TORONTO — When Hava Glic left Toronto to attend McGill University she found a spiritual home at the Ghetto Shul, a grassroots congregation that caters to students living in and around the student ghetto in downtown Montreal.
Rabbi Daniel Leibish Hundert
Glick, 23, a McGill graduate, says the Ghetto Shul provides a social network for out-of-town students like herself.
“It was the social hub of the ghetto. People would come out for these incredible Shabbat dinners. We’d get between 60 to 100 people a week.”
She is among the alumnae and students who will be talking about the Ghetto Shul’s importance for out-of-town students at an upcoming fundraiser in Toronto.
Spiritual leader Rabbi Daniel Leibish Hundert and his wife, Dena, will be attending this parlour meeting, which takes place in a private home in the Bathurst-Eglinton area on May 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Glick is also an organizer of an alumnae reunion on Shavuot, which will be held at the shul’s new digs at 3458 Park Ave. in Montreal, May 28 to 30.
She attributes the shul’s popularity to the Rabbi Hundert’s charismatic leadership.
“He’s is an amazing connecting force between people.”
Her words are echoed by Rachel Rosenbluth, 19, a first year environmental studies student.
“I was just looking for a way to find meaning in Montreal after spending a year in Israel.”
She describes Rabbi Hundert and his wife as “inspiring in the way they find meaning in every aspect of life.”
Rosenbluth was a regular participant at the weekly Shabbat dinners and the Tuesday jam nights.
“It’s a place go to chill… People connect through the music.”
Rabbi Hundert is a native Montrealer with an eclectic background that includes Jewish day school, an alternative international college and five years at yeshivas in Israel.
While his family strongly identified with their Jewish roots – his Toronto-born father, Gershon, is a Jewish studies professor at McGill – Rabbi Hundert says he became shomer Shabbat on his own at the age of 17.
“Shabbat became something very special for me.”
He has also been playing saxophone since his bar mitzvah, and music continues to play a large role in his life and it’s an important liturgical component of the Ghetto Shul.
He says the shul, which is now in its eighth year, was started by Rabbi Avi Poupko in 2001 as way of offering a Shabbat venue for McGill students living downtown.
Its initial home was an upper duplex in the student ghetto.
“People came right away on the first Shabbat,” Rabbi Hundert recalls.
“The meals were very communal.”
By the third year, the shul had to rent a hotel ballroom for High Holiday services to accommodate the 300 to 400 worshippers who attended.
Rabbi Hundert, 32, became the spiritual leader – he had just returned from Israel and was starting undergraduate studies – when Rabbi Poupko left to go to Israel.
The synagogue managed to survive financially through student and parent donations, membership fees, and – mostly – from the substantial funding allocated by Hillel and Federation CJA in Montreal.
“We have been getting 75 to 120 students a week, for Shabbat,” the rabbi says, adding that students like the shul because “it doesn’t feel like a traditional space. It’s all about giving students a sense of ownership of the community.”
The shul was supported by Hillel, which doesn’t offer consistent Shabbat programming.
When there were some problems with the shul’s premises because of fire code regulations, services moved to Hillel House for the 2007-08 academic year.
“The existence of the shul was hanging in the balance at that point,” recounts Rabbi Hundert.
“It was not clear if it would survive.”
However, Hillel board members have been helping the shul work toward getting charitable status as an independent entity because Hillel and federation are no longer able to provide the same financial support that the shul was able to rely on for the past seven years, due to budget cuts made across the board, explains the rabbi.
“They’ve expressed confidence in our ability to raise money independently because of our good name and the success that we’ve had.”
Some Hillel board members have joined the Ghetto Shul board and helped to secure a new venue, a two-level storefront on Park Avenue, he says.
“We’ve raised the money for a year’s rent. It was a tremendous show of confidence from families of current students, alumnae and other supporters.”
He says they have now initiated a major fundraising drive in Toronto, where the largest number of student members reside.
He stresses that the shul attracts students of all denominations.
“It’s all about community. For most people, the Ghetto Shul is a home away from home.”
To find out about the Shavuot alumnae reunion in Montreal or the Toronto parlour meeting on May 24, contact Hava Glick at 416-554-1972.
To donate, visit www.supportghettoshul.com, or call Hillel at 514-845-9171.