Jewish on your own terms

The onus is on the community to provide a welcoming and engaging environment for all different kinds of Jews.

Today, Sholom Tabak is a member of the Board of Directors of Hillel and is actively involved at Federation CJA West Island. He was on the Board of Directors of Camp B’nai Brith and graduated from Federation CJA’s Leadership Development program.

But there was a time when Tabak disassociated himself from organized religion. Raised in an observant Jewish home in Montreal and then New York, Tabak returned to Montreal on his own and purposefully distanced himself from the Jewish community.

“There was a lot of pressure in New York. There was no other option and I was part of it for the wrong reasons. When I came back to Montreal, I had a clean slate. It was my opportunity to break away,” he said.

Over 70%

In the Imagine 2020 survey sent out to the whole community, over 70% of responders indicated that they feel connected to community life.

“When I had my first child, I realized that I wanted my kids to know their background, history and traditions. Not from a religious point of view, but culturally,” Tabak said, explaining that he was very wary and cautious about getting involved in the organized Jewish community of Montreal after his experiences. “I did it very slowly but surely. I went to one event and then I brought my kids to another event. I wanted to make sure they were comfortable.”

According to Dean Mendel and Jonathan Amiel, members of the Imagine 2020 Implementation Committee, Tabak is not alone in his feelings of wanting to get involved but feeling overly pressured or unwelcomed.

“The research told us that even those who don’t participate in organized Jewish events or programs feel Jewish and want to be more connected. My experience is that people desperately want it. They are only doing other things because we haven’t asked or because we haven’t approached them in a meaningful or personalized way,” Mendel said.

Mendel and Amiel are overseeing a work group developing practical methods to make the community more inclusive and welcoming. Through Federation CJA’s re-visioning process, Imagine 2020, a strategic plan was drafted to position Montreal as the city with the highest quality of Jewish life in North America. One of the key components is to encourage every Jew, irrespective of ideology, lifestyle choices, geography and ethnic background to find a Jewish option for him or herself.

A Welcoming Culture committee is developing practical methods to make the community more inclusive and welcoming.

“We are creating a lot of one-off’s, where we are meeting people that are less engaged but we fall short of creating longer-term engagement opportunities,” Mendel said. “What we have realized is that people are looking for points of entry where they can come in or out of Jewish experiences on their own terms. The only way that the organized Jewish community is going to create deeper connections is to be as welcoming as possible.”

As part of this initiative, a diverse Welcoming Culture committee has been created and is studying ways to establish these deeper connections, as well as assessing the marketing and messaging of Federation CJA and its agencies. The committee is looking at everything from physical spaces, imagery and advertising to approaches of the programs themselves. A how-to of best practices for all Jewish organizations will be implemented and will include guidelines on such things as how to break down language barriers and how to ensure that boards and committees have representation from a cross-section of the community. A pilot project to have a central hub with information and resources for Jewish families is being considered and will help connect people to the programs and services that are best suited for them.

“Our research identified specific populations that feel underserved and less connected to the organized community. There is a sense amongst members of these groups that the community has less to offer them or that they have been marginalized by the more established community,” said Amiel, explaining that these groups are the initial priority for the committee. “As we learn how to better integrate these groups currently on the periphery, we not only gain strength in numbers, but the community benefits from the energy and insights they are able to bring. The long-term sustainability of any community depends greatly on its ability to establish, cultivate and strengthen connections with disparate individuals, families and micro-groups. The onus is on the community to provide a welcoming and engaging environment for all different kinds of Jews.”

For Tabak, that was exactly what made the difference for him and his family’s involvement.

“The most important thing for me and my family was to feel welcome. There is no pressure here – the community provides an environment where you can come when you can and do what you’re comfortable with,” he said. “Their overall approach is for you to find your place and your connection. Through my involvement with Hillel, for example, it gave me the opportunity to be part of something that will move the community forward for years to come.”

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