The West Island: A challenge and a privilege

Photo : Ryan Blau

By Andrés Spokoiny, Chief Executive Officer, Federation CJA

The West Island has one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in all of North America. But change in the West Island is not only quantitative, it is also qualitative.

Here, we see patterns of Jewish affiliation and social behaviour that are very different from the rest of Montreal. In a way, since its population is younger and more diverse, the West Island foretells transformations to come in the city proper.

Therefore, it is critical for us to look at the West Island as a place to grow and develop, and as a “laboratory” where we can test out ideas and concepts that can, ultimately, be applied to the entire city. Our success in dealing with the challenges of the West Island predicts our success in addressing the challenges of tomorrow’s Jewish community. Thus, we, at Federation, are adopting cutting edge concepts in community development that are future-oriented.

We have adopted the following principles:

  • To go where our constituents are: in today’s marketplace, products and services come to us; we don’t go to them. We have food delivered, we shop on-line from our homes, and we expect all the services we need to find us wherever we are. Why would we not expect this to apply equally to community life? In the West Island, we are pioneering bringing what we have to offer where people are. The idea of programs in public spaces, like Chanukah book readings at Chapters or Jewish food sampling at Loblaw’s, are examples. We can’t sit back and wait for people to find us. Our programs and services need to reach out to them.
  • Inclusiveness: the community on the West Island is very diverse, with a much higher rate of intermarriage, people of different ideological orientations, and places of origin. Inclusiveness is a value that needs to be applied all across the community. People need to feel welcome, knowing they can come to the community without being judged and that each and everyone has a place here.
  • Software over hardware: in past decades, computers were huge and costly, and programs slow and heavy. Today, the opposite is true. Computers are small and affordable, and software is nimble and powerful. I find this is a great metaphor for community life. In the past, we were focused on bricks and mortar (hardware). Now, we realize that programs and services (software) are more important than buildings. They are like a flash drive that can be connected anywhere. In the West Island, where Federation and its agencies don’t have a cumbersome infrastructure, this approach is enforced by necessity. I believe it is a positive development, because it allows us to focus on what really matters.
  • Outreach: our surveys show that the West Island is an area with a comparatively low degree of Jewish affiliation. In order to reach out to those who are less connected – a key element in our strategy – new approaches and ideas need to be tried.
  • Grassroots: in today’s world, people self-organize, forming and defining their own communities and groups. The Federation of the future does not need to provide services and programs in a top-down fashion. Rather, it needs to be a facilitator and catalyst for grassroots groups that want to accomplish something meaningful. This approach is being used extensively in the West Island, where peer groups are driving new programs and initiatives.
  • Identify gaps: part of the Federation’s role is to have a global vision of the needs and demands of the community. This is one of the key benefits of having a central communal organization. In the West Island, this is critical. As a community that is still growing and developing, it’s important for us to have a clear understanding of where the gaps in services and programs are. For example, we recognize a gap in the provision of high school level Jewish education, and the presence of agencies in many areas remains limited. Mobilizing the community to fill these gaps is of utmost importance to us all.
  • Bringing community together: in such a diverse community, we believe that one of our key roles is to provide the welcoming environment in which each and every Jew can feel at home.

These ideas are not just valid for the West Island, but for the Jewish community as a whole. It is critical that we, in Federation, remain attentive to changes in behaviours and attitudes throughout the community.

We have an amazing opportunity in the West Island. The opportunity to further strengthen a community and make it more modern, meaningful, and relevant for young families of diverse backgrounds and interests. It is a great challenge and a great privilege. We invite each and every West Island Jew to join us in this wonderful adventure. As the American journalist Horace Greeley once proclaimed, “Go West, young man, and grow with the land!”