MONTREAL (Aug. 24)
The gloom that has hovered over Montreal’s Jewish community for the past several years appears to be lifting.
In fact, after more than a decade of Quebec’s secessionist movement, which has often had anti-Semitic overtones, the city’s Jews are cautiously optimistic.
“There exists a great quality of life here in Montreal that you don’t find elsewhere. But I still worry a bit about what opportunities there will be for my children in the future,” said Joel Greenberg, a 40-year old business executive who is married with two young sons.
Greenberg added that he was still worried about job opportunities for his children. But, he said, “Things appear much more positive for our community than they did two years ago. I’m far less anxious than I was before.”
A decision last week by the Canadian Supreme Court once again brought the secessionist issue to the surface. The high court ruled that Quebec could not secede unilaterally, but that Canada’s federal government would have to negotiate with Quebec if a majority of the province’s residents voted for independence in the next referendum on the issue.
But the court ruling appears to be moot for now, as the latest polls show that support for separation is seriously eroding. Fewer than 40 percent of Quebec residents currently support separation, according to a recent survey.
The movement for Quebec’s secession from the rest of Canada, which often relies on anti-English-speaking and anti-immigrant rhetoric, narrowly lost a 1995 referendum on the issue.
As job opportunities dried up for non-French speakers, many of Montreal’s younger Jews left the city, home to one of Canada’s most storied Jewish communities. To combat the population drain, the organized Jewish community has worked hard in recent years to convince adults like Greenberg to stay.
The Jewish community federation here created a program called Pro Montreal. The program, among other things, helps young, educated Jewish adults find jobs, which is seen as a major factor in keeping them in the city.
According to one Jewish resident of Montreal, the program appears to be having a favorable impact.
“This has been a positive year,” said McGill University law student Samantha Mintz, 22. “My friends and I went out” recently, and “15 people out of 15 agreed that this is a good place to live,” she said.
“Many of the people wanting to leave seem to be unaffiliated with the Jewish community. If you have no roots, there’s no reason to stay in one place,” she added.
Jews in Montreal enjoy benefits that are the envy of other communities, including a strong Jewish day school system and an intermarriage rate of just 15 percent. In addition, a higher percentage of Jews here are affiliated with communal organizations and synagogues and have traveled to the Jewish state than in most American cities.
To help support the strong Jewish participation, the federation announced late last year that it would be initiating an expansion and renovation project, totaling $25 million, that would create a Jewish community campus here.
“We’ve been living in a situation” that is “intolerable,” said Stanley Plotnick, the federation president. “We’re doing this because we love Montreal and are committed to stay.”
Plotnick observed that this is the first major building project for the community in more than 25 years.
Some $16 million has been raised for the project so far, with the Quebec provincial government and the city of Montreal each donating $1.3 million. The Canadian government is also expected to contribute.
Groundbreaking is scheduled to begin this fall, and the building is expected to be completed by the end of 1999.
Community activist Anthony Housefather, the 28-year old vice president of the pro-English-speaking group Alliance Quebec and a local elected official, believes things are changing for the better. “The threat of separation has decreased dramatically,” Housefather said. “And the Jewish community has done a great deal in terms of trying to keep people in Montreal.
“I actually see people coming back to Quebec, as well as people from other provinces moving here. In the community, there’s a sense that it’s up to us, not the government, to take action. We have a thriving Jewish community, and this is a beautiful place to live.”