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Annex Shul reopens with new direction, leadership

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Aaron Rotenberg is the new spiritual leader of the downtown Toronto minyan

After being closed for about six months, the Annex Shul is holding services again, with new leadership and a new direction.

The downtown Toronto minyan has hired Aaron Rotenberg as its spiritual leader and has resumed holding Friday night and Saturday morning services several times a month.

The minyan, which attracts young professionals and students living in the city centre, floundered after its former leader, Yacov Fruchter, was tapped for a job at Beth Tzedec Congregation.

Over the half a year that the shul was closed, its leadership talked to members and examined what needed to change and what should be preserved, said board chair Brandon Lablong.

One of the most significant changes is that the service, which had always had a “diverse pluralistic outlook,” has now become fully egalitarian, Rotenberg said.

“That was part of the feedback from the community,” he said. “The change is that all parts of the service are open to men, women and people of any gender identification.”

“As we come back, we’ve refocused our leadership and brought in a refreshed board with a clear vision of what they want,” Lablong said. The revised model will concentrate on services, education and partnerships with other organizations, mainly those based in the downtown core.

As part of the shul’s focus on education, Rotenberg said he plans on leading a learning series about gender and Halachah in the near future.

But many of the features that made the Annex Shul, which started 11 years ago, unique, will remain the same. The minyan will continue to use a “tri-chitzah,” with separate prayer spaces for men and women, as well as a mixed space.

It will also continue to use two prayer books during services, the Koren Sacks Siddur, a modern-Orthodox siddur, and Eit Ratzon, which offers a more liberal commentary.

Similarly, the contributions to the community’s Friday night potlucks are arranged on different tables, depending on the level of kosher observance in the cook’s home, in an effort to be inclusive, Lablong said.

About 50 to 60 people attend services, which are held in the University of Toronto’s Wolfond Centre for Jewish Life. Since the minyan re-opened just over two months ago, “we’ve seen about 100 different faces,” Lablong said.

The shul does not have a traditional membership model of charging annual dues. Instead, it relies on the generosity of those attending services and raises money by selling tickets for the High Holiday services.

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Currently, the Annex Shul holds services two Friday nights and one Saturday morning a month, as well as on Jewish holidays. The shul is also starting to hold services on Rosh Chodesh.

Its first Rosh Hodesh service fell on the same day as the Pride parade, which was especially moving, Rotenberg said. “To have a traditional musical Hallel service in the morning and then to gather a bunch of people from the services after having bagels and cream cheese together and then go to the Pride parade felt like a uniquely downtown, inclusive Jewish experience.”

As part of its commitment to partnering with other organizations, the Annex Shul’s services fall on different weeks than those offered by other groups, such as Makom and the Partnership Minyan. And on the weeks when the Annex Shul is not meeting, they announce where else services are being held in the downtown area, Lablong said.

Rotenberg, who has been affiliated with the Annex Shul for several years as a board member and has lead services in the past, is excited about the new directions the shul is taking.

“There’s a real vibrancy in the (Jewish) community downtown that is being expressed in the Annex Shul, along with these partner organizations,” he said. “There’s an extra sort of energy and commitment that really leaves me feeling excited and impassioned and invested in the community that I’m part of, and that we’re all part of building.”