First survey of Canadian Jewry shows lower assimilation, intermarriage than US
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Analysis67% of young Canadian Jews marry in; 71% in US marry out

First survey of Canadian Jewry shows lower assimilation, intermarriage than US

Growing Canadian community is much more affiliated, Jewishly educated and cohesive than its American neighbor. Is the country’s history of anti-Semitism the key?

Amanda Borschel-Dan

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

One of a six-panel series depicting different parts of Toronto where Jews lived and frequented Jewish restaurants over the years, painted for the exhibition by Toronto artist Ian Leventhal. (Courtesy)
One of a six-panel series depicting different parts of Toronto where Jews lived and frequented Jewish restaurants over the years, painted for the exhibition by Toronto artist Ian Leventhal. (Courtesy)

An unprecedented, comprehensive survey of Canadian Jewry published this week reveals a growing, connected and cohesive community that — through markedly low intermarriage and assimilation rates — may soon become the second-largest Jewish community in the Diaspora.

The 2018 Survey of Canadian Jews was conducted by a team of researchers from the Canadian Environics Institute for Survey Research, the University of Toronto and York University, with funding from the major Canadian Jewish communities and institutions. The study polled 2,335 Canadian Jews in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Ottawa in 2018.

Largely following the template of the massive 2013 Pew research in “A Portrait of American Jews,” the new study asks (a much smaller sample) about their Jewish lifestyles, including observance, education, upbringing and intermarriage. It also delves into political views, such as how strongly Canada should support Israel and several questions on Israeli policy in the West Bank. And, perhaps most interestingly, there is a section on perceptions of discrimination and anti-Semitism.

The self-stated goal of the researchers is to create a fuller picture of the Canadian Jewish community — now arguably the third or fourth, but with potential of becoming the second-largest in the Diaspora — as well as compare the data with trends discovered in the Pew survey of US Jewry.

Co-authors of the 2016 Survey of Jews in Canada, released March 2019. From left: Keith Neuman, Executive Director of the Environics Institute; York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton; and SD Clark Professor of Sociology at the University of TorontoRobert Brym. (courtesy)

Survey co-author Keith Neuman, the executive director of the Environics Institute, told the Canadian Jewish News this week that the survey gives, “a definitive answer to one question that many in the Canadian Jewish community often wonder about: How are Canadian Jews similar and different from Jews in the United States?”

From data gleaned in the survey, the question can be best answered through a chicken and egg model: Is it that Canadian Jews marry in (over 75%), have much higher levels of Jewish education, Hebrew proficiency, and take more trips to Israel (80% versus the US 40%) that leads to low assimilation and intermarriage (23%) — or is it the Jewish spouse and child-rearing within the fold that generates high levels of communal connection?

For US Jewish institutional life, the 2013 Pew report was a veigh iz mir (woe is me! in Yiddish) moment. It recorded a growing number of intermarried non-Orthodox young Jews (over 70%) and unaffiliated Jews “of no religion” (32%), as well as a drop in Jewish continuity in the next generation.

Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton combined Jewish and Methodist traditions during their wedding ceremony on July 31, 2010. (Genevieve de Manio, via JTA)

In Canada, “the highest rate of intermarriage is in the 18-29 age cohort, in which some 33% do not have Jewish spouses. Or, said another way, some 67% of young Jewish newly weds are marrying in. That is the case, as long as there is a marriage pool to sustain in-marriage, which is not always the case in Canada’s widespread Jewish community. (Interestingly, the fastest growing Jewish community is in Vancouver, which often behaves like an “American” city and has a higher rate of intermarriage.)

Graph from the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada (Environics Institute for Survey Research)

According to the survey, 90% of Canadian Jews have two Jewish parents and were raised in the religion, regardless of denomination. “Among the small percentage who were not raised in the Jewish religion, about half say they were raised in a secular Jewish tradition.”

Survey co-author Rhonda Lenton, a sociologist and president and vice-chancellor of York University, told the Canadian Jewish News that the study clearly show a less assimilated Jewry than its American cousins — a trend that looks stable.

The study states “there is remarkably little difference between age cohorts in their degree of religious involvement (e.g., attending religious services, lighting Sabbath candles) and in their degree of community participation (e.g., belonging to Jewish organizations, donating to Jewish causes, having close Jewish friends). This finding suggests that, all else the same, the Canadian Jewish community is unlikely to become much less cohesive as younger generations age.”

Similar to the American survey, some two-thirds of Canadian Jews say being Jewish is important. Where these numbers diverge is in the actual expression of this feeling, which is much more stable among all ages of Canadians.

“I believe that these findings allow us to speak of Canadian Jewish exceptionalism. While analysts often claim that the non-religious Jewish Diaspora is dissipating… Canadian Jewry seems to be doing a good job of bucking the trend,” she told CJN.

Other key findings

The Canadian Jewish community, founded in 1732, is slowly growing, writes the report. “The overall result is that Canada’s Jews are on the verge of becoming the second largest Jewish community in the Diaspora, next in size only to the much larger American Jewish community.” At the same time, at only 392,000 (mostly in the large cities), Canadian Jews are only about 1% of the total Canadian population.

Graph from the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada (Environics Institute for Survey Research)

For the Canadians, being Jewish is “less about religion than about culture, ethnicity, or a combination of culture, ethnicity, and religion.” However, the percentage of Canadian Jews who “do Jewish,” for example, light Shabbat candles — 46% of Canadians usually or always light, versus 26% of US Jews — is markedly higher.

Conservative Judaism, which showed the largest drop in the 2013 Pew report, is alive and well in Canada and tops the charts of affiliation, followed by Orthodoxy and only then Reform, with a small number in the smaller movements and further 30% identifying themselves “just Jewish.”

Some 60% of Canadian Jews have synagogue membership and over 50% say they belong to another Jewish organization, such as the Jewish Community Center. The Jewish institutional framework has a steady stream of funders: an astounding 80% say they donated to Jewish causes or organizations.

Graph from the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada (Environics Institute for Survey Research)

The researchers call Jewish education a “key component of continuity.” Most Canadian Jews, they write, have participated in one or more types of Jewish education, including day school attendance (close to half), summer camp, Hebrew school or Sunday school.

The Canadian Jews profess higher Hebrew proficiency than Americans, with 40% claiming they can carry on a conversation in the language.

The role of anti-Semitism

The survey highlights that the Canadian Jewish community has been plagued by differing levels of anti-Semitism since its foundation. “As late as the first half of the 20th century, Canadian Jews experienced a high level of discrimination in accommodation, employment, property ownership and everyday interaction.”

Currently, the trend appears to again be on the rise.

Graph from the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada (Environics Institute for Survey Research)

“Since the early 2000s, anti-Israel sentiment has sometimes engendered anti-Semitism, and over the past few years, the rise of ‘white nationalism” has resulted in increased anti-Jewish harassment and violence,” states the report. “Perceptions of the level of anti-Semitism in Canada contribute to community cohesion.”

As such, one has to wonder if the increasingly worrisome outside pressures of reported anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism may also be paving the road for a markedly more insular Jewry than that of its American neighbors to the south.

The report states that “anti-Semitism has a long history in Canada and continues to be experienced among Jews today.” Some 40% of Jews said that in the past five years, they’ve experienced discrimination due to a variety of factors, including religion, ethnicity/culture, sex and/or language. In similar polling between 2006-2017, in more than half of the time period crimes against Jews were the second most frequent forms of discrimination.

Marchers at Toronto’s Quds Day protest on June 9, 2018. (YouTube screenshot)

According to this new survey, one in five Canadian Jews said they experienced discrimination due to religion (21%) or ethnicity (18%) in the past five years. Of that number, the highest percentages were seen in the 18-29 group (36%), Orthodox or Modern Orthodox (27%) or those with a Sephardi background (29%).

Canadian Jewry, however, clearly does not peg combatting anti-Semitism as an “essential” element to Jewish life. Like its American cousins, most surveyed cited leading a moral and ethical life (72%), remembering the Holocaust (69%) and celebrating Jewish holidays (58%) as the most important anchors for their connection.

Optimistically, most Jewish parents still raising young kids said that their children will grow up “to have a connection to Jewish life that is as strong, if not stronger, than their own.”

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