From Linda's Desk: The Importance of Community


One element of my work that I enjoy the most is visiting small communities.
On average, these communities have less than 1000 Jews. Many are academics and professionals who have moved to university towns to build careers and practices. Daily life is less complex than in large urban centres and lacks the stressors of big city living like heavy traffic and high cost of living. My son lives in Fredericton, a community with a few hundred Jews, where he teaches constitutional law at the University of New Brunswick. His family really enjoys the lifestyle of small town living, often joking about the morning "rush minute" typically between 8 am and 8:01am.
Like many young Jewish families today, he and his wife want to cultivate a sense of connection to the larger Jewish community and a strong Jewish identity for their son, but they must do so outside the traditional community infrastructure found in larger cities. They have assembled a group of young families that organize Shabbat and Jewish holiday experiences for their children. To my great pleasure, a Succah stood in the backyard on our last visit. I assure you there were not many of these adorning the neighbourhood. Joe and I brought a lulav and etrog - items not readily available in Fredericton - to complete the holiday experience.
I recently took my first trip to Saskatoon to meet with the community and to attend the opening of a Human Rights conference at University of Saskatchewan where the Honourable Professor Irwin Cotler delivered the opening keynote address.
I spent time with the local leadership, including Jewish Agency Schlichim and Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky. I heard about plans to renovate their synagogue and the challenges of educating and retaining young people, reaching the unaffiliated and planning for community leadership succession. While every community has similar challenges, the degree varies and it is smaller communities that are the most heavily impacted by these concerns.
One individual spoke to me about the challenge of getting a minyan for Shabbat. While he isn't a particularly observant Jew, he feels a sense of commitment and responsibility to show up every week to be counted in the minyan. He knows that his absence may prevent someone from being able to say Kaddish or observe a yarzheit. In fact, on the opening evening of the conference, Irwin Cotler was commemorating Yarzheit for his mother and expressed a desire to say Kaddish in her memory. Without hesitation, local community leader Heather Fenyes got on the phone and rounded up a minyan, kippot and siddurim so that Irwin could fulfill his obligation.
I want to highlight the Atlantic Jewish Council biennial which gathered over 150 leaders and members of the Atlantic communities in Halifax this past weekend. In addition to paying tribute to retiring long serving executive director Jon Goldberg and welcoming Naomi Rosenfeld to the role, the participants spent 2 days struggling with issues related to engaging the next generation with Israel, welcoming intermarried families into the community, meeting the needs of new immigrant families and reaching out to the smaller communities outside Halifax, such as Moncton, Fredericton, Cape Breton and so on. The attendees were actively involved in looking at the future of their community and how to plan effectively for the future.

In smaller communities, family life typically entails a higher degree of engagement in civic life with significant personal involvement in many sectors, ranging from political life, to arts and culture, to universities and local health institutions. This level of engagement is of great benefit to our collective advocacy agenda. It is important for all Canadian Jews that those living in small communities and cities are actively engaged and visible on the local landscape. The impact of these initiatives and relationships influence local agendas, leverage opinion and effect decision making disproportionate to the actual numbers. It also provides exposure to Jewish people and Jewish values and traditions, which serves to educate and reduce ignorance and prejudice.
Recently JFC-UIA and CIJA rekindled a relationship with the newly relaunched Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC). This organization connects 35 Jewish communities in commonwealth countries. Heather Fenyes of Saskatoon is representing Canada as Chair of the Western Region. Other regions are Europe, Africa and Australasia. The CJC also connects with Jewish communities in Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, Belize, Antigua and Barbura, Grenada, St. Lucia, Turks and Caicos and Bermuda. It serves a number of purposes including advocacy within the larger society and support for small communities through a network of relationships and the sharing of best practices.
Annual Mitzvah Day is one of several multi-country programs initiated by the CJC. By connecting Jews around the world in acts of Tikkun Olam, this concurrent collective day of philanthropic action is a powerful expression of Jewish voluntarism not just for the local community but also the global Jewish community. Each November, Canada has joined other nations in creating a community day devoted to volunteerism and good deeds.
Small Jewish communities need to be innovative. They must find ways to help families identify and connect while minimizing infrastructure costs. The PJ Library is a program that meets this challenge. It reaches young Jewish families by delivering Jewish themed books to the doorstep free of charge. While the PJ Library is a terrific program for any community, it is especially valuable in communities with little formal or informal Jewish education and related infrastructure and few accessible resources to help promote Jewish identity. Leaders and donors have stepped up in all communities to provide this opportunity. My 5 year old grandson in Fredericton anticipates the arrival of these books with great excitement. I personally enjoy reading with him and sharing in the pleasure he takes from learning.

Since 2012, the Kitchener-Waterloo community has raised over $40,000 for Israel at its annual Walk for Israel.  The event is supported by the Waterloo Region Jewish Community Council and Jewish Federations of Canada - UIA.

The role of JFC-UIA in small Jewish communities stretches from coast to coast and across oceans and international borders. It is one of the best examples of the value of national collective responsibility. It keeps us all connected to each other and to the Jewish people as a whole. JFC-UIA provides support in the form of funding for community councils, scholarships for Jewish summer camp and consultation on strategic planning and fundraising.  While this very important function is rendered easier through web based communication and technology, its' importance should never be underestimated.

In almost every instance where the phrase is used, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. The Jewish people, as a collective made up of communities of all different sizes in every corner of the world, grows in strength when every voice makes itself heard. So whether the voice is from a community of half a dozen families or half a million people, let's listen and learn from each other.

Linda Kislowicz
President & CEO
Jewish Federations of Canada - UIA


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