Most of Winnipeg's Jewish community can trace its ancestry to Russia and to grandparents and great-grandparents who immigrated to Canada in the early part of the 20th century.
Since then, there have been two other major influxes of Russian-born Jewish immigrants into the city. The first occurred in the early 1970s when, during a period of détente with the Western world, the Soviet Union allowed a significant number of Jews to emigrate for the first time in decades. The second is occurring now, as dozens of Russian families are settling in Winnipeg, most of them after spending several years living in Israel.
In the last five years, about 2,000 Russian-Israeli immigrants have chosen Winnipeg as their new home. For many of them, their reason for leaving Israel is related to security. Many Russians in Israel live in outlying cities such as Sderot and Ashdod which, due to their proximity to Gaza, bear the brunt of rocket attacks from Hamas.
The majority of those who have come to Winnipeg have done so with the assistance of the organized Jewish community, under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg. In a program that is unique to North America, the federation works collaboratively with the provincial government, helping to pre-screen applicants for the Manitoba Nominee Strategic Recruitment Initiative. This co-operative effort benefits both the province and the Jewish community, which has been trying to grow its numbers for several years.
Through this program, potential Jewish immigrants are invited to send a query letter to the federation expressing their interest in moving to Canada and describing their family situation, post-secondary education and work experience. Assuming they meet the criteria outlined by the nominee program, they are then invited to come to the city on an exploratory visit.
During this visit, volunteers show them around the city, familiarize them with the community and its amenities and set up meetings for them with Manitoba Immigration, prospective employers and recent satisfied immigrants. Once the decision to move to Winnipeg is confirmed, community agencies provide assistance arranging documentation, housing and English-language classes.
Yosef Perlman is one of the volunteers who often meet with potential immigrants. Israeli born and raised, he moved to Canada four years ago and knows firsthand what kind of questions the prospective immigrants will have and what kinds of challenges they are likely to confront.
"I know how hard it is when you first come," says the 44-year-old airport security worker who jokes about coming from "plus 40 weather to minus 40 weather."
In addition to assisting during exploratory visits, Perlman is also active within the Israeli-Russian community on a day-to-day basis, helping those who settle in Winnipeg feel at home. About once every two months, he helps organize a Manitoba-style social for Russian and Israeli adults. He also makes sure all newcomers are aware of the community supports available to them and of the existence of two helpful Russian language websites, winnipeg.ru and russianmanitoba.ca.
Russian-born Elena Livni relies on these websites, as well as on the Russian newspaper Perspectiva, for keeping her informed about events in the Jewish and general communities and for keeping her connected to those from similar backgrounds. Like many of her fellow Israeli immigrants, the 39-year-old learned about Winnipeg's unique immigration initiative mainly from the Internet. Less than a year after her exploratory visit to the city in the fall of 2006, she moved to Winnipeg with her husband and two young children.
"I didn't know a lot about Canada," Livni says, "but a friend told me about the Jewish community support in Winnipeg and so I went on the Internet, wrote them a letter and the Jewish community invited me to come and visit."
An accountant by profession, Livni now works in real estate. Many of her clients are Russian-Israelis who, much more so than long-time Jewish community members, are dispersed in all areas of the city, including the North End, the former hub of Jewish life in Winnipeg.
For many of these newcomers, Canada represents a second immigration and a second opportunity. As a result, they are highly motivated to succeed and to truly make a place for themselves in Winnipeg and in Winnipeg's Jewish community.
"You have to make a decision about what you want and do it for yourself and for your kids," Livni says candidly. "If you really want something, you overcome the difficulties and go ahead. We did it already once, so we know that it can be done."