If you build it, will they come?

This is the essential question that the Jewish community of Toronto is asking and certainly the one that they wanted me to answer during my recent visit. Like the joke that is going around in Israel (the “crane” is the national bird), the Jewish Federation of Toronto is building and rebuilding throughout the community. It seems that Toronto has become the Canadian city. As a result, young people are flocking there, along with several immigrant communities, such as Israelis and those from the FSU. Thus, this population increase is leading Toronto to believe that it is growing and free of the challenges that are facing most other North American Jewish communities.

And this is the right time to be asking the question, “If you build it, will they come?” The community is investing millions of dollars in the building and rebuilding of its community campuses. At the same time, they are eager to learn how to reach the various elusive populations such as those who are in their 20s and 30s, the largest segment that is notoriously absent from the organized Jewish community.

So we talked about many things, including the need for communities to leave behind the question of the previous generation (How to be Jewish) for the question that each organization and institution has to ask (Why be Jewish?). More specifically, this question has to be asked within the context of the organized community—why be Jewish in the context of this institution? In other words, why should I participate in this synagogue or give to your federation? How will it improve my life? How will it answer the big questions that I am asking?

Sure, I taught them some basic techniques of outreach. And I reviewed some of our signature programs and the theoretical constructs on which they are based. But the bottom line questions remain. If they are prepared to answer them—and we at JOI are certainly poised to help them do so—then when the community builds it, they will indeed come.

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