The cost of living in Vancouver has gone from ridiculous to blasphemous over the last 20 years, and for the Jewish community of the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley, it’s meant one thing: dispersion.
Increasing numbers of Jewish families have moved to cities such as Langley, Maple Ridge, Abbotsford, Squamish and Chilliwack, which are an average of 45 to 90 minutes away from the Oak Street corridor, where Vancouver’s Jews first settled. As a result, the focus of this year’s capital fundraising campaign for the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver is the inclusion of everyone, rich and poor, and an insistence that the community pay attention to Jews living in outlying areas.
“Everybody who resides locally understands that if you’re living in Vancouver, costs are crazy,” said Al Szajman, who has served as the Federation’s marketing chair for the past nine campaigns and helped develop its marketing and communications strategy.
“It’s very hard for many in our community to deal with the rising costs of living, plus having the incremental costs of trying to live Jewish and be connected to the community through various services and events,” he said. “This campaign is about finding ways to help our partner agencies provide services to people locally and make opportunities available at lower rates than otherwise might be available.”
Szajman noted that up to 50 per cent of the Jewish community of the Lower Mainland now lives outside of Vancouver, in cities that, for the most part, don’t have easy access to Jewish services. “This whole notion of affordability and access is critical,” he noted. “If we’re not a community, what are we? We’re nothing.”
Shelley Rivkin, vice-president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, said the campaign exists to fund solutions that keep people connected. “If we want to have a strong community, we need to make it easy for people to participate. Whether they’re living in places like Abbotsford or Squamish and come to the programs we and our partners now offer there, or whether they are overwhelmed by the cost of living in Vancouver and need more robust subsidies. At the heart of it, there is a sense that we as Jews need each other and we are meant to be a part of a community. That’s what we needed to convey this year.”
Last year, a generous grant from the Diamond Foundation allowed the Federation to form a three-year regional community task force. The first order of business was to survey Jewish families in those communities and find out what they wanted.
“One of the most powerful comments we received from parents is that they want their kids to have Jewish friends,” she recalled. “The kids are in schools where they’re the only Jewish kid, or they think they’re the only Jewish kid.”
The task force created an initiative called Connect Me In, appointed someone to liaise directly with families living in the suburbs and began offering programming in those communities. Shabbat dinners were held in local community centres and Chanukah parties were organized in Maple Ridge, Coquitlam and Squamish.
“We did a Chanukah program in Squamish, for example, and the Jews that came were so thrilled that we came to them,” noted Shelley Ail, co-chair of the regional communities’ task force. “Their kids made chanukiyahs at our event and we sang songs. They were so happy to know that there are people here in Vancouver thinking about them and wanting to bring services out to them.”
In the past, the Federation has funded brick and mortar buildings in the outlying areas. Now, research is revealing that Jews living in those communities don’t necessarily want to belong to one institution. “We’re hearing they want programming and services in a more fluid way,” noted Marnie Goldberg, who co-chairs the task force with Ail. “People are hungry for Jewish connection. They want to know their Jewish neighbours and to connect Jewishly. But there’s a wide range of things they want, from organized religious services, to education, to kids’ programming.”
The programming for regional communities is being tailored to the needs and desires expressed by Jewish groups and individuals who live in those areas. “When we find a group that wants a particular program, we try to help them conceptualize it and make it happen,” explained Rivkin. “For example, last summer the Jewish Community Centre put on a two-week summer camp and Federation funded a bus to bring children from regional communities to the camp. Our programs are drawing people from different areas and the families are picking activities that make sense for them and that are geographically close.”
Other initiatives include a teen program conducted by the Shinshiniot, the Federation’s Israeli teen ambassadors, who are traveling to various community centres and public libraries in the region to hold their events. There are weekly mom-and-tot Jewish programs for families in the outlying areas and a study group has been formed, which brings in Jewish educators from throughout the Lower Mainland. Attendance at the various events has averaged between 25 and 30 people.
“Our Jewish population is now about 26,000 and a growing number of people are living beyond the city of Vancouver border,” Rivkin said. “There’s an imperative to strengthen our emerging communities and we’re committed to growing our funding for this purpose. It’s a key part of our campaign this year, because we recognize that this is where the next Jewish generation is coming from.”