WINNIPEG — “I believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity,” says Winnipeg Jewish Federation executive director Bob Freedman, responding to an article by JTA reporter Uriel Heilman that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and on the Times of Israel website, among other places.
The article suggests that the vaunted GrowWinnipeg 15-year-old initiative to increase the size of the city’s formerly dwindling Jewish population by attracting South American immigrants fleeing economic instability in their homelands has caused more problems than it’s solved.
Over the last 15 years, the majority of immigrants to Winnipeg have come initially from South America, and then from Israel. The story says that while the South American Jewish families were a good fit for the Winnipeg Jewish community, this was not as true for the Israelis.
But has that in fact been the case? Opinion in the city is mixed.
Nevertheless, as a result of the widespread attention the story has received internationally, Freedman said the federation office and website are being “bombarded” with calls and emails from Jews throughout North America and Europe who are suddenly considering Winnipeg as a potential new home.
On the other hand, he noted, some of the more than 4,400 Jewish newcomers to Winnipeg in recent years were “upset and offended” by Heilman’s article.
“I’m not sure where Heilman got the impression that our immigration recruitment program has backfired on us,” Freedman said, referring to the headline on the piece when it ran on Haaretz.com.
“I thought that the tone of the article was too negative,” said Faye Rosenberg Cohen, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s planning director. “The Jewish immigrants who have come here in the last 15 years have been of great benefit to our community.”
Winnipeg’s Jewish community goes back to 1882, when the first sizeable group of Russian Jews arrived here. As in other North American cities, the community grew significantly in the years leading up to and after World War I. And while it has often been difficult to keep people here, the steady outflow of people was more than compensated for by an influx of Holocaust survivors after the war and a steady stream of Jewish families moving into the city from rural communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario throughout the 1940s and into the 1960s.
The Jewish community’s population here peaked at 21,000 in 1961, and then began an inexorable decline. By the mid-1960s, there were very few Jewish families left in the rural areas to replenish Winnipeg’s Jewish population.
By 1990, Winnipeg’s Jewish population had fallen to less than 16,000 and was aging. In the mid-1990s, Freedman and other community leaders began taking action to reverse the trend.
The first step was the construction of the Asper Jewish Community Campus in south Winnipeg, which was originally built to replace the old YMHA downtown. One of the first such community campuses in North America, the Asper Campus includes the Rady JCC, the kindergarten-to-Grade-12 Gray Academy of Jewish Education, the Kaufman-Silverberg Jewish Library and a host of Jewish communal organization offices.
The Asper Campus was opened in September 1997, and the GrowWinnipeg initiative followed shortly thereafter, in an effort to retain younger people who grew up here, as well as persuade former Winnipeggers to come back and recruit new Jewish immigrants.
Key to the recruitment program was outreach to the Jewish communities of Latin America – and especially Argentina – which came about mainly as the result of a coincidence. In 1998, Janice Filmon, the wife of then-Manitoba premier Gary Filmon, happened to be sitting next to a Jewish Argentine on a flight. At the time, Argentina was undergoing an economic meltdown and Manitoba had an immigration agreement with the federal government that allowed the province to recruit skilled immigrants, independent of the feds.
As a result of Filmon’s initiative, the Jewish federation organized a program to actively recruit Jewish families from South America. It included visits to the region by federation representatives, a website and welcoming committees for Latin American Jews coming to Winnipeg for exploratory visits and later taking up residence.
Over the next few years, close to 500 South American Jewish families moved to Winnipeg, where they were whole-heartedly welcomed and made to feel at home.
Then, around 2005, South American immigration largely stopped (a small number of families still arrive each year) as the Argentine economy improved. Unexpectedly though, a large influx of Israelis – most of whom originated from the former Soviet Union – began to come. Over the past nine years, up to 1,000 Israeli families have come here to live.
Freedman is adamant that the federation has never actively promoted Israeli immigration to Winnipeg. “The details about our programs and eligibility rules are online,” he said. “Anybody can access them.”
The Jewish community’s support agencies are here to help all Jewish immigrants, no matter where they come from, he added.
So were the South Americans a better fit than the Israelis, as Heilman claims in his article?
Arie Lavy is an Israeli who has been living in Winnipeg for about 30 years. He believes the South Americans were a better fit. The South American Jewish families came from established Jewish communities much like Winnipeg’s, he said. They understand that you have to pay to support your community.
For the Israelis, it’s different, he said. “In Israel, no one pays to belong to a shul or go to school. It’s a different mentality. They don’t feel the need to belong to a Jewish community because that was not an issue in Israel.”
The Lubavitch Centre here does attract some Israeli families for yom tov programs, Lavy noted, because the programs are free and no membership is required, but he believes the Israelis also identify Lubavitch as authentic Judaism, because there are very few Conservative and Reform congregations in Israel.
Lavy suggested that the language barrier is also more of an issue for the Israelis. He recommends that the federation and other Jewish organizations put out material in Hebrew and/or Russian if the organizations want to attract more immigrants to their programs.
Bernie Bellan, the owner, publisher and editor of Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, charges that the Russian and Israeli immigrants have come here mainly to improve their economic situation and don’t really care much about being part of the Jewish community.
On the other hand, Rory Paul, CEO and head of school of the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, said the influx of newcomers has stabilized the community school’s student population and increased it. He said 80 of the school’s 550 students have been in Winnipeg for three years or less.
“All the new children here have added immeasurably to the culture and life of our school,” he said. “It has been a wonderful opportunity for our children to be exposed to so many different cultures.”
Bellan is trying to find out how many of the immigrant families who have come here in the last 15 years have stayed. Federation’s Rosenberg Cohen said she and her staff are still working on those numbers, but said immigrant families have made their presence strongly felt in the community.
Paul, however, said that last year, 30 students from Gray Academy and their families left the school and the city.
“It’s a situation where after four or five years here, some of the immigrants have moved into middle management in their workplaces,” he said. “If they want to better their careers, some of them have to look elsewhere. You can’t fault them for that.”
The cost to the community of absorbing the new immigrants has also raised questions. One estimate puts the yearly cost of immigrant services at $500,000. Rosenberg Cohen agreed that the amount is substantial, but while she doesn’t have a total dollar figure, she said $500,000 sounds too high.
“We are not sure where that figure came from,” she said. “And relative to the long-term benefits, the cost is actually quite modest.”
Because the Gray Academy charges tuition on a sliding scale based on family income, Paul noted, more immigrant families – who initially have little or no income – do have a negative effect on the school’s bottom line.
Bellan praised Heilman’s article for “fomenting discussion about immigration to the community.
Bob Freedman, on the other hand, noted that after a 30-year period of decline, the Jewish community in Winnipeg is growing again.
“We have had people come here who are actively participating in our community and whose kids are attending our school, our camps and our youth groups,” he said. “That doesn’t sound to me like a failing program.”
Emily Shane, executive director of Jewish Child and Family Service, agreed. “This renewed immigration has been a very positive experience,” she said. “We at the JCFS have helped settle quite a number of immigrants over the past few years. And many have become productive members of our community. Many of the immigrants we have helped settle have become JCFS donors, volunteers and board members. We keep in touch with most of them by email, keeping them informed about upcoming community events.
“And they know that they can come to us for help with whatever problems arise – just like all other Jewish Winnipeggers. That’s integration.”