TORONTO — Congregation Yavne Zion, established about 125 years ago in downtown Toronto, has undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years.
Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer
Housed since 1963 in rented space at the Toronto Zionist Centre on Marlee Avenue, the congregation hired Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer, a Grade 10 Jewish studies teacher at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, to be its spiritual leader in 2004. The shul hadn’t had a rabbi in about two decades, since the death of his predecessor.
Rabbi Oppenheimer’s first few years with the congregation were “pretty lonely,” given its aging and diminishing membership and the small number of attendees. “In January and February, we shut down, because people went to Florida.”
In contrast, in the 1980s, there were as many as 100 people at Shabbat morning services, said the rabbi in a recent interview.
Things started to pick up again when some of his students began to attend services, said the 36-year-old native of New York’s Lower East Side. About 40 new families joined the shul last year.
A resident of Toronto for the past eight years, Rabbi Oppenheimer studied for the rabbinate in Israel before moving here.
Now there are about 50 men at a typical Saturday morning service, he said. A smaller number of women sit behind a mechitzah at the back of the room. Only a handful of older members are still able to attend.
Zalman Goldman, a new member who is in his late 30s and who also belongs to two other shuls, wants to support Yavne Zion, but in addition, he said, “we’re liking the energy.”
Longtime president Abram Kaufman, a native of Poland who immigrated to Canada in 1953, told The CJN that it was “very hard to get a minyan” before Rabbi Oppenheimer joined the shul. Now, he said, the service is “ungelebt” (lively), because of the number of young people. “It’s a relief. We’re very happy with them.”
Recent programming at the shul reflects its changing demographic. About three dozen children and their parents attended a Sunday morning Chanukah program featuring D Jay the Clown. Also, a Saturday evening Chanukah event for adults featured a hypnotist, as well as Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner of Zichron Dov Yeshiva University Torah Mitzion Beit Midrash speaking about the holiday.
Although some of the younger shul-goers refer to the congregation as the “Marlee Shul,” its name remains Yavne Zion, Rabbi Oppenheimer said. “We’re not two congregations… We want to keep the official name.”
Younger members don’t receive cemetery privileges, however, because there are no more plots available for them, and dues are allocated accordingly.
Also, said the rabbi, the younger attendees are all Orthodox, while most of the older members are not, although they wanted the synagogue to continue being Orthodox.
There are about 65 original members, but most of them don’t attend services, said the rabbi.
Although the shul has expanded its reach both by attracting new members and expanding its programming, Rabbi Oppenheimer notes that it’s still “only a weekend shul.” Hence its relatively low membership dues, at $325 a year per family.
Yavne Zion offers Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday, as well as on Sunday mornings and Jewish holidays, as well as Jewish learning sessions.