Center Field: Canadian Jewry’s formula for keeping Jews Jewish

CANADIAN JEWS must determine whether American Jews’ drift away from Judaism serves as a warning bell inspiring more communal coherence or a crystal ball anticipating Maple Leaf Jewry’s decline.

May 28, 2019 22:40
4 minute read.
HOW HAS Canadian Jewry been so successful?

HOW HAS Canadian Jewry been so successful?. (photo credit: REUTERS)

If “bageling” means Jews’ frisson of recognition for one another when traveling, and “kremboing” covers that instant Israeli-Israeli connection on the road, “sedering” is when two Jews meet, eat and bond over their common experiences, values, ties.

This year, I “sedered” repeatedly in the 32 cities where I held Zionist salons – especially when I encountered Canadian Jews – having spent 20 years living in that unique community.

A new study explains such “sedering” – without using the term – detailing Canadian Jewry’s vitality. Yet the American Jewish press has mostly ignored it, Toronto’s Ari Blaff recently complained on Tablet. The results contradict American Jewry’s self-conception as Babylon, the model Diaspora community, while mocking key assumptions (mis)guiding American Jewry. That America’s often overlooked northern neighbor offers these valuable lessons in community-building, Zionism and humility makes the survey downright galling.

Most analyses have emphasized the obvious results from Environics’ “2018 Survey of Jews in Canada,” authored by its executive director, Keith Neuman, York University’s president, Rhonda Lenton, and University of Toronto Prof. Robert Brym. Guess what? Relatively low intermarriage rates, high Jewish education and literacy rates, love of Israel, compounded by pride in being Jewish, keep Jews Jewish. Living that formula, Canadian Jewry grew from 167,000 people in 1936 to 286,000 in 1970 to 392,000 today.

American Jewry took a different approach. Its intermarriage rate of 50%-70% doubles, possibly triples, Canada’s still-challenging – and growing – 23% rate. Many Americans consider Jewish education too particularistic, especially for high schoolers, when, studies show, it most counts. And a new, harsh culture of criticism has many leaders so busy blaming Israel for what it does wrong, many overlook what Israel, Jews and Judaism do right. Not surprisingly, American Jewry’s population peaked around 1970 at 5.7 million – today’s official 5.4 million figure seems generous.

The survey highlights three other powerful but less obvious reinforcers for Canadian Jews – especially in Montreal and Toronto. Many American Jews silo their Jewish identities, activating one dimension: either religious belief or pride in ancestry/descent or engagement with Jewish culture. Canadian Jews usually go for the hat trick – three goals in one hockey game: 16% combine “two or more of these three aspects,” while one-third integrate all three “equally.” Only 19% of American Jews integrate all three.

This difference is profound. It’s noshing at a cocktail party versus luxuriating in a five-course feast – or hanging for dear life by one thread versus swinging confidently on a rope interweaving three strings. An integrated Judaism, with mutually reinforcing connections, is richer, stronger, more satisfying. Canadian Jews marinade in Jewishness, becoming avid Jewish patriots from Jewish friends, causes, passions; American Jews often sprinkle Jewish slivers sporadically.
Canadian Jewry’s instinctive, natural, organic Zionism reinforces it all: nearly twice as many Canadian Jews have visited Israel (79%) than American Jews, averaging 5.1 visits per person. Three-quarters know the Hebrew alphabet, and nearly 20% have spent serious time in Israel.

Reading the survey confirms the impression you get by visiting with Montreal and Toronto Jews: While building up Israel, Zionism also enhances Jewish identity, in an integrated, robust, literate way, wherever you live. And Canadian Zionism helps explain why 91% say “being Jewish in their life” is very or somewhat important. Moreover, an astounding 80% “feel somewhat if not strongly connected to Jewish life in their city,” expressed through involvement with synagogues, Jewish organizations and friends. Further south, “only 46% of American Jews say being Jewish is very important to them,” while 20% dismiss its importance.

The research found another “notable difference” regarding Israel. Although Canadian Jews are far more literate and passionate regarding Israel, “American Jews are more apt to hold an opinion (whether positive or negative).” For example, when asked how building Jewish settlements in the West Bank affects Israel’s security, 23% of Canadians and only 11% of American Jews admitted to not knowing or being unsure. More literate Jews appreciate Israel’s complexity, while Canadian culture cultivates humility; American culture – not so much.

Obviously, certain American-Canadian contrasts are beyond the Jewish community’s control. Overall, Canadians are more multicultural, more hostile to Israel and just a bit more antisemitic than Americans – despite seeming so nice. This helps Canadian Jews feel just a bit “other,” just less welcomed enough to dive deeper into their Jewish communities and identities.

CANADIAN JEWS must determine whether American Jews’ drift away from Judaism serves as a warning bell inspiring more communal coherence or a crystal ball anticipating Maple Leaf Jewry’s decline.

But young Jewish parents and older Jewish leaders on both sides of North America’s remarkable open border should take note. Canadians have written a playbook for living rich Jewish lives. If you care about living Jewish, if you want to use Jewish ideas and identities as the great reinforcer they are for maintaining strong families, raising ethical individuals and leading meaningful lives, skimming the surface doesn’t work. You can’t stay Jewish by being Jew-ish. Only a dive deep into Jewish learning and living and giving and feeling in three dimensions works.

We shouldn’t rely on others’ hostility to boost ourselves up. Instead, embrace the wisdom of the ages. Delight in the poetry of modern Israel. And be open, passionate and, yes, humble enough to put Judaism, Zionism, the Jewish community and Israel – not yourself – at the center, ahem, the centre. Then, you, too, will be ready “to seder” with Hat-Trick Judaism – year-round.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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