TORONTO — The Annex Shul’s new spiritual leader, Yacov Fruchter, said he hopes to offer his congregants a “custom-made Jewish experience.”
The Annex Shul’s new spiritual leader, Yacov Fruchter, hopes he can reinvent the inclusive, non-denominational synagogue. [Jon Cohen photo]
“Tons of young Jewish people are looking for new experiences. They are looking to connect more Jewishly, and we need to find the right language and the right way to connect with them,” said 28-year-old Fruchter, who recently left his post as United Israel Appeal’s director of emerging campuses for Hillel Canada to pursue his passion with the Annex Shul.
Inspired by Montreal’s Ghetto Shul – a grassroots synagogue in the McGill Ghetto neighbourhood heavily populated by students and young professionals – the Annex Shul was founded in 2006 by Bram Belzberg and his friend, Richard Meloff.
The idea was to provide Toronto’s young Jewish community with an intimate, inclusive space to connect with their Jewish roots on their own terms.
Some 4-1/2 years later, the shul attracts hundreds of young Jews to its Carlebach-style services, holiday parties, Shabbatons and lectures.
“We’re trying to create a space that is really beyond denominations and beyond people’s backgrounds. We want it to be accessible to everyone,” Fruchter said.
He added that his title as a spiritual leader rather than a rabbi “is a luxury… because it means that we’re not tied down to any one denomination. We consider ourselves a non-denominational shul where our focus is to give people the opportunity to own their own Jewish experience.
“One thing that’s unique about the Annex Shul is that… we’re not trying to get people to go from a specific point A to point B in terms of Jewish growth. We’re obviously trying to take them to a point B, but we’re not telling them what point B is.”
He said he enjoys the fact that Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews feel comfortable to come together at the Annex Shul to eat, pray and celebrate.
“I think that is pretty rare in this city.”
Earlier this month, the shul, which runs out of the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life at the University of Toronto, threw a weekend-long event titled the Milestone Weekend to celebrate Fruchter’s new role and a successful membership drive that led to about 70 people officially joining the congregation.
“We wanted to honour our founding members and to let whoever wants to know about us in the community to have an opportunity to come see what it is what we’re doing,” Fruchter said.
Refusing to rest on the shul’s laurels, Fruchter, who has worked part-time for the congregation since 2009 leading services and classes, said he hopes to take the Annex Shul to “a higher level.
“We’re trying to reinvent the organization both as a shul and as a community of young professionals. It requires lots of conversations with our community, lots of planning sessions, but also lots of time to teach meaningful classes,” he said.
Fruchter said that while the Annex shul still largely represents single Jews and newly married couples, he wants to better accommodate young families who are looking for a community that will provide fun, meaningful and entertaining programming for their young kids.
“Recently, we’ve been having Shabbat services and dinners once a month that are specifically geared toward young families,” Fruchter said.
“The parents are loving it, because it’s Friday night and the kids are singing and dancing around… and the parents get to have a shot of scotch while they’re playing with their kids on a Friday night in a community setting.”
The shul’s tagline, “Come as you are, make it yours,” resonates with Fruchter, but it took him a long time to be able to fully embrace that philosophy.
He said that as a child growing up in Montreal, he was very involved in the Jewish community.
“From the age of nine, I was reading from the Torah and leading different parts of the service, and later in my life I ran a shul in an old age home in Montreal for about three years… I went to a Jewish day school my whole life, and I also spent time in Israel learning in a yeshiva,” he said.
“I grew up in a modern Orthodox home, and it was warm and loving, but there was a switch that I needed to go through to get to the point where I realized that the structures that we’ve placed in our community can divide us. We have to be able to see beyond them.”
Fruchter hopes that his influence as the shul’s spiritual leader will help others see beyond the differences within the denominations.
“We can be a role model for what the Jewish community can look like, being able to reach out beyond the lines that separate us and to create a warm space in this community,” he said.
“There is a lot of warmth in the Toronto Jewish community, and we’re happy to be a part of that.”