If you follow my podcast, Bonjour Chai, you may have asked yourself: how come Ilana is always in Montreal these days? Is she still working on that play?
Now, as the resident Jewish Nomad, perhaps I feel it is my duty to constantly move.
Long story short, I’m based in my hometown again. Surprise!
It’s very interesting to return to a place when you have changed and grown so much from the new experiences you’ve had abroad. And it’s probably been a decade since I attended a social event organized by a Montreal-based synagogue.
But last week, I attended Young Professionals Cocktails in the Courtyard at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim—which, as I had to explain to a few others I invited to join me, wasn’t one of those often-dreaded events exclusively for singles.
Instead, it was a shmooze with other Jews in their 20s and 30s while drinking cocktails and eating from a fabulous spread of Mexican food. (There was even a make-your-own taco station!)
The event was organized by the shul’s Young Professionals (YP) committee, and garnered 70 friendly attendees.
The truth is, since returning two months ago, it’s been tough to figure out where to meet Jews my age.
So, Rabba Rachel Finegold and I sat down to discuss why that is and what she’s been doing to change it.
The missing middle of Montreal
“Montreal is a really hard place to be new,” shared Rabba Finegold when we were discussing the event on the phone after the fact.
Despite having grown up here, I fall into the newcomer category—after having been away for so long… and I’d have to agree with her.
I’ve only retained a few friendships from my high school days and, even amongst those, many have moved away or are unaffiliated.
I was lucky to meet a few new Jewish friends in the spring, when I came in for my play Mazel Tov.
Similar to me, one of them also grew up in Montreal and recently moved back.
“How do we meet new people?” we kept asking ourselves. Or more importantly: where do we find them?
Most young Jews aren’t going to shul here, and aside from the Shaar, there are very few options for our demographic.
Montreal’s Jewish community is more focused on youth, students and family programming—which may be a holdover from the era when most people got married at a younger age than the average today.
To make it harder, people tend to stick with the same group of friends they had since high school—or even elementary school.
Rabba Finegold said that when she first moved here from Chicago in 2013, rather than being welcomed she had most people asking her: “Why?”
It can be alienating for a newcomer when everyone knows everyone.
Montreal Jews are also very home-centric. Shabbat dinners are always at bubbe and zaydes, or at your parents. Since our university costs are so low, many live at home during their studies, giving them no incentive to host their own Shabbat or holiday meals.
What may be great for family ties makes it tricky to make new friends when you’re out of the school system.
Rabba Finegold, who is originally from New York, shared that moving away after high school had her hosting her own Shabbat dinners from the age of 21.
She feels that this period of time away from your family is an integral part of exploring one’s Jewish identity.
“I want to take people away from bubbe for Shabbat,” she said playfully.
The making of the YP committee
Rabba Finegold had a big question when she first came to the Shaar. “Where are the young people?”
She was either pointed to Jews already into their 40s, or was told they weren’t interested in being part of a synagogue or the Jewish community.
Determined to get to the bottom of this, she took it upon herself to meet with the young yidden of the city. And the ones she met with said they weren’t showing up to Jewish events because there wasn’t anything there for them.
The Shaar had a group for Young Professionals in the 1960s, but the concept didn’t stand the test of time.
So, in response to what she heard people were looking for, they started off in 2014 with a Shabbat dinner called “TGIS (Thank G-d it’s Shabbat).”
Rabba Finegold laughed when she said they were expecting 30 people—and were pleasantly surprised when 100 showed up.
Looking into the future of Montreal Jewry
Montreal is a city with a rich Jewish life, history, kosher restaurants, many synagogues, community centres and even a Jewish Y!
But after spending the past year in Toronto, where post-lockdown events would be packed to the brim with eager young Jews, I noticed the glaring gap in Montreal’s YP scene.
The Shaar event gave me some hope for the future of Jewish life in Montreal. And I wasn’t the only one surprised to see faces they didn’t recognize.
Some were fairly new to the city. But many were locals simply coming out of the woodworks.
Rabba Finegold feels that the pandemic may be inspiring people to crave community. Everyone is eager to socialize, despite the awkwardness of coming out of interactions rooted in Zoom
I think it’s time to expand on her vision.
If you are reading this and thinking you want this too, then come to the next event at the Shaar, check out the list of recommendations below and email me if you want to meet.
And if you are in charge at an organization elsewhere, ask the young people in your community: what are you looking for?
And then make it happen.
It’s time for a new era of Montreal Jewry, one in which you don’t have to run off to Toronto or New York to get what you’re looking for.
A RESOURCE GUIDE FOR YOUNG MONTREAL JEWS (which I hope to expand as the infrastructure grows)
Run by a group of young professionals, under the guidance of founder Rabba Rachel Finegold.
Come for Shabbat and holiday meals, study groups, parties and more!
These events are for couples, singles and everything in between—as long as you’re in your 20s and 30s. (They have a hard cap at 40.)
Look out for their next event: a Sukkot dinner in the Shaar courtyard. I’ll be there!
A new group on Facebook, aimed at this exact demographic, founded by some people I may or may not be related to. (Who said nepotism and journalism can’t intermingle?)
Be sure to join the group, to stay up to date on various local events in town, as well as casual hangouts.
Every Montreal transplant I’ve recently met all shared that they met their first friends through The Family Store (TFS) Shabbat lunches.
The Family Store is a subsidized grocery warehouse for working class families in need—which seems to be a popular volunteering avenue for many young professionals in town. (And it’s probably what makes their social events so popular.)
I haven’t had the chance to check it out for myself, but TFS offers a range of programs for YPs including learning groups, holiday meals, books clubs and more.
The Moishe House in Montreal has reincarnated a number of times, over the past few years.
Once a house, then a pod (a smaller version of a Moishe House), it is now a house again—and in a very central location.
MoHo is a great resource, no matter what city you live in.
Open to everyone, houses host four to seven events a month. (This one hosts four!)
The new residents span the organization’s target age range (early 20s-early 30s) and are very lovely.
(Coming up next is a Game Night on Sept. 15.)
For those who are looking to meet their bashert, Chabad NDG’s YP division includes the dating services JMontreal and Soul Meet—Jewish Speed Dating, as well as classes.
For singles and couples, I also highly recommend checking out their Shabbat services as a fun way to engage with your Judaism.
This is no ordinary Chabad.
It’s led by three rabbis, Rabbi Yisroel Bernath (known as the Love Rabbi), Rabbi Zvi Hershcovitch (check out his popular comedic Twitter account @cholentface) and Rabbi Yosh Berkowitz (who’s just an all-around nice guy).
They have trivia and comedy during the Torah reading, lively and heartfelt sermons by Rabbi Bernath and a massive sit-down lunch following each week’s service.
I regularly attend Chabad of NDG, for Shabbat—and it’s a super fun, spiritual and educational environment for young Jews looking for community.
HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai