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Epstein: New Jewish portals

(Pixabay photo)

Our heritage belongs to all Jews, not just the currently committed. The Passover teaching that we should all feel as if we left Egypt together and the ancient legend that all of us stood at Sinai to create the Jewish nation are elements of a powerful myth that is inclusive of all Jews. Jews who are illiterate of their heritage (believers and non-believers) are cheated out of the power that knowledge can give them – the power to choose what kind of Jews they wish to be, which in the modern period is a supermarket of options. 

It is difficult for us at the centre of Jewish life who grew up in Toronto to imagine Jews who won’t be in the synagogue of their choice on Kol Nidrei eve. In the 1950s virtually everyone was in shul on Yom Kippur, with the exception of some communists who were recognizing Yom Kippur in their own defiant way. We can’t imagine parents who are not planning a bar or bat mitzvah for their children or not having a bris for their new baby boy, but these families now exist in their tens of thousands near our very own Bathurst Street. 

UJA knows it from the number of donations it gets. The population grows and the number of donors stays the same or even decreases. Most of the non-Orthodox synagogues know it because of both decreased membership and dwindling attendance from those who do belong. 

In Toronto, these peripheral Jews who constitute the majority of our community are native Torontonians, Russian-speaking, Israeli, or some combination thereof. Even though studies have been done (some of which I was involved in), we don’t know enough about these individuals. We do know that they are not a homogeneous group, and any attempt at generalization is both unfair and inaccurate. They have as many differences among them as do those at the centre of Jewish life. Israelis can be left, right, or centrist in their politics.  Russian-speaking Jews can be as different one from the other as Moscow and St. Petersburg or even Minsk and Samarkand.  One thing the Israelis and the Russians have in common is that they are very connected to Israel via family, the Internet, and the media. 

The big question is how can we help them to get closer to their unique Jewishness (not ours) and to find a Jewish journey that is meaningful to them? These Jews have been with us long enough for us to know that they are mostly not interested in joining synagogues or donating to Jewish charities. Many of them don’t speak English at home and don’t necessarily pay attention to the Jewish advertising up and down Bathurst Street. It will be new portals to Jewish life that these folks will hopefully enter. They will be very different gates than the ones our grandparents built here on their unique Jewish journeys. 


I am about to do something risky that could generate criticism on the order of:  “You are misrepresenting these Jews with specifics which do not apply to all of them or even most of them.”  But I’ll take my chances by peeking into three fictitious families in order to see where the spark of Jewish connection might exist.  1. Jim and Nancy were born in Toronto. Jim grew up in a Christian home with a Christmas tree but no church attendance. Nancy’s parents are Jewish, but they never joined a synagogue. Nancy went to a summer camp that had many Jews, but it was mainly about canoes and tennis.  They live in Newmarket with two children and friends much like them.  There is no religious observance of any kind in this house, but Jim has taken a recent interest in klezmer music. Jim and Nancy have never been to Israel. 

2.  Boris and Natasha were born and raised in Kiev. Soon after marrying they left for Israel where Boris was happy but Natasha was not. After six years they left with one child and settled in Toronto.  Both have Jewish parents living in Kiev and Israel along with many close relatives in Israel. They speak Russian at home with Hebrew and English words mixed in. They have a yelka (Russian Christmas tree) in their home around Hanukkah time, and Natasha cooks Hanukkah recipes she learned in Kiev from her grandmother. She also visits a Russian Orthodox Church from time to time to listen to the liturgical music.  Neither Boris nor Natasha have ever been in a synagogue. Both watch Israeli Russian TV and are on the phone with Israel constantly.

3.  Avi and Nurit were born in Israel and arrived here 15 years ago, having both served in the IDF and earned Israeli BAs.  They live near Major Mac and Dufferin.  They speak Hebrew to each other when they don’t want their kids to understand. All three children were born in Toronto and neither speak nor read Hebrew.  Avi had observant grandparents and has memories of Shabbat and holidays with them. Nurit’s family is fifth generation Israeli with strong secular Zionist values.  Both Avi and Nurit love reading the Tanach in Hebrew, but do not belong to a synagogue or study group. Their children have virtually no contact with other Jewish children, Israeli or otherwise.

Let me tell you a family story. My grandfather (that is, the man who adopted my mother when she arrived in Toronto from the Ukraine as a 12-year-old orphan in 1922) considered himself a modern Jew.  He ate kosher food, drove to shul on Shabbat, and was known for his charitable volunteer work. Once while having a picnic in High Park he noticed a Jewish mother dressed in the east European Orthodox style with her son who was similarly dressed and with tzitzit and payot.

He approached her and berated her in Yiddish for dressing that way and keeping her son in such a traditional manner. She answered in accented English: “Mister, it’s a free country.”

I have always loved that story as the best example of what modernity has given us.  We have a supermarket of options to live a meaningful Jewish life; perhaps even more so in this postmodern period.

Can we help Jim, Nancy, Boris, Natasha, Avi, Nurit, and their friends on the fringe to identify the spark of Jewish life that does exist in their lives and then use that spark to light a new journey towards a Jewish life that corresponds with their lifestyle? It’s doubtful that a synagogue, or a JCC, or a Walk for Israel is the portal they will enter. But, hopefully, they will find a road that leads to Jewish literacy and enables them to choose what kind of Jew they wish to be.

We at the centre of Jewish life are justifiably proud of our community as it is, one of the strongest Diaspora communities in the world. The institutions of our community must always be open and welcoming, but we must be prepared to help the marginal Jews of the GTA find new portals to their own Jewish journeys and see their presence in our midst as an enhancement of our peoplehood.