TORONTO — When Jacob Abecassis founded the Sephardic Community of Toronto (SCOT), he envisioned an organization that would appeal to Jews of all denominations, affiliated or not.
Abecassis said that SCOT, a non-profit organization that provides recreational, educational and cultural programming, fills a need for events that appeal to Jews who may not identify with synagogue culture.
“We were lacking these types of events in our communities,” he said.
“Those who could identify with the synagogue would come to synagogue programming on a religious level, but those who couldn’t… were left by the wayside.”
Abecassis, a 44-year-old father of eight kids between the ages of 19 and two, said making sure the next generation has programs that help them connect to their community is important to him.
Although the organization was registered about three years ago, the seeds for SCOT were planted in 2006, when families were invited to meet at the Future Stars Arena for a weekly ice skating program called Saturday Night Chill.
“The kids would look forward to it every motza’ei Shabbat, to come out for some skating fun with their parents. It was an activity to get our kids off the streets,” Abecassis said. “We’ve been occupying the rink every Saturday night from September into March.”
He stressed that Jews of all backgrounds are welcome to the events, as the programming has less to do with promoting Sephardi culture and more to do with bringing people together.
“It’s not solely Sephardic, we’re open to everybody. With the family skating, we have the Russian community coming out, the Ashkenazi community. The kids have friends from school that they love hanging out with,” he said.
“Why would you segregate people, God forbid? There are people from all levels of observance and you appeal to everybody. We’re seeing people who never affiliated themselves with a synagogue who are coming out to these events. The synagogue didn’t do it for them, but now we’re starting to see faces, and we think, ‘Where were they? Where did they come from?’”
Today, SCOT activities include Lag b’Omer barbeques, Toronto Marlies hockey games, fundraisers for Jewish charities, a soccer league and a summer camp.
Abecassis said he’s working on obtaining charitable status from the government, but until now, he’s relied on manpower from volunteers and funding from business owners and private donors to keep the programs running.
Some of SCOT’s funders include Michael Serruya of Yogen Früz, Leon Elmaleh of Dorplex Industries, and Jack and Joseph Bitton of Eurofase Lighting.
SCOT continues to expand and attract young families looking for quality Jewish programming, Abecassis said. There are nearly 1,000 people on his e-mail list.
“The last barbeque we had after Lag b’Omer, which was called Meat and Greet, at Earl Bales Park, attracted about 300 people,” he said.
For the third consecutive summer, SCOT will be recruiting young soccer players for its Sephardic Soccer League.
“Last year, we had 90 kids sign up, and this year, we’re expecting 150 kids,” he said.
The teams meet each Wednesday night in July and August at Lakehurst Park in Vaughan.
“We have a BBQ every night. At the end of the season, there’s a tournament and people get awards.”
This summer, SCOT will open a summer camp for the first time.
“Right now, we’re at 65 kids and 24 [counsellors in training]… This is the first year we’re doing it on our own and we’ve got an excellent program. It’s really coming together and we’re raising money to get the budget covered,” he said, explaining that the camp fees are subsidized.
He’s also planning a leadership-training program to educate the next generation of community leaders.
“The more we can invest in our kids to become leaders – in case the Canada Pension Plan is not around for me when I retire, at least I’ll have these kids to do some programming for me,” he said with a laugh.
Abecassis said some of the programs also focus on giving back, by partnering with other established Jewish charities, including Ezrat Achim, which provides weekly food and financial assistance to needy Jewish families, and Peace of Mind, a program that benefits former Israeli soldiers suffering from psychological trauma.
“The community has responded well to the organization. They see what SCOT is doing for the community and see that it’s done with the intent of bringing our community together,” he said.
While Abecassis laid the foundation for what is growing into a recognized Jewish cultural organization, he emphasized that SCOT is an initiative that’s owned and operated by the entire community.
“SCOT is the community coming together, and it’s the community that makes the difference. And it’s the people who want to work for the community who make it happen,” he said. “I’m very thankful to those who are supporting it financially. People are starting to buy the product and believe in the product.”
For more information about SCOT programming, visit www.myscot.org.