TORONTO — A young modern Orthodox congregation that grew from one member family 14 years ago to more than 200 families today is getting ready to move from its first home atop a Forest Hill Starbucks to a newly built synagogue down the street.
The new building, designed by architect Wayne Swadron and officially called the Albert and Temmy Latner Forest Hill Jewish Centre, will be located at 360 Spadina Rd., just south of Heath Street.
Rifky Karfunkel, the wife of the shul’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Elie Karkunkel, explained that when they were brainstorming what they wanted the 27,000-square- foot synagogue to look like, she came up with the idea to replicate the façade of a Polish synagogue burned to the ground by the Nazis in 1939.
“We had this idea that the greatest revenge or sign of the strength of the Jewish People is to do something meaningful that we’re remembering the past, but also building the future. We wanted to find a shul that we could rebuild… It’s not just a place that people can come and visit and remember what was, but see a Jewish community that is still vibrant,” Rifky Karfunkel said.
The Great Synagogue in Jaslo, Poland, was set on fire by the Nazis in 1939, but was saved by Polish firefighters.
The Nazis responded by forcing local Jews and the Polish firefighters at gunpoint to set the shul ablaze again, destroying it once and for all.
But Rabbi Karfunkel said the fact Polish firefighters initially attempted to save the shul ties into the theme of righteous gentiles.
“Based on the story of the Polish fire department, we have two messages. We have the message of ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ to the Jewish community, but we also feel this is going to be a place where the non-Jewish community will feel comfortable in bringing their students in and learning about the Holocaust,” the rabbi said, adding that there are plans to establish a Holocaust memorial room in the synagogue.
“The message is not only about the fraternity of the Jewish People, but that this was a crazy time in world history and non-Jews stood up to protect their Jewish brothers. So the whole centre itself creates an opportunity for strong messages.”
Rabbi Karfunkel said there are tentative plans to host a grand opening at the new shul after Rosh Hashanah, soon after the congregation moves into the building.
He said the $12-million budget for the building grew to about $20 million, and they still have about $6 million to raise.
He credited many people for the success of the project, but he singled out the Latners, after whom the synagogue is named; John and Julie Kaplan, whom he called “visionaries and builders”; Max and Gianna Glassman, who helped bring the Jaslo replica concept to fruition; and Jeremy Freidman and Fred Wax, the building chairs.
Some of the features of the new building include a “green-friendly rooftop terrace,” which will be used during Sukkot, as well as for wedding ceremonies.
The community will also have access to after-school programing for children and teens.
“We’re going to have a gorgeous banquet hall in the basement for simchahs… We have a gorgeous beit knesset with an Ark that is basically a replica of the Ark destroyed by the Nazis. One of our congregants, just through Googling, found a faded picture of the Ark that was in the Jaslo synagogue and it is a three-storey-high Ark. It is a really unique feature that I think will inspire prayer, big time,” Rabbi Karfunkel said.
Although he was unsure how long it has been since a new synagogue south of Steeles Avenue has been built, he said new synagogues in North America are typically built in developing areas.
“We’re building in an established Jewish neighbourhood… Forest Hill is a neighbourhood, and… this is a neighbourhood centre. It’s not just another place… It’s an iconic space… Whether they are members or whether they participate on their own, they can feel that, ‘Hey, this is a place I’m proud of.’”
Rifky Karfunkel said that as the growing congregation moves forward, community outreach will remain a priority.
“We’re always trying to create that place where everyone will feel comfortable to come and make it their own – no matter what level of background or observance or affiliation. We see that already, as we’re growing and as the building is going up that more people are asking questions and wanting to be involved.”