A screenshot of the recent BeyachadBC welcome event’s main room.
The types of immigration that Vancouver’s Jewish community is experiencing right now differ from those of 10 or 20 years ago. Community leaders recognized that these different demographics call for changed approaches in the way the community welcomes and integrates newcomers.
On Jan. 20, a virtual event took place, representing the launch of a new community partnership called BeyachadBC – beyachad means “together” in Hebrew. No fewer than 80 devices tuned in to join the event, many with more than one participant.
BeyachadBC is really an evolution of Shalom BC, Gesher Welcoming Services and other initiatives over the years meeting the needs of new community members, said Ayelet Cohen Weil, who, as associate director, community engagement, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, spearheaded development of the group. (On Feb. 1, Cohen Weil began a new role, as executive director at the Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation.) Operating under the auspices of Federation, BeyachadBC was created with the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Jewish Family Services (JFS), Aleph in the Tri-Cities, Mamatefet and Women’s Empowerment (WE). The latter two groups are organizations primarily of Israeli-Canadian women, WE to network for career opportunities and Mamatefet to support mothers, especially of newborns.
Cohen Weil undertook consultations, including roundtables with community professionals who work with newcomers and with people who have experienced what newcomers face.
For many years, Vancouver has been one of North America’s fastest-growing Jewish communities. Breakout rooms at the virtual event included sessions in Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew and English. The largest group was of Israelis, followed by those from Spanish-speaking Latin America. About equal numbers of participants joined the English and Portuguese breakout rooms. A couple of decades ago saw waves of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and, while there are still a number of new Canadians who originated in the FSU, almost all of those are now arriving via Israel, having spent years there. They communicate primarily in Hebrew, making Russian-language services less necessary than they were a few years ago.
Another noticeable change from the past is that many of the newcomers are arriving with work at the ready, not landing here in hopes of finding a career path. A sizeable number of immigrants from Israel and elsewhere have been drawn here by jobs at Amazon’s Vancouver hub, for example.
The different character of newcomers means that, rather than requiring some of the basic needs that earlier migrants required – housing assistance, social services – many are now seeking professional networking and connections for their families. (New arrivals who do require those additional services are, of course, served by various organizations, including Federation and JFS.)
When the pandemic is over, in-person social gatherings will take place with opportunities for mingling in each participant’s preferred language. Meanwhile, those who want it can be paired with a longer-established family based on criteria they determine, such as the ages of kids in the family or the professional track of the parents.
Of course, there is no one at the airport directing Jewish newcomers to BeyachadBC. Identifying Jewish immigrants is a matter mostly of word-of-mouth. This was aided by the fact that Cohen Weil’s portfolio at Federation also included regional community development. Given the cost of housing in Vancouver, many Jews are settling in the Tri-Cities or other suburban areas of Metro Vancouver. While geographic diffusion is a challenge long addressed by Federation, BeyachadBC plays an added role in reducing isolation and encouraging inclusion by explicitly targeting newcomer families outside the traditional “Jewish neighbourhoods” of the city.
BeyachadBC is envisioned as a service for those who have arrived in the past three years. “But I can tell from the faces that I saw, they were from the last year mostly,” Cohen Weil said. “They had to be newcomers during COVID, which created another layer of difficulty and challenges.”
Another fact struck Cohen Weil – there were young couples, families with kids, single young adults, seniors and middle-aged participants on the Zoom event.
She knows herself what it is like to live in different places. Cohen Weil arrived in 2005 as a student at the University of Victoria, having grown up in Mexico and having served as a volunteer in the Israel Defence Forces. She worked at Hillel in Victoria beginning in 2008 and returned to Israel in 2012 to continue her education before returning to Vancouver in 2017. Returning with a husband and a 10-month-old daughter was an entirely different experience that came with many challenges, even though she had connections and friendships from the past.
A more typical experience might be that of Yael Mayer, an individual and family therapist and a postdoctoral research fellow in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia. She came to Vancouver five years ago, after her husband, an engineer, took a job here. Having left an established counseling career in Israel, Mayer was in a new country, at home, with two kids, including a 6-month-old baby.
“It’s very lonely and very hard to start everything again, to build a career again, to find a network,” she said. She set about cofounding Mamatefet and then founding WE because she realized that many women were in a similar boat. “Like me, there were many, many Israeli women who come here with academic backgrounds, with a lot of experience, and they struggle to rebuild their life here.”
If BeyachadBC had existed just five years ago, she said, her landing here might have been softer. “I think it could have been really different because BeyachadBC will provide a platform to easily connect and find information about different topics, about education, about synagogues, about activities, about social life,” she said. “It is all centred in one place, in one resource.”
Mayer was inspired by the initial BeyachadBC event, an enthusiasm she believes was shared by many based on the fact that everyone who signed up to attend actually showed up – and then stayed for the entire event. Registrations were coming in even after the event began.
“The beautiful thing about it is it really answers a need in our community and I think it is a very special project,” she said. “It identifies the common needs of the Jewish community but, at the same time, it also allows people to maintain some of their culture and their language so, in this way, it connects but it also makes everybody feel like they belong there. That’s the beautiful way that this project is built.”
The central clearinghouse for resources is beyachadbc.com and, Mayer added, while the site is intended for newcomers, longtime residents are also encouraged to explore it because assistance and social connections are welcome among the entire community, new arrivals and B.C.-born alike.