TORONTO — There is much excitement, enthusiasm and optimism coming from the new leadership at the Israeli Forum, says Ehud Telem, the organization’s vice-chair.
“There is new energy, new drive and new ideas,” he added.
The forum, which was formed three years ago and is supported by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, works to reach out to the growing Israeli community in Toronto that is largely unaffiliated and disconnected from the rest of the Jewish community, said Telem, president and CEO of Peerless Travel.
But he hopes that new leadership – headed by Mark Gold, who replaced Gil Blutrich as chairman – along with volunteers, committees and initiatives, will help the Israeli community become more established in Toronto.
Telem, along with fellow vice-chair Danny Baratz, have attended meetings to establish committees and set four main goals on which the forum is based.
He said the first goal was established when the forum was founded in 2005.
“We’re still working on what’s called the Hamifgash program, which is covering the cultural aspects, events, and things of that nature,” Telem said.
The second part of the four-pronged approach is what Telem believes is the most important.
“Education is what brought me into this thing. The Israeli population in Toronto is now about 25 per cent of the Jewish population… It is not, for the most part, affiliated with the established Jewish community, and the parents may not realize that when you live in the Diaspora and you want to save your Jewish identity, you have to give your kids a Jewish education,” he said.
Three years ago, the forum founded Kachol Lavan, an Israeli supplementary school that serves about 180 students, but Telem wants to see more efforts to provide Jewish education for Israeli children in Toronto.
“Israelis are not going to Jewish schools as much as Canadians from the established Jewish community are going. There are many reasons,” Telem said.
“A lot of Israelis are secular, so what they are looking for is a replica of what they had [in Israel]… I would say that the number 1 excuse is that they can’t afford it. If they could afford it, or if it was subsidized enough, they would find ways.”
Telem said he worries that the secular background of Israeli immigrants coupled with public education will lead them to assimilate much more quickly than the rest of the Jewish community.
“It is a challenge, mostly because the Israelis that arrive here are not ready to think about these problems. What do they think about? They’re immigrants. They think about getting a house, getting a job… since education is free in this country, it is very easy to go to public school, register the kids and forget about this issue for the time being,” he said.
“That’s why there is an urgency in resolving it. It requires a lot of funding and so far, we don’t know where this funding is going to come from. It is an amazing challenge for the community. It is not only a challenge for the Israeli community. The Jewish community wants to save those kids from disappearing in one generation.”
That’s why the forum’s third goal is fundraising, and adding to its donor list of 500 people.
“If you were born here, you were taught from day one to donate, to give, to volunteer – to do something for the community,” he said.
But, he added, many of the Israelis who immigrated to Toronto more than five years ago weren’t exposed to a culture of philanthropy.
“In Israel, it has improved, but many of the Israelis who are living in Toronto now came before that change occurred,” Telem said.
“In order to take care of your needs, you have to donate some of your income to the Jewish community. You have to invest in the Jewish community.”
The fourth goal for forum volunteers is to bridge the cultural and social gaps between Israeli immigrants and the Canadian Jewish community.
“There are tremendous gaps and lots of grievances on both sides. There are all kinds of things that separate the two communities,” he said.
“I think a majority of the established Jewish community doesn’t know that there are 50,000 Israelis in Toronto. They don’t realize it, and they don’t realize there is such a gap.”
A special committee dedicated to this issue has been formed to create opportunities for members of both communities to connect.
“I think there should be discussion groups… composed of Israelis and Canadians to discuss the different issues. Lay people, people who are not part of organizations, just people from the public, let them talk to each other… That will allow both communities to be aware of what’s going on, and that there is a problem.”
Although forum leaders are tackling sensitive, complicated issues, Telem said he’s cautiously optimistic.
“We have a lot of enthusiasm in the Jewish community. There is a lot of excitement, a lot of volunteers, a lot of people who are trying to get involved. It’s just that we have to be careful where the new leadership is going to take it.”
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