Once Isolated From Their Fellow Jews, Israeli Expats in Canada Start to Blend In

Leaving Israel used to be considered a disgrace, but today the growing expat community in Toronto is getting a warmer welcome by the city's Jews.

Canadian flag.
AP

English and French may be the official languages of Canada, but at one special Sunday school, which caters almost exclusively to children of Israelis, nothing but Hebrew is spoken. Unlike typical Jewish Sunday schools that train children for their bar- and bat- mitzvahs, here at Kachol Lavan the focus is on all things Israel.

An idea that took root 10 years ago in the basement of one of the teachers here, Kachol Lavan (Hebrew for “Blue and White” – the colors of the Jewish state's flag) has since spanned out over three campuses in Canada’s most populous city. Its main branch is at the new, state-of-the-art Jewish Community Center that serves the neighborhood of Thornhill, also known as “Little Israel,” where there is even a street named after the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Today, roughly 250 students, from kindergarten through Grade 12, are enrolled in Kachol Lavan’s intensive Hebrew-language and Israel studies classes, and demand is growing.

“From the number of inquiries I’ve been receiving in recent weeks, it would seem that a new wave of Israelis has landed in the city,” says Galya Sarner, director of Kachol Lavan and a prominent member of Toronto’s expat Israeli community.

Toronto is not the only city in North America where Israeli expats have, through grassroots initiatives, created their own Hebrew-language study programs to ensure their children stay connected to the homeland. But Kachol Lavan is unique in size, scope and the facilities it offers.  

According to unofficial estimates, about 50,000 Israelis live in this city, where they account for roughly one-quarter of the total Jewish population.

It is not surprising that such a program would fill a void, but what might not be that obvious is that such an initiative would receive support and funding from the local Jewish community.

Galya Sarner, director the 'Kachol Lavan' Israeli school in Toronto.
Courtesy Galya Sarner

“We could not have done this without the UJA Federation of Toronto,” acknowledges Sarner.

As is the case in many other big North American cities, the Israelis in Toronto tend to stick together and interact only minimally with the local Jewish community. As a general rule, they don’t join local synagogues, a major focal point of Jewish life in the Diaspora, and for the most part, do not send their children to Jewish day schools.  Some simply can’t afford the high costs of synagogue membership and private school tuitions. Others, having grown up in Israel where synagogues and Jewish education are provided by the state for free, don’t understand why they should pay for such services.

So while full integration into the local Jewish community is not a likely scenario for the near future, as the case of Toronto would suggest, neither is the status quo an unchangeable fact of life.

“The experience of Toronto proves that bridges between the two communities can be built,” says Sarner, who is the first Israeli ever hired by the local Jewish federation for the specific purpose of creating such bridges.

As some observers note, this newfound openness shows that the established Jewish community may have finally realized that the Israelis in their midst need to express their identity in different ways. But there may also be ulterior motives behind the recent shift in attitude.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the Israelis who came here were quite poor,” notes one Israeli-born Canadian, who asked not to be quoted by name. “The new generation is quite well off. They’re educated and have good jobs. So the Jewish federation may see them as a potential new pool of donors.”

The bridges being built are not just one way. The Israelis, for their part, have recently taken the initiative to include members of the local Jewish community in marking what is for many of them the most important day of the year: Yom Hazikaron, or Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers.

Children from the 'Kachol Lavan' Israeli school in Toronto perform a song.
Courtesy Galya Sarner

“Usually, very few local Canadians would show for our Yom Hazikaron ceremony, “ laments Sarah Dobner, who has been living in Toronto for nearly 30 years. “And this really bothered us. But this year we decided to reach out to the Jewish community and explain what an important day this is for us and how meaningful it would be if they also participated. We moved the ceremony to a more convenient location outside of Thornhill, and many many attended.”

Channa Sargon, who moved here with her parents more than 50 years ago, knows better than most how times have changed. “In those days, it was considered a disgrace to have left Israel,” she recalls. “I tried to join the local branch of the Hashomer Hatzair [the Socialist Zionist youth movement], and they wouldn’t have me because I’d left Israel.”

Despite the many years that have passed, Sargon, a divorced mother of three, says she never felt quite at home in Canada. “The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is tune into the news from Israel,” she says, noting with grave concern that her grandchildren hardly feel any connection to the country. “If it weren’t for my desire to be close to them, I would have gone back by now,” she says.

Many Israelis who arrived here in the most recent immigration wave that coincided with the second intifada were driven by fear. That was the case for Orly Breitner, the woman who began Kachol Lavan in her basement.  “I was really scared for my children, and I felt that I had to get away,” she says.  Having lived in Canada now for 14 years, she says she has no regrets.  “I’m one of the few Israelis I know who can admit that life is good here, and I’m happy that my children identify today as proud Canadians,” she says.

Among the more recent arrivals to this land of maple syrup and hockey, it would appear that economic opportunities have been the key draw.  “In Israel it was impossible for me to find a job,” says 31-year-old Lior Zarhi, who moved to Toronto two months ago after graduating with a degree in computer science from a small college in northern Israel.

Sarner, who is married to a Canadian, says she never believed “in my wildest dreams” that she would live outside Israel one day. When she, her husband and three children picked up to move here 12 years ago, like many Israelis, the idea was that it would be “for a year or two.”

“I still want to think that one day I’ll go back,” says Kachol Lavan's director. “As long as I’m here, at least my work allows me to live and breathe Israel.”