At the beginning of the 1990s, Montreal's historic Jewish community was in big trouble. Quebec's political turmoil, combined with an aging population, was taking its toll on what was once the most thriving Jewish population in the country. Worse, the community's best and brightest youth were deserting in droves, heading for happier environs like Toronto, Boston -- anywhere but Quebec.
Rather than give up, and witness the withering away of a community that had given Canada Leonard Cohen, A. M. Klein, Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton, Pauline Donalda, Phyllis Lambert and Alexander Brott, the Jews decided to fight back. Backed by Federation CJA, Montreal's central address of Jewish philanthropy and community services, ProMontreal was created in 1992.
Under its auspices, young Jews now had Contact ProMontreal, a graduate-placement service; the Jewish Chamber of Commerce, a networking headquarters for young professionals; ProMontreal Entrepreneurs, a resource centre for young people in start-up businesses, and the PME Fund, which provides them capital; FederationNext, which encourages community involvement for 18-to-25-year-olds; and YAD, the Federation's Young Adult Division, which builds leadership skills among those aged 25 to 40.
Tying it all together was an impressive PR organ called In Montreal, a bimonthly newspaper that has taken on a life all its own. Founded in March, 1993, the newspaper was initially the subject of much media hoopla, thanks to the vision of its founding editor-in-chief, businessman Stanley Plotnick.
Plotnick was destined to become Federation CJA's proactive president in the late 1990s, but In Montreal can still be considered one of his most important legacies: Its effect on the city's Jewish youth has been that profound. The publication has become so admired that several other Jewish communities have tried to emulate it, resulting in the creation of In T.O. and In South Africa, among others.
Indeed, according to Penni Kolb, director of ProMontreal, as well as de facto managing editor of In Montreal, "ProMontreal has helped over 5,000 young adults find jobs."
If ProMontreal is the engine that seems to have stemmed the exodus of Montreal's Jewish youth, In Montreal is the heart. About 25,000 copies are distributed inside the Canadian Jewish News and at various dropoff points around town. Still, volunteer editor-in-chief David Lisbona, 31, admits it isn't always easy keeping In Montreal going.
Thanks to a concerted effort to increase advertising and sponsorships, he says "We're on semi-solid financial footing now, but it's a treadmill. We operate it as a business and, to that end, our columns are sponsored by local businesses. I call it an affirmation through financial support, a show of corporate hands that they believe in our city and our Jewish community." So far, the list of sponsors has included Spiegel Sohmer, the firm that employs Lisbona, STS Systems, KPMG, PYA, Schlesinger Newman Goldman, Richter, U.N.I. Training, Merrill Lynch and RBC Dominion Securities.
Lisbona is a firecracker, a tax lawyer with an MBA, who has been an activist almost all his life. He has spent years collecting used equipment for amateur hockey in Israel, and has taught hockey to Israelis at the Canada Centre in Metulla, bordering Lebanon.
This is but a hobby; his real passion has been a communal food drive he helped start seven years ago, to benefit Le Mercaz, an organization that assists those living below the poverty line. In fact, it is his communal spirit and business acumen that has benefited Lisbona most as an editor. He likes to do things that have never been done before. "A large part of our success is that we are trendy, funky and colourful," says Lisbona. "Hey, being a tax lawyer is as funky as you can get."
The magazine is roughly 30-per-cent French, 70-per-cent English, reflecting readership. Each issue begins with a theme, such as young Jewish athletes in the city. Lisbona writes a candid editorial on an issue of his choosing. And there are lively columns, blurbs, profiles and the like. Despite the fact that you cannot escape politics in Quebec, Lisbona points out that the newspaper is "basically apolitical. It's light and humorous. That is its greatest appeal, I think."
Karyn Saragossi, 27 and a franchise consultant for the Mad Science Group, has been reading it from the start. "It shows readers that there are plenty of opportunities for young people in Montreal, at least now," she says. "There was a grey period, when we were graduating and everyone was asking, 'Should we stay?' In Montreal helps affirm that the answer to that question is, 'Yes.' It also illustrates the variety in our community. . . . You learn that our community is interesting, diverse and worth hanging onto."
Her favourite segments? "There is a social column, In and Around Town. And two new columns, Engaged and In Diapers, keep you abreast of what's happening to the people you grew up with, and also shows they are happy here."
While Saragossi has never lived outside the city, another young Montrealer, Tony Croll, has. Now 31, he left Montreal after graduating, and spent several years in the U.K. before heading to Toronto in 1997 for a job in corporate consulting. Now Croll is back, lured by another career opportunity, this time with Goodrich Capital Canada, as a mergers-and-acquisitions specialist.
Croll says he has never found a Jewish community quite like the one Montreal has. "ProMontreal is helping preserve it by keeping people here, and has also convinced many people to return. There are far fewer reasons to leave than before, and In Montreal does an excellent job showing why our community is so special."