Mida: 2018 survey of Jews in Canada: Is the picture that rosy?

A debt of gratitude is owed to the sponsors and authors of the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada. It’s perhaps the most comprehensive such survey ever undertaken and its results will be studied for years. It’s conclusions include “..the Canadian Jewish community as a whole remains surprisingly cohesive across all generations,” and even more boldly, “… the Canadian Jewish community is unlikely to become much less cohesive as younger generations age.”

Really? I hope this optimistic outlook for younger generations materializes but I fear it won’t. My comments following are on these younger generations, focusing on their synagogue membership and attendance, intermarriage rates and enrolment in Jewish day schools. As I look at the survey’s results in these areas I wonder if it sufficiently took into account unaffiliated and lower income Jews, and younger Jews with no landlines, or were they missed due to the nature of the sampling method?

The survey says, “Notably, frequency of synagogue attendance does not vary significantly by age cohort , and is marginally higher among Jews under the age of 45.” This doesn’t ring true to me. What I have observed over the past 35 years of my synagogue attendance (mainly Toronto Conservative shuls) is an increasingly older and dwindling congregation attending Shabbat services because older members have been dying at a faster rate than younger members have joined.

It gets worse. The survey says 69 per cent of age 18-29 Jews are synagogue members, dropping to 57 per cent for age 30-34 , 56 per cent for 45-54. But my understanding is that many synagogues allow age 18-29 to join for a nominal fee as part of their parents’ memberships (often paid by their parents). So the 12 per cent apparent greater affiliation by the age 18-29 may not indicate greater commitment to synagogue attendance. I don’t see many age 18-29 in my Conservative synagogue except on the High Holidays.

On intermarriage, the survey says that 84 per cent of marriages in the age 18-29 cohort are between two Jewish partners. This drops to 74 per cent for the 30-44 age group. I would think the greatest number of age 18-29 marriages are Orthodox (they tend to marry earlier and more with Jewish partners). But even the 74 per cent figure for age 30-44 seems high. I wonder what portion of these are cases where one spouse converted to Judaism? The survey does not separate this out. Also it would have been useful to track intermarriage as a percentage of all marriages by Canadian Jews in the past 10 years. My impression based on what I have read is that Canadian intermarriage rates are on the rise and could well be higher in the past 10 years than the survey implies.

Finally, the survey indicates that 43 per cent of Jews have attended full-time Jewish schools. This is over all age categories including, for example, the attendance of 50-70-year-olds in Jewish schools many years ago. The survey also notes “…attendance levels more than twice as high among Jews 18-29 (68 per cent) than among those 55 and older (31 per cent).” This could relate to many more Jewish day school choices today than 40 years ago.


But what are the facts on the ground in the Greater Toronto Area where almost 50 per cent of Canadian Jews live? The number of children in Jewish days schools in GTA has dropped from a peak of about 8,000 in 2002 to 5,800 today, an alarming 27.5 per cent decrease during years when the overall Jewish population of GTA increased. Four out of six Jewish day schools in north GTA have closed in the past five years and nine GTA day schools have closed in the past 15 years. This is all due in part to skyrocketing tuition fees which are now an average of $17,000 for GTA elementary day schools. This declining enrolment trend is not captured by the survey as that would require a comparison of children in Jewish day schools in the age 6-17 bracket today versus the same bracket 10 years ago. So at least in GTA there is a concerning declining trend of Jewish day school enrolment.

In summary, the survey is an important source of information on Canada’s Jewish community. But while it draws many useful conclusions, in my view the picture is not as rosy as it suggests. I encourage Jewish community leaders, and all who are concerned about the health of our Jewish community, to take these kinds of factors into account in their analysis of trends and in their decision-making.