By BERNIE BELLAN We’ve been reporting on the slide in enrolment at the Gray Academy over the past four years: from 625 in 2012 to 486 this past September (a 22% drop).
The reasons for the steep decrease in enrolment are varied. Included among those reasons, as I noted in the March 2015 issue of this paper, is the much smaller cohort of Jewish school age children in Winnipeg.
While these figures are now somewhat out of date (the most recent statistics are from the National Household Survey of 2011), the trend is clear:
According to the NHS, in 2011 there were 1,430 Jewish children under the age of 15. According to the NHS, in 2011 the Jewish population was 11, 750.
In 2001, according to the National Census that year, there were 2,655 Jewish children in Winnipeg under the age of 15. At the time the entire Jewish population of Winnipeg, according to the census, was 14,440. While the Jewish population was almost 20% smaller in 2011, the size of the school-age cohort was 46% smaller.
Granted, there has been a large-scale influx of Russian Israelis into Winnipeg that has added some to the Jewish population here, but until we see new census figures from the 2016 census, we’re forced to rely upon the NHS figures for the time being, notwithstanding the Jewish Federation’s own questionable methodology for determining the size of our Jewish population. After all, in 2014 the Jewish Federation released new figures for the size of our Jewish population, saying it was 13,690, according to Montreal demographer Charles Shachar – a figure that was down substantially from previously released figures that ranged as high as 16,000.
Even if the size of our Jewish population is somewhat higher than was reported in the NHS, it is apparent that whatever increase may have occurred has not benefitted the Gray Academy. With a 22% drop in its enrolment over the past four years, even if there have been some new students from among immigrants to Winnipeg, that influx of new students has been more than offset by the exodus of students who had been in the school previously.
While the Gray Academy still continues to be the most popular school for Jewish students in Winnipeg, a recent conversation that I had with a reader alerted me to something of which I had not been aware: A significant number of Winnipeg Jewish families that have been moving to Hamilton, Ontario.
During that conversation I was told about one family that has decided to move to Hamilton. According to the person with whom I was speaking a major reason was the stronger emphasis on traditional Jewish values in the Hamilton Jewish school than the Gray Academy.
Now, trying to define “Jewish values” is not easy. For some, it might be an adherence to a more observant form of Jewish life; for others it might mean a more pro-Zionist stance.
Whatever the definition, I decided to contact the Hamilton Hebrew Academy, which is the only Jewish school in Hamilton. Hamilton has a Jewish population a little over 5,000 and the entire school population (K-8) is only 150, according to Rebecca Shapiro, the Hamilton Hebrew Academy’s Director of Communications.
Yet, over the past four or five years, Shapiro said, the school has seen from two-three new families each year who have moved to Hamilton from Winnipeg enroll their children in the Hebrew Academy. While that figure may not seem large, you only have to consider the drop in the Gray Academy’s enrolment over the past four years to realize the significance having lost eight-ten families means to the Gray Academy.
Also, when I asked Shapiro whether a large number of those families were Russian Israeli immigrants, she agreed that was the case. Interestingly, she observed that while those families may have been secular in their orientation while they lived in Israel, as they have merged into the close knit Hamilton Jewish community they have become more interested in adopting a more traditional Jewish lifestyle.
I asked Shapiro whether it was also the case that many young families from Toronto were also moving to Hamilton, due to the much cheaper housing and the much lower tuition at the Hebrew Academy in Hamilton ($12,500 for children in Grades 1-8 compared with over $27,000 at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto). She agreed that was the case, adding that it is still possible to purchase a new home in one of the outlying areas of Hamilton for less than $300,000.
A few years ago I recall Rory Paul, then Head of School at the Gray Academy telling me that when Russian Israeli families move from Winnipeg, they prefer to go to smaller Canadian cities. He mentioned Hamilton as an example. Paul also suggested that opportunities for occupational advancement were the principal reasons that families had been leaving.
I was also aware that for some observant families in Winnipeg who had left this city for Toronto, dissatisfaction with the level of traditional Jewish observance had played a strong reason in their move there.
But Hamilton? I would never have thought that a city with a much smaller Jewish population’s than Winnipeg would serve as an attractive alternative for families seeking a school with a more traditional Jewish culture than the Gray Academy. You live and learn.