To the extent that Canadians register in the Israeli psyche (they are often lumped in with Americans, or simply merit a shrug), they can be the butt of stereotypical observations: Canuck immigrants to Israel are excessively polite (at least at first), they continue to form decorous queues in a nation where a “line-up” is nothing more than a jumbled mass of people and they give up their parkas and wear light jackets – even in the winter.
Known as the start-up nation for its dizzying success in the high-tech sector – including cybersecurity, space exploration and military technology – Israel has provided fertile ground for Canadians to soar.
According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, 7,861 Canadians moved to Israel in the 25 years between 1992 and 2016. While they have popularized ice hockey and their relatives bring them real maple syrup when they visit, many have done extremely well in the Jewish state, finding their footing in business, the arts, technology, finance, academia, sports and other fields.
It’s an old saw that it’s best to avoid moving to Israel with stars in your eyes, as the ideological lure is one thing, but the reality can be a hard slog.
Montreal-born Nadine Baudot-Trajtenberg, who was appointed deputy governor of the Bank of Israel in 2014, advises that the first task for Canadians considering making aliyah is to learn Hebrew.
“Certainly, if you come early on, then that challenge is going to be less,” Baudot-Trajtenberg, 61, told The CJN in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. “But if you come later in life, it’s not only that acquiring a language is a bigger challenge, but typically you’re busier. You have to learn the language as you’re trying to learn (a) lot of other things.”
Baudot-Trajtenberg, who helps set Israel’s monetary policy and is among the most high-profile Canadians in the country, made aliyah in 1985 with impressive credentials: an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Montreal, an MA in philosophy, economics and politics from Oxford, and a doctorate in economics from Harvard.
Soon after arriving, she joined Bank Hapoalim as an economist and was later in charge of investor relations in the bank’s financial division.
Asked about her own Hebrew, Baudot-Trajtenberg laughed. It’s good, she said, but she is often mistaken for an immigrant from Brazil or Belgium.
Canadians have long been a presence on Israel’s political scene. Bernard Joseph (later Dov Yosef) was born in Montreal in 1899 and served as the military governor of Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence. He held ministerial positions, including the justice portfolio, in nine Israeli governments before he died in 1980.
Henry (Zvi) Weinberg taught French at the University of Toronto and went on to become the sole non-Russian member of the Knesset in Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah Party from 1996 to 1999. He died 11 years ago and was granted a state funeral in Jerusalem.
These days, one can find Sharren Haskel serving as a Likud MK. Born in Toronto in 1984, she was brought to Israel by her family at the age of one. After completing high school, she enlisted in the Israel Border Police as a combat officer, then trained as a veterinary nurse in Australia. She was the second-youngest MK ever to be elected when she was voted into office in 2015.
Once firmly in the peace camp, Haskel’s military service, which took place during the second intifadah, changed her.
“Slowly, I grew up. I started shifting my opinions and agendas,” Haskel, 32, told The CJN last year. “When you’ve seen people die terrible deaths, and thinking that (the Palestinians) are the people that we wanted to live with, side by side, and the only thing they want to do is to kill Israelis, well, you get a different perspective.”
In the diplomatic world, Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016, walked the talk when she announced at the end of her term that she would remain in Israel. She’s now a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank devoted to “strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry.”
For artists wishing to incorporate Jewish themes into their work, there’s no better place to be than Israel. That’s certainly been true for Aharon Harlap, one of Israel’s most prominent composers and one of the country’s top choral, operatic and orchestral conductors.
Born in Chatham, Ont., 76 years ago, the multiple-award-winning Harlap began his musical career in Canada as a pianist. He completed studies in music and mathematics at the University of Manitoba in 1963 and immigrated to Israel the following year.
Israel, Harlap told The CJN, gave him the opportunity to weave Hebrew culture, history and language into his original musical work.
“Many Biblical texts and the Hebrew language have been incorporated into my compositions, which were performed here and still are today,” he said. Those include Harlap’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, Jephtha’s Daughter, the Psalms and David and Goliath.
“I’m not so sure that if I lived in Canada, these compositions would have been appreciated as much as here in Israel, at least at the beginning of my career,” he said.
While Harlap believes Canadians now have a greater appreciation of culture than they once did, he said that “it is a different kind of culture that one experiences here in Israel.” It’s “embedded” in Jewish history: “The suffering that was and still goes on here today, the politics, the Hebrew language, the religion, with all its complications, and so much more. All these things influence the musician, or artist, living in this country.”
Ultimately, Harlap feels that settling in Israel gave him purpose – “to be with my own nation, to have somehow survived, raised a wonderful family and have found fulfillment in my life, not (just) as a musician, but as a human being, as well. I certainly feel blessed.”
But the picture is not always so romantic for Canadian expats living in Israel.
Edward Breuer, a Montreal-born professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, moved to Israel in 2001 with his wife and four children, for “purely ideological” reasons.
“In many ways,” he conceded, “this was not a smart career move.”
Israel poses a difficult challenge for academics. “It is not impossible, but it is far from simple,” Breuer, 57, told The CJN. There are simply too few academic positions in the country, he said.
But if one lands a job in a Judaica-related field, the upside is obvious: access to resources, including the National Library of Israel, and “to many of the smartest and most knowledgeable scholars anywhere.”
Even with pitfalls, the rewards of living in Israel are “well beyond the walls of academe,” Breuer noted. “They are the privilege of living here, problems and all.” He has no regrets. “Israel is home,” he said.
As for advice for newly minted Canadian academics thinking of moving to Israel, Breuer counsels that since opportunities in the country are fewer, newcomers should have a Plan B, “while trying to make Plan A work.” Making aliyah, said Breuer, “is not like drawing a target and then firing. It is more like jumping and then drawing the target where you land.”
One Canadian who has hit his target in the sporting world is Sylvan Adams. Another former Montrealer, Adams, an ebullient 58-year-old real estate billionaire and a top road and track cyclist (six-time Canadian, 15-time Quebec champion and a PanAm Games gold medalist), played a major role in bringing the Giro d’Italia – which is considered the World Series of bicycle races – to Israel for the first time.
Adams made aliyah last year and is the main funder and brainchild behind the $21.5-million Sylvan Adams Sports Excellence Institute at Tel Aviv University, which will provide testing and training in four Olympic disciplines: swimming, running, cycling and triathlon – all under one roof. It will be the first facility of its kind in the Middle East.
Adams is also busy planning the Giro’s opening three stages, known as “The Big Start” – a 10-km time trial in Jerusalem, a 167-km ride from Haifa to Tel Aviv and a gruelling 226-km race from Be’er Sheva, through the Negev desert, to Eilat.
“I want to promote Israel as a startup sporting nation, in the same way we are perceived in other areas of exceptional Israeli achievements,” he said at the laying of the sports centre’s cornerstone last May. “Israel is in the news every day, largely in a negative context. I want to change this channel by promoting normal activities that get publicity.… Sport is a great tool for advancing what I term, ‘normal Israel.’ ”
Conflict and terrorism, he told the Guardian, are “a very, very small part of life in Israel.”
As for Israel’s more ineffable qualities, Baudot-Trajtenberg has sensed cultural differences between it and Canada that are “far smaller” than people might think.
‘You feel part of something, because that something is relatively small.’
If you come from an under-populated place like Canada, especially Quebec, “there’s a familiarity, a sense of family that is replicated in Israel,” she said. “You feel part of something, because that something is relatively small.”
She’s also noticed a lack of hierarchy in Israeli society, which “makes it extremely welcoming to an outsider.”
There are also political and economic similarities, she pointed out.
“If you come from Canada, you understand the parliamentary system. Of course, it’s different (in Israel), but you instinctively understand it. Canadians also understand trade unions. A lot of the institutions are similar,” she said. “There are some idiosyncrasies, but they are not as wide as you may initially think.”
Israel is a country of builders and Canadians have played a major part. The Azrieli family has constructed several grand edifices in the Holy Land. Edward Reichmann, of the famed Toronto family, moved to Israel and excelled at property development before he died in 2005. And from their homes in Canada, Hershey Friedman of Montreal and Joseph Waldman of Toronto continue to make inroads in Israel’s residential real estate market.
Few ex-Canadians in Israel have made a bigger splash in entrepreneurship than Benny Landa. Born in Poland just after the Second World War, he was two years old when his family settled in Edmonton and 28 when he arrived in Israel in 1974.
Since then, Landa has become known as the father of digital printing. Just three years after arriving, he founded Indigo Digital Printing, which employed a new process that rivalled standard offset printing and enabled the high-speed production of high-quality colour images. By the early 1990s, he unveiled the world’s first digital colour printing press.
In 2002, Indigo was acquired by Hewlett-Packard Co. for US$830 million. That year, he and his wife established the Landa Fund for Equal Opportunity Through Education, which has donated more than $50 million in university scholarships.
Landa’s latest ventures are in nanotechnology. He holds 800 patents worldwide, according to his company’s website.
Living in Canada gave him “a compass for how Israel ought to be,” Landa told the Financial Post in 2015. “It helps me in my efforts to close socio-economic gaps in Israel and make Israeli society more egalitarian and tolerant.”
Baudot-Trajtenberg offers some pragmatic advice for Canadians considering making aliyah.
“I would encourage people to come and try it,” she counselled. “They will find an extraordinary, dynamic society. The challenges are huge, but the flexibility of the society is remarkable. And the pay-offs are there. No big deal if it doesn’t work.”