Home Perspectives Opinions Why we must preserve Jewish life outside big cities

Why we must preserve Jewish life outside big cities

Beth Jacob Synagogue in Kitchener
Beth Jacob Synagogue in Kitchener, Ont.

When I was completing my doctorate at the University of Toronto, there were only three jobs in my field in the whole country. I eagerly accepted the offer from the University of Waterloo and started an adventure that would change my life.

Other young Jewish professors came to Waterloo, which was growing in size and reputation. Whether religious or not, most yearned for Jewish fellowship and ended up at Beth Jacob Congregation, then under the stewardship of the legendary Rabbi Philip Rosensweig, whose avuncular nature and great skills were a draw for many of us. We began what became a long journey toward faith and study.


My own move back to Toronto after 17 years in Kitchener-Waterloo was personally enriching in many ways. Still, my mind often wanders back to what was once the only shul in Kitchener-Waterloo, where Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular gathered under one roof. The fellowship and mutual respect were heartening.

Nothing comes easily in small Jewish communities. They must be resourceful. Engaged individuals create their own study groups. Smaller communities have a vibrancy, commitment, amity and warmth that are largely unrecognized and unacknowledged. It is unimaginable that you could walk into a synagogue in a small town and not receive a warm welcome.

Jewish life in recent years has gravitated to the big cities to such an extent that it is easy to forget that small towns were once the heart of Jewish life in Canada.

In Europe before World War II, Judaism was a small-town phenomenon. There was Kovno, but there was also Birzei. There were Warsaw and Lodz, but there was also Piotrkow. Judaism survived and thrived on the margins as well as at the centre. The renowned yeshivas of the cities nourished the towns and villages spiritually and intellectually. There was an important relationship between the centres of learning and the knowledgeable and pious Jews throughout the various countries.


European Jews who settled in Canadian towns before and after the war brought with them their knowledge, piety and observance. However, practical circumstances in a new land made adaptation difficult, and compromises were often made. Their integration was a great success and their tenacious determination to maintain Jewish practice in their adopted country for themselves and their families led to the building of shuls and communities. Their spirit lives on.

The current polarization between town and city is not healthy for the Canadian Jewish family. There are smaller yet significant Jewish centres like Hamilton and London with day schools and amenities, but even they are losing members who are increasingly drawn to the resources of the big cities. Small Jewish centres find it difficult to attract young Jewish families because of the lack of Jewish infrastructure.


If the trend continues and the only viable Jewish communities left are in the big cities, Jewish life in Canada will be unknown in most of the country. That would be a loss for the country and for the remaining Jews spread thinly across this vast land. It would be a blow as well to the diversity of Jewish life in Canada.

The problems are many and the solutions few. At the very least, Canadian Jewish leaders need to put this issue on their radar. Money and effort are being devoted to the revival of Jewish life in Poland, but not in the towns of Canada. And just as philanthropists and leaders have long supported the miracle that is modern Israel – and rightly so – we should also gratefully turn our attention to the small Canadian centres that valiantly carry on and enrich the fabric of Canadian Jewish life. 

Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo.