More than 50,000 immigrants from the State of Israel currently reside in the Greater Toronto Area, comprising some 25 per cent of the GTA’s Jewish population, a new demographic study reveals.
Nearly 2,700 Israelis immigrated to Canada in 2004 and 2,601 arrived the year before – the two highest numbers on record – states the report, titled The Israeli Community in the Greater Toronto Area.
Prepared by David Gidron for the Israeli House, a component of the Israeli Consulate in Toronto, the study found that altogether, 64,859 Israelis immigrated to Canada from 1946 to 2004, with the vast majority settling in the GTA. That figure does not include children born in Canada.
Ties between Israeli immigrants and the established Jewish community remain tenuous. In the report, Gidron calls on Jewish community leadership “to find ways to strengthen the connection to this group… Some of the Jewish bodies – especially the bodies connected to Jewish education – are, in my opinion, moving too slowly and are having difficulty in finding solutions to the needs of the Israeli community. It is important that these bodies put the Israeli issues on their agenda in order to help ensure we don’t lose the next generation, the children.”
A copy of the report has been turned over to the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and it is now being studied. The report was prepared to assist the Israeli House in planning the kind of services it would offer Israeli expats and to provide the Israeli Canadian Forum, a new organization that will serve as an umbrella organization for Israelis, with information about their target audience. The study is based on Canadian census data, information compiled by the consulate and on material found in Citizenship and Immigration Canada reports.
Gidron believes integrating Israeli newcomers will pose a challenge to the established Jewish community on a number of fronts, but the new, relatively young population group also offers tremendous opportunities for community growth. A community-wide “very serious dialogue” is needed, he said
Posing one difficulty is the cultural divide: many Israelis perceive Canadian Jews as too formal, cool and standoffish.
Another point of separation is religious identity: Canadian Jews’ connection to the community and to their Jewishness is often through synagogue affiliation. Most Israelis, however, are secular. “They look at Jewishness first from the point of nationalism and ethnic identity and less from the point of view of religion,” Gidron said. “It will take years, if ever, to see Israelis migrate to shuls.”
Gidron said he is concerned about Jewish continuity among youths whose parents are Israeli. “They aren’t in day schools and they are not tied to Israel, the land, as they are not living there. That’s a major challenge for anyone who works for the community.”
Gidron, who moved to Toronto two years ago, said Israeli immigrants are forced to address the universal Jewish dilemma of continuity – but with a twist. “In Israel, they do not deal with the question of what it is to be a Jew. They come here and for the first time, they have to give thought to that question.”
Israeli parents are confiding in him that their children are “marrying out and they are not sure what they did wrong.”
Gidron suggested Hebrew supplementary schools might provide a means of bringing young Israelis into the community, but they would have to focus on Israeli history, geography – “for them, Israel the land is pragmatic, it’s not a dream,” he said – and written Hebrew. Tanach could be taught as in Israel, from a historical and cultural perspective, he offered.
Gidron attributed the rise in Israeli emigration to a number of factors. Israelis meet Canadian immigration criteria and so have little difficulty in obtaining visas. Canada is likely the second most popular destination for Israelis, after the United States, he said.
While “we’d be happy if the Israeli community packed up tomorrow and went back home,” he said out-migration is now seen as a normal development in a mature country.
As to Israelis’ integration into the wider community, Gidron is guardedly optimistic. It will depend on “whether the community is open enough to take in a brother that is a little different, and bring them in as an equal. The community here puts people in ‘boxes.’ Is the community open enough to make a new box? [If so] Israelis will respond if there is a box built in their way.”
Some of the report’s other findings:
The largest concentration of Israeli immigrants in the GTA is in Vaughan (2,840), a city immediately north of Toronto. Second is the area around Finch (1,150) and third the area around Lawrence (670). • Two-thirds of the Israeli community earn less than $40,000 per year. Israeli immigrants are relatively young compared to other groups of Jews and most have arrived in the last few years, keeping their incomes low. • Sixty-nine per cent of Israelis are salaried workers, while only 1.6 per cent receive a government pension. 7.23 per cent receive government assistance. • 14.5 per cent live in poverty.