MONTREAL — The Ghetto Shul, the storefront student-run synagogue on Park Avenue, is closing at the end of this month after being open for more than a decade.
Its spiritual leader for most of its history, Rabbi Leibish Daniel Hundert, is leaving and no replacement is being sought.
The participants will for the meantime be davening at Congregation Beth Shloime, better known as the Bagg Street Shul, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Montreal. It’s located on Bagg at Clark Street in what was the heart of the prewar Jewish district.
“It’s pretty hard to find someone who is able to raise $150,000 a year, is prepared to make $30,000 a year and to live downtown where there is no eruv, which is difficult when you have a young family,” said Rabbi Hundert.
He and wife Dena, who has been an active partner in running the shul, have two young children.
“Basically, anyone who might have been interested in the job has been scared away by that.”
With a growing family, he also found it difficult to spend as much time with students as is expected of a college rabbi.
At 34 and after leading the shul for 10 years, Rabbi Hundert is moving on to other things. He is working on a PhD in religion and Jewish studies at Concordia University and is teaching Jewish studies at McGill University.
The shul runs Friday night and Saturday services, as well as holiday services. For a number of years, there was a daily minyan. The shul has also served as a drop-in centre through the week and a popular venue for contemporary Jewish music at night. Rabbi Hundert, a saxophonist himself, conceived of turning the place into a “synagogue-bar.”
“We get anywhere from 50 to 90 people at services, 90 per cent of them students. But it has been going down a bit,” he said.
Rabbi Hundert has had to raise the Ghetto Shul’s budget, a large part of which is the rent for its premises, since funding from Federation CJA ended in December 2009. The recession forced the federation to make broad cutbacks at the time.
Although it has been a struggle, Rabbi Hundert is happy to be leaving the Ghetto Shul without a deficit.
The money has come from a major benefit concert by Matisyahu, the then-chassidic Jewish singer at the Olympia Theatre in November 2009, as well as smaller year-round concerts at the shul, including a series during the Montreal International Jazz Festival. A number of individuals, including alumni, have been generous as well.
The concept of a downtown music venue for young Jews didn’t really take off, he said. “We had about 40 people coming out to 13 or 14 concerts a year.”
The Ghetto Shul, named for the Student Ghetto east of the McGill campus, opened in August 2001 and was originally located in a duplex on Lorne Crescent, nearer to the campus. The synagogue had a close relationship with Hillel from the outset, but relied financially on private donors for its founding, he said.
It was the brainchild of Tawn Friedman, then Hillel’s program director, and was led by Rabbi Avi Poupko initially. They were looking for an unusual way of keeping university students engaged with Judaism by creating a “grassroots” synagogue.
By 2003, the shul was receiving almost all of its budget from the federation and Hillel, Rabbi Hundert said.
The shul had to vacate its first premises in 2007 because the number of people using it was exceeding the space’s legal capacity of 50. The Park Avenue site, between Sherbrooke and Milton Streets, is a former restaurant that was considerably bigger but also more expensive.
Rabbi Hundert and the student committee that runs the shul tried a number of ventures in recent years to keep it afloat, fashioning itself as a “synagogue-bar” where traditional Judaism fused with modern culture. A Jewish Community Foundation grant paid for the musicians, but the jam session did not generate much revenue, he said.
Last year, a vegetarian restaurant was launched, but running a restaurant is an arduous business and the idea was abandoned. The Bagg Street Shul has been experiencing a revival in recent years, with more young people going there. Weekly Shabbat services are held under lay leader Michael Kaplan, a retired McGill engineering professor.
His grandfather Baris Kaplan’s construction company was responsible for the conversion of the former late 19th-century residence into a synagogue in 1921.
Whether there will be a legal merger “remains to be sorted out,” Rabbi Hundert said. “The Ghetto Shul is a non-profit organization, recognized for charitable purposes. That may be dissolved. It’s up to the students associated with it.
“But the Bagg Street Shul has been very welcoming, very accommodating.”
Rabbi Hundert noted that the McGill Chabad House is also undergoing a renewal and will meet the religious needs of some students. It has a new young director, Rabbi Shmuely Weiss, and the Peel Street centre is being renovated.
“I’m leaving feeling grateful that I had the opportunity to give something to the young Jewish community and to many individuals who were supportive of the Ghetto Shul,” Rabbi Hundert said.