Immigrants find haven in Montreal from turmoil and strife

Photo: Jonathan Levine (JFNA)

Photo: Jonathan Levine (JFNA)

“I came to Montreal with nothing. I only felt safe and at home when I realized there was an entire community prepared to help me. When I asked why they cared, I was told, ‘Because Jews don’t abandon Jews.’” This is how Hannah, 31, described her introduction to Montreal’s Jewish community. She was frightened when she arrived on her own, not really knowing what to expect. Under the umbrella of Federation CJA, she discovered all the services she needed to get her life on track. She got help finding her first apartment, which was in a Jewish area and close to a synagogue. She enrolled in language courses to improve her English and French. Even before they were completed, she succeeded in getting a job. Thanks to our Jewish community, she is realizing all the dreams she had when she emigrated.

Though there has been a Jewish community in Montreal for hundreds of years, the first great population growth came in the early 1900s with the arrival of Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe. In 1901, there were a little more than 7,500 Jews in Quebec; by 1908, that number had soared to 30,000. The number doubled by 1931. It is, thus, fair to say that ours is a community of immigrants. Even today, more than 30% of Montreal’s Jewish population are immigrants.

Because of its roots, the community has always been sensitive to the needs of newcomers, and set up the first Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS), now a part of Agence Ometz, in 1920. Since then, generations of immigrants have been welcomed and received help with getting their new lives established.

Often, Jewish immigration has been triggered by anti-Semitism or other political tensions. In the years immediately following World War II, between 1947 and 1952, more than 11,000 Jews came to Canada, mostly from Europe, with 40% of them settling in Montreal. In the mid-1950s, the first wave of Sephardic Jews arrived from North Africa, drawn to Quebec because most spoke French.

Twenty years ago, Combined Jewish Appeal supported Operation Exodus to help thousands of Jews, at long last, to emigrate from the Soviet Union, where they were made to suffer for their faith. This effort was a demonstration of global Jewish kinship, as the community selflessly tried to pressure the Soviet government to grant freedom to its Jewish citizens.

Today, we help resettle Jews, whether from North Africa, Latin America, Ethiopia, or the former East Bloc, who have been persecuted or displaced by wars, terror, or natural disasters. And we stand ready to help, no matter where the next crisis may strike.

For 2010-2011, Federation CJA allocated close to $4.5 to Agence Ometz, which among its other human services, supports new immigrants to Montreal.