MONTREAL — The Ghetto Shul, whose storefront premises on Parc Avenue were closed this spring for financial reasons, is now an entirely student-run downtown Jewish community. It hopes to attract young adults seeking to explore their Jewish identity in traditional yet innovative ways.
“We are a warm and Torah-based community which provides a spiritual home for an eclectic mix of Jews,” said Aryeh Canter, a member of the student board.
With the loss of its own physical space and its full-time rabbi, the Ghetto Shul is reinventing itself as a grassroots co-operative group in which all members pitch in.
“The new model gives students a sense of responsibility for their community, and encourages them to develop the skills required to put their own Jewish future in action,” Canter said, rather rely on a “top-down” structure.
The Ghetto Shul, so named because when it was founded in 2001 it was in the heart of the McGill student ghetto, continues as a non-profit corporation.
Its new structure has dispensed with the burdensome overhead of previous years. Friday night services are held each week at the historic Bagg Street Shul (Congregation Beth Shloime) at the corner of Clark and Bagg streets in the Plateau Mont-Royal, a congregation that also manages without a regular rabbi.
A cornerstone of the Ghetto Shul’s activities is its “sustainable” Shabbat dinners, prepared by members using mainly locally sourced and organic food. These take place in the Bagg Street’s basement.
The Ghetto Shul has an ecological bent. Canter is also involved with the new youth-led Green Kippah Collective, whose ultimate goal is to build a rooftop garden on Federation CJA’s Cummings House.
In lieu of formal dues, membership is offered to those who commit to at least 18 hours per semester of volunteer work on behalf of the Ghetto Shul. This may include cooking or cleaning up for Shabbat, doing administrative tasks, or creating weekday Jewish-themed programming, such as Torah study groups or musical jam sessions, something the old Shul was known for under the former leadership of Rabbi Daniel Leibish Hundert, an accomplished musician himself.
These activities will likely be held in students’ apartments or on campus.
“We are trying to provide a space where people can engage with Judaism in a meaningful way, infuse their life with it, pushing the boundaries, if necessary,” he said.
About 40 to 50 students have so far taken up the challenge. Up to 80 per cent of them are from out-of-town, said Canter, and appreciate having a place to go on Shabbat or for holiday services. Places will be found for those who need a place to stay overnight for Shabbat.
A fourth-year student in McGill’s Sustainability, Science and Society program, Canter is from San Francisco.
During orientation week last month at McGill, the Ghetto Shul held its own three-day “Gefilte Frosh” to introduce itself to new students through tours, food, music and prayer. The shul’s Rosh Hashanah services, co-hosted with the Hillel Student Society, were held on campus at the McGill Student Union building.
The Ghetto Shul is offering to pair freshmen with more experienced Jewish McGill “buddies” to ease the transition to university life and help them get acquainted with the city and its larger Jewish community.
The out-of-towners just might decide to remain in Montreal after they graduate. Canter said that is his objective if he can find a job here.
The Ghetto Shul receives some funding from the Federation’s Gen J program, as well as from McGill, where it is a recognized independent student group.
But the Ghetto Shul could always use more money, and Canter said that if students’ parents can contribute $180 or $360 it would be greatly appreciated and go a long way. One project is to renovate the kitchen it’s using.
The Ghetto Shul no longer has an “adult” advisory board, which has its advantages and disadvantages, Canter said. These people were mainly donors or fundraisers for the shul.
While that support is not as certain as before, Canter feels the young people are benefiting from rebuilding the group themselves, including preparing a budget.
While the Ghetto Shul is committed to Halachah, it’s trying to be more inclusive. It has started praying in the basement of the Bagg Street Shul in order to create a “more gender-equal space,” said Canter. In the tiny Bagg Street Shul, women sit in an upstairs balcony.
The Ghetto Shul is trying to adopt some of the expanded roles accorded to women by the modern Orthodox movement.
For example, it has introduced a “dual” leader model for Kabbalat Shabbat where both sides of the mechitzah have a song leader, and the choice of song alternates between men and women, he said.
One reason for the Ghetto Shul’s existence is that Hillel does not offer regular Ashkenazi Orthodox services, only twice monthly services with a Reform, Conservative or Sephardi orientation, Canter said.
Find out more about the Ghetto Shul at www.ghettoshul.com.