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Bob Freedman


By Bob Freedman, September 7, 2010

The Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, which includes top North American leadership, meets twice a year in Israel.  Invariably the Prime Minister of the day addresses the board, as was the case in February 2008 with the then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.  Prime Minister Olmert was addressing the governors at a time when Israel was celebrating its 60th year as a Jewish state.  Quite naturally, he reviewed sixty years of remarkable achievement and concluded with this statement:

“Israel is a strong country.  We will be here 60 years from now.  But will your communities be here 60 years from now?  What are you doing to ensure that they will be?”

The PM was referring to the issue of assimilation; a phenomenon affecting every Jewish community outside of Israel.  It could be argued that as Jews in North America, we are living in the best of times.  Most of the barriers that excluded us from participation in the business and cultural life of most of our communities have long since disappeared.  Although unwelcome, those barriers, and the reality that we were one generation removed from the immigrants who arrived from central and Eastern Europe, made it easier to maintain a vibrant, if somewhat isolated, Jewish community.  Thankfully not relying upon the exclusions and discrimination of the recent past, the challenge that we all face is to encourage Jewish connection as a relevant and positive imperative while still encouraging our greater involvement in the community.

Not that long ago, our own community faced different challenges.  From the early 1960’s when our population peaked at about 19,500 through the 1980’s and 90’s, we suffered a gradual population decline as many of our younger people saw brighter futures in places like California, Toronto and Vancouver.  Our infrastructure, which had served the community well for many years, was deteriorating and in some instances was poorly situated.  Without a critical mass, the community faced the prospect of declining financial support and the reality of accumulated debt at a number of our local agencies.  The leadership at the time, faced with such a daunting challenge, undertook the responsibility of developing a plan to reinvigorate our community, with the first stage being infrastructure renewal, which led to the development of the Asper Jewish Community Campus.  The second stage of the plan was to increase our population and through the GrowWinnipeg initiative, some 3,000 immigrants have come to Winnipeg from different parts of the world in the past ten years.   For the first time in over forty years, our Jewish population is increasing.  We now number over 16,000 and project to be well over 18,000 in the next ten years.

Now we face the challenge of assimilation and declining involvement in the Jewish community, especially among the younger demographic.  Assimilation has been the primary factor, along with a low birth rate, in the decline of the American Jewish community.  The Canadian Jewish community, though stable, is not immune to what has been happening in a number of American communities.  With that in mind, the Federation’s Planning Department undertook a two-year long strategic review which involved over 200 members of our community in planning sessions and focus groups and published its findings last fall.  Executive summaries of the findings were distributed in synagogues during last year’s High Holidays.  The conclusions were not surprising as the data collected in Winnipeg was not dissimilar to other similar-sized communities.  The document proposed an action plan which involved, among other things, proactively reaching out and welcoming the less-affiliated in our community and addressing, in a meaningful way, affordability issues, especially among middle-income families.

The Federation’s role traditionally has been one of identifying needs and issues and where appropriate, getting programs off the ground. However our local agencies and synagogues are the organizations that traditionally provide programs and services and must continue to do so if we are to remain a vibrant and connected Jewish community well into the future.  Our role now is to inform our community and to engage as many individuals as we can, particularly those living on the periphery.  We are doing so under a plan that we are calling Securing our Future.  Securing our Future is a multiyear plan to generate additional revenue through endowed gifts at the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba and the annual CJA campaign in order to provide our locally-based organizations the additional resources needed to achieve our common goal which is to connect more Jews to Jewish life.  In summary, our objectives over the next ten years are:

  • to continue to increase our Jewish population so that our numbers will be over 18,000 by 2020;
  • to financially stabilize our local agencies so that they can adequately meet increased costs on the Asper Campus and to be able to provide the additional programs and services for those not currently connected;
  • to ensure that we retain a strong Jewish identity reflected in high participation rates in the organizations and programs of the day; and
  • to continue our love and support of the Jewish homeland, the State of Israel.

We will launch the Securing Our Future initiative as part of the CJA campaign that begins in September.  We will be encouraging as many donors, and some who are not yet donors, to consider a significant increase in their annual giving phased in over several years and to consider establishment of a fund at the Jewish Foundation to ensure that their support for the community lives on in perpetuity.  In order to achieve our goals going forward, we need to communicate the significance of this issue to as many members of our community as we can. 

The sky is not falling; we launch our campaign as a strong community, financially viable and with no debt.  However, failure to undertake a plan and to be proactive in addressing these issues will have long-term, dire consequences.  All of us have a role to play in this significant undertaking.  We need as many people as we can to step forward to make their own commitments and to speak to friends and family.  We also want to hear back from individuals who have questions, comments or suggestions.  We are very fortunate in having a strong leadership team under the chairmanship of Hope and Howard Morry; they would like to hear from you, as I would.  I can be reached electronically at [email protected], or over the phone at 204-477-7420.

Bob Freedman is the C.E.O. of The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.

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