TORONTO — Gabriel Epelbaum, who came to Toronto from Argentina four years ago with his wife and two children, got involved in the Jewish community by helping other newcomers.
Julia and Arkadiy Teplitskiy [Carolyn Blackman photo]
By becoming part of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Toronto’s Gordie Wolfe Leadership Development Program for newcomers, he said that he is not only giving back to the community, he is getting back as well.
The Epelbaum family is among the one-third of 180,000 Jews in the Greater Toronto Area who identify themselves as immigrants.
Joanna Sasson Morrison, co-ordinator of community development services at JIAS, said that the leadership program, one of a number of JIAS programs, was established as a response to the situation of immigrants not sitting on community boards despite making up one-third of the community.
“It is imperative that immigrants become involved in the fabric of Jewish life. The community needs a [bank] of talented people from which to draw,” she said.
Janis Roth, JIAS executive director, said that the agency has always been the gateway to immigration, but its role has changed over the years.
“Eighty-five years ago, its role was all about settlement – assisting with food and shelter. The focus now is getting people connected with the community. Without that, we would have a disengaged, unaffiliated group. If we offer more when they arrive, the [community benefits].”
There is no longer a framework within which all immigrants fit, she said. “We now work closely with each family to determine their goals and dreams, and we work from there. It is much more individualized. There is no notion that each family needs ‘this and this and this.’”
Morrison said that there are more “spokes on the wheel.
“While before it was linear, with each family needing basically the same things, no people come in on different places along the continuum.”
In the 2001 Census Analysis Series on the Jewish Community, prepared by Charles Shahar and Tina Rosenbaum in 2005, it states that JIAS provides resettlement and integration services, as well as an array of programming, including orientation to Toronto and its Jewish community; financial assistance; English lessons; children’s and youth programs; and vocational counselling in partnership with community and government-sponsored agencies.
The integration of newcomers can be further enhanced, they said, by providing opportunities “for participation in the breadth and scope of Jewish community life through camping and day and supplementary school attendance; Jewish community centre and synagogue membership; and by taking leadership roles within community agencies and organizations and on communal boards and committees.
“It is important to recognize the enormous contribution made by newcomers to the overall strength, vitality and viability of the community. Moving forward, the community will sustain and further its efforts to welcome, support and integrate newcomers as they adapt to Canadian society and become fully participating members of our community.”
Epelbaum, who works as a project engineer, and his wife, Silvina, who runs a day care, admit that immigration is not an easy process.
“It wasn’t difficult to find a way to make a living, but being Jewish can be very expensive. That is true in any country, and I understand. We have to help institutions supplement themselves,” said Gabriel Epelbaum.
His older son attended the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto for one year on a subsidy, he said, but left because it was difficult for him socially. “That was the main reason he switched schools. He was the one of the only Latin Americans at CHAT, and everyone had friends from their previous school. I admit that he is shy, but the school made little effort to help him out.”
Nina and Meir Shenhav have been here for about nine months and are still looking for work. She is a journalist, author and actress, and he is an electrical engineer. They are the parents of a 12-year-old and an eight-year-old. They were offered a “generous” subsidy for their children to attend Associated Hebrew Schools, but turned it down, they said, because they want them to integrate with the larger community.
“We came here,” said Nina Shenhav, “because we wanted to move beyond our own community, shake up our life a little. We want our kids to make an effort, to learn to swim in the deep water.”
Their lives are calmer and more relaxed here, they said, and they realize now how tense they were in Israel.
“Our social lives are different, though. In Israel, our families lived nearby, and the kids popped in and out of everyone’s home. They miss that. It is harder for them to make friends here. They keep in close touch by computer, but it is not the same. You can’t get a warm hug from a computer,” she said.
They would like to get involved in the Jewish community they said, “but now is not the time. We have to network for jobs and help our kids get settled.”
They’re also learning their way around. “We need to learn how to find a doctor, get to the pharmacy, the library, things we always took for granted in Israel.”
Boris Shorfer, 43, a father of two, and a member of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, arrived here from the Soviet Union via Israel when he was 14. He still remembers how difficult it was to fit in socially. “I had left all my friends behind, and I was angry for at least two years.”
He has visited his birth town, he said, and realized how good it is to live here. “It is a country with a lot of anger. My parents did a brave and smart thing to move.”
Arkadiy Teplitskiy, 24, who has been here more than three years, and his wife Julia, 24, who arrived several months ago, are both working, and agree that life is definitely easier here.
“We work and we can spend our money. In Russia, we could hardly pay our rent. It’s a good step. We miss Russia, though, so we try to enjoy ourselves and forget,” said Arkadiy.
Work takes all their time, however, and they have no time to forge a connection to the Jewish community, they say.
Igor Korenzvit, who moved here from Russia in 1973, is chair of the Jewish Russian Community Centre and a member of The CJN’s editorial advisory board.
He agreed that the resettlement of immigrants is not the big problem any more. “Some take longer, some take shorter. What is the problem, is their integration into the larger Jewish community, and that is what we need to concentrate on.”
With about 40,000 Russian Jews in the Greater Toronto Area, they represent about 20 per cent of the Jewish population, he said, but less than one per cent sit on boards of Jewish institutions.
The problem, he said, is that many in the larger Jewish community believe that Russian immigrants will integrate on their own if we give them time.
“It happened in the past when their grandparents came [from eastern Europe], but their grandparents were educated in Judaism, and they knew about traditions and religion.
“Russian Jews know very little when they come. Tzedakah did not exist in Russia, and if we don’t teach them, the next generation will be completely lost.”
At the JRCC, he said, we try to teach them about Jewish values, and “afterwards [we hope] they’ll move on to attending synagogue.”
In general, he said, Russians are highly educated and hard-working. “They could strengthen the Jewish community.
“We have more to lose than they do if they don’t integrate. We need new blood and new thinkers.”