The Globe and Mail
December 3, 2010
Women stand on one side. Men on the other. A long artist's work bench separates the sexes. Everyone faces a wall that explodes with the colour of huge paintings and prints.
Unusually, it's a woman who leads the prayer, a swaying incantation punctuated by the thump of hands drumming and clapping, creating a gospel atmosphere amid the Hebrew songs.
The congregation of 50 or so is young and energetic and their voices roll and rock through the storefront artist's studio, converted to a place of worship on Friday evenings.
They call themselves Makom, and they're an unusual blend of downtown hipster do-it-yourself spirit, and traditional Jewish orthodoxy. They offer seminars in urban homesteading, jam- and chocolate-making, beer- and kombucha-brewing, composting and canning. They welcome same-sex couples, tend toward a liberal stance on Israel and are city-loving, Jane Jacobs devotees.
Makom sees itself as part of a movement to rejuvenate Jewish life in Toronto's old downtown core.
The area around Kensington Market was once one of the twin hearts of Judaism in Canada (the other was The Main in Montreal), but its denizens have moved farther away with each successive generation.
Makom's founder is Rabbi Aaron Levy, a genial, 34-year-old American who grew up around Washington, D.C., and moved to Canada as a campus rabbi a few years ago. As he walks past the stalls of Kensington Market, past the statue of Al Waxman, the Jewish actor who was the “King of Kensington,” he explains there are only a handful of congregations left downtown. None felt right to him. So he set out to create a hybrid that he thought would appeal to Jews of a similar mindset.
A century ago, Toronto's Jews were clustered in the city's legendary Ward neighbourhood, close to present day City Hall. The Ward was to Toronto what the Lower East Side was to New York, a densely populated slum that became the first stop for thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe, beginning in the 1890s. Many started out as peddlers, but as they established themselves they began to move west to the Kensington area, just north of a growing garment district along Spadina.
They established synagogues in houses or storefronts, and by the 1920s most of Toronto's 35,000 Jews had left the Ward for Kensington.
After the Second World War, their migration continued further north and west, often hewing to Bathurst Street. As the second and third generations grew more prosperous, they sought out leafier suburbs in North York and Richmond Hill. By the 1970s there were very few Jews left in Kensington. Today, the fastest growing Jewish communities are in Vaughan, which has the largest Jewish population in the GTA, and in Aurora, where the community is projected to have increased sevenfold since 1991.
But in the midst of this broader move away from downtown, quite a few people are swimming against the current. According to United Israel Appeal's national task force on Jewish demographics, the downtown core's Jewish population is projected to have grown 41 per cent in the last 20 years, to 7,000. More importantly, the core has the highest proportion of 25-to-44-year-olds in the city, the young people who form families and act as catalysts in a community. (The Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, recently revamped and now bustling at Bloor and Spadina, is one example of this revitalization.) David Pinkus, the 86-year-old president of Bellevue Avenue's Kiever Synagogue and unofficial historian of Kensington, said many of his generation who left the area are aghast at seeing their grandchildren head back downtown. For them, the area still has the tint of hard times better left behind. Houses they sold for $7,000 or $8,000 in the area between Dundas and College Streets in the 1950s and 1960s are now selling for close to $1-million.
“They shake their heads,” Mr. Pinkus said.
Mr. Pinkus still lives in the Kensington area, describing himself and a few other holdovers as the “last of the Mohicans.” He's responsible for the remarkable restoration of the Kiever Synagogue, one of only two left in the market area. He has seen Makom's rapid growth – from next-to-nothing to regular Friday-night attendance of 50 – and is watching it closely. The Kiever still has strong membership and good attendance at High Holidays, but Saturday services typically attract just 20 people. Makom has held services at the Kiever on many Friday nights over the last year and they're working toward a more permanent relationship. While the negotiations continue, Makom is meeting at an artist's studio on College Street, just north of Kensington Market, but they're eager to join forces with the Kiever.
Although the congregations are very different, a partnership would be a shot of energy for the Kiever and give Makom a base to establish some permanence. “We think, like Jane Jacobs said, that new ideas need old buildings,” Mr. Levy said. “Makom” means “space” or “place” in Hebrew, and the group's logo is an old-style downtown street sign. He said he admires Mr. Pinkus for resisting pressure years ago to sell the land and follow the northerly migration, and for restoring the synagogue to its former splendour.
Mr. Levy describes his congregation as a mix of young professionals, social-justice workers, artists and academics. Many are descended from families who moved out of the area 40 or 50 years ago.
“There's been a gradually intensifying influx of Jews, primarily young adults, moving back downtown because they value the urban environment and the multicultural diversity and the pedestrian scale of life downtown,” Mr. Levy said.
Jennifer Herszman Capraru, a theatre director in her 40s, said she likes Makom because it's orthodox, but more liberal than most synagogues in the area. “The prayers are practised as they're written, but they're interpreted in a more contemporary way. They make the Torah come to them instead of going to it,” she said. She's also appreciative of the homesteading aspect: “Everything's organic and make-your-own-food and back to the land. I think that's really great.”
There are about twice as many women as men in Makom, Mr. Levy said, and his group makes a point of allowing women to lead prayers and hold leadership positions. He is the only male on the group's seven person leadership team. Some of Makom's followers weren't previously involved with Jewish life for a variety of reasons. Makom tends to be centre-left on the Israel-Palestine debate, which makes it unusual in Toronto, but which can be attractive to young people turned off by the polarization of the issue.
“Our programming is reflective of a downtown ethic. Open minded, politically progressive, diverse, inclusive, artistic, active,” Mr. Levy said.
They don't have a firm membership figure, but Mr. Levy says his e-mail list has more than 800 names. Some events draw as many as 100 people, though regular turnout is about 50.
Will it last? Will it continue to grow? That may depend on whether the influx downtown is permanent or temporary. Demographers say every generation tends to feel the pull of the suburbs when its children are born. Mr. Pinkus, who has spent his life committed to the downtown, thinks Makom may thrive.
“I think the young people are looking for something. They don't find it in the shopping centres of the suburbs,” he said. “Once they found it in Yorkville. Now they're finding it in Kensington.”