Meet UJA’s Vice President of Jewish Education and Engagement

Yael Bendat-Appell has years of experience as a Jewish educator in day schools and summer camps in both Canada and the US. It’s this extensive knowledge, alongside her passion for Jewish living, that she brings to UJA as Vice President of Jewish Education and Engagement. Yael spoke with UJA’s Tali Goldberg about Jewish engagement, the important work her team is doing in our community, and her vision for what’s ahead.  

In your role, you focus on Jewish education and Jewish engagement. What does Jewish engagement mean to you?

When I think of the term Jewish engagement, I mean the ability for the maximal number of people in our Jewish community to have meaningful Jewish experiences. We know that there are many kinds of Jewish experiences—at different times of life, some with a lighter touch, and some with a deeper impact. We want to ensure that as many of Toronto's 200,000 Jewish community members as possible have access to and feel it is relevant for them to have Jewish experience in their lives. Hopefully, one touchpoint leads to another, which leads to another, so that it becomes not just about episodic experiences, but a Jewish journey that takes them from childhood through to adulthood.

What would you say are the biggest challenges stopping our community from doing just that?

There are many challenges and barriers to entry. UJA has identified correctly that affordability is one significant barrier to participation in certain core Jewish experiences, and in the context of Toronto—which is already a very expensive city—that is heightened. In light of this, significant resources are focused very directly on the affordability challenge.

Another barrier is that people have felt excluded by the Jewish community. We need to be explicit in saying that there is a place for each and every member of the Jewish community within the fold. We're working with various partners to help equip them to do that work of explicit welcoming.

Additionally, people are moving further and further away from where the institutional infrastructure of the Jewish community was built. And so we need to find ways to reach people who are more physically distant from where events might be taking place or where programs might be offered or where schools are operating. We need to help people feel that connection can happen anywhere.

Finally, and perhaps most critically, we need to ensure that Judaism remains relevant and continues to be a source of meaning and purpose for future generations.

Considering all these barriers, are there unique or innovative ways that you, your department, and UJA are specifically trying to reach out?

We try to employ many different approaches to reaching people. We are committed to learning about the community and informing our strategies based on our research and data. We then use our platform to identify initiatives or organizations that are well positioned to affect change in the community and share our learning with them. We’re also able to provide funding to bring those initiatives or interventions to life.

For example, we recently commissioned research into understanding the experiences of members of our community who are part of interfaith or intercultural families. The research was so illuminating about a segment of our community that has felt, to some extent, excluded historically. We convened many community partners—such as synagogues, schools, camps, and JCCs—to share that research with them, so that they can work to engage that segment of the community in a more purposeful way.

You’ve spent time in both the US and Canada. What do you think sets Toronto apart as such a unique community?

It’s so unique and I feel so blessed to be part of this community. The two clearest distinctions are the extremely high commitment to Jewish education here. When I say Jewish education, I don't just mean Jewish day school. We have thriving adult Jewish learning, flourishing Jewish summer camps, supplementary schools that provide different entry points to Jewish life. We have day school enrolment that is incredibly high proportionally to other cities. This community understands the importance of Jewish education for the future of the community. There’s a real commitment to keeping traditions alive and passing them down from generation to generation. Number two—there's a very strong legacy of the descendants of Holocaust survivors who came to the city and who helped to build the Jewish community here. I think that much of what we see of Jewish life in Toronto is connected to that reality.

What's your vision for our community?

We’ve been working on developing a framework for an empowered Jewish community since our latest strategic plan. It’s been really exciting for me to think beyond engagement. Engagement is an essential part of having a strongly identified Jewish community. But what we really want is for people to be living proactive Jewish lives, and that can be defined broadly. It could be around Jewish ritual observance. It could be in the arts and culture sphere, culinary traditions, Jewish learning. There are so many possible manifestations of what it means to live an active Jewish life. The goal isn't just that people have Jewish experiences, but that those experiences lead people to a commitment to live proactive Jewish lives in the ways that feel most meaningful and relevant to them.

Learn more about UJA's work to help ensure every community member can have a meaningful Jewish journey in our three-year Strategic Plan here.

Tali Goldberg serves as UJA’s Content Manager, Jewish Programming.

Yael Bendat-Appell serves as UJA’s Vice President of Jewish Education and Engagement.