Toronto - The Most Zionist Community in the World


Itamar Eichner, Toronto Published in YNET: 05.06.19, 19:02

Translated from Hebrew version -,7340,L-5520737,00.html#autoplay

"Israel is the heart and soul of Canadian Jewry in general and of the Toronto community in particular, and in fact is the strongest source of unity among Canadian Jews - and a central element in Jewish identity here." The speaker is Adam Minsky, President and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

More than 30,000 Canadian Jews participated in the Walk with Israel in Toronto, about two weeks ago, one of the largest Israel solidarity events in the world, taking place for the 50th consecutive year and organized by the Jewish Federation of Toronto. Two months before the event, Toronto - the largest city in Canada - was already full of signs for the colorful parade that crossed the city's main streets.

Some 392,000 Jews now live in Canada, the fourth largest Jewish community in the world after Israel, the United States and France, but some see it as the most Zionist community outside of Israel. A recent study by York University and the University of Toronto found that Jews in Canada have a stronger connection to Israel than American Jewry: 79% of Canadian Jews feel a very strong or strong connection to Israel, compared to 69% of American Jews. Only 11% don’t feel connected to Israel, compared to 22% in the United States. 79% of Canadian Jews visited Israel, compared to 43% of American Jews.

This is a strong and well-established community with great influence in Canada in all areas – political, economic, media, academic and more. Most Canadian Jews are concentrated in large city centres: Toronto (200,000), Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Ottawa.

"When you're strong - we're strong"

The Jewish community in Canada is more conservative and sympathetic to Israel than the United States, and there is no clear Jewish support for only one political party in Canada, and there is more or less equal distribution of votes.

However, Canada is not immune to the challenges faced by other Jewish communities in North America, especially the issue of religious pluralism in Israel, the recognition of Reform and Conservative movements, the controversy of conversion, the Western Wall, the National Law and the Palestinian issue. This is particularly evident with millennials, who are less connected to Israel and the Jewish community, although in numbers more moderate than their counterparts in American Jewry.

Israel's ambassador to Canada, Nimrod Barkan, warns that if Israel continues to push aside the Reform and Conservative movements, "we will pay a price for this in Canada as well." However, Minsky himself believes that the issue of conversion and the Wall is important but does not play a political role among Canadian Jews, as it does with American Jewry, "We want to ensure that all Jews find a place in Israel. Jewish pluralism is important to us, but we are not disengaging from Israel. We want to help Israel become stronger, because when you are stronger, we are stronger."

Religiously, about 40% of Canadian Jews are Orthodox, about 40% Conservative and only about 20 percent Reform, according to data from the Israeli embassy in Canada. Approximately 55% of Canadian Jews send their children to Jewish day schools, compared with 29% in the US, while 35% of Canadian Jews are intermarried, compared with 54% in the United States. The main issues faced by the community are antisemitism and security, its vulnerable and poor citizens, the continued Jewish engagement of future generations, their leadership and connections with Israel.

About 70 thousand Israelis

The Canadian government currently has two Jewish Ministers - Jim Carr, the Minister of International Trade Diversification, and Karina Gold, who has served as a Minister of Democratic Institutions. The House of Commons has 6 members of the Jewish Parliament, including Michael Levitt, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Chairman of the Canada-Israel Parliamentary Association. The Supreme Court has two Jewish judges (out of nine).

The Jewish vote is sought after by all political parties in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is no exception, and has become a friend of the community and participates in its events regularly. For example, he appeared at the recent salute to Israel in Toronto, marking "70 years of friendship between Israel and Canada," and culminating in the mass sing-along event “Koolulam”. During President Rivlin's recent visit to Canada, Trudeau met with him four times.

Since the beginning of the millennium, the Jewish community in Canada has seen significant immigration from two areas: Some 37,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union migrated there, most of them through immigration to Israel, joined by another 20,000 Israelis. According to the Israeli Embassy in Canada about 70 thousand Israelis live in Canada.

"It is here that our connection to Israel has grown stronger"

The Israeli consulate in Toronto, which was in the not too distant past in fifth place in the world in consular activity, jumped to third place. The huge jump is explained by Israelis who have not registered as immigrants, but live and are part of Canadian society and economy: students, post-doctoral students, doctors and high-tech professionals. For example, the offices of the Amazon company in Vancouver employ about 1,500 Israelis in high-tech jobs, and the company wants to bring to Canada another 3,500 Israelis, as the ambassador says.

What connects Israelis and Jews from the former Soviet Union to the Jewish community in Canada are the impressive community centres operated by the Federations. In Toronto alone, there are three such centers (JCCs) complete with swimming pools, modern gyms, cafes and countless activities (classes, Hebrew and Jewish studies, social gatherings, Shabbat meals and holidays).

Israeli immigrants and Russian speaking Jews are very prominent in the community centres, and through them they integrate well into the life of the Jewish community. For example, at the Schwartz/Reisman Community Centre, located in a new and magnificent building in northern Toronto, Tanya (Tova) Hovetz of (JROOTS) has set up classes for 500 Russian-speaking children aged 3-13.

It all began in her basement, where she taught Hebrew and Judaism to her children and the children of a friend. "In Israel, I was a high school teacher in Kiryat Gat, and in 2004 we moved to Canada, and at first there were only five children in my basement, and outside of Hebrew I also taught them Judaism and Kabbalat Shabbat. In two months I was teaching 44 children".

The Russian-speaking Jews in Toronto say that thanks to the activities at the community centres, their connection to the State of Israel has increased. Summer camps for Russian-speaking Jews and extensive activities of Limmud FSU, which holds annual seminars on Israel and Judaism, also contributed to this. "It's absurd that here we have discovered our "Israeliness", and our connection to Israel has grown stronger," they say. In addition to JROOTS, the "Kachol Lavan" school runs programs for Israeli children.

"Today you are also helping us"

UJA Federation of Greater Toronto annually raises $60 million in donations, of which $20 million is earmarked for assistance to Israel, with an emphasis on strengthening the periphery, education and immigrant absorption. The Toronto community has a partnership with the cities of Eilat, Eilot, Sderot and Bat Yam. One of the most successful projects is STEM, where hundreds of children from Eilat and Toronto learn science, technology, engineering and math through a joint curriculum and video chats. It was not uncommon that during the course of studies there was a heat wave in Eilat while in Toronto they are experiencing heavy snow.

"The children talk about robots, but also about Israeli identity" says the director of the Bialik School in Toronto, Benji Cohen. "They talk about the weather and even prepared a plan for Jewish life on Mars. This is how the children in Toronto learn about Israel as a center of innovation, not just a place where there are wars." Minsky adds, "The children in Israel are so advanced that they contribute to our children. Gone are the days when Diaspora Jews helped Israel because it was less developed. Today you are also helping us".

Israel's ambassador to Canada, Nimrod Barkan, describes the Canadian Jewish community, "If in the United States the Jews often look down on Israel, in Canada they look at Israel with admiration. The community's attitude toward Israel is like that of a loving son, not of a father who gives advice".

Among those who help with this connection are 26 young Israelis from the Jewish Agency's ShinShinim project. Canada is the country with the most ShinShinim in the world. They accompany the Jewish children in schools and activities in the community centres, as well as in the various synagogues. In Canada, they say that the families that host the young people in their homes call them "a gift from Israel."

When refugees are absorbed into the Jewish center

Encouraging migration and the absorption of refugees in Canada did not skip the local Jewish community, and the families of Syrian refugees received assistance from the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Center in a variety of areas, such as swimming lessons for children with disabilities, and more.

One of the instructors in the gym at the community centre is Ziad, a young Palestinian whose parents emigrated from a refugee camp in Lebanon. He connected with the Israelis who come to the centre and also helps in translating for the Syrian refugees using the services of the community centre.

One of the strongest Jewish organizations in Canada is Hillel, the Jewish student organization. This is actually the largest branch in the world, with 13,500 students. At the University of Toronto alone there are about 3,000 Jewish students. Hillel Canada is one of the main bodies fighting BDS on campuses, and say that the boycott campaign against Israel in Canada is declining. "It's no longer trendy to be against Israel, people understand that the BDS is not what it claims to be. Apartheid week participation is down by 50% and they have no new recruits." said Ilan Orzi, an activist in the organization.

Although in comparison to many other countries the level of personal security of Canadian Jews is high, and the number of antisemitic incidents is relatively low, the community is forced to cope with an increase in antisemitic incidents and attacks. Despite the size of the community, Jews are the target of most hate crimes in the country.