By BERNIE BELLAN The imminent closing of the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University office in Winnipeg is yet one more sign of the rapidly changing face of this city’s Jewish community.
My report of the changes that the CFHU is making here, which can be read elsewhere on this site,, is as clear an indication as any how much social media have supplanted traditional methods of communication – and how rapidly our community is changing.
Any of our readers who use the Internet to any extent at all would know how easy it has become for organizations to keep in touch with supporters through e-mail and other forms of communication. Why does an organization need a physical office in a particular location when it can communicate with anyone from anywhere in the world?
The fact that the CFHU will be bringing in a “shaliach” (emissary) or more likely two “shlichim” from Israel very soon, who will be operating out of their apartment rather an office, will probably come as a surprise to most readers. After all, the CFHU has maintained a high profile in this city for a very long time and, as recently as 2014, mounted a very successful gala event that raised a record amount of money for the Hebrew University.
When I first heard of the plan to close that organization’s office, I admit that I was quite skeptical of the chances that one or two people operating out of their apartment – rather than an office, would be able to have the same impact that someone working in an office could have. But, as I listened to the explanations given to me by Rami Kleinmann, National CEO of the CFHU, and Murray Palay, National Chair of the Board of CFHU, I began to see the merit in what the CFHU is doing.
Like almost every other Jewish organization in this city, the CFHU is anxious to recruit new and younger members to its fold. For young people the primary means of communication is through the Internet. If you want to mount a successful campaign these days that’s going to attract a younger audience, then you have to use Facebook – and other forms of social media.
Newsletters and other sorts of mailouts and, I have to admit, newspapers, simply don’t reach younger people – or at least not to the extent that they used to reach older generations.
But, there is a price to be paid for delving into this new and rapidly evolving world – and we are seeing it in the form of much less interest by younger people in the issues and causes that animated their parents.
The seminal Pew Commission Report on the face of American Jewry – released in 2013, found, for instance, that younger American Jews were far less supportive of Israel: In response to nearly all of Pew’s questions about Israel, young Jews were more likely to be critical of Israel and less likely to feel attached to Israel. A quarter of Jews aged 18 to 29 believed that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel, according to Pew.
“The distancing from Israel…among the younger generation is less a reflection of harsh criticism of Israeli policy than it is a distancing from Jewish matters generally,” said Steve Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee.
“Therefore, Jewish organizations do need to be concerned about this, but they need to be concerned primarily about continuity and assimilation.”
Recently I had the opportunity to address a class in “Contemporary Jewish Issues”, taught by Per Brask at the University of Winnipeg. Per asked me to give an overview of Winnipeg’s Jewish community to his class, which has some 32 students in it (of whom, Per told me, approximately one-third are Jewish).
I told the students that Winnipeg’s Jewish population has declined substantially from its peak of a little over 20,000 in 1961 and that, while the Jewish Federation here has been reluctant to admit it, the actual population has been declining – rather than growing.
I did say though that Winnipeg has generally had strong institutions, but in recent years many of those institutions, especially synagogues, have seen an erosion of support. I noted that our community has always suffered from an exodus of talented young people – but that is no different from the situation for Winnipeg as a whole.
What I also said to the students though was that, as someone who is fascinated by demographics, I am perplexed by quite an apparent drop in the death rate within Winnipeg’s Jewish community in recent years.
I have commented on this particular phenomenon in the past, noting that Rena Boroditsky, Executive Director of the Chesed Shel Emes, was the first person to point out to me the drop in our death rate – from somewhere in the average of 175 individuals a year a few years ago to somewhere between 140-150 on average nowadays.
A few days ago I also happened to discuss this phenomenon with Lorne Raber and Claire Walter, both of whom had a long relationship with Eden Memorials, and who were both in an ideal position to comment on the declining death rate in Winnipeg’s Jewish community.
During the course of our conversation, Lorne Raber suggested to me that the actual death rate among Winnipeg Jews has shown an even more remarkable drop than what I had thought was the case. According to Lorne, as recently as ten years ago the average death rate hovered around 225 per year, so to have dropped to a figure in the 140-150 range is of enormous consequence. We both wondered what could have led to such a significant decrease in the death rate.
I suggested to Lorne that perhaps it was as a result of many Jewish seniors having left Winnipeg to join children in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto. Lorne, however, thought that the explanation lay more in the much greater decline in the total numbers of our population than the Jewish Federation has been willing to concede is the case. He said to me that, when I began a couple of years ago to write about the fairly substantial decrease in our numbers that was reported when the results of the National Household Survey of 2011 were released in 2014, I should have stuck to my guns and continued to write that Winnipeg had suffered a very substantial drop in the size of its Jewish population. Instead, as a result of the insistence by the Jewish Federation that the NHS was quite inaccurate in its reporting on the Jewish population here, I began to search for possible explanations how the Jewish Federation might be right. What I suggested by way of possible explanation was this: The NHS reported that only about 10,000 Winnipeg respondents to the NHS said they were Jewish by religion; however, 11,000 said they were Jewish by ethnicity. But – and here’s the big but: Of the 10,000 who said they were Jewish by religion, only 8,000 of those said they were Jewish by ethnicity.
That must mean that 2,000 of those who said they were Jewish by religion, but not ethnicity, must have been converts to Judaism. If you add those 2,000 to the 11,000 who said they were Jewish by ethnicity, then you can come up with a figure of 13,000 – which is close to what the Jewish Federation now concedes is the likely size of our population. (Actually, the Federation says it’s 13,690 but why quibble? No matter which way you slice it, it’s a pretty large drop from what it used to be.)
There is a flaw in my hypothesis though: It’s possible that many individuals who might normally be identified as Jewish might have answered that they have no religion, or that their ethnicity is “Canadian” – in which case they wouldn’t have been counted as Jewish by either criterion. Perhaps it’s those individuals - who don’t identify as Jewish in any way, whom the Jewish Federation counts as members of our community - and which leads the Federation to claim that the NHS didn’t provide an accurate reflection of the size of our community.
Why all this fuss over numbers, you might ask? Simply – and to return to my own pondering of what the CFHU is about to do here: What is the critical threshold of individuals we need in Winnipeg in order to maintain a vibrant community? If we had a Jewish population over 212,000 – as Toronto has, it wouldn’t make much of a difference how committed young people were to supporting Jewish organizations. Sure, there might be a drop off in support for some, if not all organizations, but there would be always be a critical mass available to sustain most organizations.
In contrast though, a city like Vancouver, which has a nominal Jewish population over 20,000, has a much more assimilated Jewish population so, even if it has greater numbers than us, Vancouver can’t count on its having a strong nucleus of individuals committed to supporting Jewish organizations into the future.
Where does that leave us? I’ve written before that, while Winnipeg’s Jewish community has a solid infrastructure of institutions, beginning with the Rady JCC, and continuing with the Jewish Foundation, I’m not so sure that the future of our community is as solid as some might want us to think.
As I also point out in my article on page 1 and have been pointing out consistently for the past few years: We’ve continued to see an erosion in the structures that once made Winnipeg’s Jewish community considered to be so vibrant, from the disappearance of any kosher butcher shops, to the continued loss of members in synagogues, to the precipitous drop in enrolment at the Gray Academy in 2014 (from 590 students the previous year to 510 in September 2014). Yes, the Combined Jewish Appeal continues to do well, relatively speaking, but the future lies in the state of our demographics and, as I said to Per Brask’s class: The demographics say we’re in a pretty steep decline.