The Russians are coming

Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Walk into the Yummy Deli on Dutch Village Road, and products with Russian labels surround you: pasta, tinned beef, baked goods, and a freezer filled almost entirely with perogies.

A few years ago, a shop catering to the tastes of those with roots in Russia and Ukraine would have made little sense in Halifax. But in the last five years, more than 300 Russian-speaking Jews have immigrated to the city with several dozen more on the way. The story of how they came to be here offers an intriguing look at how one community has tackled its demographic challenges and how those successes are now in jeopardy thanks to changes in immigration policy.

“I’ve been in this job 24 years, and I’ve seen how many of my friends’ kids left for Toronto and never came back,” says Jon Goldberg, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council. We’re in the AJC boardroom, overlooking Spring Garden Road, a basket of yarmulkes with a Canadian flag stuck in it on a table by the window. “I saw that the community looked older and older, and you start to wonder what’s going to happen. The demographic prognostication is not good.”

The number of Jews in Halifax (about 1,800) has more or less held steady for decades. (And the city’s Jewish community dates back to 1752). But it’s an aging group, and without an influx of young families, the community will continue to shrink relative to the general population.

A welcome basket from the AJC. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Photo: Philip Moscovitch

So, starting in the mid-2000s, Goldberg and the AJC set out to attract an influx of young families, using a provincial immigration program called the Community-Identified Stream. It allowed speedier entry for immigrants who met certain criteria, including support from a local community that would help them integrate.

In the decade after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, more than a million Russian Jews emigrated to Israel. Not all of them were happy, and many started to look for opportunities elsewhere. Goldberg hit on the idea of bringing some of these Russians to Halifax (there are about 15,000 of them in Toronto), although he was aware of the contradiction in a Zionist organization trying to get Jews to leave Israel. “I went to my board and said look, these people are going to immigration consultants, and they’re leaving Israel whether we like it or not,” Goldberg says. “Why don’t we get them to go to Halifax? So my board said on one condition. We can handle it in our minds if they are from the former Soviet Union, or their parents are, but no native-born Israelis.”

The ideal applicants would have good job prospects, children, an active Jewish life, and be interested in integrating into the community. As Goldberg puts it, “I’m not in the immigration business; I’m in the Jew business.”

Slava Svidler and his family fit the bill perfectly. They were among the first of the Russian Jews to arrive in Halifax, in 2009. Svidler, his wife, and the oldest of their two children were all born in Russia, and lived in Israel for 13 years. Now they call Lower Sackville home.

“We didn’t want to go to Toronto or Montreal, because they are big cities. But Halifax is a nice place,” says Svidler. Like many other Russian-speaking Jews, he did not thrive in the heat of Israel, and enjoys the colder climate.

His biggest challenge was finding work. When he couldn’t get a job as a food technologist, the 44-year-old retrained as a payroll manager. But when that didn’t pan out either, he turned to the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development (CEED) for help in starting About Care, an in-home health-care company.

The support of the AJC was one of the keys to choosing Halifax. “We came here because we got support from the Jewish community” Svidler says. “We identify as Jews and would like to keep our identity.”

While Jewish identity is key for the AJC, they don’t target people who are especially devout, because they are unlikely to stay. (The organization says it boasts a retention rate of about 80 per cent.)

“We don’t look at people who are Orthodox,” says Edna LeVine, the AJC’s director of community engagement. “They ask, ‘How many kosher butchers are there? How many Jewish bakeries? How many Jewish community centres?’ and our answers are ‘none, none, none.’ We are a very small community, so we can’t offer the same level of services. We don’t have a day school or a range of synagogues. People have to realize that they are helping to grow the community.”

Svidler’s son Peter is a first-year engineering student at Saint Mary’s University. He believes leaving Israel has actually helped strengthen his Jewish identity.

“Not everyone here is Jewish so you develop a sense of community and have an attachment to those people,” he says. “There’s this sense among the Canadian and more established families that many of the more recent newcomers are not doing as much to integrate into our community. But I’d say many of the families I know have made efforts to integrate.”

It’s been a learning experience for the AJC, too. “We really didn’t know anything about settlement,” LeVine says. “For example, when the first group came, I didn’t realize how important it was to go to the airport and pick them up. I didn’t realize I should have a welcome basket for them. These are the little things you do to have a welcoming community.”

Neli Shpoker, 33, came to Halifax with her husband and two children in 2011. She was born in Ukraine, and moved to Israel with her family when she was just eight.

“When the program started, the AJC didn’t know what to expect and what the needs will be,” Shpoker says. “But now they understand more about looking for ways to offer immigrants the help they need. She helps out by contacting families who will be coming here, sharing information on subjects like schools and access to daycare.”

But living here hasn’t been easy.

Like Svidler, Shpoker had a hard time finding employment. At one point she even left to find work in Toronto, but her husband convinced her to give Halifax another shot. So Shpoker, who lives in Hammonds Plains, got a job part-time at the AJC while studying to be a paralegal. Last month, she graduated with honours, and is now doing a placement at law firm McInnes Cooper.

“If Nova Scotia wants to increase the number of immigrants, they have to look at what they can offer them,” she says. “Nova Scotians are pretty old-fashioned with respect to hiring an immigrant over a Canadian. ”

Shpoker also found that some members of the local Jewish community didn’t understand how time-consuming finding work and settling in a new country is. Some expected too much from the newcomers in terms of their participation in synagogue activities and community life.

ISANS (Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia) has worked closely with the AJC, offering pre-settlement services for newcomers and helping them transition to life in Nova Scotia when they arrive.

“If we want to increase immigration, it’s initiatives like this that we’re going to need,” says executive director Gerry Mills. “We can’t just go out all over the world and say Nova Scotia is open for business. We need to be more strategic than that.”

So a small community with a long history in Halifax works hard to increase its numbers, and succeeds in retaining a high percentage of immigrants.

And then the rules change.

In February 2014, the provincial government eliminated the Community-Identified Stream of the nominee program. “That is on the advice of the federal government,” Nova Scotia immigration minister Lena Diab told Halifax Magazine at the time. “They wanted provincial governments to eliminate community-identified streams.”

At first, Goldberg and LeVine were optimistic their program would survive. But the current replacement, a pilot program called Express Entry, doesn’t give any weight to support from community groups such as the AJC.

“It’s sad and disappointing for us, because we’ve had a lot of success,” LeVine says. “It’s been very beneficial—not only for our community, but also to be able to contribute to the growth of Halifax… At this time we are at a stand-still.”

Because Express Entry is a pilot, LeVine hopes the province will change the rules, allowing them to resume their efforts again.

But whatever happens, newcomers have already changed the face of the Jewish community. Goldberg says you can see the difference at holiday celebrations, where the number of children has increased dramatically.

“When we have a program and celebrate the Jewish holidays, 50 to 70 percent of the people there are newcomers, he says. I would say that well over half the children in the Jewish community are newcomer children.”

As I get ready to leave the AJC office, a young woman walks in to pay for her child’s attendance at the Jewish summer camp the organization runs.

Goldberg immediately goes over to greet her.  “How are you? Are you working? Is your husband working?”

Yes, she says. They both have jobs now.

“Mazel Tov!” he exclaims. 

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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