Thursday, August 17, 2006

As area north of Toronto grows, Jewish groups struggle to keep up

By Bill Gladstone

TORONTO, Aug. 15 (JTA) —

Seven years ago, when Rabbi Ezriel Sitzer opened a storefront Jewish educational center north of Toronto, the area was just “pasture and sheep.”

It’s a lot more than that today.

Construction of new homes has been rapid since developers arrived in the area known as Thornhill Woods four years ago. Today about three-quarters of some 6,500 planned single-family homes have been built and sold.

So far the area is at least 50 percent Jewish, with young married couples predominating, drawn by the slightly lower housing prices.

As many as 80,000 Jews — about 40 percent of the greater Toronto area’s Jewish population — live in the area immediately north of the city’s northern limit.

A magnet for new immigrants from Montreal, Winnipeg, Israel, Russia, South Africa or Argentina in recent years, the York Region, which boasts one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the Diaspora, is the fastest growing census division in Canada.

Its population has grown by 19 percent since 2001 and is nearing the 1 million mark. Jews are just one of many burgeoning ethnic groups.

“I had my eye on this area, hoping and thinking it would become Jewish, and thank God I was right,” said Sitzer, dean of the Jewish Center for Learning and Living, which recently purchased a five-acre site for an expanded spiritual facility.

“This community, including Dufferin Hills and Coronation, is well represented by many different Jewish groups — Russian, Sephardic, Israeli, South African — and we intend to develop this project with all of their needs in mind,” Sitzer said. “Rather than one large sanctuary, we’re planning to have a ‘synaplex’ consisting of smaller sanctuaries for each of these groups.”

Other new residential areas in the region include Elgin Mills, Coronation, Dufferin Hills and Shaftesbury.

Three miles north of older and more developed areas like Thornhill and Concord, Sitzer’s neighborhood of Thornhill Woods still has no operating synagogue, though several congregations meet in private homes.

“It’s still so raw here,” he said. “There’s not a kosher restaurant here in this part of the Woods. There’s not even a kosher pizzeria here yet.”

Several restaurants have opened to the south, including a branch of the Israeli chain Me-Va-Me, to cater to the estimated 12,000-15,000 Israeli-Canadians living in the “905” region, as the area is known, based on its telephone area code.

Numerous synagogues have been built in the more established southern section of the region, including the 25-year-old Temple Har Zion, which shares a parking lot with a mosque.

Rebecca Soberman and her husband and infant daughter moved into a house in Thornhill Woods eight months ago, which at the time was just the third house occupied on their street. Now all the houses are built and occupied.

“People called us true pioneers, because it was just dust and mud,” Soberman said.

“It’s an area of young couples, newlyweds and very young families. We wanted to be among our peers,” she said. “A lot of young people are moving into the new areas all at the same time and will be growing together.”

According to Bryan Keshen, a strategic planner for the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, there has been no corresponding drop in Jewish residents within the city to account for the sustained Jewish growth along its northern fringe.

It’s not a case of “people moving out of the city and into the suburbs,” he said. The York Region “is growing organically unto itself as the rest of Toronto is growing. Nothing else is shrinking Jewishly.”

Community planners first recognized the demographic trend in the mid-1990s, and in 2001 arranged the purchase of a 50-acre tract for future community needs.

Conducted quietly and covertly through agents, the deal relied upon the generosity of scores of benefactors and donors, who each contributed some US$110,000, or about the price of an acre. The land, which lies adjacent to a nine-acre protected woodland, has since risen significantly in value.

Last year the federation broke ground on a mammoth northern campus to house schools, service agencies, conference facilities, a health and fitness pavilion, restaurants and cultural enterprises, all in an environment of public gardens, courtyards and streets. A main boulevard has been named after Col. Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the 2003 Columbia shuttle crash.

With an estimated cost of nearly US$89 million, the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus is scheduled to open in stages, beginning in September 2007, when the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto opens. Four elementary schools also are planned for the complex, which reportedly will boast the largest gathering of Jewish day school students outside of Israel.

“We know that the population is growing so rapidly that we absolutely have to be there,” said Karen Paikin, spokesperson for the UJA Federation’s Jewish Family and Child Services. The agency is planning a branch office in the Lebovic campus to help it provide counseling and programs related to child protection, domestic abuse and other social services.

The Chabad-Lubavitch organization long has had a presence north of Toronto. It operates five centers in the region, including the eight-year-old Chabad Flamingo, which is set to undergo a major expansion costing nearly $5.8 million.

Some new residential areas, such as the Shaftesbury neighborhood, are 70 percent Jewish, Keshen said, adding that the 200,000-strong Jewish population in the metropolitan area gives many residents the confidence to live as Jews.

Even so, many still have to drive two or three miles to get to the nearest kosher butcher or supermarket with a wide range of kosher products.

“The infrastructure just hasn’t kept up with the community needs,” Keshen said.

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