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Rabbi Bulka: Better news for Canadian Jews

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It is somewhat ironic that I react to the recent released survey of the 2018 study of Canadian Jewry, carried out by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in partnership with the University of Toronto and York University.

The irony is that the study, titled “2018 Survey of Jews in Canada,” involved Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, but not Ottawa, the city in which I live.

But, after reading this ground breaking research combining vital information and equally vital insight, it would be surprising if adding Ottawa into the study would have materially changed the general thrust of the study, or the observations contained therein. And it was nice to read that Jewish Ottawa, along with Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver, is growing in population.

Kudos to the authors, Robert Brym, Keith Neuman, and Rhonda Lenton for providing a gold mine of information and insight.

One of the many feel good items in the study is that in many ways, we are doing much better than our neighbours to the south. Canadians, Jewish or non-Jewish, get a kick out of learning that we do better than the U.S. on anything. So, from a purely nationalistic vantage point, this is welcome news.

But it would be silly to let that news affect how we react to the study. That we are doing better does not mean that we are doing well, just better. There is much in the study that is encouraging, and at the same time, there is much in the study that is cause for concern.

In a short presentation such as this it is impossible to cover everything. But it is clear that for those who are entrusted with the future of Canadian Jewry, be they rabbis, educators, communal leaders, community supporters, parents and children, we have been handed a treasure of information and ideas that could, and likely should, form the blueprint for the future of Canadian Jewry.

READ: SURVEY OF CANADIAN JEWRY TO HAVE ‘REAL IMPLICATIONS’

A well-done survey, as indeed this is, must be read carefully and studied responsibly. I recall reading an item in the 1970 National (U.S.) Jewish Population Study which caught my eye, and which has remained imprinted on me ever since. A question posed in that survey dealt with whether it would bother you if your child married out of the faith.

If my memory is not playing tricks on me, around 70 per cent of the 20-29 age group said it would not bother them. That the intermarriage rate in the United States went up to around 50 per cent when the 20-29 generation itself became the parent generation was pretty well predicted in the study. Could something have been done to prevent the spike in the intermarriage rate? I am not sure, and I am also not sure if anything was done. After all, this was just a study. But the lesson of this shared tidbit is that we need to take well-done studies seriously and incorporate the signs and the warnings in whatever strategy for community building that we develop.

Take the intermarriage rate, for example. The Canadian rate is 23 per cent; for the Jewish community in the U.S., the rate is 50 per cent. That is a huge difference. But an intermarriage rate of 23 per cent, though much better than 50 per cent, is still not good. I recall that decades ago we were alarmed when the rate was around 10 per cent. And of great concern is that the intermarriage rate for Jews in the 20-29 age range is around 33 per cent. Yes, we can take comfort in the reality that we are better, but if that comfort lulls us into thinking we are okay, we may be headed for trouble.

I realize that I am commenting as a rabbi, not as a researcher. The researchers, from their perspective, will argue that we are doing well. For rabbis, just being “better than” does not equate with doing well. Every person, every percentage is precious.

More to the point – are we better because we are doing everything better, and continue to get even better, or are we just a few generations behind the U.S., and so are destined to catch up to them, and their scary statistics?

We visit Israel more, we contribute charitably to Jewish causes more, we belong to a synagogue more. And the differences between us and our U.S. compatriots is significant. Eighty per cent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel. Only 43 per cent of American Jews have visited Israel. Eighty per cent of Canadian Jews gave to a Jewish charity in the previous year, whereas only 50 per cent of American Jews have done so. And Canadian Jews are twice as likely to belong to a synagogue.

Leading a moral and ethical life, remembering the Holocaust, celebrating Jewish holidays – the majority of Canadian Jews identify each as essential to what being Jewish means to them. I wonder whether all these have sustaining power.

It is great to lead a moral and ethical life, but many will insist that they need not be Jewish in order to do this. We are doing well at keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, but for how long can this last, given that we have fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors? And does this aspect of Jewish life inspire continuity, a matter that has been debated over the years? What exactly is meant by celebrating Jewish holidays and, again, if this is nothing more than a party, how does it tangibly impact on the Jewish future?

Finally, what are we to make of the fact that only 22 per cent consider observing Jewish law as essential to being Jewish? This is higher than in the U.S., but is this pointing to a general trend away from Judaism as a religion, and more toward Judaism as a culture? What should we make of the finding that 62 per cent of Canadians belong to a synagogue and one other Jewish organization, but only one in six attend synagogue at least once a week? We will only know if we continue to track this. These are serious matters, pointing to the need to stay on top of what is unfolding, and monitoring more regularly how the community is evolving.

Generally, the pattern of the findings is not at all surprising, in that the more religious are also more communally connected. On the other end of the spectrum, it is heartening to know that only eight per cent feel that being Jewish is of little or no importance to them. It is therefore less surprising to learn that 64 per cent of those with no affiliation raise all their children as Jewish. Still, it would be great to find out why that percentage is so high, considering that in the U.S., only 19 per cent with no affiliation raise all their children as Jewish. What is it about Canada that makes us so much better? It seems almost too good to be true. How long can this last? And what can our neighbours to the south learn from this?

Those who attended Jewish day school or yeshiva for nine or more years are more likely to believe that being part of the Jewish community, celebrating holidays with family, and caring about Israel are essential to being Jewish, and are significantly less likely to have intermarried. U.S. Jews are half as likely to have attended a Jewish day school or Jewish summer camp, or even afternoon school. For example, in Canada 43 per cent attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva, twice as many as in the U.S., where the percentage is 23 per cent. The trend makes sense but leaves us with questions.

Consider Toronto, where 67 per cent of those who attended nine years of day school believe celebrating Jewish holidays with family is an essential part of being Jewish, and 58 per cent of those who did not attend day school believe that. In other words, the nine years of schooling brings with it only a relatively small increase in that area.

That same figure appears with regard to caring for Israel among Torontonians, for whom caring about Israel is an essential part of being Jewish for 40 per cent of non-attendees at a Jewish day school, and 49 per cent for those who had nine years or more. Are there warning signals here regarding the relatively low impact that nine years of day school attendance is making? Are we so good that we succeed even when success is not expected? Or are we missing some hidden factors?

We are legitimately worried about the rise of anti-Semitism, what I prefer to call anti-Judaism, since many of the perpetrators are themselves Semites. There is no doubt that these manifestations, ugly and unwelcome as they are, do heighten one’s sense of identity and connection to community. But 37 per cent report having one or more situations in which they downplayed their Jewishness. What impact can that have in the long range on the vibrancy of the community?

Jews born in the former Soviet Union, sephardim, and Jews born in Israel are more eager than other members of the Canadian Jewish population to increase their connection to Jewish life. What does this mean for community priorities?

Like any good study, the findings lead to the desire for more – more drill down on the findings, more contemplation of what the findings mean. It is clear that community cohesiveness is a major factor in Canadian Jewish life, as is Canadian exceptionalism, a term coined by the authors of  the study.

We know that we are better than our neighbours to the south. (It sounds so good, I cannot help but repeat it). We all share the hope that we are not merely better, but fundamentally better, and that Canada is on a different continuity course. This study will hopefully inspire us to improve on what we are doing, and help us better understand what makes us tick. Even more, it may help our southern neighbours gain the knowledge of what it takes to catch up to us. The study has shown that we need to know more, by studying more. With all the questions that beckon for answers, this is a breakthrough for Canada.

A gift has been placed in our lap. We ignore it at our peril.

 

*This piece was originally published at Convivium.ca.*