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Saturday, October 10, 2015

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Former shul transformed into special-needs centre

Tags: Health

MONTREAL — A major construction project well underway in the Côte des Neiges district will benefit children with special needs, and preserve a former synagogue whose  architecture has heritage significance.

Gathered at the site of the future Friendship Centre and LifeTown for children with special needs are, from left, Friendship Circle vice-president Milan Bratin, president Fred Dubrovsky, honorary president Douglas Avrith, architect Shulim Rubin, friend Leslie Greenberg and executive director Rabbi Yosef Paris.

The first phase of the Friendship Centre and LifeTown, an $8-million project, is being built in the old Congregation Chevra Shaas on Bourret Avenue at Lajoie Street.

The synagogue, which closed its doors because of a dwindling membership, was bought three years ago by an anonymous donor for the Friendship Circle, an international non-profit organization with roots in the Lubavitch community.

Since they founded the Friendship Circle’s Montreal chapter in 2001, it has been the dream of Rabbi Yosef Paris and his wife Sima to provide it with its own place, one large enough to meet the demand from families for activities for their children and a little respite for themselves.

The chapter runs recreational and social activities for children who are intellectually and physically disabled and offers support services for their families. Its volunteer program, which encourages teens to be “friends” to the children, has been especially successful.

But the program has had to operate largely out of various rented spaces, which has limited how much can be done, Sima said.

Ground was broken for the first phase of the project, the Friendship Centre, in May 2008 and the official opening and ribbon-cutting is expected to take place in February.

The Friendship Centre, which will occupy 26,000 square feet on two levels, will offer greatly expanded therapeutic and recreational services.

The second phase, LifeTown, the centrepiece of the ambitious project, will involve the construction of an addition to the building where the parking lot is now.

LifeTown, a registered trademark, will be modelled on the Friendship Circle’s flagship facility in West Bloomfield, Mich., where children with special needs can learn daily living skills. As envisioned, this indoor mock city will have a drugstore, grocery, pet shop, movie theatre, bank, doctor’s office and library, where the children can prepare for real life. LifeTown even has working traffic lights.

Sima calls it the first of its kind in Canada.

She is projecting that the centre, when in full operation, will reach 3,000 children and their families annually.

Shulim Rubin, architect of the Montreal project, explained on a recent tour of the site, that the former shul, built in 1958, is protected because it has been deemed by Quebec as having historical value.

That’s mainly because of its sawtooth-shaped roof that consists of concrete plates forming four peaks across its 70-foot breadth. “It was a style that was extremely popular all over the world in the 1950s and ’60s,” said Rubin.

The design was more than esthetically interesting; it was a method of construction that was exceptionally solid, requiring few internal supporting structures.

This has made the transformation of the building relatively easy, he said. No walls had to be taken down and the former sanctuary is being turned into a 6,000 square-foot gymnasium without any columns, he said.

The overhaul of the building, however, is massive. The interior has been gutted, but that was necessary because the roof and walls had no insulation, Rubin said. Condensation buildup and leaking in winter were a problem as a result.

He was also surprised, he said, that all of the many windows had a single pane, and can only wonder at what the heating costs must have been.

A lounge for staff and volunteers is being created on a mezzanine overlooking the gym. A small elevator is being installed.

The exterior cladding must also be preserved, and Rubin was finally able to find matching beige bricks in Kansas. His drawings show that the entrance will feature glass panels reaching two storeys that are reminiscent of the original.

Fundraising over the past year has been difficult, said Rabbi Paris, and a capital campaign continues.

Douglas Avrith, the Circle’s honorary president, is a major donor and contributions have been made by other individuals and community groups. However, the project receives no government money.

“Friendship Centre and LifeTown will serve as a model, not just for other Friendship Circle chapters in Canada, but for other organizations dedicated to children with special needs across the country,” said Avrith. “This facility will help children with special needs achieve their highest potential. It also gives teenage volunteers an exceptional first-hand experience with community service, helping to instill the commitment to giving back to the community.”

For more information on the project, visit


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