Winnipeg, Canada — (JTA) — When the leaders of Winnipeg’s Jewish federation sat down 13 years ago to try to figure out a way to reverse the community’s decline, they came up with a novel idea: recruit Jews from overseas.
The idea was pretty straightforward. Capitalizing on the pro-immigration policies of their home province of Manitoba, the Winnipeg federation would seek out faraway Jews — mainly from troubled countries in South America — and bring them to the snow-swept plains of central Canada. The timing coincided with the economic crisis in Argentina, and after a recruiting trip by federation leaders to Buenos Aires in 2001, dozens of Argentine Jewish families arrived.
But very quickly, following an initial infusion of South Americans, the main source for Jewish newcomers unexpectedly became Israel, even though the federation wasn’t doing any recruiting of or marketing to Israelis.
In fact, since the inception of the federation’s GrowWinnipeg program in October 2001, some 80 percent of the 4,400 or so newcomers have come from Israel, most with roots in the former Soviet Union.
In 2013, more than 300 of the 338 new Jewish immigrants came from Israel.
While bolstering the Jewish community’s raw numbers, the influx has not resolved worries about the community’s future. On the contrary, some critics say the focus on bringing in immigrants, most of whom are secular Russian Israelis, has failed to halt the exodus of Jews from Winnipeg and done little to shore up troubled Jewish institutions.
“The recent influx of Jewish families have been Russian Israelis who seem to be less actively involved in synagogue life and are not involved in Jewish community life to any extent at all,” said Ian Staniloff, executive director of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, the largest synagogue in Winnipeg. “We offer free membership to new immigrant families, but they seem not to be as interested in joining or pursuing a Jewish lifestyle.”
Membership in the Conservative synagogue, which is located on Winnipeg’s south side, has declined 5 to 10 percent in the last five to 10 years; only two or three Russian-Israeli families have joined, according to Staniloff.
Federation officials argue that GrowWinnipeg has been a success and that the Winnipeg Jewish population has risen to 16,000 from about 13,000 before the program’s launch.
“Had the trajectory continued going south, we would have lost our critical mass and the ability to fund our institutions,” said Bob Freedman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg. “It’s worked and given the community a real flavor in terms of language and customs. All in all, the program was a success. This community is feeling really good about itself, which we weren’t 20 years ago.”
Faye Rosenberg-Cohen, the coordinator of GrowWinnipeg and the federation’s director of planning and community engagement, says the program has helped fuel a “huge revitalization in terms of our institutions and community activities.”