How did a few Israeli Jews end up settling down as ‘sourdough’ in the Yukon?

Amir Dembner was anxious just before the 2022 Canada Day parade in Whitehorse, for which he volunteered to carry an Israeli flag.

The resident of the Yukon territory—who was born in Israel—increasingly worried that the sight of the symbol might provoke some unwanted backlash against the small community living there.

His fears were soon put to rest.

In fact, the crowd clapped and cheered as Dembner was joined in the parade by compatriot Nicky Rosenberg, and Rick Karp, the Ottawa-born president of the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon

Plus, halfway through the parade, the trio heard Hebrew being spoken on the street. It turned out to be a family of surprised—but also thrilled—Israeli tourists, who had somehow found themselves stuck in Whitehorse on their way to a vacation in Alaska.

Nowadays, seeing the Israeli flag and hearing Hebrew is a lot more common than you might expect North of 60. A sizeable number of Israeli expats are currently calling the rugged Canadian territory home.

Of the cultural society’s 38 members, 10 are Israelis. And those who have survived a full year in the territory are considered a “sourdough.” (Or a “machmetzet,” as Dembner quips in Hebrew.)

Israeli flag in Whitehorse
Amir Dembner at the Parade of Flags in Whitehorse, July 1, 2022. (Submitted photo)

‘Not everybody could handle that’

Dembner, 48, arrived in Whitehorse in 2009 to work in a veterinary clinic. His fellow expats include a bus driver, an accountant, a computer specialist, an artist, several researchers associated with Yukon University—and Nicky Rosenberg, an electrical engineer who left Israel in 2011.

“When I came here, I discovered all the lakes and the nature, and going on a hike for one or two days and not meeting anyone, just you and the nature. Sometimes you meet a bear or a moose,” Rosenberg said.

“We have a lot of wildlife here and foxes come in the winter and just stay on my porch and I go fishing and camping. 

“It’s amazing. But not everybody could handle that.”

Rosenberg, 68, was born in Romania, but moved to Israel with his parents and grew up in Haifa. After the army, he earned his engineering degree from the Technion. But after a few years of work under his belt, the travel bug hit. 

He took a nomadic tour for a year around the United States and Canada in a rented van. Then, in 2012, with only two weeks left on his tourist visa, he made it to Yukon. A job offer soon surfaced: developing electronics equipment for an oil and gas company. 

Rosenberg hasn’t been back to Israel since. 

Nicky Rosenberg enjoys the wildlife and nature he found when he moved to Whitehorse in 2012. (Submitted photo)

Falafel and bagels

And although he misses the taste of his favourite Israeli bourekas—he made his own recently with a recipe found online—a community has been found through volunteering with the Jewish Cultural Society, which holds Passover seders and High Holiday BBQs.

He’s also a Reiki practitioner and does odd handyman jobs for people in Whitehorse, when he isn’t working on his current business venture: Rosenberg invented a safety device for pilots, which uses artificial intelligence to help them see landmarks through the clouds. (He’s trying to market it to airlines.)

The whole frontier mentality resonates with Rosenberg, who often teases his friends about the weather in his adopted home north of the Arctic Circle as compared with the one he left behind. 

“In Israel and here, the temperatures are the same temperatures, just with a different sign—plus-50 to minus-50.”

Indeed, with frigid temperatures in the winter, and about the same population as the small city of Tiberias — 42,000—in an area 20 times bigger than Israel, there’s no room for the kind of deep-rooted conflict impacting Jews and their Arab neighbours.

“If your neighbour and you had a fight and you don’t agree and it’s minus-40 degrees—and you need a place to warm up until somebody comes to repair your heating system and he says, ’No, we are not friends. You cannot come in’, you just freeze outside.”

Likes to argue

Whitehorse life hasn’t been as Zen for Amir Dembner. His first job lasted only a year. His housing situation was perilous for a while. His second job in a tire centre lasted for a decade—but it left him with a debilitating back injury that’s kept him at home for two years.

Still, he relishes life without the hot Israeli weather, even if this summer has seen the highest number of Yukon wildfires burning in the last 25 years, partly due to climate change.

Dembner also can’t believe the freedom he’s found in the Yukon. He enjoys debating fiercely with people about COVID, and Israel’s turbulent political situation. He isn’t shy about speaking his mind, with the bluntness that sabras are known for.  

“I simply, like, say it, and I’m willing to have a discussion and to have an argument,” Dembner said. “Argument is not like a negative thing, at least not for Israelis.”

Dembner does miss his family, although he hasn’t felt comfortable during the pandemic to take his regular two-month visits each spring.

As a secular Jew, he isn’t bothered by the lack of kosher food in Whitehorse, or by the fact there’s no synagogue.

Strangely, though, finding falafel hasn’t been a problem. The Israeli expat bus driver, Gadi, also moonlights at the weekly farmers market, where he’s served up the Middle East snack in previous years, along with bagels.

Kosher food can be sourced for Passover and for special occasions, with enough notice, explains Rick Karp, the longtime leader of the Jewish community in Whitehorse.

When he learned that a couple of ultra-Orthodox Israeli professors from Bar Ilan and Hebrew University were going to be arriving in Whitehorse for a two-week contract with the Yukon government, Karp phoned a local hotel for help.

“I said ‘Can you get kosher? Can you do, like, salads and vegetarian things?’ And they did. The managers also bought new dishes to serve them.”

Rick Karp
Rick Karp is the long time head of the Jewish community in Whitehorse. (Submitted photo).

Jewish presence in the Klondike since Goldrush

The recent death of community member Lillian Strauss—a former yoga teacher, musician and horsewoman—also provided a religious challenge due to not being able to locate 10 men for a recitation of a memorial Kaddish, per Orthodox tradition.

But a Chabad rabbi in Calgary advised Karp that, under these circumstances, women could count in the quorum.

Karp and his late wife Joy were Ottawa natives who moved to Whitehorse in 1986 to open the first McDonald’s franchise in Northwestern Canada. 

At the helm of the community since 1997, he’s welcomed the Israeli newcomers to a region which has had a Jewish presence for about 125 years. When the Klondike Goldrush began in 1896, Jewish prospectors and merchants flocked to the territory to seek their fortunes.  

Over a century later, in 2014, the community restored a long-neglected Jewish cemetery in Dawson City, where five of those early adventurers were laid to rest. The Beth Chaim burial ground is now a popular tourist attraction—although that city has just a handful of Jewish residents today.

Rick Karp
Rick Karp finding the long-abandoned cemetery in Dawson City. (Submitted photo)

Facing antisemitism

With the arrival of the Israelis in recent years, Karp took on the task of revamping the Jewish community’s official website to add Hebrew sections. He wants to make the information about events more accessible, and even include a mailing on the weekly Torah portion. 

Israelis in Whitehorse also keep Karp apprised of what’s going on in their homeland—most recently in June, when the new coalition government dissolved. (Karp figures he got that news faster than most Canadians.)

The Israelis haven’t been the target of any protests or boycott, divestment or sanction campaigns, beyond a group of 45 marchers who gathered to support Palestinian rights in May 2021. 

The territorial government had a motion introduced by Currie Dixon, the leader of the provincial opposition Yukon Party, which condemned antisemitism. A second motion of his declared support for Israel during that two-week outbreak of hostilities with Hamas.

Karp can think of only one incident where his community was on the receiving end of antisemitism, dating back nearly a decade. The target was a visiting Canadian scientist who consulted at a mine for a few weeks. She became the target of loud racial insults from one of her temporary neighbours.

The local RCMP were called. The officer warned the man he’d go to jail if there was so much as another peep out of him. 

Meanwhile, for Amir Dembner, it wasn’t his Israeli passport that prompted his only run-in with ignorance and prejudice in Whitehorse. In fact, the perpetrator didn’t even know he was Israeli—never mind that he was a Jew. 

Someone in the auto body garage where he was employed at the time asked whether the microwave oven was working. Dembner remembers the sincere reply from someone else that the machine was working so well it was “a Jew incinerator.”

When a colleague reminded everyone in the room that Dembner was Jewish and from Israel, he chose not to make a big deal about the incident. He believes the slur came from ignorance.

“And maybe I also made a little bit of a change because people saw and they interacted with a Jew for the first time in their life.” 

That’s why he was pleased to serve as an ambassador of sorts when his foreman wanted to know more.

Parade of flags in Whitehorse July 2022.
Amir Dembner (left) and Nicky Rosenberg at the Parade of Flags in Whitehorse on Canada Day. (Submitted photo)

Mosquitoes are the worst part: Dembner

But that doesn’t surprise Karp, who also sits on the local chamber of commerce. He saw 62 flags of different nations carried during the recent Canada Day parade, despite the remoteness of Whitehorse.

Karp feels the timing is right to push the city to commit to observing the territory’s first-ever Jewish Heritage Month next May. 

Between now and then, Nicky Rosenberg is hoping to return to Israel for the first time since he left. But this time, he and Karp will be accompanying a travelling display showcasing the Jewish history of Yukon. There’s interest from the Tel Aviv-based Museum of the Jewish People (ANU).

For now, he’s enjoying the short Yukon summer, which includes fishing on his new boat. He also encourages his daughter Maya’s blossoming career as a visual artist and teacher. (She moved to the Yukon in 2014, in order to live nearby.)

He recently visited distant cousins in Montreal, and scoffed at their complaints about Quebec mosquitoes, compared to what he deals with in his own adopted home.

“They are flying around for five minutes until they decide to land on you and then, maybe, they will bite you.  Once you get out of the car you have thousands, like Kamikaze, coming and sticking you right away!”

Amir Dembner similarly feels the pests are the worst thing about being an Israeli in the Yukon—especially when he encounters entire clouds of them around.

“Didn’t the Jewish people suffer enough? Horrible!”