TORONTO — In the last few years, the average age of members at the Stashover-Slipia Congregation has decreased markedly – testimony not only to the passing of the 100-year-old shul’s most senior members, but also an indication that the small, unpretentious congregation has started to succeed in its efforts to attract younger congregants.
On Shabbat morning, “sometimes we have five to six kids five and under,” said Jay Safer, the shul president. As well, he noted, there are two bar mitzvahs and two bat mitzvahs scheduled for May and June, the first in “probably a year.”
Four years ago, Safer said, an average Saturday morning service had about a dozen people, and now there are between 25 and more than 30. The synagogue also holds services on Sunday mornings and Jewish holidays.
The congregation will celebrate its 100th anniversary at a dinner May 16 in the Rooftop Salon of the Park Hyatt hotel. CJN editor Mordechai Ben-Dat, whose late father was gabbai at the shul for many years, will be the guest speaker.
Aside from the fact that the dinner venue can serve a kosher meal, it was chosen for its location on the hotel’s 18th floor.
That was the impetus, “as silly as it sounds,” said Safer, a 61-year-old third-generation member whose maternal grandparents came Stashov, Poland.
“It’s perfect for our synagogue,” he added, referring to the Hebrew letters that denote the number 18 and spell “chai,” the word for life.
The Sultana Avenue synagogue – which has more than 100 member families and recently increased family dues to $400 a year – operates “on a shoestring” and is solvent, Safer said.
The congregation is an amalgamation of two synagogues established by Jewish immigrants. Its current building, just off Bathurst Street dates back to 1964, three years before the merger.
In an effort to infuse new life into the shul four years ago, changes such as allowing women to have aliyot and shortening Shabbat services to about two hours were introduced.
The Saturday morning services, at which men and women sit together, are preceded by coffee and rogelach. They are followed by interactive learning sessions led by educator Jack Lipinsky, who has led the services for 28 years. Congregants use Orthodox prayerbooks.
Carol Jupiter, a Toronto teacher who hadn’t been affiliated with a synagogue for many years, joined Stashover-Slipia with her husband, Henzel, a couple of years ago, and both now serve on the board. She said she likes the non-judgmentalism and lack of formality.
“Nobody worries about decorum, which is the primary focus of some of the synagogues. Everybody participates.”
Young children often help wrap the Torah, noted Jupiter, who is in her 60s. “It is really nice… It doesn’t offer all the things, or any of the things, that the larger, more established synagogues have. But it offers a lot in the way of being very human.”
Members organize kiddushes and clear the tables afterward, she said. “It’s not a place of glamour. It’s like your home.”
“Everyone pitches in, and it’s heimish,” Lipinsky said.
He noted that, for many people, the social aspect of shul – particularly at the pre- and post-service programs – “is really powerful.”
He added that guests at the shul are greeted, and someone sits with them. “We learn from the olden days… It was always informal. They davened in houses. It was very volunteeristic.
“It’s fun. I think shul should be fun.”