Canadian Young Judaea’s National Leadership Conference in February, which had participants from Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Halifax. (photo from CYJ)
Many of Metro Vancouver’s residents are from other parts of Canada. It is no surprise, therefore, that many members of Vancouver’s Jewish community are familiar with Canadian Young Judaea (CYJ). But the memories of CYJ date back even further than most anyone can recall because CYJ is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Started by 11-year-old Dov Joseph in 1910 in Montreal as a Zionist club, CYJ was officially proclaimed at the 15th Zionist Convention in Winnipeg in 1917. Within eight years, there were 75 clubs across Canada and, by 1935, national membership reached 5,000. Jews in small towns like Timmins, Ont., and Melville, Sask., formed groups and organized activities.
“There was a ken (group) in every city that had a Jewish population,” said CYJ national director Risa Epstein about the organization at its peak. “In Ontario alone, CYJ was active in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Sarnia/Petrolia, North Bay, Sudbury, Peterborough, to name a few. In the West, you could find CYJ in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Regina and many smaller communities and, of course, it was in every small town in the Atlantic region.”
In the beginning, the appeal of CYJ was its purpose, its focus on Zionism at a time when antisemitism was rampant throughout Europe and in Canada (and elsewhere) as well. The Zionist dream was that of young Jews taking control of their fate, according to acclaimed Canadian poet A.M. Klein, who served as the editor of The Judaean from 1928-32. Klein wrote in 1931, “Jewish life, as at present constituted, with barrenness and emptiness, its utter meaninglessness, its haphazard activity, stands as an imperious challenge to Canadian Jewish youth.”
Epstein described the nature of CYJ in less fiery terms. “It was born out of the desire of young Jews in Montreal to have a group to come to and discuss and dream about a Jewish homeland,” she said. “It later grew from a city-based organization to summer camps and Israel programs.”
The camps were established as early as 1942 in Quebec, followed by Camp Kadima in Nova Scotia in 1943. Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta also had CYJ-affiliated camps. British Columbia was the last to add a camp, in 1956, known originally as Camp Hatikvah-Massada in Oyama.
After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Zionist dream was realized and CYJ took steps to affiliate with youth group Hanoar Hatzioni in Israel. As a result of the newfound excitement about making aliyah, a number of Young Judaeans went to study in Israel. In the 1950s, camps were established across the country that simulated the kibbutz experience.
Today, according to Epstein, CYJ has more than 2,000 members (7 to 18 years old) from across Canada. As the concentration of the Jewish population has shifted, so have the active centres for CYJ activities. They are now active in the major centres of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and are still operating in Halifax. Their summer programming engages close to 750 staff (18 to 22 years old), many of whom are alumni of CYJ camps.
Programming during the non-summer months is organized by age groups. The offerings include leadership-training opportunities, which often parlay into jobs at summer camps. CYJ also provides some programs for parents, alumni events and special training for program directors of the camps.
Every city where CYJ has a presence has JOLT (Jewish Outreach Leadership Training). “It consists of two meetings a month,” explained Epstein. “The first is an educational session and the second is an outreach related to the topic of the first. An example is learning about Jewish veterans in Canada and a bake sale to raise money for the veterans.” She mentioned that participation in JOLT is growing in Vancouver and elsewhere.
CYJ has an historic link with another uniquely Canadian grassroots Zionist organization: Canadian Hadassah-WIZO (CHW). CYJ is and has always been the youth arm of CHW. Epstein said the Biluim Israel trip raises funds for CHW daycares in Israel and includes a day spent volunteering at one of those daycares. In turn, CHW provides funding for some CYJ activities.
Along with this year’s regular programming, including camps and trips to Israel with Biluim Israel, national CYJ is planning a centennial celebration on Aug. 27 at Camp Shalom in Gravenhurst, Ont. The event will run from 11 a.m.-4 p.m and is intended for families. “There will be food, camp-like activities, displays, shira [singing] and rikud [dancing]. It will be an amazing event and we are hoping that there will be over 400 people,” said Epstein.
All Young Judaeans are invited to the celebration. For more information, contact the national CYJ office at 416-781-5156 or e-mail Epstein at [email protected].
Michelle Dodek is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.