A History of the Canadian Jewish Community
By Steve Israel
Canada today is home to an important Jewish community, which is the fourth largest in the world and numbered some 370,000 Jews (2005 data), in a general population of 29,000,000 people. Most of the Jewish community is comprised of Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated from Europe. The Montreal community has a substantial French-speaking contingent of Jews from North Africa, some via France.
The first Jews arrived in Canada during the second half of the 18th century, after Canada passed from French to British hands, and Jews were allowed to settle there. The first group of Jews settled in Montreal, which remains a major centre of the Jewish community today.
Until the mid-19th century, almost all Canada's Jews lived in Montreal, although an influx of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, and later from Lithuania, led to the dispersion of the community to other cities and towns. Migration towards the end of the 19th century also brought Jews to Canada, primarily from the Russian Empire, and to a much lesser extent, from Rumania.
The next wave of immigration arrived after the Shoah, consisting of tens of thousands of refugees. In 1956, following the failed revolution against the Communist regime in Hungary, Canada admitted a few thousand Hungarian Jewish refugees. Shortly after this, a sizeable group of Jews from Morocco and other North African countries were also allowed entry to Canada, fleeing the growth of Antisemitism in the newly independent Arab states, after the end of the French colonial regime.
Waves of immigration in recent years include a significant number of Jews from the USSR/CIS and Israelis. It is estimated that there are approximately 30,000 expatriate Israelis in Canada.
In geographic terms, there are two main centres of Jewish life in Canada: Montreal and Toronto. There are about 175,000 Jews in Toronto and about 100,000 in Montreal, these being the largest communities. The only other communities with over 10,000 Jews are: Vancouver, Winnipeg and the capital, Ottawa. Vancouver is the largest of the three communities, with approximately 30,000 Jews.
Significant historical factors impacting on the positive or negative migration of Jews to Canada
As for the United States of America, virtually all the growth and development of the community can be linked to external historical factors of antisemitic persecution and harassment. However, whereas the US Jewish community perceives itself to have originated with the Inquisition and the Spanish Expulsion at the end of the fifteenth century, the origins of the Canadian Jewish community are linked to the British conquest of Canada from the French in the mid-18th century.
Jewish migration from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries played a vital role in the growth of the Canadian Jewish community: in 1890, the number of Jews in Canada stood at 6,000, but by 1921, this had risen to 125,000. Most of these immigrants came from Russia and Romania. From this period onwards, Canada placed severe restrictions on immigration.
Subsequent events that impacted on Jewish immigration to Canada were:
* The Shoah, following which thousands of Holocaust survivors left Europe to begin a new life Canada, in the mid-20th century;
* The end of the French colonies in North Africa, which generated Jewish migration in the 1950s, with some of it being to Canada;
* Another factor is Israel: Some 7,500 Canadian Jews have gone on Aliyah since 1948, while the number of expatriate Israelis estimated to be living in Canada is some 30,000. This situation parallels that of the United States, although the relative proportion of Israelis living in Canada is, at ~8%, far higher than that of Israelis living in the United States.
* Canada remains open to immigration through personal guarantors, and this is how it accepted thousands of Soviet Jews and – more recently – large numbers of Argentinian Jews and smaller numbers of Ethiopian Jews from Israel.
Main Occupations and Professions
At the beginning of British rule, at the end of the 18th century, some of the early Canadian Jews served in the British forces. This trend reflected the close relationship between the Jews and the British at the beginning of the period.
Among the refugees to arrive after the Shoah were several thousand tailors and furriers entered Canada under a special arrangement with the government: these were professions that answered the needs of the country at that time.
In addition, similarly to Argentina - although on a smaller scale - a number of Jewish farming villages were set up around the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century. These accounted for a substantial proportion of the country’s Jews in the early years, but most of them collapsed at the time of the Great Depression.
If we look at the community today, we find many Jews in the professions, government and civil service, light industry and trade. In addition, there is a considerable Jewish presence in all the cultural fields, communications and academia.
Streams and Movements of Judaism
Canadian Jewish community includes the three main streams of contemporary Judaism: Orthodoxy, Conservatism and Reform, and the breakdown is approximately 40%, 40% and 20%, but the average Conservative congregation, for example, is likely to be more traditional and observant than its US equivalent. [There are also Haredi communities, especially of Belz, Lubavitch and Satmar Chassidim, in and around Montreal and Toronto.]
Montreal’s leading Conservative congregation recently seceded from the North American movement and announced its independence, resisting the general trend towards egalitarianism in the Conservative movement.
The Canadian Jewish community is noticeably more traditional than that in the United States. One reason for this might be connected to the pronounced multi-culturalism of Canadian society. Caught between different groups of the population, Jews tend to be more aware of their own heritage and of the legitimacy of preserving it.
Education and Culture
Jewish education in Canada is well organized.
There are about a dozen day schools in Toronto and Montreal, as well as a number of yeshivot. In Toronto, around 40% of Jewish children attend Jewish elementary schools and 12% go to Jewish high schools. The figures for Montreal are higher: 60% and 30%, respectively. There are also a few Jewish day schools in the smaller communities. The national average for attendance at Jewish elementary schools (at least) is 55%. In addition, there are youth movements and organizations, and a good network of Jewish camps in the field of informal education.
The field of Jewish Studies is less developed in the universities than in the US: nevertheless, there are courses in many institutions and McGill, Toronto and York universities all have strong Jewish Studies departments. Unlike the situation in the United States, there is no specifically Jewish university. The main centers for Jewish professional education - rabbinical or general - are in the United States, and Canadian Jews tend to go there to study.
There is a strong and vibrant Jewish culture in Canada, especially in Toronto and Montreal, and this is reflected in the number of Jewish newspapers and periodicals that are published in the country - more than twenty. Canadian Jews tend to be proud of their Jewish culture and to seek opportunities to celebrate it, a result of the pride in multi-culturalism that has such deep roots throughout the country.
In recent years, Canada’s Jews have begun to examine problems of poverty within the community more seriously. According to recent figures, an authoritative estimate is that the poor account for some 17% of the community. This is about the same percentage as is found in the general population.
The three main vulnerable groups are recent immigrants, the elderly and single mothers. The rate of poverty among senior citizens is over 20%.
There are a number of official community agencies, e.g. the Jewish Family and Child Services, which help the disadvantaged and several voluntary groups supplement their work. However, as officials have made statements to the effect that the community, as a whole, has not tackled the problem with sufficient resolve, it seems likely that the issue will begin to receive higher priority.
There is no question that many of the same influences that we find throughout the Western world are influencing the younger Jewish generation in Canada, too.
Assimilation is higher than in past generations, however, and is rising. So is the rate of intermarriage, although this is also lower than that for the US Jewish community. The rate of "outmarriage" in Canada in recent years is approximately 35%, compared to 54% in the USA.
Physical Security and Antisemitism
The Candian Jewish community has experienced relatively little Antisemitism. The main period of antisemitic agitation was the decade of the 1930s, when anti-Jewish rhetoric featured on the agenda of a number of groups and organizations. More recent periods have seen a small, but active, far right with the usual xenophobia and Antisemitism, but these have found little echo in the official political culture. Antisemitic political sentiments surface occasionally in the right wing of the conservative political parties, but the official conservative leaders tend to distance themselves firmly from such ideas. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the nationalism of the Quebec separatists was considered by some to be cause for concern, but this anxiety appears to have evaporated.
The last few years, however, have witnessed a return of anti-Jewish feeling in some sectors of the population, which has been expressed in sporadic attacks on Jews and Jewish property, including synagogues and cemeteries. Generally, these attacks can be traced to the hostility engendered by the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as in other countries. Nonetheless, it is clear that the story is more complex than that: the number of anti-Jewish incidents was already rising in 1999, the year before the Intifada. In general, however, it seems that the majority of Jews do not feel overly anxious about the situation.
The Community Agenda
The problem of assimilation will inevitably crop up in any discussion of community trends in any Western community, and the Canadian community is no different. Assimilation and intermarriage are problems within the community and cannot be dismissed out of hand. The fact that they exist at a far lower level than in, e.g., the U.S. does not mean that they are not cause for concern.
It should be said that the Canadian community seems to be in a relatively good position: Canadian Jews are generally doing well and their high-quality educational and cultural institutions appear to be functioning successfully in a well-developed economy. It is possible, however, that the community's main problem stems form the very success of Canadian Jewry with its institutions, as Jewish schools, for example, become prohibitively costly for many. In fact, ‘being Jewish’ in the contemporary Canadian world is a very expensive business. Today's Canadian families also have higher aspirations: that most of the younger generation will enjoy the existing institutions and eventually become involved in community life. However, immense resources are necessary to turn these hopes into reality, and they are therefore probably beyond the means of the community as it now stands, despite its great financial wealth.
The Connection to Israel
In 1991, a survey revealed one very interesting fact about Canadian Jewry's relationship and connection to Israel. At that point in time, 61% of Toronto Jewry had already visited Israel and 70% of Montrealer Jews had done so, in comparison with 31% of US Jewry, and the percentage rises with the years.
This is an extremely significant statistic and it affords yet another proof of the fact that Canadian Jewry is well tuned in to their Jewish identity and encourages its connection to Israel, as a part of that picture. Most Jewish day schools place great emphasis on Israel Studies in the curriculum, to an extent that is seen only in a small minority of US Jewish schools. About 7,500 Canadian Jews have come on Aliyah to Israel since the establishment of the state. The feeling of connection to Israel is strong and Canadian Zionism is an important component in the story of this community.
The Future of the Community
The Canadian Jewish community is perhaps one of the two fastest growing Diaspora communities in the world. In the last forty years, the population has increased from 260,000 to 360,000, a rise of almost 40%. Most of this increase is due to immigration, but it testifies to the fact that Canada is a desirable destination for Jews. Much of the attraction is not specifically because of the Jewish question: Canada itself is seen as an attractive place in which to live.
The Jewish Community's Contribution to Canada
The Jews play a significant and valuable part in the rich fabric of Canadian society. It is important to understand the context to this: in the last generation or so, the Canadian government officially defined Canada as a multi-cultural society, abandoning its former "melting pot" policy. In 1971, an official government report recommended the adoption of multi-culturalism as a recognized and desirable feature of Canadian society, and in 1988 the "Canadian Multiculturalism Act" was passed. Canada proudly bears the banner of ethnic diversity and the distinctive contribution of each of the component groups in its society to the whole.
Canadian Jewry has been involved in many major projects, including several of national importance, particularly in the area of social relations and religious or ethnic tolerance.
Members of Jewish community have made a significant contribution to society in many fields, in their capacity as a well-educated minority, well-known for taking initiatives, and, indeed, in almost every sector of Canadian life. Various distinguished writers (Mordechai Richler, for example), poets and musicians (Leonard Cohen, for another) are an integral part of Canadian culture.
From Immigration to Integration, The Canadian Jewish ExperienceL A Millennium Edition
(Bnai Brith, Canada). Sixteen articles about the history of Canadian Jewry and its contemporary features.
History of the Jews in Canada (Wikipedia)
The Outlook on the Canadian Jewish Experience - Collection of articles (Outlook, 2000)
The Canadian Jewish Experience, Daniel J. Elazar (JCPA, 1999)
The Jewish Community of Vancouver (Beth Hatefutsoth)
Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada
Major Communities and Organizations
Toronto Jewish Community
Montreal Jewish Federation
Ottawa Jewish Community
Windsor Jewish Federation
Winnipeg Jewish Community
Canadian Jewish Congress
Jewish National Fund, Canada (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael)
Jewish Immigration Aid Services of Canada (JIAS)
The Jewish Tribune
The Canadian Jewish News
List of Jewish Schools, Educational Organizations by Province (Kosher Delight)
March of the Living, Canada
The Jewish Nature Centre of Canada
Israel:Diaspora Database, Links to Major Jewish Institutions in Canada
(Jewish Agency for Israel, old website)
Canadian Jewish Directory (Bnai Brith)
Jewish Canada (Haruth)
Jewish Canada (Maven)