HomeOpinionOpinionSome observations about the shifting Jewish population in Winnipeg...

Some observations about the shifting Jewish population in Winnipeg and the legacy of Harvey Rosen

By BERNIE BELLAN I’ve been writing about Jewish population trends in Winnipeg for many years now, but never more so since the 2016 census produced wildly inaccurate results for the entire Jewish population of Canada. (I’ve explained numerous times why the figures from the 2016 census were so out of whack. Simply put, it was because “Jewish” was no longer listed as a choice for respondents in answer to the question about ethnic origin. Instead, one had either to write in “Jewish” or else choose a different ethnic origin.)
But now that the 2021 census has provided the most complete information ever obtained about the ethnic and religious composition of Canada, one would expect that Jewish federations throughout the country would be eager to analyze those results almost immediately.
It may be time consuming for someone to begin analyzing data from the 2021 census, but statisticians from statcan are very helpful when it comes to providing data that cannot be readily extracted simply by taking a look at the statcan 2021 census site. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any great rush for Jewish federations across the country to begin analyzing data from the 2021 census, especially as it relates to Jewish populations in different cities.
When I asked a spokesperson from our own Jewish Federation whether they’d be interested in having statcan produce specific data as it would relate to our own Jewish community I was told that all Jewish federations across the country have hired one individual to analyze all data. You would think though that, considering our federation has long employed an individual whose ostensible responsibility included “planning,” that the federation here would be eager to analyze the data that statcan has now produced.
So, instead of waiting for who knows how long for one individual working for all Jewish federations across the country to begin to analyze census data, I took it upon myself to work with a statistician from statcan and begin analyzing the data.
Why have I been so interested in analyzing data about the Jewish population of Winnipeg, you might ask? It’s simply because I’ve never trusted the data that our Jewish Federation has been reporting for years. For so long the Jewish Federation here has been reporting various figures for the size of our Jewish population – always in the neighbourhood of 16,000, but without any empirical evidence to support that figure. My own analysis of available data showed that the true figure was in the 12,000 range.
I could never get anyone from the Jewish Federation to provide empirical date that would substantiate a figure of 16,000 for our Jewish population here.
For instance, when I interviewed Faye Rosenberg Cohen, who was then the Chief Planning and Allocations Director for the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, I posed this question to her: “…can you put your finger on how many new immigrants have come here over the years?”
Faye responded: “I can honestly say when I look at those numbers it’s somewhere around 1/3 of the community.”
JP&N: “So you’d say it’s somewhere between 4-5,000?”
Faye: “I think it’s more than that.”
Based upon that answer, the Jewish population of Winnipeg would have to be at least 15,000, but as I’ve shown since information about Canada’s ethnic and religious composition was released this past November, it is simply impossible that Winnipeg’s Jewish population could be more than 14,270 – at an absolute maximum, and is very likely much smaller than that, because many of those 14,270 individuals reported that while, one of their ethnic origins may have been “Jewish,” their religion was something else entirely. I suppose one can still identify as “Jewish” when one’s religion is Christian, but I would submit that would be a real stretch for most people to accept.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise though that the Jewish Federation here would want to embellish the size of our community; it serves to bolster the federation’s case that it has been so successful in attracting immigrants here. And, it has been very successful in doing that.
But, back in August I asked Faye Rosenberg Cohen what I described as a key question: “Does anyone keep track of how many immigrants actually stay here?” The answer, unfortunately, is no. So, even if the Federation has been quite successful in attracting Jewish immigrants here, it is not only possible that a very high proportion of those immigrants have left Winnipeg, it is very likely the case. Otherwise, the data from the 2021 census would have shown a great many more individuals as reporting they were Jewish, either by ethnic origin or religion.
Further, as my story on page 1 of this issue demonstrates, individuals who identify as “Jewish” by religion are now spread out throughout the entire city. There are now only 1,035 Jews living west of the Red River and north of the CPR tracks. There are more Jews living east of the Red River than in that entire area north of the tracks – which was once home to 90% of the Jewish population as recently as 1961, when the Jewish population here almost reached 20,000.
Clearly, the move to newer neighbourhoods – especially in Charleswood, Bridgewater and other parts of Ft. Garry, St. Vital, and Transcona, is being spurred by the arrival of new immigrant families in seek of lower-cost housing, but what are the implications for some of the bedrock organizations of our Jewish community, especially the Rady JCC and Gray Academy?
We’ve already seen one of the results of the drastic decline in the Jewish population north of the CPR tracks with the decision by Etz Chayim Congregation to move to a much smaller facility on Wilkes Avenue. It will be interesting to see whether that leads to more members deciding to join that congregation once the move takes effect this summer.
One of the other significant aspects of the continued movement of individuals away from the entire area north of the CPR tracks and west of the Red River has been the concentration of seniors in apartments, assisted living facilities and personal care homes all south of the Assiniboine River. With the aging of our community, in which a full 23% of our Jewish population is now over 65 – the highest proportion it’s ever been in our history, one wonders what the long-term consequences will be for that trend.
With a high number of Jewish seniors now living in Crescentwood, especially in apartments on Wellington Crescent and neighbouring streets, that certainly portends well for the Shaarey Zedek once renovations are complete there in 2024. But, just as the Rady JCC has seen quite a large drop-off in membership ever since the onset of Covid, one wonders whether many seniors will be as anxious to return to attending synagogue in person once the Shaarey Zedek returns to its traditional home.
The combination of population shifts along with the Covid epidemic has drastically altered the preferences of large portions of what is now our Jewish population in terms of which Jewish facilities they choose to use. Are our organizations doing enough to take into account those very significant changes in our Jewish community? That remains to be seen.
Turning to another story on page 1 – about the passing of Harvey Rosen, I was always interested in reading Harvey’s columns, both for the information they contained, and for his unique turns of phrase. I was especially fond of his use of the expression, “a member of the Hebraic persuasion,” which he used instead of simply saying someone was Jewish.
Myron Love references Harvey’s determination to find Jewish athletes, particularly in professional sports. I remember Harvey describing his going up to a hockey player by the name of Jayden Schwartz who, at the time was playing for the St. Louis Blues, and asking Jayden whether he was “Jewish?”
Harvey said that Jayden very politely answered that he wasn’t Jewish, but he didn’t seem offended that someone might think he was Jewish. On the other hand, Harvey did seem obsessed with finding out the parentage of many athletes, as Myron notes in his story.
We still carry the occasional story about Jewish athletes, but those stories comes from our news agency, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and they tend to focus either on American or Israeli athletes. Where Harvey truly excelled was in finding local Jewish athletes. I always found it remarkable that, if there was a Jewish youngster who excelled at a particular sport here, Harvey would find them.
Although we occasionally get contacted by someone who informs us of a particular athlete whose story would be of interest to our readers, I’m sad to say that doesn’t happen very often. In looking back at old issues of The Jewish Post I saw that, prior to Harvey coming on board in 1976, the paper relied upon Leible Hershfield for sports stories, but Leible’s interest was in the athletes of yesteryear – when he himself was our community’s most famous athlete.
Harvey, though, excelled in finding the up and coming future stars of our community. And, to think he produced over 2,000 columns over the years – I wonder whether there’s another sportswriter for a Jewish paper anywhere who could match that total?

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