TORONTO – For many Israeli expats, the time of year around Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut is when they miss their homeland the most. They long for that sense of connection, belonging, and ruach (spirit); that sense of home.
To fill the void, they attend Yom Hazikaron ceremonies and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations throughout Toronto, and watch Israeli television in search of inspiration, comfort and connection. After the Yom Hazikaron ceremony I attended this year, I encountered two shinshinim sobbing uncontrollably because “it was the first time they had been away from Israel during Yom Hazikaron.” This encounter demonstrated to me, once again, how powerful the sense of belonging to a community can be.
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In the 2016 World Happiness Report, Israelis (Jews and Arabs) ranked 11th out of 158 countries evaluated. This is astonishing given the hostile environment Israelis live in. Avinoam Bar-Yosef, the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, attributes this to the fact that (according to a recent study) around 90 per cent of Jewish Israelis feel “comfortable/very comfortable” to be themselves in Israel, and between 70 and 80 per cent consider their Jewish culture and tradition to be significant to their identity. This suggests that sharing common bonds and a sense of belonging is a major source of happiness for many Israelis.
Throughout time, Diaspora Jews have also obtained their sense of belonging from extensive community life. Alas, modern, secular life is threatening to derail us from that way of life and sense of belonging. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “In thinking about religion and society in the 21st century, we should broaden the conversation … to strengthen the bonds of belonging that redeem us from our solitude…”
Like Rabbi Sacks, numerous contemporary psychologists and sociologists emphasize the importance of community life for one’s happiness and well-being. Studies confirm that people have a strong innate desire, perhaps programmed through evolution, to belong to a group of people with whom they share a similar identity, heritage or purpose. This sense of belonging, common bond and mutual caring, in turn, can provide what’s often lacking in modern life: a sense of purpose and worthiness, security, and the feeling of inclusivity and connectedness.
An important ingredient in preserving our community bonds and sense of belonging is providing our children with the knowledge and tools that will strengthen their Jewish identity in a manner that is meaningful in a modern context. A strong and relevant Jewish education system can and should play a key role in achieving this goal.
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As a parent of two daughters who have been through the Jewish day school system, I believe that sending our children to Jewish day schools provide them with invaluable Jewish knowledge and good values, as well as a strong sense of belonging to their community, thus positioning them to have a more meaningful life, and be happier people who feel solidly rooted in something bigger than themselves. I also believe that they will be better equipped to embrace the global, multicultural world from a place of greater strength and security in their own identity.
Here, in Toronto, we are lucky to live in a multicultural society where communities are encouraged to maintain and develop their own cultures and values while respecting those of others. In that context, Jewish schools are consistent with this core Canadian value and are, in fact, a natural part of the fabric of Canadian society. In an age of increasing individualism and pervasive technology, when more people feel lonely and isolated, sending children to Jewish schools will afford them that sense of belonging that can contribute to their happiness and sense of well-being while ensuring the continuity of the community for the well-being and of generations to come.
Sara Dobner is a founding member of Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education, a past board member of TanenbaumCHAT, and a senior policy advisor with the provincial government