Sabras and maple leafs

"Because the Israelis that come here are, on the whole, young, we emphasize the issue of developing young leadership," says Toronto UJA director.

June 17, 2010 13:09
3 minute read.
Bibi in Canada

bibi in Canada. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Strolling along picturesque Lake Ontario during the Toronto Jewish community’s annual Walk with Israel, the dominance of English among the nearly 10,000 participants receives some stiff competition – not from French, the other official language of Canada – but from Hebrew.

The number of Israelis living in Greater Toronto has expanded to almost 30,000, with around 500 new families arriving each year, according to Galya Sarner, the director of the Israeli Council of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, who is in charge of attempting to implement the seemingly contradictory tasks of integrating the transplanted residents in their new community and helping them keep strong ties to Israel.

“Since many Israeli Canadians are very secure in their Israeli and Jewish identity, they feel that they don’t need to actively maintain it, and as a result, their children are very vulnerable to losing that connection,” said the Jerusalem-born Sarner, 48, who moved to Canada four years ago with her husband, Robert, a former IBA TV anchorman, and their three children.

Because Israelis also shied away from getting involved with communal Jewish activities through the traditional federation avenues, there was rarely an overlap between Toronto Jews and the burgeoning Israeli community in their midst. After a study that the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto commissioned from the Board of Jewish Education five years ago revealed that Israelis felt excluded by the Jewish community, the Federation’s president, Ted Sokolsky, hired Sarner to establish the UJA Israeli Forum Committee to do something about it.

“Ted recognized the potential power of the Israeli community here, he understood that they could provide a certain infrastructure, and instead of being a separate entity, they were an integral part of the Jewish community,” said Sarner.

Through programs aimed at Israelis – ranging from establishing a center for Hebrew and Israel studies for children through eighth grade called Kachol Lavan, the strengthening of the Tzofim movement, the Mifgash program aimed at bringing together adult members of the Jewish and Israeli communities and a Hebrew community theater program in conjunction with the Cameri – there’s been success in bringing them into the community, according to Sarner.

“Because the Israelis that come here are, on the whole, young, we emphasize the issue of developing young leadership, the goal being that they end up taking major roles in the future of the federation,” she says.

“Galya’s done an amazing job in integrating the Israelis who have moved to Toronto within the Jewish community here,” says Sokolsky. “In addition, whether it’s the Walk for Israel, the annual Yom Hashoah ceremony, or special campaigns we had to help Israel during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli community plays a leading role.”

The federation programs for the Israeli Canadians have proven to be so effective that they’ve rekindled in some the lost spark of Zionism, resulting in 700 people returning to Israel last year, according to statistics provided to Sarner by the Israeli Consulate in Toronto.

“In many ways, in terms of Zionism, our project is a great tool,” she says, adding that many children, including her own, have returned to Israel as lone soldiers for their military service.

“We think that the place for Jews is Israel and we’ve passed that on to our children. But if we do live here, for whatever reasons, we never forget our roots and we’ll always be Israeli first. We always put the option on the table of them going to Israel and giving back to the country what we received by living there.”

Walking the fine line between making them feel at home by creating attachments to the Jewish community and safeguarding and strengthening their already established ties to Israel, Sarner thinks she has found a happy medium that meets many of the needs of the Israelis living in Toronto.

“What we’re really saying is okay, we have a large number of Israelis that chose to leave their country and live here. But let’s not close the door on them, let’s open it – in both directions.”

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