Canadian Jewry

Canada's multicultural society has shaped its Jewish community.

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Religious, Cultural, and Institutional Life

Jewish immigrants to Canada brought with them a tradition of communal life and developed a wide range of voluntary organizations and groups. Wealthy Jews who had arrived in Canada prior to the European refugees founded philanthropic organizations such as the Quebec Hebrew Relief Association for Immigrants and the Hebrew Philanthropic Society. The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), established in 1919, merged several smaller organizations. The CJC worked on behalf of Jewish immigrants and attempted to advance the interests of Jewish Canadians.

Canadian Jewry and American Jewry: Similar, But Different

As a general rule, Canadian Jews retain a stronger Jewish identity than their American counterparts. Canadians  provide their children with a more intensive Jewish education (55% of Canadian Jewish children attend Jewish day schools, versus 29% in the U.S) and have stronger ties with Israel (66% of Canadian Jews have visited Israel at least once, compared with 35% of American Jews). Canadian Jews are more traditional, as well. Forty percent belong to Orthodox congregations and 40% are Conservative Jews. Only 20% affiliate with the Reform movement. Though there are concerns regarding assimilation, the rate of intermarriage is far lower in Canada (35%) than it is in the U.S. (54%).

The relative strength of Canadian Jewish identity is distinctly Canadian. Social scientists and commentators have defined Canada as an "ethnic mosaic" (as opposed to the American "melting pot"). It encourages ethnic groups to retain at least part of their ancestral identity and heritage. The clearest expression of this encouragement is the aforementioned Multiculturalism Act. This multiculturalism became particularly evident in Montreal where, comments poet-singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, "everybody...if you ask them what they are they will give you a race or a nation that is not Canadian. They will say they are Hungarian, or Greek or Jewish, and I think Montreal had the real federal idea...in the most transcendent aspect of that idea, and that is that nothing had to be given up by the people who came here."

Canadian Jews have distinguished themselves in the fields of science, law, medicine, politics, and the arts. Some of the most famous Canadian Jews have been writers, among them Irving Layton, Mordechai Richler, and Cohen. Due to the absence of the American melting pot concept, Jewish Canadian writers also differ from their American counterparts. "Jewish Canadian poets in the whole," notes author and critic Seymour Mayne, "are recognizable by their emphasis on the human dimension, the translation of the experience of the immigrant and the outsider, the finding of joy in the face of adversity, the linking with tradition and the concern with history in its widest sense." Striving to find words that echo more than the individual's need, they seek a communal language, using words "that speak to and for the community, whether they relate to the everyday or the eternal," invoking the presence of ancestors and tradition.

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Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is an Israeli-Canadian writer, editor, translator, and teacher. She currently lives in Montreal.