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A Shtetl Grows in Toronto: Jewish Federation Makes Own City

June 18, 2004
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Toronto’s Jewish federation has launched a building project so large that one official says it will create a Jewish mini-city. Budgeted at more than $180 million, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Tomorrow campaign, billed as the largest non-profit community development project in Canadian history, involves the construction of a massive new Jewish complex north of the city, as well as dramatic infrastructure upgrades to two major Jewish sites in the city center and the historic downtown core.

“We began planning for this in 1999 when we realized that the infrastructure of our Jewish community hadn’t kept pace with our growth,” said the federation’s president, Ted Sokolsky.

The Jewish population in the Toronto area has approximately doubled over the last two generations.

“Our institutions were built for a community of 90,000, and here we were with a community approaching 200,000,” Sokolsky said.

The community has gro! wn by leaps and bounds in recent decades, with the arrival of tens of thousands of Israelis and Jews from Montreal and the former Soviet Union.

Continuing a demographic shift that began about 75 years ago, when downtown Jews began moving to the suburbs, Toronto Jews are still moving northward along the historic Bathurst Street corridor and its comforting array of bagel shops, synagogues, kosher butchers, small synagogues and delicatessens.

“The community seems to have a genetic coding that says, ‘Locate near Bathurst Street,’ ” said Patricia Tolkin Eppel, the federation’s director of planning for the York Region, north of the city.

The federation plans to build a huge Jewish campus called City North on a 50-acre tract of land it has purchased along Bathurst Street.

The campus will include a complex of service agencies, a health-and-fitness pavilion, conference facilities, four elementary schools and a high school in an environment of vast public gardens, cou! rtyards and streets.

Federation planners hope the high density of Jewish organizations in the complex will generate the sort of liveliness and energy that was common in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, Sokolsky said.

The 1,200-student branch of the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto high school is expected to be one of the first institutions to open on the site, in 2006.

An ambulatory clinic of the large downtown Mount Sinai hospital also is planned, as is a day-care center for adults with dementia.

“We’ll have summer schools, summer camps, day care, places to eat and all sorts of other facilities,” Eppel said. “This is so diverse that it’s truly like a Jewish city.”

Communal officials, who already have gathered 40 percent of the total needed, expect to raise the entire amount through private donations.

“We don’t have the luxury of turning to government to build our institutions, centers and schools, so we have to do it on our own, as we have done for generations,” Sokolsky said.

A new style of philanthropy is helpin! g make the Tomorrow campaign a reality, and many professionals are “doing more than opening their checkbooks — they’re also rolling up their sleeves,” Sokolsky said.

Besides encouraging new levels of volunteerism, federation officials say they are seeking to “raise the bar” on Jewish giving. Sokolsky says they are preparing to announce several major gifts in the coming months.

York Region is a political entity above Toronto’s northern boundary that includes the cities of Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Thornhill and Newmarket.

It is home to 60,000 Jews, mostly young families. Eppel called it “one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world.”

Rabbi Ezriel Sitzer, who recently opened a Jewish learning center in a strip plaza near the northern campus site, told JTA that an adjacent 5,000-home development called Thornhill Woods “is about halfway built and about 90 percent Jewish.”

“This is about the fastest-growing Jewish area in Canada,” Sitzer said. “Yo! u’d be hard-pressed to find a house without a mezuzah.”

Reform con gregation Temple Kol Ami is one of numerous groups planning to build a synagogue in the area.

While federation planners are focusing much of their efforts in the York Region, they also are planning extensive upgrades of Jewish infrastructure within Toronto proper.

The second phase of the Tomorrow campaign calls for a major redevelopment of the existing Bathurst Jewish Community Center near the demographic center of the community.

The central campus will feature eight “centers of excellence” that focus on arts, culture, history, heritage, and health and fitness. The blueprints call for a central atrium, a new theater, art gallery, health club, library and other facilities in a ravine setting that will be landscaped with a reflecting pool, amphitheater, tennis courts and a baseball diamond.

A new Center for Collective Memory and Understanding will replace the existing Holocaust center. A Jewish military archive and a museum of Toronto Jewish history also are und! er discussion.

Construction is due to start in 2007.

Another phase of the project, centered in the historic Spadina district, near where the Jewish community took root more than a century ago, already is largely completed.

The focal point of a downtown Jewish community that presently stands at about 21,000 people, the Miles Nadal JCC recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation. Several blocks away, the gleaming new Wolfond Center for Jewish Campus Life recently opened its doors on the University of Toronto campus.

Mayors, civic officials and government ministers have hailed the Tomorrow campaign as a welcome venture that will add vibrancy to Toronto’s social, economic and cultural life.

The federation’s three campuses have been compared to other major civic projects like the massive renovations currently under way at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, and the building of the city’s first Opera House.

“Through the Tomorrow ! campaign, we believe we’re giving something back to the city,” said Ho ward English, the federation’s director of communications. “This is our contribution to the greater Toronto area.”

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