There was a time not that long ago when Russian Jews were known in the broader Jewish community as “takers,” new arrivals who came to the country with little and who needed help getting established.
The success and imminent expansion of the Jewish Russian Community Centre (JRCC) Furniture Depot indicates many Russian Jews have arrived, in a financial sense, and are now giving back to the Jewish community and the broader one in the Greater Toronto Area, said Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman, a spokesman for the Furniture Depot.
The Furniture Depot, located in a small plaza on Centre Street in the City of Vaughan, serves 750 families a year by providing 6,100 items of furniture and other household items, donated largely by members of the Jewish community, he said.
Only some of the beneficiaries are Russian Jews. A good number are longstanding Canadians but the majority are newcomers to the country – many of them non-Jewish, who are living on modest incomes. Last year, the Furniture Depot provided newly arrived Syrian refugees with household items, he said.
“There are areas where Russian Jews need help, but there are other areas where they can, and are helping (others.) They are a contributing part of society,” Rabbi Zaltzman said.
The Furniture Depot has been operating since 2007, but over the years the scale of the endeavour has changed substantially.
Back then businessman Igor Korenzvit, currently chair of the JRCC board of governors, donated space to the endeavour in a warehouse space at Lawrence and Dufferin.
After three or four years, the depot relocated to its current location, but in a smaller space of around 6,500 square feet.
Unfortunately, the warehouse space was not conducive to the longevity of the furniture, as humidity and heat led to substantial deterioration. The RJCC applied for and received a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and matched the $500,000 it received with private donations, plus received another $300,000 in federal grants.
Businessman David Mirvish, provided substantial funds to the Furniture Depot at the time, in memory of his parents, Anne and Ed Mirvish, Rabbi Zaltzman said.
With the $1.2 million raised, the Furniture Depot doubled its space to 13,500 square feet and upgraded the facility with new lighting, heating and humidity controls, while putting in offices, an elevator and a conveyor belt for the loading and unloading of furniture, Rabbi Zaltzman said.
From 2014, when the changes were introduced, to 2015, the number of clients more than doubled to 654. For the past three years the numbers have grown incrementally to around 750, but because of physical constraints, the Furniture Depot cannot expand beyond those numbers, he said.
Hence, the need to further upgrade the facility. Earlier this year, the Ontario Trillium Foundation granted the Furniture Depot $500,000, which will go in part to creating a more efficient loading and unloading area served by a freight elevator and a loading dock.
“Growth had stabilized and now we’re starting the groundwork for our next leap,” Rabbi Zaltzman said.
Once the changes are implemented, the Furniture Depot will be able to increase its capacity to 3,000 families per year, though the depot is still looking for a benefactor to provide operating funds to allow it to acquire a second truck, a driver and hire more staff to manage the greater demand expected in the future.
According to Rabbi Zaltzman, clients must be referred by a reputable social service agency, such as JIAS Toronto or Jewish Family & Child, and they must make appointments to view the available furniture. Each family is limited to 15 pieces.
Items in the depot range from beds, mattresses and box springs, to dining room sets, coffee tables, lamps and rugs. Donors receive a charitable tax receipt based on the item donated, not its market value. It more or less pays for the cost of delivering the item, which is borne by the donor, said Rabbi Zaltzman.
With only one other similar furniture depot operating in Etobicoke, the JRCC Furniture Depot is clearly meeting a public need while providing people the opportunity to do a good deed by helping those less fortunate than themselves. Ninety per cent of the families that receive items live below the poverty line, 87 per cent are immigrants and 20 per cent are transitioning from shelters.
Not only does donating used items of furniture divert them from landfill, making the endeavour environmentally friendly, but it also fulfils Maimonides’ injunction to first help those in one’s own community and then to assist others. “We have an obligation to those living in our city, who are not part of our community,” Rabbi Zaltzman said.
Paying it forward may pay off one day with the new newcomers, just as it did with Russian Jews who also were once new to the GTA.