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Schoolchildren taking Jewish tours of Kensington

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Ishai Buchbinder pays the Harwood students a surprise visit with his cart full of wares.

If you take a stroll through Toronto’s Kensington Market at the right moment this May, you might spot a Jewish peddler straight out of the 1930s, selling his meagre wares from a cart.

Ishai Buchbinder is his name and he is played by an actor from the Ashkenaz Foundation. The character will make around 80 appearances in Kensington throughout the month – a surprise for Toronto District School Board (TDSB) students in grades 6 through 10, who are touring the area for Jewish Heritage Month. The tours were organized by the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA), UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the TDSB.

Dara Solomon, the executive director of the OJA, said the idea for a Jewish tour of Kensington Market has been in the works for about half a year.

“In previous years, (TDSB) had done a lot of Holocaust programming and they wanted to do something that was really about the Jewish heritage of the city,” she said. “The Ontario Jewish Archives has been operating walking tours in Kensington Market for over 40 years. And so we started working with them on adapting our tours so that it was appropriate for school-age children.”

The 90-minute walking tours include four stops: the First Russian Congregation of Rodfei Sholem Anshei Kiev, better known as the Kiever Synagogue; Bellevue Park; Kensington Avenue; and the Anshei Minsk Synagogue, which is better known as the Minsker Synagogue.

At each stop, the tour guide shares a piece of Toronto Jewish history, using stories, photographs and the surprise appearance of Ishai Buchbinder, to recreate the feel of Kensington Market when it was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Among the topics of conversation are the Christie Pitts Riot, Jewish dietary restrictions, famous Jewish-Canadian boxer Sammy Luftspring and the Jewish influence in Toronto’s garment industry.

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On the morning of May 8, one of those tour guides was Matt Brundle, the site supervisor of the TDSB’s Toronto Urban Studies Centre, which runs hundreds of programs for 140 TDSB schools each year. His tour group was comprised of students from Harwood Public School.

Of the 19 students on the tour, only one or two had ever been inside a synagogue. Before entering the Kiever, Brundle stopped in front of the main steps and went over the history of the Jews in eastern Europe, including the anti-Semitism and the pogroms in the late 19th century that led entire communities to emigrate en masse.

He also explained how those communities stuck together once they settled in their new hometowns and, as the transplanted communities accumulated wealth and land, built institutions, such as the Kiever, to serve their populations.

Then he took the kids into the synagogue, which is always one of the highlights of the tour for the students. “The Kiever, it’s quite beautiful, so they’re agog when we’re in there, for sure,” said Brundle.

Matt Brundle shows the Harwood students a miniature Torah inside the Kiever Synagogue.

Another highlight is Ishai Buchbinder’s appearance in an alleyway off Kensington Avenue. He stands up on his cart, sings songs in Yiddish and drapes the giggling students in the clothes he’s selling.

Solomon said the tour was designed “specifically for students who probably know very little about Judaism at all, let alone Jewish immigration to the city. So we focus on teaching them about domestic life, the sort of shared immigration experience, assuming that many of them or their families have come from other places, and what does that sort of shared experience look like,” she said.

By the end of the tour, it seemed like the message had gotten across to the students.

It’s important to learn about Judaism and other cultures, said one of the students, “so we can be more open to what’s out in the world and not be confined to a certain community.”

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