Over a year after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, Jewish community members in Atlantic Canada still check in on their neighbours to make sure needs are being met, and personal connections are being made.
President of the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC), Naomi Rosenfeld, told me she connected an isolated senior to a younger volunteer last year, and heard the volunteer is still visiting the senior and dropping off dinners.
“It’s an amazing community, and I knew that before coming, but I don’t think I realized how incredible it was until I was actually here on the ground working. They’re so warm, so welcoming, creative, the most amazing volunteers you will ever meet, and the most generous people, both with philanthropy but also with time and with effort,” Rosenfeld described to me on our phone interview
Rosenfeld became president of the council five years ago, after working as the Hillel director in Halifax. Growing up in Toronto, and then pursuing graduate school in Boston, she was more used to an expansive Jewish network in large urban centres. The smaller Jewish population in Halifax, of around 1,500 people, (it is the largest Jewish community east of Montreal) was one Rosenfeld was new too. However, a smaller population doesn’t translate to a less culturally rich one.
She recalled, a professor during her time in graduate school looked into the relationship between Jewish community size and Jewish connection, and found the smaller the Jewish community the more likely you are to see a stronger Jewish identity.
“Without a doubt, anecdotally, I’ve seen that to be true here.”
That’s not to say it’s easy being Jewish in a smaller community. As Rosenfeld said, keeping kosher is difficult, and being part of a reduced minority “has its challenges,” but it’s ultimately rewarding to “work and meet the people here.”
“There are Jewish communities here, and we have institutions that we’re so proud of that have been around a long time. We’re proud of our history, we’re proud of our heritage.”
The AJC has been in Atlantic Canada since 1975, acting as the organized Jewish community’s representative and program or service provider for non-religious matters. With a small staff and budget, the council relies on the support of over 100 volunteers across the region.
“I cannot take credit for the amazing work of this organization. There is an amazing team of employees who work so hard to make everything that the organization does happen and to make sure it’s done well,” Rosenfeld said.
The work being done by the council is immense, ensuring multiple facets of Jewish life remain upheld and supported in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland & Labrador.
There is a concerted effort to bring culture to the forefront with Jewish art, the annual Atlantic Jewish Film Festival, as well as ensuring Holocaust education is being provided.
For youth, there’s a wide array of programming being offered from PJ Library’s free monthly books for newborns to 12-year-olds, Camp Kadimah which was established in 1943 and brings together youth from all over Canada, and Jewish Outreach Leadership Training (JOLT) program for young adults. In addition, there are various Israel programming and partnership services.
And for the first time, AJC recently hired a social worker as part of their Jewish Family Services.
“The pandemic was a big impetus to hiring our first social worker, but there were needs in our community and COVID-19 shed light on them,” Rosenfeld added.
While the AJC primarily assists with non-religious matters—as the synagogues in each region provide religious services—Rosenfeld emphasized that “we’re here to aid Jews when they need help, so we’re not going to turn anyone away.”
For example, Rosenfeld has been getting a wave of calls from residents who need help performing a bris. “Obviously we’re going to help people if they need help.”
According to a 2011 survey cited by the Jewish Federations of Canada, there are approximately 4,000 Jews in Atlantic Canada. It is a small percentage compared to Statistic Canada’s 2019 estimation that the Jewish population is between 270,000 and 298,000 in the country. However, as we know, size is of little importance when it comes to evaluating a rich and vibrant community. But to the perception of others, the population can often be glanced over or not fully seen.
“The number one misconception is people don’t even know there’s Jewish communities here. When we think of Jewish communities across Canada, the ones in Atlantic Canada aren’t the places that come out,” Rosenfeld explained to me.
Through AJC’s decades-long work, carving out a space in Canada’s Jewish community is being done one program, and one community connection, at a time.