Harley Finkelstein was a poor law school student when he made a pledge to help support the local Chabad emissary, Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky, however he could. Now, over a decade later, Finkelstein is finally following through on that promise.
Finkelstein moved to Ottawa in 2005, to study law at the University of Ottawa. He didn’t know anyone in the city, but soon befriended Rabbi Boyarsky, who was often on campus. One night, Rabbi Boyarsky invited Finkelstein over for dinner. As Finkelstein recalls it, the house was packed, with upwards of 50 people, even though there was room for closer to 20.
Finkelstein asked Rabbi Boyarsky if it was a busy night and the rabbi responded that it was actually a pretty slow one.
“Here’s a guy that was new to Ottawa, didn’t grow up here … who just decided that the Ottawa Jewish community was so important to him that he wanted to help it and support it and do what he could,” said Finkelstein. “And that night when I had dinner at his house, I said to him, ‘If I’m ever in a position to help, if I’m ever in a position that allows me to support financially in any way, I would love to help.’ ”
Now, Finkelstein is in that position. He and his wife, Lindsay Taub, are both successful entrepreneurs – he is the chief operating officer of Shopify, an Ottawa-based commerce platform that’s used in over 175 countries, and she is the owner of an ice cream shop called Sundae School.
Together, Finkelstein and Taub are overseeing a project to create a community centre and synagogue in downtown Ottawa, which will be called the Finkelstein Chabad Jewish Centre. They have already purchased a former apartment building on Friel Street and used it to host services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
All of this is possible because Finkelstein and Taub donated their own money to the cause and helped raise even more, which includes generous donations from the Shabinsky and Hart families.
“I wrote a cheque for half-a-million dollars and the reason I’m saying that is (is because) I’d like to use that as an example for others. But after that, I called a bunch of friends of mine in Ottawa who had been touched by Rabbi Boyarsky in some way, who had felt his warmth and his commitment to the community, and we were able to raise an additional $1.2 million,” said Finkelstein. “It shows how deeply passionate this community is about Jewish community and Jewish life.”
The next step is to renovate the building, to turn into the multi-faceted community centre that Finkelstein and Taub envision. That means a synagogue, spaces to host Shabbat dinners and other events, areas for students to hang out between classes, apartments for students who need a place to spend the night, a commercial kitchen and even a mikveh.
“I met my wife through the Ottawa Jewish community,” said Finkelstein. “My wife and I feel passionate that Jewish life – and particularly Jewish life on campus – is a wonderful way to meet other people.”
Finkelstein said that the renovations should start imminently and expects them to be completed by the summer.
Rabbi Boyarsky is excited about what the centre will mean for the community.
My wife and I feel passionate that Jewish life – and particularly Jewish life on campus – is a wonderful way to meet other people.
– Harley Finkelstein
“No Jewish student shouldn’t have a home. They should all have a home and a place to go and a safe space,” he said. “It’s an open-door policy, just like Israel. No Jew can say they don’t have a home. They land in Israel and they have a home. Chabad on campus is the same idea … come here any time of day and you have a home.”
Rabbi Boyarksy was moved by Finkelstein and Taub’s contribution.
“Harley really gave it his all, his heart and soul.… We’re thankful to God for connecting us to Harley, same thing to Harley and Lindsay for their generosity,” Rabbi Boyarksy said, adding that even back when Finkelstein was a law student, he had a very generous spirit.