VAUGHAN, Ont. — For Sylvia Wolfson, seeing a contractor’s truck parked illegally in front of Ateres Mordechai last month was the “final straw.”
The synagogue, located at 230 Arnold Ave., has been her next-door neighbour since 2009 and is probably Thornhill’s largest home-based synagogue.
“I have appealed to [shul founder] Rabbi [Avrohom] Bitterman on many occasions about the parking and the commotion in the neighbourhood as a result of the people that are coming there,” Wolfson said.
She has come to the conclusion that Rabbi Bitterman is “not a man who’s planning on moving,” although he told The CJN last week he is “actively pursuing” the search for a home for the shul in a non-residential zone.
Esther Zeisler, who lives around the corner from Wolfson, said that “most of the immediate neighbours are against having this situation continue.”
The City of Vaughan allows home-based synagogues, but according to Ward 5 Coun. Alan Shefman, they are “not acceptable” in residential areas and “can’t possibly meet the requirements in our bylaw.”
Shefman has been fielding complaints about home synagogues for several years. He said that issues include parking, setbacks from neighbouring homes, and fire safety.
As well, he said, “people buy their homes to live in a residential area, and if there isn’t an institution that’s been there prior to them buying their home, it’s fundamentally unfair for them to have an institution plunked down in the middle of the street.”
One of the problems, he said, is that there are few green spaces or storefronts available in his ward, which is bounded by Steeles Avenue, Yonge Street, Highway 407 and New Westminster Drive. The ward’s population is approximately 60 per cent Jewish.
“I know for a fact they have done everything they can to try to minimize their impact on the community,” Shefman said of Ateres Mordechai.
But he said he sees “co-operation [as] an interim measure… until they find a proper home.”
Rabbi Bitterman says that about 25 to 30 people attend Shabbat services, and about 15 go to daily minyans, but Wolfson believes the number is higher. The shul also has classes.
The rabbi also said that most of the recent work in the house was just maintenance. However, he added, “one wall was opened up to accommodate when we have a simchah.” He said that such occasions occur “a few times a year,” and that speakers are invited to the shul “a couple of times a year.”
He said that illegal parking occurs “rarely if ever,” but Wolfson said that last fall, several cars were illegally parked for 72 hours on three separate weekends and were not ticketed. Parking is allowed on the south side of the street only.
In a recent email to Shefman, she wrote that parking violations make it unsafe to back out of her driveway and even more unsafe for cars to turn at the corner of the street.
She noted that Beth Avraham Yoseph Synagogue of Toronto is only a five-minute drive from Arnold Avenue and offers the same services to the Orthodox community in the area.
In a letter last fall to Vaughan mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, Wolfson wrote of “flagrant violations of city bylaws” by Ateres Mordechai, including the use of fireworks at an evening party and possible lack of permit for modifications to the house.
Rabbi Bitterman said that the building meets fire regulations and that he has increased exterior lighting to allay neighbours’ concerns.
He said he “would love to have a real place, with a parking lot, where people would feel comfortable… We really don’t want any problems with our neighbours.”