The high holidays took on a double meaning for me this year: Rosh HaShanah not only marked the beginning of 5778, but it also marked my one year anniversary living in Atlantic Canada as the Executive Director of the Atlantic Jewish Council.
I’ve learned a lot of things since moving to Atlantic Canada. For instance, I’ve learned that nothing beats the smell of salt water in the morning air. I’ve learned that trying to time the perfect jay-walk can be pretty difficult when cars slow down the minute they see you heading towards a curb. But most importantly, I’ve learned that living Jewishly in a region with a small Jewish community is very difficult.
It is hard to ensure that our children grow up with a strong Jewish identity when they might be the only Jewish student at their school. It is hard to ensure that Jewish issues are taken seriously at the political level when Jews represent such a small fraction of the voting community. It is hard to ensure our children understand and remember the Holocaust when this is not a core part of their educational curriculum. And it is hard to ensure our young adults connect with Israel when the campus environments they face are increasingly hostile towards the Jewish state.
But, there’s a silver lining to all of this strife.
When I was studying in Boston, I had the pleasure of taking several courses with Matt Boxer, a Jewish sociologist from Niagara Falls, NY – a town of fewer than 100 Jews. Maybe because of his origins, Matt’s Ph.D. thesis looked at the effects of Jewish community size on Jewish identity. And do you know what he found? Disproportionately, Jews from smaller Jewish communities have stronger Jewish identities than Jews from larger Jewish communities.
My experiences in Atlantic Canada only support Matt’s findings: over the past year, I have met some of the most dedicated Jewish people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing: volunteers who give up countless hours of their free time to run our organizations. Philanthropists who give over and over again so that our programs and resources can continue to exist. Parents who are willing to rearrange their entire schedules to make sure their children make it to the one and only Hebrew school in town on time. I may be a “Jewish professional”, and I may have a master’s degree in Jewish studies, but it is this Jewish community in Atlantic Canada that has taught me more about what it means to be Jewish than any of my other experiences.
And it is because of you, and because of this dedication that I’ve seen, that I am giving everything I have to ensuring that the AJC can make living Jewishly in this small Jewish community just a little bit easier. We are helping to strengthen our children’s Jewish identities with innovative programs such as our PJ Library program – where we send one free Jewish-themed children’s book to every young family in our community per month. We are meeting with politicians at every level of government to make sure that our community needs are not forgotten despite our size. We are running Holocaust Education programs – such as the Asper program – for our children so that they truly understand the meaning of never forget. And we are sending our young adults on Birthright so that they not only feel connected to Israel, but they are ready to fight BDS when they’re back on campus.
Maybe due to the importance of Jewish identity size, the question I get asked most often as the Executive Director of the AJC is simple: how many Jews are there in Atlantic Canada? And the truth is: I don’t know. What am I supposed to base this number on? The number of Atlantic Canadian residents who tell statistics Canada they are Jewish on their census? The number of people who belong to synagogues?
No, I don’t feel that any of these methods capture the essence of our community.
In the Torah, Jewish leaders are instructed to count their people by collecting a half-shekel coin from each person and then counting the coins. In the Torah, it is those people who are willing to invest in their community, to put some skin in the game, who are counted as part of the Jewish community. You might be wondering: why a half-shekel and not a full shekel? Our sages explain that no individual Jew alone is complete – we are only in a state of wholeness as a community.
This year, I am asking you to give to the United Jewish Appeal of Atlantic Canada – the AJC’s annual fundraising campaign. But, more than that, I am asking you to stand up and be counted. With your actions say, “heneni” or “here I am.” Even if you can’t give a lot – $36, $18 – please still give whatever your own version of a half shekel is.
Growing up in Toronto, I knew that even if I didn’t give to the UJA campaign, there would be enough Jews that would give to ensure that all of the services that the federation provided would continue to exist. In our community our size, we don’t have the luxury of that reassurance. It’s harder to be Jewish here. But we’re stronger for it.
So please, this year, give generously to the UJA campaign of Atlantic Canada. And in so doing, ensure that our small Jewish community continues to thrive in a big way.