TORONTO — What a surreal picture! At a busy and noisy construction site, workers in white or yellow helmets mix cement, while others carry blocks or lift steel rods. In the midst of it all stands a bearded man wearing a black helmet, a black suit, white shirt and a tie.
Rabbi Israel Landa, the spiritual leader of the Chabad Israeli Community of Toronto, is deeply involved with all the details of the centre’s new building, what he calls “the project of his life.”
The new centre is rising fast, near Walmart at Bathurst and Centre streets in Thornhill, Ont. I find this relationship somehow symbolic, as in both places you can find something for everyone at a reasonable price.
Rabbi Landa shakes my hand warmly. His eyes are glowing when he tells me that the building’s steel structure is complete and the walls are going up. “With help from the One Above and participation from the ones below, we hope to be up and running for the upcoming High Holidays,” Rabbi Landa said.
There’s a huge need for a synagogue geared to Toronto’s Hebrew-speaking community. Rabbi Landa said Israelis often feel disconnected from the wider Jewish population. Bathurst and Centre is a central point between the older established Jewish neighbourhoods and the newer communities, and the area itself is heavily populated with Israelis. So it’s the perfect location.
The Beth Chabad Israeli Community Centre, which currently holds services and study groups at the Chabad Lubavitch Centre in Thornhill, doesn’t have a standard membership formula, as do other synagogues or similar institutions, since the concept of “belonging” to a synagogue and paying membership dues is foreign to Israelis.
According to Rabbi Landa, the community has a high number of participants at holiday programs and a large number of families who donate to various causes. In order to survive and thrive, the centre will have to introduce the structure of a North America Jewish organization, with requirements for registration and membership. At the same time, he emphasized, Chabad Israeli will never abandon the open-door policy of an Israeli institution.
Families in the community will be offered a unit of partnership, a “spiritual share” for $2,500, to be paid in a lump sum or over time, he said.
The new centre will provide cultural gatherings, a Hebrew-speaking nursery and adult education programs, as well as activities for children and teenagers and special programs for families in need. Although the new centre will target Hebrew-speakers, any Jew who is comfortable participating in Hebrew-language programs or services is welcome.
“Occasionally, we will have opportunities and gatherings where we’ll combine English as well, for the benefit of families with members who speak only English,” Rabbi Landa said.
Rabbi Landa doesn’t anticipate any conflicts with the activities of Chabad @Flamingo, which is in the same neighbourhood as the new centre. “We’re all on the same team. We seek to complement each other,” he said.
“Whereas Chabad@Flamingo is neighbourhood-based, Chabad Israeli is not geared to a specific area, but rather to a population who find themselves in many different areas of the GTA.”
When asked if Chabad Israeli would welcome families that need to drive on Shabbat to attend services, Rabbi Landa replied: “Judaism is 24/7. Activities and services span a very wide range of needs and aspirations. We’re active every day of the week. To paraphrase the Lubavitcher Rebbe, we wish to be like a flashlight to show the path, but not to judge or police.”
The financing of the new building is not yet complete and Rabbi Landa replied carefully when asked about it. “We managed to raise funds to cover what is visible to the eye. For the remainder of the building, the inside, we’re still trying to raise the funds now,” he said. “When the community sees that the dream has become a reality, they’ll make the effort and become partners with us.”
As I bid the rabbi farewell, I see one of the workers turn to him and ask him a question. The rabbi answered and the worker smiled.
I sense that words of the Torah were imparted.