Auro Rosenbaum always liked Canada, but didn’t have any particular affinity for it. Canada was a country that he would fly into for business for a day from New York or Chicago, by way of Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he lived with his wife and two young kids. He thought it was a nice country, but didn’t think much of it.
There was no single moment when his view of the country changed. It started around 2015, when Brazil’s then-president, Dilma Rousseff, was being impeached, which led to years of political and economic instability. Rosenbaum and his wife had had enough. He quit his job and wanted to leave the country.
But where to go? Europe seemed the obvious choice, as he has dual European citizenship. But he didn’t like what he was reading in the news about terrorism and anti-Semitism on that side of the pond. So he looked north, to the United States. New York and New Jersey had strong Jewish communities, yet both reminded him of Sao Paulo, as they are difficult cities to succeed in, both as a businessman and a parent, and have troubling crime rates.
In 2016, he took his family on a summer trip across Canada, stopping in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto. Suddenly, the country looked warmer and more inviting to him. Maybe the light hit the Pacific in just the right way, or pedestrians smiled more than he’d noticed before. He and his wife visited a Jewish school in Vancouver and were impressed by the sizable congregations in Ottawa’s synagogues.
By the time they reached Toronto, Rosenbaum had fallen for Canada.
“It was very – I don’t know the word,” he says from his new home in Thornhill, Ont. “We felt at home. We felt the link.”
His kids are thriving in school and he feels welcomed by his neighbours. But what surprised him most of all – indeed, what ultimately convinced him and his wife to move here – was the community’s strong Jewish values.
Before moving here, “I didn’t have that good an image of Canada,” he admits. “I have nothing against it, but so many times I would come here and was always in a hurry. I never had the time to pay attention.”
Rosenbaum can be forgiven for not knowing much about the Canadian Jewish community. Despite our relatively large population, Canadian Jews are quiet on the global stage. We’re vaguely enigmatic, a dark horse Diaspora that rarely makes international headlines. That leaves some lingering questions: Where do Canadian Jews fit in internationally? What do outsiders think of us? And what distinguishes Canadian Jews from our American, French and British counterparts?
To find some answers, The CJN reached out to multiple people and organizations – Jewish immigrants, Canadian expats, community leaders, international charities – and received similar replies all around.
What do they think of Canadian Jews? Honestly, they don’t really think of us at all.
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Canada’s Jewish population – around 391,000, according to recent conservative estimates – is the fourth largest in the world, after Israel, the United States and France. We trump the United Kingdom and Russia, the next highest countries on the global ranking, by more than 100,000 people.
Maybe because of the size of our community, or because of our country’s relative affluence and physical isolation, Canada’s brand of Judaism is unique, particularly when compared with the millions of Jews across our southern border.
According to the website My Jewish Learning, “As a general rule, Canadian Jews retain a stronger Jewish identity than their American counterparts.” Indeed, we have a higher per capita rate of Jewish day school attendance and are twice as likely to visit Israel. (The takeaway from that data is ambiguous: it could indicate broader economic success among a smaller group of people rather than stronger religious devotion, but even if that’s true, it’s telling that Canadian Jews choose to spend their money in such a way.)
Politics also divides American and Canadian Jews. In the three most recent American elections, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama received at least 70 per cent of the Jewish vote. In Canada, roughly 50 per cent of Jews have voted for the federal Conservatives since former prime minister Stephen Harper took office, while Ontario’s Tories largely swept the ridings with the highest Jewish populations earlier this month.
That right-leaning streak may direct the current focus of Canada’s Jewish organizations. According to Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), “We have a really blossoming American-Jewish social justice movement in the States right now, but it seems that in terms of organized Judaism, there’s a border wall between Canada and the United States.”
The irony, Hetfield notes, is that Canada is currently on track to accept more refugees this year than the U.S. for the first time ever. Yet despite this, “I just don’t see it in the organized Jewish community,” he says. “It would be interesting to have a louder Canadian voice on the social justice stage.”
Viewing social justice as synonymous with the political left may partly explain that hesitation. Since the federal Conservatives adopted a hardline pro-Israel stance under Harper, Jewish-Canadian politics have become inextricably tied to the government’s unequivocal support of Israel – a fact noted, sometimes with surprise, by Israeli immigrants in Canada.
“People that live here – Israelis in Canada, Jewish Israelis – they’re not concerned with everyday life, social security, education in Israel. It’s all about security and the peace process,” says Michael Rapoport, a business owner who grew up in Israel and now lives in Toronto. “That’s human nature. What do they care about the waiting times for a specialist in an Israeli hospital?”
This mentality, Rapoport adds, cuts both ways. Israelis don’t really think about the day-to-day lives of Jewish Canadians. “Who cares, in Israel, about health care in Canada?” he asks, before promptly answering his own question: “Nobody cares.”
In fact, some Israelis don’t realize that Canada has a Jewish community of any kind. Corey Gil-Shuster, a Canadian-born YouTube documentarian who made aliyah in 1995, recalls a particular visit to his Israeli brother-in-law more than a decade after having married into his family. His brother-in-law began explaining what Hanukkah is, assuming he wasn’t Jewish; when he clarified that he was, his relative was surprised.
“Jews come from Morocco, Poland, America,” his brother-in-law said. “Why would a Jew go to Canada?”
Gil-Shuster laughed at the statement, but it didn’t surprise him. In the years he’s spent interviewing Israelis and Palestinians, he’s found that neither group thinks about Canada unless it comes up in the news.
“Canada is seen as ‘nice’ by both Israelis and Palestinians,” he says. “It is the same reaction you would get from anywhere – we are nice, neutral and have an easy life.”
That image of Canada – our niceness, our quality of life – is what drives most Jewish immigrants here. In recent years, for example, more than 100 French Jews have immigrated to Quebec, as part of a plan spearheaded by Initiative France-Montréal, a project run by Federation CJA. Many who have immigrated through that program cited anti-Semitism and social isolation as reasons for coming.
Indeed, Canada is, broadly speaking, less anti-Semitic than France – but not by much. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s analysis of anti-Semitic beliefs in over 100 countries, which was released in 2014 and 2015, around 14 per cent of Canadians hold anti-Semitic views. That’s a slightly worse score than the United States (10 per cent) and the United Kingdom (12 per cent), but better than France (17 per cent) and Russia (23 per cent).
Perhaps relatedly, ethnic Russians comprise the other major recent influx of Jewish immigrants to Canada. Over the past decade, the Atlantic Jewish Council has pushed hard to bring more than 100 Russian-Israeli families to Halifax, in an attempt to rejuvenate the city’s aging Jewish community. But before moving to Halifax, few immigrants knew much about it.
“Some knew very little, some knew it was quite cold,” says Naomi Rosenfeld, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council. “It was pretty varied, but most didn’t know that much about Halifax or Nova Scotia.”
Only during initial interviews did they learn about the cohesion of the tight-knit Maritime Jewish community: the nearby Camp Kadimah and synagogue membership options were all new to them. The locals welcomed their new neighbours at the airport and have since helped set them up with cars, homes and jobs.
“Our newcomer community is such a wonderful addition,” Rosenfeld says. “We’ve seen a new burst of energy.”
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When Georgina Labi Leopo moved to Thornhill, a north Toronto suburb, nine years ago from London, England, the biggest surprise for her was the signage.
Back in London, she says, her synagogue was tucked away down a quiet street with no clear marquee or advertisements. One could only guess it was a synagogue due to the security guard standing outside.
Here, she says, the openness is a stark contrast.
“You drive down the street and see the massive signs on the side of the road advertising Jewish events, synagogues and everything – you would never see that in England,” she says. “I feel like we’re very accepted here.”
Labi Leopo didn’t move here to feel safer – she’s always been a “loud and proud” Jew who wears a Magen David around her neck – but when she describes her Thornhill community to her friends back home, they’re shocked. She knows lots of people who would love to escape the prejudice that is so prevalent in some parts of the U.K.
While anti-Semitism appears to be the main driver of Jewish emigration from Europe, for South Americans, such as Rosenbaum, it’s all about economic stability.
Two decades ago, a concerted migrant-resettlement effort brought hundreds of Argentinian Jews to Winnipeg. Mark Hetfield recalls HIAS’s role in the process: The group helped Argentinian migrants move to countries around the world. After Argentina returned to a state of economic stability, many of them wound up moving back. Those in Winnipeg, however, did not.
“I don’t know what their perception was before they went, but once they got there, word got back that this was a good place to live,” Hetfield says. “They decided that Winnipeg was a very welcoming Jewish community.… The success of that program entirely hinged on that community.”
The consensus makes Canada seem like some sort of secret downtown bar disguised as a run-down storefront: you wouldn’t know to think about it, but if you were lucky enough to go inside, you’d find a whole world you never knew existed.
Rosenbaum would agree with that. “All my friends say I was very smart. It was a very timely move,” he says. Between the economic security, the quality of public services and the acceptances of his kids in school, his biggest regret is that he didn’t move here sooner.
“I was kind of lazy,” he admits. If he had met people from Canada’s Jewish community earlier, he says, “I would probably have moved before.”