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Long in Decline, Montreal’s Jewry Bolstered by Brand-new Immigration

December 30, 2005
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Facing an uncertain future with an aging population, low birth rate and the loss of younger members for jobs elsewhere, Montreal’s Jewish community suddenly has a more optimistic outlook. The Argentine economic crash of 2001-2002 and the upsurge in anti-Semitism in France linked to the Palestinian intifada have been a boon to Montreal’s Jewish community.

Poli and Damian Nisenson, a married artist and musician, came to Montreal from Buenos Aires with their two young daughters 18 months ago.

“We were both well-known, teaching, working at our professions and having a good standard of living. But then life got very violent,” said Damian Nisenson, who plays jazz, Beatles and his own compositions on saxophone and guitar.

Damian, who is in his early 50s, is struggling to succeed as a musician in Montreal, and works at the Jewish Public Library. Poli, who is in her 30s, paints, works when she can find jobs and occasionally exhibits her art around the city.

“We didn’t want to leave our home. I never felt anti-Semitism there or anything like that, but we were living in fear: You would go out and didn’t know if you would come home again,” Damian said. “So we decided it was worthwhile living a safer life, a quieter life, even though we would have to sacrifice a lot to be here. We came with only our bags, nothing else.”

Once the largest Jewish community in Canada, numbering approximately 135,000 in the mid-1970s, the size of Montreal’s community nose-dived after the election of the first Quebec separatist government in 1976.

Many Jews moved to Ontario, settling primarily in Toronto, which today boasts the largest Jewish community in Canada.

Families still return to Montreal on holiday weekends to visit aging parents and grandparents or to pick up excellent wood-oven fired bagels. And a thriving community remains, numbering between 85,000 to just over 100,000.

Now with the arrival of newcomers from Argentina and France, all bets on declining demographics are off.

“New immigrants mean that there still will be a strong Jewish community in Montreal in a couple of generations. It’s as simple as that,” said Shellie Ettinger, executive director of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services Montreal.

For Jews looking to leave Argentina and France, Quebec is a popular destination.

Since 2001, 2,044 Jews have come to Quebec from Argentina and 1,372 have arrived from France, according to JIAS figures.

Argentine immigration rose from 76 in 2001 to a high of 644 in 2003, before falling over the past two years to 463 in 2005. The fall coincided with an improvement in the Argentine economy.

The data from France show the impact of anti-Semitism resulting from the Palestinian intifada: The number of immigrants rose from 58 in 2001 to 582 in 2005.

The demographics of the new arrivals — many are younger families with more than one child — portend positive change for an aging community that in recent years has wondered how to increase its numbers.

Many more come on their own, either through business, university exchange programs or the purchase of property.

Jewish officials are treating the issue delicately.

“We want to be responsive and welcoming. We want even to be encouraging, but it has to be passive encouragement,” said Victor Goldbloom, a former Quebec Cabinet minister who soon will assume the presidency of JIAS Montreal. “It must be clear that we are not on a recruiting campaign to draw people away from their home communities.”

It’s not always easy for the immigrants. While they credit JIAS with helping them get settled, the Nisensons have had a difficult time making social and professional contacts in the community.

“JIAS helped us find our way when we got here, bought us our beds and mattresses, which we really appreciated,” Damian Nisenson said.

JIAS also helped the couple find a day-care center for daughters Miranda, 4, and Dalila, 2.

“But I had a hard time finding anyone to integrate with culturally or even to speak to at first, and our real contacts came from outside the Montreal Jewish community,” Damian said.

Things have improved recently as Nisenson increasingly makes a name as a musician in Montreal. The family was accepted at a reduced fee at last summer’s 10th KlezKanada festival, an annual weeklong event held in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, where he made new connections.

Things have been easier for Jean Charles Ada, 31, at least when it comes to finding work. Ada, an optometrist, and his wife Karine, 29, an optician, came to Montreal from Paris six months ago with their sons, aged four and one.

Karine said she was relieved to be in Quebec, away from the recent stresses the family faced in France, though she said they had left more for the children’s sake than for their own.

“The environment is bad for them in Paris,” she said. “The Jewish schools have security barriers around them and the children are afraid to go to school.”

Karine and Charles frequently encountered verbal anti-Semitism, taunts about “Jews being rich and things of that nature, but never anything more aggressive or threatening,” she said. “The future did not look bright for us and our children, however, so we choose to leave.”

Karine praised local Jewish organizations for helping them get settled. Jewish Employment Montreal helped Charles find a job in his field, and JIAS helped them find a school for one child and a good day-care center for the other, as well as doctors and other services.

“Everyone has been very nice and helpful,” she said.

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