By BERNIE BELLAN
With the rapidly changing face of Winnipeg’s Jewish community as a result of the massive influx of newcomers to this city, one of the questions that has preoccupied us for some time is how well these newcomers are integrating into the existing community?
We’ve written before about the estimate given by the Jewish Federation that there are now over 4,500 newcomers from Israel here. We’ve further noted that from 400-500 Israelis (including their families) have been arriving here under the Provincial Nominee Program in recent years – which means that the figure of 4,500 is already likely on the low side.
Unfortunately, we won’t have a firm grasp of hard and fast statistics from StatsCan until 2021 (when the next major census will occur), so there’s still quite a bit of guess work involved in coming up with firm figures for the size of our Jewish population now. We had been told by the Federation last year that they were using the figure of 14,500 for the size of the Jewish population – which is about 2,000 more than what the National Household Survey of 2011 came up with.
Regardless of the actual numbers, the trend is clear: The fairly steady diminution of the Jewish population here that had been taking place ever since its peak in 1961 at just under 20,000 has now been reversed.
Yet, as we’ve also been wondering: With so many newcomers to our city, to what extent are they actually integrating into the established Jewish community? Certain trends are quite clear. For one, synagogue membership has not benefited much, if at all, from the increased immigration to our city.
Secondly, while a certain proportion of the newcomer families are sending their children either to the Gray Academy or the Brock Corydon Hebrew Bilingual program, statistically speaking that percentage remains quite small.
But, if there is any one area of Jewish life that seems to have been attractive for the newcomer families, it has been the various Jewish camps – both sleepover and day camps, that have been most successful in terms of luring newcomers.
We spoke with representatives for Camp Massad, BB Camp, and the Rady JCC day camps and, in all cases, we were told the same thing: Registrations are at record levels for the coming summer season and a large proportion of the registrants come from families that are relatively new to Winnipeg.
Danial Sprintz, executive director of Camp Massad, told us for instance that for the very first time the first (July) session of his camp is already sold out –with 120 registrants. Normally, Danial told us, it is the second (August) session that has proven the more popular of the two sessions and, while he also expects the August session to be close to sold out, he has been generally astounded at the interest shown in the first session.
“Not too long ago we only had 24 kids in our first session,” Danial noted.
With a variety of different programs though, Camp Massad now offers programming that ranges all the way from day camp to six weeks of Machshirah (leadership training), camp fees can range from as little as $160/week for day camp to $3,685 for Machshirah.
BB Camp on Town Island has comparable fees. The six week leadership training program, for instance, costs $3,955.
There is no doubt that going to a Jewish sleepover camp will typically be more expensive than going to some other camps. Camp Stephens for instance, which is operated by the YMCA, charges $2,150 for its six week leadership development program.
What has made both BB and Massad accessible to many families that might otherwise not be able to send their kids though has been the large number of scholarships available as a result of financial assistance from a variety of sources – including the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Foundation, and the Sunshine Fund, as well as other donors.
Danial Sprintz says that “This year I have 58 kids who will be going to camp under subsidy. Subsidies account for nearly $65,000 for the summer of 2017.” That figure represents approximately 25% of campers.
The situation is somewhat different at BB Camp. According to camp director Brenda Tessler-Donen, of the 310 kids who will be coming to camp, “18% are seeking some sort of scholarship”, which represents approximately 55 campers.
Brenda also made an interesting point about financial assistance. In an email to us she noted that “While camperships or scholarships provide some interesting insight, what is even more of an interesting point are the number of immigrants who have been living in Winnipeg for five plus years, that don’t rely on subsidies to attend Camp… Also interesting and a valuable lesson to me was not to assume that they all needed scholarships. Many paid in full the camp fee and were taken aback that I had asked if they required a subsidy. We should not assume that all new Canadians or at least those who have established roots here require financial support five plus years later.”
Financial assistance has also been a major factor in the success of the Rady JCC day camps being able to attract many newcomers.
Rady JCC Executive Director Gayle Waxman told us that “Last year we raised and were able to provide $78,000 in camperships. We estimate that between 65%-75% of those receiving scholarships are newcomers. For some this is their first Canadian experience. We typically have about 2000 registrations (based on one week camp sessions). Our number has been growing over the past several years.”
What all three camp directors said about newcomers being very attracted to their respective camps led me to wonder why the two schools that offer some sort of Jewish learning are not as successful as the camps have been in attracting newcomers.
The Winnipeg School Division doesn’t release information about country of origin for its students, but we did receive some interesting data about where the 215 students who are enrolled in the Hebrew Bilingual program at Brock Corydon live. In response to a question how many of those students actually live outside the boundaries of the Winnipeg School Division, we were told that “Our data shows that 94 of our Hebrew bilingual language programming students are from outside of Winnipeg School Division. The majority of those are from the Pembina Trails School Division area (which would include students from Tuxedo, Charleswood, Fort Garry, LindenWoods and Whtye Ridge).”
We asked Lori Binder, Head of School at the Gray Academy, how many of the school’s students come from what would be considered newcomer families.
Lori responded that students from “New to Canada Families” make up approximately 30% of the 485 students in the school K-12.
“As an example ,” Lori noted, of the “Current Grade 12 Class (Largest Graduating Class in History with 47) , 23%” are from newcomer families.
With large numbers of newcomer families choosing to send their children to one or another of the Jewish camps that have long been available within the established Jewish community, we wondered what factors might be serving as deterrents for those same families to send their kids to a school that has a Jewish program.
Distance would be the most obvious factor, one would think. With large numbers of new families choosing to live in areas that are far both from Brock Corydon and the Gray Academy it only stands to reason that having to drive great distances would be a major disincentive.
To a certain extent that supposition was proved somewhat true when I put the question to Lori Binder how many families had sent their kids to the Gray Academy at one time, but then withdrew them citing distance from the school as the reason.
Here is what Lori wrote, in response:
“Students who left the school that cited distance or relocation to their home country or another city for employment
“Distance from School – 15/16 (2 students) 16/17 (8 students)
“Relocation Outside City 15/16 (7 students) 16/17 (10 students)”
Given the relatively few families that withdrew their children from the school because of the distance, we wondered then whether tuition costs played a more important role in dissuading newcomer families from sending their children to the school.
We asked Lori what proportion of students are receiving some sort of subsidy to attend the Gray Academy. While she was unwilling to share those exact figures Lori did supply us with forms that would show how much tuition would be for parents at different income levels.
Full tuition of $10,150 kicks in only when family income reaches a level of $152,000. The lowest amount of tuition that any one family would have to pay would be $2,850.
It was in the email that we received from Brenda Tessler-Donen responding to questions about how many newcomer families are sending their children to BB Camp that we discovered the paramount factor influencing newcomer parents whether and where to send their children to camp was not cost, nor was it the programming of the camp in particular, it was networking with other parents.
Here is what Brenda wrote: “…historically, BB Camp hosts an Open House (the first or second Sunday in June - pending our schedule). Typically, we attract 40 - 60 people, 80% new Canadians to the event. Last Open House we had 210 - I would guesstimate that close to 80% were new Canadians (emphasis mine). In my conversations with many of the families that have never attended Camp’s Open House in the past, it was the networking that drove the numbers up. The majority of these families reside in St. James, St. Vital, Transcona as well as Charleswood, Unicity, and other communities across Winnipeg. A number of these same families registered for Camp afterwards. What I found so interesting is that the majority of these families had never heard of BB or Massad - most sent their kids to public schools are were so appreciative that they could attend the program.”
There’s not much surprising in that. The newcomer families obtain almost all their information about Winnipeg through networking, be it through social media or through conversations with other newcomers.
Further to the phenomenal response to its open house last year, Brenda now says that BB Camp has taken its outreach program one step further. This year, in addition to its regular family weekend program in June BB Camp will be hosting something called “Camp Gesher”.
Here is how Brenda described Camp Gesher: “The program is a family weekend program for Russian speaking families. We created a poster and flyer in both Russian and English and I also promoted not only on BB Camp’s Facebook page but also on the Russian Cultural Association for Russian-speaking Manitobans FB page. The response has been incredible to date and interestingly those that have signed up to date are families that did not attend the Open House last June nor have they attended previous Open House or BB Camp children’s programs. These are new families willing to try something new.”
Brenda also noted that BB Camp has been successful in attracting kids who had left the Gray Academy. She stressed how important it is to keep those kids engaged in a Jewish milieu to some extent, writing that “It is so easy for many of these kids to assimilate at their new schools (whether private or public) and become involved in the social activities that they now want to have with their non-Jewish counterparts. A number of these kids end up at Camp Stephens or one of the evangelic Manitoba Camps because that is where their friends are going in the summer.”
Continuing her argument that Jewish camps are intrinsic to developing a Jewish identity among individuals who might otherwise have no or little connection to the Jewish community, Brenda wrote: “Ensuring that we keep them engaged is critical for cultivating future leaders in our community, creating a sense of belonging and remaining tied to their Jewish identity. This year alone, we also have 8 children, attending BB Camp for their first time (they are either 7 or 8 years of age) all from SJR. Unheard of years ago - but demographics and choices of where parents are sending their children now have elevated the importance that Jewish summer camps can have in building these critical relationships and providing a source of Jewish experiences that they are likely not receiving from other agencies.”
Much has been written about the pivotal role that both Massad and BB Camp have played over the years in developing leaders of our community.
We have to be honest though about the state of our community. While its numbers may have grown in recent years as a result of substantial immigration from Israel, it has been a challenge trying to get those newcomers to involve themselves in the larger Jewish community.
For the most part the children from these new families are attending public schools – even despite there being available generous financial assistance were they to send their kids to the Gray Academy. Distance is likely a major factor in that decision, but there isn’t much that can be done to overcome that problem.
The fact though that hundreds and hundreds of children from newcomer families will be attending one form of Jewish camp or another speaks volumes about those families’ desires to maintain some sort of ties to the Jewish community.
The Rady JCC has been conducting various outreach programs catering primarily to the Russian-speaking members of newcomer families. Those programs have been quite successful in terms of the numbers of families that have come out.
But, when it comes to a more permanent identification with the community, there are two primary means by which groups of children will develop that identity: either through school or camp.
While the children of newcomer families who will graduate from the Gray Academy can be regarded as vital ambassadors to the newcomer community – and potentially future leaders here, they are relatively few in number.
It is the camps, therefore, that are becoming the major bastions of identity formation for our community. This is not written as a plea for support for the camps; it’s simply a description of where we are at in 2017 in terms of the institutions that are proving most successful at integrating newcomers into the Jewish community.