A synagogue in Thornhill, Ont., is being saved by the Iranian developer who bought the land it currently occupies.
The Orthodox Zichron Yisroel Congregation of Associated Hebrew Schools has operated in the Kamin Education Centre since 1995. When Associated announced it would be selling the campus in 2017, Zichron Yisroel recognized that it might need to scramble to secure a home for its 140-family congregation. It might have been possible to put up a new building within three years of losing the Kamin branch, which Associated will leave at the end of this current school year, but that was hardly comforting to the shul’s administrators.
“Our biggest challenge that was keeping us all awake at night is, what do we do in the interim … where do we go?” said Jason Shron, president of the Zichron Yisroel Congregation. “There were very few spaces available for a 140-family congregation to just say, ‘Hi, we want to move into your basement for three years.’”
Associated sold the property to Format Group, which did not know that there was a synagogue running out of the property when it purchased it. One member of the congregation, Joel Etienne, had an office that was two doors down from Format Group, so he and another congregant, Assaf Richulsky, approached the company and let it know about Zichron Yisroel.
According to Babak Sarshar, the president of Format Group, Etienne and Richulsky just wanted to find out if it would be possible to keep the congregation in the vicinity, close to where its members live. Sarshar took it further. He has offered to donate a piece of the land to Zichron Yisroel for their new building plus $250,000 toward its construction, and to let them stay in the old building until the new one is ready.
“Because we are a development group, we try to be good corporate citizens, and the congregation, being most of the ratepayer association in the area, this would help us greatly in helping the community behind us for the development,” said Sarshar. “But besides all this, it was just a charitable contribution to the community.”
The next step was a meeting between the developers, the shul and Vaughan Coun. Alan Shefman, which Shron called a “shidduch” (marriage). From there, Shron said, relations were very positive between the parties.
“Think about the fact they’ve bought a plot of land not even knowing that we were an active congregation. And to go from there to giving us a chunk of their land for free is extremely generous,” said Shron.
Shron said the new building will hopefully be ready in three years or so.
“They will leave the existing building standing, even though we would be the only tenants because the school will be moved out, build the new synagogue on the southeast corner of the property, and then we just walk over,” said Shron, who credits Sarshar with the idea of staying in the old building.
For a shul that prides itself on community, it’s tough to overstate how much the threat of losing their space loomed over their heads.
“If you have a bar mitzvah planned in that time (between Associated leaving the building and Zichron Yisroel getting a new one), you want to make sure you’ve got a place to have it,” said Rabbi Charles Grysman, the synagogue’s spiritual leader.
That’s why they are so appreciative of Sarshar’s donation. Both Shron and Rabbi Grysman also stressed that they have always maintained an excellent relationship with Associated, and that hasn’t changed. They understand why the school had to close that branch.
This isn’t the first time Sarshar has helped a religious institution in need. He said that the company gave the Chabad on Bayview Avenue a house to use for about two years during a previous development, and provided an interim home for a church that was in a similar situation.