West Island families embrace Jewish life

Moshe and Haggit Gabbay enjoy edible sukkot made out of graham crackers, pretzels and chocolate at the recent West Island Jewish Family Learning Centre’s (WIJFLC) Connect in the Sukkah holiday celebration.

“People reach a point in their lives where, for whatever reason, they want to find their identities, to find themselves. We try to expose people to something Jewish and it’s those little things that spark interest or inspire people to find out more. You never know where it’s going to lead. We give people the tools so that those who are unaffiliated feel a bit Jewish and get something out of it for themselves,” said Cheryl Bender, Coordinator of the West Island Jewish Family Learning Centre (WIJFLC) in describing its mission. “Judaism is a rich religion with so many secular lessons on how to live your life, how to raise your children, how to be moral. We can adapt these values, these thoughts to our everyday lives. Everyone strives to be moral and have values and instill them in their children.”

The WIJFLC just launched its fourth year this past September and it’s obvious that it has succeeded in attracting an untapped market of the Jewish community in the West Island. It began as a pilot project reaching out to families in Jewish daycares and through grassroots outreach and word of mouth, there are now over 800 people who come out to the various events and activities organized by the WIJFLC, an initiative of GEN J and the West Island Federation CJA.

“When we launched, we were targeting families with very young children, in garderies or daycares. But because of the nature of the program, it started drawing many other people and we discovered that there were so many young adults who were interested in Jewish learning in a non-threatening environment,” Maia Cooper, Director of Federation CJA West Island, explained. “As a result, we started to tweak the program and to adapt to people with kids as old as elementary school-aged.”

This is one example of how the WIJFLC pays special attention to what people want and need to make the events more accessible. It has made other adjustments by listening to the community, as well, including adding babysitting service at some activities; listing the food on the invitation so families can know if their children will eat; and holding events on nights which worked best for this niche group. Every event is subsidized but has a small charge to cover some costs, and no one will be turned away because they cannot afford it.

“This is a place for everyone to come together. It is all-inclusive, no matter what your background is. People have to feel comfortable and connected. People feel comfortable coming here because they know they are not being judged,” Bender said. “We have no ulterior motive. Every event has Jewish content but it is not shoved down your throat. It’s meant to spark interest.”

The key is to take an event on Jewish learning and make it interesting for people to come to. As examples, the WIJFLC held a spa night, a family picnic and a sushi making course. Last year, they held a murder mystery activity and related it to the Jewish commandment of Thou shalt not kill, providing a booklet with deeper insights on the value of human life.

“There are old and new faces at every single event. We make it easy for them, we make it accessible and we show people how they can easily incorporate a bit of Judaism into their lives,” said Bender. “We pay attention to the smallest detail because that’s what people notice. If you take the time to really set it up, people notice that and really connect to it. Now it’s not just an event, it’s an experience. And that’s what we want – we want them to have an experience, a Jewish experience.”

For Cooper, a significant amount of the success of the WIJFLC can be attributed also to the connections people make with one another when they come to an event. They relate to the other people there and that builds something exciting and inspiring, as well.

“The key to this program is the social aspect. We are bringing people together with other families just like them. Relationships and friendships are being built, between the parents and between the children,” she said. “We are tapping into a new network of young Jewish families who have never previously been involved. It’s bringing people together, and bringing community together, which is our ultimate goal in the West Island.”

For more information on the West Island Jewish Family Learning Centre and upcoming events, please contact Cheryl Bender at cheryl@genj.ca or call 514-624-5005.

We welcome your feedback and invite your comments.

Leave a comment

Reader comments are the opinion of the comment writer, not Federation CJA

Comments that make false or unsubstantiated allegations will not be published, nor will comments that contain defamatory, inaccurate, rude, distasteful, disrespectful, abusive, vulgar, hateful, harassing, obscene, profane, sexually oriented or threatening language.

Comments that use hearsay or are based on reports where the supposed fact or quote is not a matter of public knowledge also may not be permitted.

Federation CJA reserves the right to withhold from publication comments that are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted. Comments that include personal attacks on other people taking part in this website and/or are invasive of another's privacy may also be withheld from publication.

Spelling and grammatical mistakes will not be corrected.