Francophone Jewish immigrants face challenges

Sylvain Abitbol, president of the Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec

PART 2 of a 2-part series

MONTREAL — With the increase in anti-Semitic incidents in France and Belgium – which have noticeably worsened since the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza – the Montreal Jewish community is taking a fresh look at how it integrates Jews from French-speaking countries.

According to statistics compiled by Federation CJA’s Agence Ometz immigration services department, about 420 Jewish families have immigrated to Montreal from France since 2000.

But that includes only families who have used Ometz’s services. The CJN was unable to obtain statistics on Jewish families from France who have settled in Montreal without taking advantage of  services offered to new immigrants.

In addition, Agence Ometz has very few records for Jewish families who have come from Belgium.

The agency’s immigration services recently submitted recommendations to Federation CJA leaders, suggesting that they reopen the file on European francophone Jewish immigration to Montreal.

Read Part 1 in this series: Will Jews flee Belgium and France for Quebec?

“Those recommendations are the result of careful reflection by a focus group consisting of young French Jews living in Montreal,” said Monique Lapointe, director of Agence Ometz immigration services. “They told us their views on immigration and shared their expectations and the principal stumbling blocks they faced when they came to Quebec.”

It became clear that the greatest challenge for the institutional Jewish community of Montreal is to help these new immigrants find a job that matches their professional qualifications, Lapointe said.

Victor Goldbloom, who chaired the working group formed by JIAS in the early 2000s to encourage Argentine and French Jewish families to come to Montreal agrees with Lapointe.

“It’s crucial to mobilize the Montreal business community and Jewish Montreal businessmen and company owners and get them involved in this ambitious project. I wouldn’t want to have a French or Belgian person come to Quebec by holding out the prospect of a job that doesn’t exist,” he said.

Goldbloom also suggested that Montreal Jewish community leaders should begin to do outreach with the professional associations in Quebec whose restrictive policies prevent immigrants with professional qualifications needed in the workforce – such as doctors, scientific researchers, dentists and engineers – from being able to get their first job in their own field.

In a statement to The CJN, Federation CJA said it’s “aware that more and more French Jews are considering the possibility of leaving their country, and that many of them have already done so. While some have made aliyah, several of them are considering other options. We are also convinced that when Israel is not the chosen destination, Montreal could become an interesting destination for French Jews.

“Through Agence Ometz, our community is always ready to provide excellent immigration and integration services to those who choose to settle in Montreal. Nevertheless, Federation CJA cannot underestimate the challenges raised by integration into a new community, and in particular with respect to jobs. Agence Ometz submitted a draft proposal to Federation CJA on this topic, which is now being considered by our board of directors. We are going to evaluate and officially discuss that proposal.”

For Sylvain Abitbol, president of the Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec, the question of francophone Jewish immigration to Quebec is a major priority for Montreal Jewish community leaders.

“Francophone Jewish immigration is a big asset to our community, especially at a pivotal time when we are facing an inevitable demographic decline,” he said. 

“This immigration consists mainly of educated, cultured young couples with an excellent professional background. Most French Jews have a strong attachment to their Jewish identity and to Israel. We absolutely must reopen a campaign in the Jewish community to promote the Montreal Jewish community with the Jews of France.”

According to several French Jews who immigrated to Quebec a few years ago, there are three categories of French Jewish immigrants here: 

• Wealthy families who become business owners and buy a house in affluent neighbourhoods such as Westmount, Hampstead or Town of Mount Royal; 

• Young couples with good professional qualifications that are in demand in the workforce who won’t have much difficulty finding their first job;

• Immigrants with no specific professional training or skills needed in the workforce, whose socio-professional integration has been the most difficult – several have returned to France or moved to another country.

Miriam Azogui-Halbwax immigrated to Montreal from France in 2005 with her husband, David Halbwax, a lawyer, and the oldest of their three daughters, who was then 15 months old. 

Azogui-Halbwax said the biggest challenge for new Jewish immigrants from France is to find a job, and often they face an unexpected language barrier.

“Many francophone immigrants who choose Quebec for rebuilding their new lives quickly realize that speaking French is not enough of an advantage in finding a job that uses their professional qualifications,” she said. “A mastery of English is often a necessary prerequisite that many francophone immigrants don’t have when they arrive.”

Azogui-Halbwax, who is also a lawyer, is currently associate director of community and university relations at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

She said she got her first job in Montreal through Ometz’s ProMontreal, a program that helps new immigrants and others trying to get into the workforce or start businesses.

According to Azogui-Halbwax, Jews from France are very resistant to the idea of people of one ethnic group living in the same geographic area of a city. Therefore, many live on the fringes of the Montreal Jewish community. 

As well, they often aren’t affiliated with a synagogue or a Jewish community centre – in France, she said, the concept of “membership,” of becoming an official member of a synagogue doesn’t exist.

She said, however, that attending or being affiliated with a group, a synagogue or a community organization really helps new Jewish immigrants to integrate socially.

“In Montreal, Jewish immigrants from France have the privilege of becoming part of the very well-organized, welcoming Jewish community. It’s a big advantage that certainly helps them integrate into their new land.” 

Translated from the French by Carolan Halpern.