HomeOpinionOpinionDoes Winnipeg even have an identifiable "Jewish" community any...

Does Winnipeg even have an identifiable “Jewish” community any more?

By Bernie Bellan While there is no doubt that antisemitism is the issue of paramount concern to Jewish communities around the world, there is no shortage of news stories almost anywhere you look within Jewish media that are dealing with that subject.
And, while we have a number of stories in this issue that also deal with antisemitism in its myriad of forms, especially as it manifests itself online, once again the results of the 2021 census have so much to say about Winnipeg’s Jewish community that I decided to make it the lead story in this issue – following up my initial foray into that subject in our last issue.
There is still quite a bit to explore in data that was sent to me by statcan following a request I sent to that organization requesting detailed figures about the Jewish population here. (The kinds of data that I was looking for are not readily accessible without someone at statcan responding to a request for specific information.)
In response to my emailed request statcan produced a custom table. Here is how a representative from that organization described what was sent to me: “We’ve prepared a custom table from the census that should be able to answer the questions in your email, including the age breakdown of the Jewish population in the Winnipeg CMA. The table includes the following variables: Ethnic or cultural origin, Religion, Age, and Gender and includes data for Canada, all provinces and territories, and all Census Metropolitan Areas.”
Now, as much as our Jewish Federation invests quite a few resources in what it describes as “strategic planning,” and a press release that we’ve printed on page 4 of this issue refers to the latest steps the Federation is taking toward that purpose, as I’ve asked so many times in the past: “How can you plan for the future if you don’t even know how many individuals might be considered ‘Jewish’?”
For years I’ve been arguing that the Jewish community in Winnipeg is much smaller than what the Federation suggests it is. The last time I heard someone from the Federation refer publicly to the size of our community, the figure of 16,000 was tossed out, apparently quite arbitrarily.
But, as I show in my article on page 1, if you take into account the results of the 2021 census the Jewish community cannot be larger than 14,270 at a maximum. (I explain in some detail in the page 1 article how I arrived at that figure). But, in order to understand better how the census arrived at its results, it is important to recall how the question about ethnic origins was worded on the census.
Here is how the question about ethnic origin was worded on the 2021 census:
 “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of this person’s ancestors?
“An ancestor is usually more distant than a grandparent.
“For example, Canadian, Chinese, English, East Indian, French, Italian, Filipino, German, Cree, Mi’kmaq, Salish, Métis, Inuit, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Polish, Korean, Iranian, Vietnamese, Jamaican, Pakistani, Lebanese, Colombian, Mexican, Somali, etc.
“This question collects information on the ancestral origins of the population and provides information about the composition of Canada’s diverse population.
“Specify as many origins as applicable” (emphasis mine)

Given that individuals who may have had some Jewish ancestry in a distant past could have written “Jewish” as one of the answers for ethnic origin, do the results for ethnic origin have any substantive value when it comes to determining how many Jews there are in Winnipeg?
As I note in my article on page 1, a great many individuals who gave their ethnic origin as Jewish also said their religion was “Christian.”
Now, I can accept that a great many individuals these days might say that they have Jewish ancestry, and they do not subscribe to any religion – but we might still think of them as Jewish, yet when 1,080 individuals (out of 10,700 in total) who said that their ethnic origin, at least in part, was Jewish, but their religion is Christian, well, what are we to make of that?
Equally surprising to me was the number of individuals – 180, who responded that their religion was Jewish but their ethnic origin (at least in part) was North American Indigenous. I find that result to be quite fascinating. I’m not quite sure what to make of that result, but I’m definitely intrigued by it.
For that matter, when I studied the table sent to me by statcan I was amazed at the very wide number of answers for ethnic origin that were listed for individuals who gave their religion as Jewish. I think that many readers would be equally fascinated if I were to list all the different ethnic origins for Winnipeggers who responded that their religion was Jewish. It would take well over a page in this paper to list them all.
In the final analysis answers to the question about religion give a much clearer idea just how many Jews there are in Winnipeg. The fact that 11,170 individuals gave “Jewish “ as the answer, is probably much more significant than the number who gave “Jewish” as one of their ethnic origins. (For comparison’s sake, the number in 2001 who answered “Jewish” to the question about religion was 12,045, while in 2011 it was 10,735.) Thus, while the figure for ethnic origin has declined from 2011 to 2021, it went up in 2021 from 2011, which probably indicates a slight increase in the size of our Jewish population, but not much.
So, what does this all mean in the end? Just this: Our “Jewish community,” if one can even refer to the collection of individuals who responded either that their religion was Jewish or one of their ethnic origins was Jewish is so disparate that it can hardly be referred to as a community any longer. No doubt, if one were to go back in time to say the 1961 census, when there was clearly an identifiable “Jewish community” that almost reached 20,000 in size, that community was far more homogenous than whatever our “community,” no matter how you define it, is today.
The other significant result of the 2021 census – and one which I’m sure would not come as any great surprise to anyone at all, is the increase in the number of individuals 65+ as a percentage of the individuals who gave their ethnic origin as Jewish.
In 2001, the figure was 21%; in 2011 – 19%; and in 2021 – 23%.
Further, when you take into account the percentage of individuals who said their ethnic origin was Jewish and who were from 45-64 years of age -26%, the total percentage of individuals 45+ who gave “Jewish” as one of their ethnic origins is now 49%. We’re definitely a community that skews older, which would probably come as a jolt to the people at the Federation who think Instagram is the best way to reach members of our community.
Is the Jewish Federation taking any of this into account when it says it’s embarking on a new strategic plan? (I haven’t bothered to go back into this paper’s archives to see just how many times our Federation has embarked upon yet another “strategic” planning process, but it seems to me that there’s always another plan underway.)
One of my other goals in analyzing the statcan data that was sent to me is to correlate answers about ethnic origin and religion with where people live in Winnipeg. That will require quite a bit more analysis, but it would certainly be interesting to know where individuals who gave either their religion or ethnic origin as Jewish, live. Again, it really shouldn’t have to be the editor of the Jewish newspaper doing this kind of analysis, it should be the Federation. If you’re going to be planning for the future, as much as it’s nice to conduct “surveys” and “interviews,” as the Federation says it will do in its press release, how about beginning with an analysis of census data, which is the most logical place to start?
Turning to something else that piqued my interest recently – and is somewhat related to the notion of what constitutes a Jewish “community,” there was a fascinating article in Haaretz about recent archaeological research that would purport to show that Judaism was not even an organized religion until the time of the Hasmoneans, which was in the second century BCE. That’s especially significant, coming up as we are to Chanukah, which celebrates the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid dynasty (which had its origins in Alexander the Great’s empire).
According to this research, the ancestors of what we now think of as the “Jews” worshipped a number of different gods for much longer than has been thought the case. Further, while it is likely that the religious laws that define Jewish practices were codified around 600 BCE, according to this new research, the likelihood is that the vast majority of people whom we’ve thought of as Jews had no idea what those laws were. The findings are based on analysis of the foods people ate (including shellfish), also coins that were minted bearing the faces of different deities, in areas that were inhabited by people in what were Jewish areas of settlement in ancient Judea and Israel.
If there is one common denominator between this new theory and what I’ve been trying to get across in this piece it is that for thousands of years Jews have intermingled with neighbouring groups, often intermarrying, adopting new customs, shedding old ones, and redefining themselves.
The fact that Winnipeg’s Jewish “community” is now so disparate as to be beyond a simple description of who is “Jewish,” therefore, should come as no surprise. So, if the Federation is going to embark on yet another planning process, how about beginning by analyzing the results of the 2021 census, which show that defining who is “Jewish” is quite the challenge?

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