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Startup congregation: Makom aims to enrich downtown Toronto Jewish life and culture

The immigrants that settled in early 20th century Toronto eventually fled downtown for the suburbs in various directions. The Jews were the only group to take a linear route, straight up Bathurst, from Kensington  Market.

"It's a good thing we didn't move our way up Yonge Street," says Rabbi Aaron Levy. "It would never end."

Levy is the founding director and rabbi of Makom, a community organization aiming to restore the once robust downtown Jewish culture. Rather than run a passive congregation, members are encouraged to participate through leadership. Their programming revolves around spirituality, creative arts, social environment activism, and questioning and learning. In addition to prayer services that focus on the singing part of Judaism, they host classes on gardening, drumming, beer and kombucha brewing, and meditation.

"One of the animating ideas behind Makom is that we're trying to build a new Jewish community that resonates with downtown Jews who otherwise are not finding Jewish life or Jewish community that speaks to them."

Makom, in Hebrew, means space or place. "We chose that name with the idea of being rooted in the spaces of downtown Toronto both in the present, as a community, and historically, because this is where the Jewish community began."

Every second Friday they meet at the Kiever synagogue, in Kensington Market, which was once the centre of Jewish life in Toronto. Another recent Shabbat (Sabbath) service took place in artist Rochelle Rubinstein's College Street studio.

"There was actually something very special about praying in an arts studio and being surrounded by contemporary art," says Levy.

For other programs they're meeting in members' living rooms, which is how the Kiever itself began.

In the immigrant slum of St. John's Ward, which stretched from Yonge to University, from College to Queen, Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe would hold religious gatherings in private homes called shtiebels.

As the Jewish pushcart peddlers earned enough to buy houses and sell their wares from the storefronts, Kensington market sprang up just west of St. John's. In 1917, the Kiever congregation purchased a single row house (on what is now Denison Square), where once stood the estate manor of Lieutenant-Colonel George Taylor Denison.

It took ten years for the congregation to buy the adjoining house, knock it down and erect the shul (common term for synagogue).

"A lot of the labour to build the shul was done by congregants themselves," says Levy.  "Because they didn't necessarily have the money to contribute."

(Full disclosure: My great-grandfather's name, Herschel Litvak, is engraved at the top of the Kiever. The blacksmith-turned-furniture salesman helped found the shul and, with his rich voice, led the singing as cantor.)

Before the Second World War, there were at least two-dozen synagogues in the neighbourhood. Afterward, the downtown Jews began their northern schlep.  Residents and shops changed identities, from Portuguese to Caribbean to Beatnik to Chinese. Recently it has begun, ever so slightly, to gentrify.

The Kiever, like the nearby Minsk synagogue on St. Andrew Street, sits empty most days, a congregation of ten to fifteen occasionally livening its halls with voice.

Popping into the Kiever one afternoon, I found president David Pinkus changing light bulbs in a darkened room.  Illuminated, the room only looks emptier. Two sculpted lions, eyes glowing with red LEDs, look down on a disused podium, up at vacant balcony seating. But it all shines.

"The folks who have been part of the schul for a long time have put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears," says Levy. He sees the Kiever through the prism of Jane Jacobs' statement, "new ideas must have old buildings."

It's less a conceptual philosophy than a financial one.

"She's actually writing about the economics of urban redevelopment and how start-ups generally don't have the funds to build their own structures in a very physical and fiscal sense."

Another founder, Andrea Toole, says she felt there was no infrastructure for Jewish life downtown. "For example, I had to go uptown to by shabbat candles." 

Her grandfather was a practicing mohel (circumciser) in Kensington. When he died, "He was the last Jew on the street." She hopes that Makom will be a beacon to Jews of her generation.

"I have this image of the movie Sister Act 2 when community members are drawn to the church by the music. I sometimes wonder if that could happen to us."

Currently, Makom is in the stage of scaling up from a fledgling startup community, run solely through volunteer power.

Without a full-time, full-service synagogue, meeting in members' homes creates new experiences. On Sukkot (a holiday for which an outdoor, makeshift hut, roofed with branches, is built) they held a sukkah crawl.
"Ne'ila (the concluding prayers before breaking the Yom Kippur fast) in someone's kitchen was different and interesting," says Toole. "And somewhat challenging, in that we were in a kitchen waiting until we could break the fast."

Strengthening the connection to the Kiever is key to Makom's progress.

"Because I think there is something special about being in this old space," says Levy. "Especially when we're doing things that are not necessarily seen as entirely traditional."

Makom prizes gender equality and also hopes to build a relationship with a local mosque. For a Tisha be-Av service (commemorating the destruction of the Temples of Jerusalem), artist Rubinstein had members paint their interpretation of faith, then rip them up. When the service moved to another room, she reorganized the shreds into a collage.

"Doing painting programs for a Jewish holiday is not your normative Jewish religious experience," says Levy. "But being able to do that in a historic Jewish building I think really conveys a sense of connectedness to downtown Jewish history and community."

Corey Mintz writes a column for the Toronto Star called Fed, in which he cooks for people in his home.  And a blog called Porkosity.

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