Thou shalt covet thy Canadian neighbor’s Judaism

In Canada, Judaism -- and Jews -- are different. We have something to learn.

When I was in elementary school, I read the short story, “The Man Without A Country,” by Edward Everett Hale. It is the story of American Army lieutenant Philip Nolan, who renounces his country during a trial for treason and is consequently sentenced to spend the rest of his days at sea without so much as a word of news about the United States.

That is not me. I am not a modern, Jewish version of Lt. Nolan. I love the United States of America. Full stop.

But, for a few minutes this week, I developed a syndrome which I call Canadaphilia — a longing to be a Canadian.

Or, to be more precise, a longing to be a Canadian Jew.

Or, to be even more precise, a longing for the way that Canadians practice Judaism.

The reason: a new study of Canadian Jewry that just came out this week — a Canadian version of the 2013 Pew study of American Jewish identity.

The findings are remarkable — especially if you compare patterns in Canadian Jewry with patterns south of the border.

  • While nearly 50% of American Jews intermarry, the rate in Canada is less than half that — 23%.
  • American Jews are half as likely to attend community day school, yeshiva, overnight summer camp, and Sunday or Hebrew school compared with Canadians.
  • In the United States, participation has dwindled among non-Orthodox American Jews. The same has not been true for Reform and Conservative Jews in Canada.
  • 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 of American Jews have made a financial donation to Jewish organizations and causes (compared with 80% of Canadian Jews).
  • Comparatively few American Jews have a preponderance of Jewish friends.
  • American Jews have a much weaker connection to Israel than do Canadian Jews.
  • In a few years, Canada’s Jewish population may exceed 400,000, making it the largest Jewish community outside of Israel and the United States.

I know, I know: The tenth commandment says that we are not allowed to covet.

Even still, I find that Canadian Jewish identity is worth coveting.

I have seen the differences between our two communities, and they are often breathtaking. In the last several years, I have spoken in synagogues in Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. In each community, I experienced a vitality of Jewish life, and a thick sense of togetherness and common Jewish purpose. It was particularly powerful among young people. It was refreshing and inspirational.

In fact, I had seen this exactly 38 years ago, when I was first ordained as a rabbi, and was interviewing for a position at a synagogue in Toronto.

The congregation had invited me to visit for Shabbat, and to this day, I remember what I experienced.

The congregation was packed that evening — with people of every decade of life, from the under-10 crowd to those in their nineties.

The director of music did a program on Yiddish music and humor. The post-seventy year olds were laughing and applauding.

But, so were my own peers — people in their twenties.

They knew Yiddish; they understood it, and they appreciated it.

To be blunt, the rate of assimilation has been slower among Canadian Jews. There has been a greater appreciation for Jewish ethnicity, which perhaps emerges from a greater sense of diversity in Canadian life itself.

This struck me quite powerfully yesterday, when I went to the Leonard Cohen exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. It was a powerful exhibit about the late writer’s life, career, and legacy.

But, beyond that, it underscored the powerful influence of the Montreal Jewish community in Cohen’s life and on his work. In short, you cannot understand Cohen without understanding Jewish Montreal — a North American city that was second perhaps only to New York City in its glorious Jewish culture.

I would need for my Canadian Jewish friends, communal leaders, and sociologists to analyze why there is such a difference between United States Jewry and Canadian Jewry.

One answer: the different course of United States history, compared to Canadian history. The United States fought a war against British colonialism, which produced strong American patriotism.

Therefore, American Jews “developed a stronger national identity than Canadians did,” says Professor Rhonda Lenton, one of the authors of the study.

How much longer can Canadian Jewry maintain its admirable approach to Jewish identity? Some observers are skeptical, suggesting that the picture is not as rosy as it seems.

But, as for me, and probably at least some of my colleagues: That Canadian Jewish cohesiveness…

Yes, I covet it.

Because we American Jews need it.

Yes, that cohesiveness, that sense of extended family and community, springs to life when we confront horrors like Poway and Pittsburgh, and when we remember past horrors like the Shoah.

I need for Canadian Jews to teach us something: how can we come together for joy and renewal, and not just remembrance and mourning?

Eh — we could use some of that.




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