As the Jewish community expands into Coquitlam and other cities in the Lower Mainland, there must be an adjustment in the allocation of community resources. (photo by Greg Salter via Wikimedia Commons)
The face of Vancouver’s Jewish community is changing, with 36% born outside of Canada – the largest percentage in any Jewish population in the country.
In the Grade 1 classroom at Richmond Jewish Day School, half of the class is learning English as a second language, its students hailing from Israel and Argentina and speaking a mixture of Hebrew, Russian and Spanish.
“There’s definitely a growing number of Israeli families in all our Jewish day schools,” said Abba Brodt, principal at RJDS. Among them is the second wave of Russian Jews, comprised of Russian emigrés who made aliyah as children and moved to Vancouver after doing army service in Israel and starting their families. “They maintain strong Russian ties but have an incredibly strong connection to Judaism and Israel,” he said.
The new arrivals place extra demands on Jewish day schools in terms of meeting their children’s language needs, and RJDS has had to shift resources internally so the children of new immigrants can learn successfully in class.
“When people come, what’s our obligation to them?” Brodt pondered. “They want their kids to get a Jewish education as they get established. Many of these parents come without jobs, are not established financially and are trying to adjust, but it takes many, many years. The only menschlik thing to do is to open our doors, figure it out and let them know they’re not a burden at all. I think that’s the right approach for any Jewish organization in town. The faster we help them get on their feet, the better for the community.”
Adjustment is easiest for the youngest children. Brodt recalled a Russian-Israeli family that arrived in June 2014 with a child who couldn’t speak a word of English. “He entered kindergarten and by December that year he was speaking to his parents outside of school hours in English!”
At Vancouver Talmud Torah, head of school Cathy Lowenstein has also witnessed an influx of new immigrants from Israel, as well as from Brazil, Estonia and Hungary. “For students in the younger grades, ESL support isn’t as much of an issue, as they can really immerse themselves in language much faster than students in intermediate grades. But, over the past few years, we’ve increasingly had to allocate budget to students who require ESL support,” she said.
That can be difficult because the ESL needs vary year by year. “Often, these students don’t present until late summer, so we’re left trying to reallocate dollars in August so that we can properly help them transition into the school,” she explained.
Tuition assistance is provided on a case-by-case basis, Lowenstein said. “Even though we may have allocated our cap, we do our very best not to turn away a family wanting a Jewish education,” she said.
The high cost of living in the Lower Mainland is having far-reaching effects on the 26,250 Jews who call this corner of the West Coast home. Approximately 14,000 of them live in Vancouver, close to 6,000 in Richmond and the remainder in outlying cities including Burnaby, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, Coquitlam, Port Moody, Maple Ridge and Langley, where Jewish resources are few and far between. That’s because the high price of housing forces many new arrivals into these outlying areas, where accommodation is a little more affordable.
While RJDS has space available for more students, the challenge lies in reaching those Jewish families who live in the suburbs.
“We know there are 700 Jewish school-age kids in the Tri-Cities of Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody and, as much as the schools may want them, how many families are going to have their kids get on a bus for an hour’s commute each way?” Brodt said. “You have to be super-committed to do that when there are good public schools around. If I could create a pipeline to Burnaby, I’d do it, but the possible customer base there is not ready to make that sort of commitment. They’re managing their Jewish lives out there, as is their right.”
At the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, vice-president of community affairs Shelley Rivkin noted that more than 850 children now live in underserved areas beyond the borders of Vancouver and few are receiving any Jewish education. “With community support, Jewish educators can develop innovative programs via which these kids can access that education, sharing fully the richness of our traditions and strengthening their Jewish identities,” she said.
In one such program, Federation collaborated with the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and funded a pilot project to enable Jewish children living in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody to attend Jewish summer day camp. The project made transportation and fee subsidies available to 22 kids.
Federation has established a regional communities task force that began work last month. In the meantime, the organization contributes to a shuttle bus in Richmond that helps seniors attend various community activities, and Burquest seniors can enjoy another day of programming thanks to additional funding provided to Jewish Family Service Agency. For young families, PJ Library is an important outreach program, Rivkin said. “For many young families who are raising children in interfaith households and/or who live in the suburbs, PJ Library is a primary Jewish connection. Recently, 100 people attended a PJ Library Chanukah event in Coquitlam.”
Federation is seriously focused on the future of the Lower Mainland’s Jewish community and anticipating programming to reach its needs over the next 15 years.
“Our population of seniors is expected to double by 2030 and an increased number of them will be 85 or older, so programs and services for this group will need to be expanded,” said Rivkin. “As issues of affordability persist, we expect there to be more Jews moving to more affordable suburbs that have little or no Jewish infrastructure. We expect these regional communities to play a larger role, and Jewish Federation will increase its focus on programs and services to reach them.”
The cost of living in Vancouver will likely continue to impact those who pay a premium to live near Jewish services and institutions, but find that the cost of Jewish life prevents them from participating. “We expect that increased subsidies for program participation will be needed,” she added.
According to the National Housing Survey in 2011, 16% of the Lower Mainland’s Jewish community lives below the living wage of $36,504. Among Jewish immigrants to the Lower Mainland who arrived between 2005 and 2011, that low-income rate is 25%. As one communal effort in dealing with this issue, Tikva Housing Society will expand the affordable housing stock for the Jewish community by 42 additional units in Vancouver and Richmond by 2017.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net. A longer version of this article was published in the Canadian Jewish News.