In comparing Canadian and American Jewry, one of the regular refrains is that Canadian Jewry is one generation behind our American counterparts. It’s true that our intermarriage rates are lower, our participation rates higher and generally our religious movements more traditional than those south of the border, but citing chronology offers a fatalistic approach to an issue over which we have significant control.
There are many factors beyond chronology influencing the face of our Jewish community. Some are beyond our control. Relative to the U.S. experience, our community is newer. While mass Jewish immigration to the United States took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of Canadian Jewry arrived after the Holocaust, skipping over assimilationist trends of the greenhorns in the late 1800s and the exodus to the suburbs in the 1950s. Similarly, the American cultural ethos of a melting pot stands in stark contrast to the Canadian policy of multiculturalism, which values the preservation of religious, cultural and ethnic identities.
Other factors are well within our control. We enjoy day school participation rates that are significantly higher than in America, a tradition of Jewish camping that keeps kids immersed for longer sessions, and higher participation in other forms of Jewish engagement, from synagogue attendance to donating to Jewish causes. As a community seeking to preserve and strengthen our identity, it’s incumbent upon us to double down on these proven strategies.
There are still other factors that are changing rapidly and where we can intervene. The fastest change relates to university attendance. When I graduated high school, the vast majority of my peers stayed in Toronto and went to either York University or the University of Toronto. We lived in our parents’ home and followed their path of Jewish expression. By comparison, Americans travel for university. They grow up in one city, go to college in another, and pursue careers elsewhere. In part, the conservatism of our community was inculcated by staying home.
Today, a much higher proportion of Jewish high school graduates in Toronto are leaving home to study in Kingston, London, Waterloo, Guelph and elsewhere. When they return – and unlike in America, they do return home – they’re not necessarily returning to their parents’ houses, but moving downtown, to the Annex, the east end, Liberty Village and other areas. The change will have a dramatic impact on the face of Toronto Jewry.
The U.S. college experience created two trends in American Judaism. For some, it’s an opportunity to leave behind Jewish culture and tradition, catalyzing the lethargy of American Jewry. For others, it’s a time of Jewish experimentation, exploring new ways to practise and participate. Hillels across the United States have become crucibles for Jewish experimentation, allowing young Jews to create their own Shabbat experiences, prayer services and social-justice mantras, which have spilled over beyond college to form vibrant Jewish communities around the country.
A year ago, Hillel Ontario was formed to serve the growing number of students across southern Ontario and create these crucibles for active Jewish life as students take their first steps outside their parents’ homes. The organization is now the largest regional Hillel in North America. It’s a bold move to transform the future of our community, and it’s one way we can ensure that the fatalistic vision of our community’s future doesn’t come to pass.
Canadian Jewry is not a generation behind America. The fate of our community is not based on a locked-in chronological progression, but will be determined by the forms of engagement and intervention that we mount to continually shape and reshape Jewish affiliation. Not time, but the efforts we make – as youth and parents, educators and communal leaders – will determine the extent to which our community path will follow that of American Jewry.
Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.