Has Canada's Jewish population declined?
Yes, says one expert, although not so dramatically that the community should worry that it's shrinking.
No, says another authority, saying that, in fact, Canadian Jewry is likely growing.
The opposing views were sounded amid last week's release of numbers from the 2001 census on Canadians' ethnic origins.
Apart from showing how ethnically diverse Canada has become - with more than 18 per cent of Canadians born elsewhere and the proportion of visible minorities soaring - the census revealed a drop in the number of people who declared themselves Jewish by ethnicity or culture.
The census found 348,605 respondents across Canada who claimed to have Jewish ethnic origins - a drop of about one per cent over the 1996 mini-census and more than five per cent compared to the 1991 census.
"A decline of 3,000 people [over the 1996 census] is not very alarming, but it's still a decline," University of Toronto sociologist Robert Brym Brym, a long-time watcher of Jewish demographics, told The CJN. "There are no longer huge sources of immigration, and Jewish fertility rates are fairly stable."
Brym said that the community, despite these figures, is "stable."
He said the full story will be known in May, when Statistics Canada releases data on religion. The 1996 mini-census did not ask the religion question.
The 2001 census showed that "Jewish" was the 17th most popular choice overall of ethnic origin, sandwiched between Welsh and Russian. Respondents were allowed to choose up to four ethnic origins, including "Canadian."
A total of 186,475 Canadians listed Jewish as their sole ethnic origin (down five per cent from 1996), while 162,130 included Jewish among multiple responses (up five per cent over 1996).
Canadian was, in fact, the most common ethnic category across the country, followed by English, French and Scottish. Rounding out the top ten ethnicities were Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, Ukrainian and North American Indian.
Statistics Canada and Jewish officials have long regarded Judaism as both a religion and an ethnic or cultural marker. (No other faith or ethnicity falls into both categories.)
Community planners use the numbers to gauge many social trends, such as intermarriage, immigration, education, mobility and family status, and to help earmark communal spending. UIA Federations Canada (UIAFC) and federations across the country, are closely studying the 2001 census numbers for the National Jewish Demographic Study.
The 1991 census found that 318,070 Canadians said their religion was Jewish. But community planners haven't relied solely on that number, or on ethnicity figures.
They've used a blend of both, excluding only those who cited Jewish ethnic origins but who professed another religion.
The final tally - the official one - was 356,315 Jews in Canada as of 1991.
McGill University social work professor James Torczyner, who has analyzed census data for three decades, says the latest figures on ethnic background are skewed and unreliable.
"The community should not react in any way to these numbers. They're worth talking about only to caution the community not to believe it is declining when every other indicator says it is increasing."
The only way to get a true count is by combining the figures on ethnicity and religion, Torczyner said.
In fact, Torczyner is optimistic that the religion numbers will reflect an increase in the number of Jews in Canada "by at least 10 per cent [over 1991], primarily due to immigration and perhaps increased birthrates."
One reason the ethnic numbers are distorted, he explained, is that Jews "do not tend to identify with ethnicity, especially the elderly and immigrants. Some might say they
have Polish or Russian origins, but when it comes to being Jewish, they list it as a religion."
Charles Shahar, the researcher in charge of the National Jewish Demographic Study, said the slight drop in ethnic Jewish affiliation "may reflect changes in the way people approach the ethnicity question itself. For instance, Jews may be increasingly more inclined to say they are Canadian rather than Jewish when it comes to ethnicity."
Demographers say that identifying with Judaism as an ethnicity tends to occur among those who are less religiously observant. Thus, planners expect there will be higher levels of "ethnic" Jews in British Columbia than in Quebec, where "religious" Jews will show up in stronger numbers than ethnic ones.
UIAFC Executive Vice-President Maxyne Finkelstein, was also skeptical about the latest ethnicity figures. "Several informal indicators suggest that the Canadian Jewish community is in fact growing and flourishing: Jewish day school attendance has increased in a number of communities; all of the major Jewish campaigns have shown financial gains; and JIAS has seen a decade of continuous immigration," she said.
"We shouldn't jump to conclusionsŠ given that we are operating with incomplete information" until the release of the religion data, she said.
But Brym worries that the number of "religious" Jews may drop too.
"Jews by religion are Jews by ethnicity, but not all Jews by ethnicity are Jews by religion," he said. The ethnic numbers "are the best measure we have in the broadest sense."
With stable Jewish birthrates and "depleted" immigration from South Africa and the former Soviet Union, the community could be in for a shock in the spring if the religion numbers also show a decline, or at least not the increase that was expected, Brym said.
Figures for religion have traditionally been lower than those for ethnicity, he noted.
After the 1996 headcount, Brym sounded alarms at how many more "ethnic" Jews had listed multiple ethnic origins compared to the 1991 census.
At the time, he warned that the trend reflected increased assimilation, because more people were identifying themselves as Jewish but also as having several other origins.
Brym now says he's moderated that view.
"Assimilation is perhaps too strong a word. It does indicate an awareness of membership in other groups, and a greater degree of comfort and borrowing from other groups and cultures. Being Jewish is a much more complex reality than it used to be."
Jews in Canada "feel comfortable. We have low levels of anti-Semitism, a lot of mixing and low fertility. So what should we expect [but a decline]?"
Brym said one thing will be all but certain when the religion statistics are released in the spring: Muslims in Canada will far outnumber Jews, which he says is "of concern" because "a major source of anti-Semitism is in the Islamic community."
Despite the decline in Jewish numbers nationally, Ontario and Toronto continue to see increases.
The 2001 census figures show 196,260 Jews by ethnic origin in Ontario, up from the 191,000 who said the same thing in 1996, an increase of three percent.
The 1991 census showed 175,000 Jews in Ontario by religion.
Toronto and environs continue to be Canada's Jewish hub: The 2001 tally found 161,215 Jews by ethnicity in and around the city.
By comparison, the 1991 census found 156,000 Jews by ethnic origin in Toronto and 151,000 Jews by religion.
In Montreal, 80,390 cited Jewish ethnic origins in 2001, a drop of 11 per cent from 1996, when the figure was 89,905. Jews are now the city's 7th largest ethnic group.
In Vancouver, where 22,130 said they were ethnically Jewish in 2001, a very slight drop from 22,225 in 1996, Jews ranked as that city's 24th largest ethnic community.