Following the deadly terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris in January 2015, there were predictions of an influx of French Jews to Quebec, providing much-needed revitalization of the Jewish community.
A common language and the attraction of Montreal’s European flavour and well-structured Jewish community, it was thought, would make Quebec an attractive destination, after Israel.
France has indeed been the second-highest source of immigrants to Quebec in recent years, according to a government report. Between 2011 and 2015, almost 21,000 people born in France immigrated to the province, including more than 4,500 last year.
How many of them are Jewish is not known.
Ometz, in partnership with the federation, launched Initiative France Montréal last October to be better prepared to answer those questions and help French Jews, who have made the decision to leave, through the immigration and integration process.
Since then, Ometz has assisted 53 families from France in settling in Montreal and another 50 families made exploratory visits to the city with its guidance.
That was by June, when Ometz published its annual report, and the numbers continue to grow, said Monique Lapointe, manager of immigration services.
“We continue to receive one or two inquiries a day,” she said.
Leah Berger of the federation’s strategic planning and community relations department said they are “motivated by a fear of anti-Semitism and for their security, as well as [the opportunity of] professional and economic improvement.”
Ometz’s French clients in the previous 10 years totalled about 250 families
Of course, Ometz only sees those who come to it for services and has no way of knowing how many do not. It could be high because French Jews tend not to have the same strong ties to community organizations as those in Montreal.
Ometz’s recent French clients are predominantly families with young children; the parents are well educated and generally middle- to upper-middle class, Lapointe said.
The number of arrivals has been limited by an immigration process that takes from 18 to 24 months, Lapointe said. Some have come right away on 12-month work permits.
Even though they are attractive candidates, they can still be stalled because quotas have been filled.
And while a Quebec-France agreement provides for mutual recognition of professional credentials, getting re-established in a field here is “not that simple,” said Lapointe.
Berger adds that, despite their advantages, French immigrants face “a long process with many obstacles and delays.”
The federation has been careful not to actively lure French Jews here, but at the same time convey that they are welcome and that the community is equipped to assist them, said Berger. It neither wants to detract from aliyah (thousands of French Jews have gone to Israel) nor weaken the Jewish community in France.
A task force of experts in immigration, employment, schooling and other key areas, as well as earlier French immigrants, are guiding the strategy.
This year the federation allocated $137,000 to Initiative France Montréal, which enabled the hiring of two staff members.
Laetitia Sellam, an integration consultant, came here from Paris in 2014. She is generally the first person the French Jews deal with. Ometz felt it was important to have someone who understands what they are going through in that position.
Philippe Elharrar, a veteran community professional and volunteer, who has spent considerable time in France, is tasked with employment and business counselling.
The latest development under Initiative France Montréal is a “microsite,” on the federation’s website, intended to catch the eye of relatives and friends here of Jews in France. It has been a little more forthright than Ometz’s cautious approach till now.
Featuring a suitcase emblazoned with the Canadian flag, the catch line is “The Montreal Jewish community will give the facts [“l’heure juste”] on integration into Canada.
“The Jewish community of Montreal is organized to welcome you and support you in your intercultural transition.” It provides a brief description of the community and services, tips on ‘first steps,’ useful links and a contact form.”
Lapointe said Ometz is endeavouring to respond immediately to inquiries, often using Skype.
Ometz provides all Jewish immigrants wherever they come from – Israel is the highest source – with the same range of services, free of charge, regardless of their financial means. It can recommend accredited immigration consultants to supplement that.
French newcomer “Natacha,” whose testimonial is published in the Ometz annual report, said the agency welcomed her with “open arms.”
“Ometz helped me to see what Jewish life is like here, because it’s not the same as it is in France. Finding a job is also very different. I attended workshops for newcomers that provided key information on how to navigate the system in Canada and Quebec.”
Initiative France Montréal is now forming the Comité des français, a volunteer group to organize social and cultural activities, possibly matching newcomers with local families.
Over the past decade the French have integrated well into Montreal, but expectations tend to be high.
“It is always easier if they have someone who can support them in accepting the realities of North American life,” Lapointe said.