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Plan for Jewish Museum of Canada site dropped

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The $150-million project was announced in September 2014
The $150-million project was announced in September 2014

Plans to erect the Jewish Museum of Canada as part of the University of Toronto’s new Centre for Civilizations and Cultures have been scrapped indefinitely.

In September 2014, Isadore Sharp, the philanthropist and founder of the Four Season’s hotel chain, along with U of T and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, announced that a Jewish museum would be built at the university’s new cultural and educational centre at 90 Queen’s Park Cres., beside the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). It was once the site of the McLaughlin Planetarium, formerly owned by the ROM, which currently leases the now-shuttered building from the university for storage.

But Sharp – who committed $20 million toward the $150-million project, hoping the museum would “tell the world what our people has contributed over the generations” and would serve as “a voice for the Jewish community” – told The CJN last week that the plan has been dropped, at least for now.

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“At this stage, it’s all being put on hold and it is up to the federation sometime in the future if they wish to proceed with it,” Sharp said.

Steve Shulman, campaign director for UJA Federation, explained that the federation’s role was to act as a “community representative and steward of the community’s interest in this and to be supportive in any way possible.

“This project was really a great vision that the Sharps had, and they are to be commended for their initiative, but I think ultimately… the university wanted to move ahead in a very short period of time, which was particularly challenging, and I think from UJA’s standpoint, we are in a situation where we also have particular priorities in terms of the vulnerable in our community, Jewish education, identity, Jewish advocacy connection with Israel, etc., in our capital campaign.

“You never know, something could arise in another location in the future, but I think right now, there was a very short window in terms of time in that location.”

U of T is moving ahead with the development of the former planetarium, which opened in 1968 and closed in 1995. The project will include a 250-seat performance hall for the university’s nearby faculty of music, as well as space for the school’s department of history, the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, the Institute of Islamic Studies, and a research arm for the Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies.

“This was a wonderful opportunity that the university was offering to us. They have a project that they are moving forward with, and they certainly wanted [the museum] to be part of it, but we had a timeline to work on it, and it just wasn’t feasible with the commitments that had already been made by federation,” Sharp said.

“This just became one more additional fundraising effort, and the timing wasn’t appropriate. We just couldn’t see a way of raising the amount of money needed to make sure that it wasn’t going to be a burden, and we wanted to do everything to make it self-sustaining.”

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Of the $150-million price tag, $65 million was for an endowment to fund the museum’s expenses and make it self-sustaining. The facility was to have featured state-of-the-art permanent and temporary exhibits, including a permanent one on the Holocaust.

“It could happen someplace else, and certainly at a different time,” Sharp said.

“It’s something the federation might do sometime in the future.”