HALIFAX — More than 100 families of Israeli-Russian Jews have migrated from Israel to Halifax over the past six years, and just in time. The newcomers might be just what Halifax’s small, aging Jewish community needs to survive.
For years, the number of Jewish seniors in Halifax had been increasing dramatically, while young Jews moved away in droves to larger population centres such as Toronto or Montreal. In 2009, Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA’s demographic task force predicted that Jewish seniors in Halifax would increase from about 7 per cent of the community in 2001 to 20.5 per cent in 2021.
“There were two generations that were completely missing from this congregation,” says Rabbi Amram Maccabi of Halifax’s only Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel.
In 2007, the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC) decided to try using immigration to revitalize the population. It tapped a provincial government initiative that allows community organizations to find particular groups of immigrants, and through the program, it identified Israeli-Russian Jews as a good match.
After the massive post-Soviet aliyah in the 1990s, Rabbi Maccabi says, some olim “fell between the cracks.” It was those people – Russian-born Jews who had migrated to Israel as children and now had children of their own – who were interested in coming to Canada.
But even with the help of the provincial immigration program, their settlement in Halifax, which has about 1,900 Jews, wasn’t easy.
The AJC’s effort started out with the support of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, but after JIAS was reorganized in 2013, the AJC was on its own, says executive director Jon Goldberg.
“There was little money and little help. Most of the people in Toronto…didn’t think it would work,” he says. “None of us had ever done this before.”
“I’m in the Jew business, not the immigration business,” Goldberg likes to say. And from Goldberg’s perspective, the newcomers’ integration went slower than he’d hoped it would.
“All our families are seniors. How many [of them] are going to end up palling around with a young couple with two little kids?” Goldberg says. “They’re grandparents already.”
It seemed like a Catch-22. The main problem with integration was exactly the reason the newcomers were so dearly needed: those two missing generations.
Rabbi Maccabi thinks he’s found the answer to that problem.
Himself an immigrant from Israel, Rabbi Maccabi moved to Halifax three years ago at the urging of his own rabbi. His teacher encouraged Rabbi Maccabi to go beyond his comfort zone and “spread your faith like a lighthouse,” and he had also known another rabbi who had served in Halifax some years before, and he thought his protegé would like it.
Today, more than one-fifth of the newcomer families have applied to become paying members of Beth Israel.
Why have they been attracted to his shul? “You need to want them… and we want them very much.”
He and his wife, Avia, showed how much he wanted them by inviting both Israeli-Russian families and local Halifax Jews into their home every Shabbat.
But Rabbi Maccabi had more in mind than being friendly. He was also secretly playing matchmaker.
“Many times we invited two families that we thought were a match,” he says with a grin.
Sure enough, “They found friendship in each other.” Now, he says, they invite each other to community events and to each other’s homes on their own.
But Rabbi Maccabi doesn’t take credit for what he feels has been the tremendously successful integration of the newcomers. He thinks there’s been matchmaking by a greater force at work.
“This group of people… it’s like a present from God, given to this place, to save it,” he says.
“Literally, I think it is. It’s exactly the ages, exactly what they need. It’s the perfect people to come here.”
There are other reasons it’s a good match, Rabbi Maccabi says. For instance, he notes that his congregation’s liturgy is Orthodox, but not all of its members are fully observant at home. Similarly, he says, the newcomers’ “Jewish identity is strong. They’re very much aware of it, but it’s not the centre of their lives.”
This is partly because when they were growing up in the Soviet Union, practising their faith was largely forbidden.
Neli Shpoker, one of the new arrivals, says that’s what made her family make aliyah when she was eight.
Like many of the Israeli-Russian newcomers, her own reasons for leaving the Jewish state more than 20 years later were mixed. The political situation played a role, she says, but the biggest factor was the increased opportunities for her children, who were one and five at the time.
Shpoker and her family have been living in Halifax for three years now. She works at the AJC and is a paralegal student.
Despite the difficulties of settling in Nova Scotia’s capital, when asked how she likes Halifax, Shpoker smiles. “I like it,” she says, then corrects herself: “I love it.”
She adds: “The people are different. The approach is different. But I love it.”
On the day she spoke to The CJN, Shpoker was particularly happy because her membership had just been approved at Beth Israel.
“I’m starting to be involved” in the shul and in the wider community, she says.
This involvement seems to be a good sign. But Goldberg is holding off on making a final judgment.
“We’re fortunate to have them here. I think time will tell, as a Jewish community, how we benefit and grow from the influx,” he says.
“If we can come up with the resources and the patience to deal with the problems that are present and foreseeable, I think 10 or 15 years from now, we will be lucky.”
Rabbi Maccabi has no such hesitation.
“They are the natural continuation of this place… they can revive it,” he says. “I don’t see any other option for this place without them.”