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Around the Jewish World Students at Montreal Shul Enjoy a Rocking, Swinging Time

February 10, 2003
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Imagine entering a small apartment where the crowd is so thick that people stand on the stairways and overflow into the bedrooms on the second floor.

You may not know anyone there, but you’re far from lonely.

It’s Friday night and the place is rocking. The dynamism of the shul’s spiritual leader, Leibish Hundert, has the men swaying and singing passionately, while the women dance horas on the other side of the room divider.

It’s unlike anything most Jewish students in Montreal have ever experienced.

And once the service is finished, the best is yet to come — at least if you’re an aficionado of Yiddish cooking: Soup, chicken and even a savory old-fashioned cholent are on the menu.

Welcome to the “Ghetto Shul” at Montreal’s McGill University — part of the “McGill Ghetto,” the heart and soul of the Jewish student population.

In the first half of the 20th century, McGill was one of the universities tainted by quotas on Jewish enrollment. Some students were refused entry, because they weren’t Christian, to a university internationally renowned for its medical and law schools.

All that has changed, of course, and today students of all faiths arrive in the French-speaking capital of North America from every nation on Earth.

It can be a daunting experience for any young person to be far from the comfort of home and family, but for Jews used to the intimacy of a welcoming, nurturing community, the experience can be especially lonely and trying.

Until the Ghetto Shul came into being, that is.

The shul was the brainchild of Tawn Friedman, a former student and program coordinator at Montreal Hillel who had just returned from a Birthright Israel trip. But the idea of a place where Jewish students could experience a sense of spiritual belonging took a while to percolate.

“The Birthright experience contributed to my increased involvement in the Jewish community and nourished my sense of self in relation to Judaism,” Friedman recalled. “And it created in me a desire to give something back. I wanted to develop a place where all young Jewish people could feel comfortable to hang out and feel welcome.”

With the help of Avi Poupko, the son of well-known Montreal Rabbi Reuben Poupko, Friedman opened the doors of the Ghetto Shul in September 2001.

The shul, housed in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, also is known as the Lorne House of Prayer.

“Our first Shabbat, we had 80 people. It was incredible,” says Friedman, whose whole family is involved in the operation. “Now we have anywhere from 100-150. People have heard about us from as far away as Boston and New York, Toronto and Vancouver.”

Friedman credits Poupko, who since has left to study in Israel, for his vision in getting the shul off the ground and initially leading its services. Hundert, 25, a Jewish studies major who spent five years at the Bat Ayin yeshiva in Israel — and whose Tuesday night jazz jam sessions are well-known — keeps the energy level high.

The costs of mounting a communal venture like this are not trivial, though Montreal’s Jewish federation helps the shul out with the equivalent of about $25,000 a year.

During the shul’s first year, it received donations from several companies, but relied mostly on students and their families to keep going, Friedman says. Now the organizers have implemented a member’s fee of $250 that gives donors entrance to 25 Shabbat dinners and lunch on Saturdays. The fees cover the meals and the costs of running the place.

“We thought at first that a membership fee would turn people off, but it’s just the opposite,” Friedman says. “Everyone wants to contribute as a way of helping out.”

Having a shul in a strictly residential neighborhood has taken some getting used to for the building’s neighbors, Friedman confides.

“We were renting the second-floor apartment at first and had major problems with the people downstairs,” she says. “They were constantly calling the police, saying we were too loud, that we were disturbing the peace. So like clockwork, every Shabbos the police would show up.”

When Toby Kaye left his Toronto home to study at McGill, the last place he thought he would be hanging out was the Ghetto Shul. Now he handles its finances.

Kaye grew up in a home that was not particularly observant, but he has been to Israel three times and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“That first Shabbat visit, I didn’t know much about the prayers, and most of the people knew each other,” he says. “Yet I was transfixed. I had never come across that type of scene at university before. A packed room of young Jews, having a great time simply celebrating Shabbat for what it is.”

For Kaye, the first time wasn’t painful in the least. He quickly became a regular — as have many others.

“The shul, for us, has become a tradition,” says Kate Bush, a student from Detroit who is one of four coordinators at the shul. “It makes me feel part of something active and gives me the satisfaction that comes from being needed.”

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