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Sunday, August 31, 2014

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Toronto school board evicts shul just before High Holidays

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Shomer Israel Congregation is looking for a new home after being shut out of a portable at Rockford Road Public School. [Jeff Rosen photo]

TORONTO — Members of Shomer Israel Congregation are saddened and frustrated about being shut out of their synagogue by the Toronto District School Board just weeks before the High Holidays.

The Orthodox synagogue, which has been holding services in a portable behind Rockford Road Public School on Shabbat and holidays for 33 years – about 25 or 30 people attend on Shabbat– is now looking for a new place to hold High Holiday services.

Howard Kaplan, the school trustee for Ward 5, said that for the last 33 years, the synagogue has not paid “one cent” in rent or utilities. “The portable sits in the middle of the school yard and cuts off the view to the playground behind it. This compromises the children’s safety.”

He said he first learned about the synagogue when he visited the school principal in 2011 and “he drew my attention to it. He complained that the school has been paying for the portable’s hydro out of its own budget. The school did not receive additional funding, so the money came out of school programming.  I also found out that the congregation has a key to the school, which is completely unauthorized. It is a violation of the security of the school.”

Kaplan said that he looked into the matter and found no lease or any papers documenting an agreement.

“I did find out about a lawsuit against the board in 2005, after someone slipped and fell on ice. I don’t believe it was covered by insurance, because the synagogue wasn’t authorized to use the portable,” he said.

“It is quite clearly a situation that cannot continue. It is an unauthorized, unsafe use of the school.”

Kaplan said he arranged a meeting with synagogue representatives in February, but no one from the shul showed up. “We made two further attempts to meet, but nothing came of it.

“In April, we sent a lawyer’s letter to the synagogue, giving them until July to move out. They have had plenty of time to make arrangements for the High Holidays.

“They’ve had a free ride for 33 years, and now they’re asking why we’ve suddenly asked them to leave.”

George Adler, 66, vice-president of the congregation, who has belonged since he moved to Toronto in 1996, said he joined because he lives close by, but has stayed because “it’s a friendly, close-knit place to daven. I have a choice of synagogues in the area, but this is the one I’ve chosen.”

He said that the synagogue “takes up a small space in a huge yard. There has never been a problem with our presence.”

As for the 2005 lawsuit, he said, “the path is used by many people. It is not just synagogue members who walk by.”

He said that in 33 years, no other trustee has taken issue with the synagogue, “and I have no information on any scheduled meetings. We asked them to sit down with us, and we got no response.”

Five years ago, he said, the shul offered to pay for its utilities, but the TDSB declined. “They decided not to put in a meter and they left us alone.”

He said the shul is still trying to find a home for the High Holidays. “It’s very upsetting, because many members are seniors and cannot walk to synagogues farther away. Mr. Kaplan’s attitude was disturbing. He should have at least allowed a discussion. We would have resolved any issue they raised. For sure we would have put in a security camera.”

He added: “The decision was done rapidly and with no consideration. Its demise will be very disturbing.”

James Pasternak, city councillor for Ward 10, said he’s spoken to both sides, and both are looking to him for a solution.

“The whole situation is unfortunate. The school board was gracious to provide space [for 33 years], but they have been a little heavy-handed.”

A possible solution, he said, is to move the portable to Rockford Park to the west of the school. “It could act as a community centre during the week and a synagogue on the weekends. Nothing comes easy, though, and things move painstakingly slowly. We needed more time to work this out for the holidays.”

The synagogue was given the opportunity to rent space in the school, he said,  “but that is prohibitively expensive. Now it’s closed, and there are not yet any plans for the holidays.”

Pasternak said that “the school board’s philosophy is to reach out to the wider community and make sure the schools are for everybody. I thought it was great having the synagogue there.”

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