TORONTO — Chabad on the Avenue, which operates the Family Shul, has purchased the First Hungarian Baptist Church on Falkirk Avenue and will take possession late next month.
The property, in a largely Jewish residential neighbourhood, includes an unoccupied grass field adjacent to the building and a paved parking area. Rabbi Menachem Gansburg, spiritual leader of the Family Shul, would not disclose the purchase price, saying only that it was “in the millions.”
Chabad has already solicited the majority of that sum from supporters but will hold a fundraiser on Nov. 25, two days after the deal closes, to raise the remainder. Hollywood entertainer Paula Abdul, accompanied by her rabbi from Chabad of Bel Air, will headline the function. She will discuss her spiritual journey and Jewish roots at an event at the Eglinton Grand, Rabbi Gansburg said.
Abdul’s Jewish mother is part of the Rykiss family of Winnipeg.
Rabbi Gansburg said the new facility, which likely won’t be ready for services until 2013, had been on his radar for several years. In fact, with the rapid growth of the Family Shul, it became clear that to continue to thrive the shul would need a permanent building for its religious services and community outreach.
Rabbi Gansburg said over the years the Shul had placed offers on various properties in the neighbourhood, but had repeatedly been outbid by developers and builders.
On his own initiative, Rabbi Gansburg contacted members of the First Hungarian Baptist Church and made it clear the Family Shul was interested in purchasing the property. The Church is in the middle of Chabad on the Avenue’s catchment area, an area known as Ledbury Park.
“The church was not looking to sell. They had had offers from builders,” Rabbi Gansburg said. Despite being rebuffed, Rabbi Gansburg’s maintained good relations with church officials. He befriended members of their board and “I never took ‘no’ for an answer. I kept up with them, asking what’s new in their world.”
He learned the congregation was having trouble finding the money to maintain and upgrade the building. In addition, most of the members did not live in the neighbourhood.
“After three and a half years, I called them on a random day, when I had lost an offer on a property to developers. They were having a meeting on the future of the congregation and they were now interested.”
Working without real estate agents, they closed the “handshake” deal on erev Yom Kippur. “No doubt we had some guidance from above,” Rabbi Gansburg said.
He announced the acquisition on Kol Nidre night. Coupled with news of the Paula Abdul fundraiser, “there is a lot of buzz in the neighbourhood,” he said.
He’s been busy fielding calls from people in interested in joining the shul. With room for an estimated 180-200 people, it’s a good size for people who don’t want to get lost in a larger synagogue, he said. Shabbat services at the Ledbury Park Elementary and Middle School typically attract 60-70 people, while 400 attended High Holiday services at the Beth Jacob High School.
The Family Shul attracts a unique congregation, demographically speaking. Rabbi Gansburg estimates that more than 50 per cent of the Jews in the neighbourhood are unaffiliated and many live in mixed marriage households.
“Chabad felt there was room for Chabad-style programs” that bring traditional Jewish worship and education, but in a way that suits the neighourhood, he said.
In addition to religious services, Chabad offers weekly education programs for more than 150 children.
Religious services are conducted largely in English and with plenty of commentary so that people understand the prayers. “It’s tailor-made for the people who come to the shul… Our motto is, ‘We’re not Orthodox, Reform or Conservative. We’re simply Jewish,” Rabbi Gansburg said.
Over time, “it became a community in itself and it brought out families that never would send their kids to day schools.”
As for the future of the new building, Rabbi Gansburg expects to offer a pre-school beginning in September 2013 for up to 50 children. “We already have 25 applicants.”
Eventually, Rabbi Gansburg predicts, it will be necessary to expand the building.
Of more immediate concern is getting it ready to serve as a Jewish house of worship. That means removing all existing Christian symbols, not the least of which are the front doors, decorated with a stylized cross.
“Those doors gotta change,” he said.