New survey reveals behaviours and attitudes of Canadian Jews

A landmark new study of Canadian Jewry has boldly gone where no previous poll or survey has before, by probing the identities, values, opinions and experiences of Canada’s Jewish population.

Carried out by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in partnership with the University of Toronto and York University, the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada is 84 pages of densely packed charts, graphs and text that looks at never-before-explored areas, such as Jewish identity, religious practice, experience with discrimination, intermarriage and feelings toward Israel, among other topics.

It paints a portrait of a community that is educated, cohesive, urban, engaged in religious practice, synagogue life and communal institutions, has a strong emotional connection to Israel, and has markedly lower rates of intermarriage and assimilation than in the United States.

Whereas previous censuses have asked basic demographic questions about religion, ethnicity, geography, age, gender, education and family arrangements, this survey focuses almost entirely on attitudes and behaviour, said co-author Robert Brym, a sociologist at U of T and a longtime interpreter of Jewish trends in Canada.

The survey “focuses on what it means to be Jewish in Canada today – specifically, patterns of Jewish practice, upbringing and intermarriage; perceptions of anti-Semitism; attitudes toward Israel; and personal and organizational connections that, taken together, constitute the community,” according to an advance copy of the survey provided to The CJN.

The research is closely modelled on the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews and compares U.S. and Canadian Jews across a variety of indicators.

Slated to be released on March 12, the survey was conducted between February and September of last year. It asked 99 questions of 2,335 individuals in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Those four cities represent 82 per cent of Canada’s Jewish population, it explained.

The study drilled down into the complex issue of Jewish identity, which, its authors said, is no longer simply about practicing a distinct religion. Today, only one in three Canadians who identify as Jewish considers religion very important in his or her life, the survey says. Six in 10 say they believe in God or a “universal spirit,” compared to seven in 10 for the general population.

It presents a bit of a paradox: while fully 95 per cent of respondents consider themselves Jewish by religion, “the plain fact is that religion is not very important to most Canadian Jews,” said Brym.

Canadians identify as Jewish in mixed ways: about half consider themselves to be Jews mainly as a matter of religion, culture or ancestry, while the other half cites two or more of those aspects.

“For most Canadian Jews today, the basis of Jewish identity is less about religion than about culture, ethnicity or a combination of culture, ethnicity and religion,” the study says.

Only among the Orthodox were there more respondents who said that their Jewishness in mainly a matter of religion alone.

While religion may not be a priority for many Canadian Jews, two-thirds say that “being Jewish” is very important in their lives, with most of the rest indicating that it is at least somewhat important.

In terms of what people think are the “essential” elements of being Jewish, most cited leading a moral and ethical life (72 per cent), remembering the Holocaust (69 per cent) and celebrating Jewish holidays (58 per cent). At least four in 10 respondents identified working for justice and equality in society, caring about Israel, being intellectually curious, being part of a community or having a good sense of humour. Only one in five cited observing Jewish law, attending synagogue or participating in Jewish cultural activities as being important.

The study showed that the intermarriage rate in Canada is 23 per cent, compared to 50 per cent among American Jews, and that U.S. Jews are less than one-third as likely to raise their children in the Jewish religion as Canadians are.

Having a Jewish spouse is “almost universal” among Orthodox, modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews. In the Jewish population as a whole, intermarriages are highest among the youngest age cohort: nearly one-third of Jews aged 18 to 29 who are married or in a common-law union are in mixed-faith relationships.

Intermarriage is less common in cities with large Jewish marriage pools, but Vancouver is the exception: with a Jewish population nearly twice as large as Winnipeg’s, it has a higher intermarriage rate.

Still, the authors say that Canada’s Jewish community remains “surprisingly cohesive across generations.”

Nine in 10 Canadian Jews report that both their parents are Jewish, and a comparable proportion say they were raised in the Jewish religion.

Study co-author Rhonda Lenton, a sociologist and president and vice-chancellor of York University, said she believes the single most important finding of the survey “is that we are doing an unusually good job of keeping the community cohesive.”

She pointed to findings that show that Canadian Jews are far less assimilated than their American counterparts. “I believe that these findings allow us to speak of Canadian Jewish exceptionalism: while analysts often claim that the non-religious Jewish Diaspora is dissipating … Canadian Jewry seems to be doing a good job of bucking the trend,” she said.

Though it didn’t perform a headcount, the study estimates that there are approximately 392,000 Jews in Canada, comprising less than one per cent of the total population. They are “highly urbanized,” with more than 87 per cent living in just six census metropolitan areas: nearly half in Toronto, a quarter in Montreal and one-sixth in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Calgary combined.

It found that the Jewish communities in Montreal and Winnipeg are shrinking in size, but those in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Calgary are growing. Vancouver is the country’s fastest-growing Jewish community, followed by Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary.

Canada, it adds, is on the verge of overtaking France as having the second-largest Jewish population in the Diaspora, after the United States.


Based on the survey results, the Canadian Jewish community includes roughly 37,000 Sephardim, 25,000 Jews born in the former Soviet Union and 17,000 Jews born in Israel.

The authors also point out that the level of education in Canada’s Jewish community is “extraordinarily high,” noting that eight in 10 Jewish adults have completed at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to fewer than three in 10 in the general population.

The survey’s other findings include:

• About six in 10 Jews in Canada affiliate with one of the three mainstream denominations, the largest being Conservative, followed by Orthodox or modern Orthodox, then Reform.

One in 10 report belonging to smaller Jewish movements, including Reconstructionist, Humanistic or Renewal Judaism, Hasidism or something else. Three in 10 are not aligned with any particular branch, including some who say they are “just Jewish.”

• Six in 10 report that they, or someone in their household, belong to a synagogue or prayer group. However, membership does not translate into regular attendance: only one in six attend services at least once or twice a month, outside of life-cycle ceremonies. Close to half of Canadian Jews say they belong to one or more other types of Jewish organizations, such as a Jewish community centre. Three in 10 do not belong to any Jewish organization. American Jews are half as likely as their Canadian brethren to belong to a synagogue.

• Eight in 10 Jews in Canada report having made a donation in the previous year to a Jewish organization or cause. Only half of U.S. Jews have donated to Jewish organizations.

• About 80 per cent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel, versus 43 per cent of American Jews. A plurality of respondents endorse Canada’s current level of support for Israel, but a “significant” minority say it is not supportive enough. Critical opinions of Israel’s continued building of Jewish settlements and its relations with the Palestinians are “most evident” among younger Jews and those who are Reform or unaffiliated.

• About one in 10 Canadian Jews say he or she has been called offensive names or snubbed in social settings in the past year because of being Jewish. Close to four in 10 say they have downplayed being Jewish in some situations, such as at work, or while travelling outside the country.

(Shutterstock photo)

For Lenton, the survey provides evidence of “interesting paradoxes,” specifically when it comes to the responses regarding discrimination: while one-third of respondents believe that Canadian Jews often experience discrimination, just 12 per cent of the entire Canadian adult population agrees that Canadian Jews often experience discrimination.

The discrepancy may be owed to the general population associating discrimination with socioeconomic inequality, she explained.

Because Jews are not generally viewed as underprivileged socioeconomically, “they are usually not seen as a group that experiences a high level of discrimination, even though objective measures, notably the rate of hate crime, suggests otherwise,” Lenton said.

The study provides “a definitive answer to one question that many in the Canadian Jewish community often wonder about: how are Canadian Jews similar and different from Jews in the United States?” said the survey’s co-author, Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute.

“The results show some notable similarities, in particular regarding attitudes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but perhaps more important, it shows how the Canadian Jewish community as a whole is distinct in such areas as identity, education, practice and connection to community.”

Brym agreed that the community as a whole “should be proud of the fact that we are doing a lot that’s right in terms of keeping the Canadian Jewish community cohesive – more than most, if not all, other Diaspora communities.”

For example, he said that Canadian Jewish adults, whether young or old, tend to express strong emotional attachment to Israel, regard family meals celebrating Jewish holidays as an essential part of being Jewish and belong to various types of Jewish organizations.

But at the same time, “we must recognize that the Canadian Jewish community is changing and we need to plan accordingly.”

Compared to older members of the community, young adults are less inclined to regard religion and identification with Israel as essential components of what it means to be Jewish, and are less likely to offer uncritical support for the current Israeli government’s policies regarding the Palestinians, Brym pointed out.

“Young adults are more inclined to regard Jewish culture and community participation as essential components of their Jewishness,” he said.

To keep the community cohesive, this shift in outlook “suggests the need to develop new programs, activities and organizations that cater more to the interests of young Canadian Jewish adults … to rely less on what we imagine is required of us, and more on what community members say they need and want,” said Brym.

The need seems to be especially acute in Vancouver, the fastest growing and least cohesive of the major Canadian Jewish communities, he noted.

The survey asked extra questions of Jews from the former Soviet Union, as well as Montreal Jews aged 18 to 44, at the request of the study’s sponsors: UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Federation CJA, the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba and the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.