to my Israeli roots… Whatever you need from me, just tell me and I’ll be there,’” Sarner recalled her saying.
“I think this is something we created. We created an amazing sense of belonging, an amazing sense of a desire to be part of something, to reconnect to our roots.”
There are likely hundreds of similar stories experienced by Israelis in Toronto, but Sara Dobner, volunteer chair of federation’s Israeli Identity Program, said there are still many Israelis who aren’t interested in integrating and skeptical about the federation’s intentions.
“They think, ‘They must want money, and we don’t have money. We haven’t been here for so many generations, and we’re not going to give money so the federation can give money to [the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto] to pay for Jewish education when we can’t even afford to send our kids to CHAT,’” Dobner said.
She said despite the ongoing outreach programs and the initial and subsequent apologies from Sokolsky, many Israelis still harbour resentment and anger.
There are also many cultural differences that Israelis find hard to grow accustomed to.
Dobner said when she first arrived in Toronto 26 years ago, “We didn’t know how to live in a community – we never lived in a Jewish community. We lived in Israel. It’s a state. It’s not a community, so the whole concept of community life is very foreign…
“[Philanthropy] is also not part of our culture. In Israel, we didn’t have to pay for Jewish education. We didn’t have to pay for UJA. We didn’t have to pay a ‘Jewish tax,’ because everything was included in our taxes,” she said.
“Here, there is a cost [to living a Jewish life], and Israelis can’t accept it,” said Dobner, who also volunteers as a board of directors’ member for TanenbaumCHAT, as well as an advisory board member for Kachol Lavan, the Israeli supplementary school.
Dobner said secular Israelis are also wary of programs that centre on religion, so the challenge is to help them realize the importance of exposing their children to Canadian Jewish culture, which is often religion-based.
“They don’t realize that if they don’t work on it… their kids will intermarry, their kids will not have the same identity as they think their kids will have. Speaking Hebrew is not enough. It is an important part of who we are, but it’s not going to keep their Jewish identity,” Dobner said.
“We can keep our connection to the Israeli community, but if our kids [don’t integrate into the Canadian Jewish community], the battle is lost,” she said, adding that her strategy is to create more programming that targets second- and third-generation Israelis.
The purpose of creating programming for Israeli families living in Canada is to help them hold on to their distinct identity while learning to embrace Canadian Jewish culture.
The Sarner and Dobner families are perfect examples of what that means.
“My children are literally Israeli-Canadian,” Sarner said, referring to the fact they’re equally influenced by their Canadian father and their Israeli mother.
“We have a daughter who made aliyah, but she won’t lose her Canadian identity. I think she appreciates that she was exposed to both worlds.”
Dobner said her daughters, 18 and 22, were both born in Toronto, but consider themselves both Israeli and Canadian.
She believes it was her decision to send their kids to Jewish schools and summer camps, as well as to live in a Jewish neighbourhood, while maintaining their Israeli identity by speaking Hebrew at home and visiting Israel frequently, that strengthened their connections to Israeli and Jewish-Canadian culture.
“Now I realize much more that the only way for Israelis to maintain anything for the second generation is to focus their efforts on integrating the second generation into the Jewish community.”
Dobner believes it’s more important than many Israeli immigrants realize that they enrol their kids in Jewish day school to better integrate into the Jewish community.
“I’d like to see more Israelis going to Jewish schools… The second thing I’d like to see is more Israeli events where Canadian Jews come and show interest,” she said.
“It’s really about an exchange – bringing Israel to our community and also learning how to be Jewish in the Diaspora from the community.”
Sarner said she thinks Israelis living abroad are beginning to “understand and very much appreciate and respect the effort we make in creating very unique programs [to address their] cultural needs, educational needs, and social needs. They do very much understand that there is a serious effort to engage them.”