Makom, a unique congregation in Toronto’s Kensington Market area, has staked its spiritual ground at the crossroads of tradition and innovation.
“We are a grassroots community that fuses traditional Judaism with progressive values,” says Rabbi Aaron Levy, Makom’s founding executive director. His background is modern Orthodox. Since starting Makom in 2009, Rabbi Levy has set out to connect with a broad spectrum of Jewish people living in downtown Toronto.
“Our goal is to provide spiritual, education and cultural programs that appeal to a diverse and inclusive community. We bring together Jews of all stripes and flavours and we find ways to make Jewish life engaging for them,” he said.
Makom will be celebrating its 10th anniversary with Kensington Then & Now, a concert and party that takes place on May 29 at 7:30 p.m. at 4Life Natural Foods. The concert will feature new music by Juno Award-winning musician David Buchbinder.
Buchbinder said he will be infusing New Orleans-style music with a Jewish flavour. “The audience can expect to hear original jazz played by a jazz quartet with a strong New Orleans and Jewish connection,” he said.
Rabbi Levy said the proximity of Makom to Kensington Market and the unique concert venue is significant because the market was the hub of Jewish life in Toronto in the first half of the 20th century.
“By holding our celebration in a fruit and vegetable store in Kensington, we’re connecting with these historical roots, especially since this place was Zimmerman’s Discount store for over five decades, until five years ago,” said Rabbi Levy.
The evening will also pay tribute to such Kensington Market notables as artist Rochelle Rubinstein and David Pinkus, the former president of the Kiever Shul, a century-old synagogue in the market.
Rabbi Levy came to Toronto with his wife, Miriam Kramer, in 2006 as the rabbi for Hillel at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus.
While he was working there, he kept meeting Jewish people living downtown who had little affinity with the existing inner-city synagogues. “Nothing appealed to them. I heard it many times from young adults and young families,” said Rabbi Levy.
“I founded Makom (as a) response to the need for a Jewish community that would attract the many downtown Jews who were uninvolved in communal Jewish life.”
Makom began with Friday night services led by Rabbi Levy at the Kiever Shul. Some of Makom’s early events were also held at community centres, parks and even in congregants’ living rooms.
Much has changed since those early days. Ten years after its founding, it now has a permanent home at 402 College St., a storefront where it holds Kabbalat Shabbat and Kiddush, weekly meditation classes, adult education and a variety of cultural events.
Makom also operates a unique after-school Hebrew immersion and Jewish learning program for 60 students in three different public schools. Junior kindergarten to Grade 4 classes run from two to five days a week, while Makom ATID is a more advanced education program for students in grades 5 to 8.
Rabbi Levy, a father of two, said the programs are designed for families with working parents.
The congregation holds a “song-filled and soulful” service every other Friday night, as well as a monthly vegan Shabbat dinner, he said. “In the past few months, we’ve had Friday night family services and dinner for families with younger children. We’ve had two so far and they have both been sold out.”
Makom attracts a wide range of people, from graduate students to empty nesters, who have moved downtown. “Our bell curve bumps up strongly with young adults and young families. All ages are welcome,” said Rabbi Levy.
Its High Holiday services, which are held at Hart House, draw more than 300 people. Likewise, the annual family matzah bake in Dufferin Grove Park attracts families from across the Greater Toronto Area. Despite the rain this year, nearly 100 people attended, Rabbi Levy said.
“Had it been a gorgeous day, we might have had 300 people. We’ve had as many as 250 people and it keeps growing.”
For more information about Kensington Then & Now, call 416-546-6043, or visit makomTO.org.