AJC’s departing executive director on the future of Jewish life in Atlantic Canada

Yom HaShoah
Naomi Rosenfeld speaks to the Jewish community in Halifax for Yom HaShoah commemorations on May 1, 2019. (Ellin Bessner photo)

After five years as the face of a Jewish community, Naomi Rosenfeld is stepping down from her job as executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council.

Rosenfeld, 29, and her husband, are expecting their first child in November, and want to be near their extended family in their hometown of Toronto.

“I’ve seen what an asset it is when people live close to their parents and their kids’ grandparents, and how much they’re able to help one another,” Rosenfeld explained in an interview with The CJN Daily podcast. “And I think that that had a huge persuasive factor on me making this choice, that I wanted to raise my child closer to the child’s grandparents and uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews.”

Rosenfeld is aware of how it might look to others being yet another young Jewish family to leave the East Coast behind.

“I certainly don’t want to imply for a second that this is not an amazing place to live, an amazing place to raise a family, an amazing Jewish community,” she said. “I think people did understand, but that’s not to say if it wasn’t for that one fact, I would be raising my family here.”

Camp Kadimah brought her to the region

Rosenfeld was just 24 when she was hired to run the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC) in 2016, after the retirement of longtime executive director Jon Goldberg. She’s the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and came to the job with enthusiastic family ties to the region, despite growing up in Toronto.

Her mother was a camper at Camp Kadimah, the Jewish community-owned summer camp at Barrs Corner, Nova Scotia. The family sent Rosenfeld and her siblings there.

After receiving her Queen’s University degree, Rosenfeld spent two years working as the Hillel director for Atlantic Canada based in Halifax, before going back to school at Brandeis University in Boston to do graduate work at the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program.

When she started as executive director in Halifax, Rosenfeld faced several key challenges to bring Jewish culture and programming to a dispersed Jewish population of approximately 4,000 people across four provinces—with more than one time zone.

“The issues that were presented… were fairly common issues that a lot of smaller Jewish communities were having,” Rosenfeld recalled. “We were seeing a loss in numbers, especially a lot of the younger people who were raised here were not ending up here and not having families here.”

Credits the PJ Library program

The second problem was a large unaffiliated community of Jews who didn’t take out synagogue memberships, didn’t send their kids to Jewish summer camp, and didn’t send them to supplemental Hebrew school.

Flash forward to today, and the demographics have changed—particularly in Halifax, where between 2,000 and 3,000 Jewish people make their homes. Over 100 new families from Israel, mainly of Russian Jewish descent, have moved to the region as part of an immigration sponsorship program coordinated with the Nova Scotia government. While that program started and ended before Rosenfeld’s time, she’s still seeing the impact.

“Over the summer, anecdotally I know of ten to 20 families who’ve immigrated to Halifax and so that’s been really interesting,” she said. “I think we’ll continue to see immigration play a role in the changing demographics and the growth of our community.” (Rosenfeld jokes that she’s now the only one in the Halifax head office who doesn’t speak fluent Hebrew.)

Engaging Jewish newcomers with young children to affiliate with the community has been one of Rosenfeld’s most important files. She credits the PJ Library program as one of the most successful weapons in this campaign. Jewish children up to the age of 14 are eligible to receive free Jewish-themed books each month, in the mail. While 40 were enrolled at the start, now 400 Jewish children in Atlantic Canada receive free books each month.

“We just began a Shalom Baby program, where now, every time someone has a baby they get an adorable little gift basket that includes PJ library books and a Kadimah onesie and all these fun little gifts for new families to really welcome them into the community in that way.”

Fighting antisemitism is different in Atlantic Canada

Although responding to local incidents of antisemitism has been one of her regular concerns since Rosenfeld took over at the AJC, the issue has risen to the forefront since May. The worldwide spike in anti-Israel and anti-Zionism rhetoric both online and physically across Canada hit home for her community after the hostilities broke out for two weeks between Israel and Hamas.

Rosenfeld was regularly called on to respond about incidents that happened in the region: vandals shot a BB gun through the windows of the Tiferes Israel Synagogue in Moncton, while Jewish businesses in the region were being targeted online when their owners posted pro-Israel statements on social media. Schools were also affected.

While she thinks much of the problem is due to a lack of awareness in the general Atlantic population about Jews, Judaism and the place of Israel in the lives of Canadian Jews, she foresees the problem continuing after she leaves.

Part of the job for her successor will be to work towards boosting public education about Jews, and promoting alliances with other groups in society. For example, Rosenfeld recently gave an hour-long presentation about antisemitism to new recruits for the Halifax Regional Police.

“A lot of them said to me afterwards, ‘We never learned anything like this’.”

COVID forced the community to embrace technology

After COVID hit Canada in the spring of 2020, residents were ordered into what was later called “The Atlantic Bubble,” where borders were closed to outsiders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

For the Jewish community in the region, that meant finding new ways to connect now that synagogues were closed and regular cultural and religious programming was cancelled. The AJC pivoted to offer online Zoom webinars such as a talk by the newly arrived Royal Canadian Air Force chaplain, Capt. Rabbi Arnold Noteh Glogauer, who was posted to CFB Shearwater near Halifax last Passover.

Atlantic Jews were also able to join in online national events such as Yom HaShoah commemorations and celebrations for the Jewish New Year. The AJC also sent out hanukkiyas and boxes of candles to people unable to leave their homes to buy them.

“Our film festival last year, we offered it completely virtually, and this year, we’re offering it as a hybrid session, and I don’t know that we’ll ever go back to offering only in person, because we get to engage so many more people across our large geography,” Rosenfeld said.

The eighth annual Atlantic Jewish Film Festival opens on Nov. 18 and will run online as well as in-person screenings at both a Cineplex theatre and the Pier 21 Museum of Immigration in Halifax.

Finding kosher food can be a struggle

As she prepares to wind up her tenure at the Atlantic Jewish Council on Spring Garden Road in Halifax, Rosenfeld shares how the community has reacted to the news of her departure. She heard from members of the LGBTQ Jewish community, and couples in interfaith marriages, and other groups who’d been unaffiliated.

“A lot of people wrote to me and they said that ‘You helped form this community that I felt comfortable being a part of’,” she said. “We’re such a small community. We can’t afford to make a single family, to make a single person feel unwelcome. And I’m not saying I was perfect at that, not by a long shot, but that was always my goal.”

One other unsolved challenge remains and that is to make kosher food more available in the region. While the East Coast Bakery in Halifax now produces kosher challah and bagels, there’s no kosher caterer or restaurant.

But the “dozens and dozens” of personal invitations gave Rosenfeld many of her fond memories of the past five years.

“Ultimately, if you want a Jewish meal, you have to put in the work and then invite your friends and neighbours over,” she said. “And that’s what this Jewish community is all about. So I’m going to miss that a lot.”