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Friday, September 4, 2015

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The House aims to empower youth

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TORONTO — If you’re a young Jew in the Toronto area looking for travel opportunities to Israel, tikkun olam projects, or just wanting to connect with other members of the tribe, you’ve got options.

Rabbi Rafi Lipner

When Rabbi Rafi Lipner, director of The House, launched his centre in 2005, he knew he didn’t want to compete with the organizations – many of which The House works with – that offer young Jews travel and volunteer opportunities.

“I thought that was fantastic, but the process of sort of continuing that reflective process, that thought process – the figuring out ‘who am I?’ and ‘where do I want to fit into the landscape?’ – that seemed like a valuable piece to put in there,” he said.

Lipner, a 37-year-old father of seven, has dedicated much of his last six years to developing programs at The House, a centre on Eglinton Avenue that offers programming for Jews of all denominations from the ages of 18 to 30.

Lipner describes The House, which feels more like a bachelor pad with comfy couches, a modest dining area and an unassuming kitchen, as “a place where you sort of belong, and get a lot of value, and feel comfortable, and a place where you’re able to have those discussions.”

But beyond the programming and the centre itself, he believes that what makes the place attractive is its transparency.

He realized that Jewish youth are wary of organizations trying to push an agenda when he was being pushed to reveal his own agenda.

“But this is just a place for people to feel comfortable, and the agenda is to really empower them through a Jewish lens and perspective that will help them maximize their decisions and understand how to go through life’s challenges in a meaningful way,” said Lipner, who speaks so enthusiastically about his centre, one could never doubt his sincerity.

“There is no hidden agenda. It’s not like, ‘here’s what we’re going to tell you, here’s what we’d really like you to do.’ We’re very open,” he said.

Over the years, The House has hosted speakers including Jewish Agency for Israel chair Natan Sharansky, Kosher Sex author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.

Some of the popular programs that run throughout the year are Challah for Chesed, during which Lipner’s wife, Shira, offers her “secret recipe” for challah; Birthright Israel and March of the Living followup programs, and the relationship series.

The relationship series invites couples to a three-session dinner and discussion program that “will leave you thinking, discussing and laughing throughout the entire experience.

“It requires a certain amount of maturity,” Lipner said, adding that the program may not attract huge crowds based on promises of fun and excitement, but it helps committed participants build stronger, healthier and more meaningful relationships with their partners.

“Our goal is obviously to provide people with a more fulfilling and successful experience in all aspects of life. I care so much more about the people than the success of The House.”

Despite that, he said the organization has enjoyed success and growth over the past six years – having grown from attracting about 10 to 15 people to an event, to seeing about 1,000 new faces throughout the course of a year.

Still, Lipner believes the events, some of which attract intimate groups of 20 to 30 people, “would be less successful if we sold it [as something it wasn’t] and pushed people in the doors, and we had people there who didn’t want to be there.”

Lipner added that he’s not interested in playing “the numbers game,” by trying to sell programs that aren’t in line with their philosophy.


Jewish youth take part in one of many programs at The House.

 “The success of this space has really been because it has allowed everyone to feel welcome and validated for who they are and what they think,” he said.

“We care about the people and we think Judaism has something to offer… Jewish thought has a lens… If you’re about to become a parent, there are going to be some challenges out there and someone might say, ‘I’m curious what Jewish thought has to say about what I’m going through in life.’”

Regular participants have begun to show their support financially.

“They say that this is a place they want to give back to and that shows a certain commitment,” Lipner said.

“There are a lot of people who… want to belong to something that they find meaningful and relevant… Our hope is that you walk out of our doors more than you were before you walked in. But what you do with it is your own personal journey.”

For more information, e-mail tamara@thehousetoronto.com.

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