It is fitting that a landmark study of Canadian Jews, modeled along the famous 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews, has been met with deafening silence south of the border. Major American outlets including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) and The Forward failed to mark the publication of the seminal report with even a single column of commentary. This disregard for the goings on up north is unfortunately common but it is not without costs. If the American Jewish community showed more interest in the “2018 Survey of Jews in Canada,” they could have learned why Canadian Jews are thriving at a time when their own communities are dividing.
Contrary to the traditional narrative that American Jews are the exemplary diaspora, the study’s authors, Keith Neuman (executive director of the Environics Institute), Rhonda Lenton (president and vice chancellor of York University, and Robert Brym (professor at the University of Toronto), argue that Canadian Jews, in fact, are the model group. “Since World War II, the story of the Jewish diaspora has been dominated by historical events and social processes taking place in the United States and the former Soviet Union. In both cases, community cohesiveness is on the decline. Lost in the dominant narrative is the story of Canadian exceptionalism.” More importantly, Lenton points to findings that in spite of global trends of stagnating nonreligious, secular community members, Canadian Jews are “bucking the trend.”
The resilience of Canadian Jews in sustaining their identity, upbringing, and practice in comparison with their American counterparts, is largely due to their significantly lower intermarriage rates. The study reports that while nearly 50% of American Jews intermarry, the rate in Canada is less than half that, at 23%. Correspondingly, Pew’s 2013 survey found intermarried couples showed lower levels of religiosity and were less likely to keep a Jewish household, and that their offspring were more likely to intermarry.
Downstream from higher intermarriage rates, the study demonstrates that American Jews are half as likely to attend community day school, yeshiva, overnight summer camp, and Sunday or Hebrew school compared with Canadians. While participation rates at communal institutions have dwindled among non-Orthodox American Jews, the same has not been true for Reform and Conservative Jews in Canada. Accordingly, while American and Canadian Jewish youth exhibit similar bar and bat mitzvah levels (50% to 60%, respectively) as well as rates of nonaffiliation (roughly 33%), Canadians are significantly more active in their religious communities. As the survey’s executive summary states, “American Jews are half as likely as Canadian Jews to belong to a synagogue, and even less likely to belong to other types of Jewish organizations. Only one-half have made a financial donation to Jewish organizations and causes (compared with 80% of Canadian Jews), and comparatively few have a preponderance of Jewish friends.” Similar results are seen when it comes to Israel between the two communities. “American Jews have a much weaker connection to Israel than do Canadian Jews,” the report states.
Explaining the relative success Canadian Jews have had withstanding the pressures of assimilation is difficult to pinpoint. An article published in the Canadian Jewish News by the study’s authors argue “Canadian exceptionalism” arose as a consequence of larger historical and social forces. “The United States was settled earlier and has therefore had more time for a national identity to crystallize. Moreover, American national identity was forged in an anti-colonial war–always a great unifier–while Canadian national identity emerged gradually, in tandem with the peaceful evolution of independence from Great Britain.” As a result, American Jews have developed a far stronger national identity and consciousness than Canadians. The authors also point to Zionism’s contentious reception among American Jews in the 20th century, particularly in the Reform movement where Jewish self-determination was seen to be in conflict with American patriotism. In Canada, by comparison, British efforts to accommodate French-speaking elements fostered the growth of ethnic institutions within the country. Pierre Elliot Trudeau (the current prime minister’s father) promoted a tradition of multiculturalism and courted Canadian Jews through political appointment of community members. Elevating multiculturalism as official policy of the Canadian government came with explicit instructions to nurture one’s identity and take pride in ancestry.
It’s not all bad news for American Jews. The Canadian study actually provides some cause for encouragement since it shows that policy can make a difference. American Jewish leaders may not be able to replicate Canadian cultural attitudes and national traditions within their own communities but they can certainly draw lessons from the distinctive experiences of their northern neighbors. Finally, there is the contentious but unavoidable fact that intermarriage plays a critical role in determining whether Jewish communities will flourish into the future. This point may be repeated often but that does not make it any less true: A Jewish upbringing is the fount from which identity flows. New technologies (yes, even, JSwipe) may help foster more Jewish marriages in less-observant communities, but algorithms will never solve the fundamental question of how to build a Jewish communal life that endures—for those answers, perhaps it’s time that American Jews turned to the example set here in Canada.
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