HAMILTON, ONT. – Right now, it smells more of paint and sawdust than cookies and coffee, but Hamilton, Ont., is getting something it hasn’t had for three years: a Jewish community centre.
Since 2015, the region’s 5,000 Jews have gone without a physical community centre, after the former building was deemed to be too expensive to continue operating. Community organizations were forced to find their own office spaces and community-wide events were staged in the three local synagogues.
Gustavo Rymberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Hamilton, said that a new brick-and-mortar centre will give the community the central focal point that it has lacked for far too long.
“It was very clear to me right from the start that this community needed a neutral place to meet,” Rymberg said. “The community needs a place to meet without any barriers.”
Until 2015, the community centre was located in a former racquet club in the suburban Ancaster area. The club was located on a winding rural road that had no sidewalks and was almost a kilometre from the nearest transit stop. It was criticized for being inaccessible to anyone without a car and for being expensive to maintain.
Jewish community centre co-president Lowell Richter said in a September 2015 editorial in the group’s newsletter that the community wasn’t going to continue supporting the centre.
“The reality is that we are faced with a limited pool of funds from which to draw, and the community has not engaged with the current JCC on a significant scale for many years,” he wrote.
Rymberg said he received the same message when he started in his current role at the Federation in June 2017.
“Everyone told me the old location wasn’t the best,” Rymberg said. “Without a car, the other one was hard to reach, but (the new) location is a hit because it’s right in the middle of all the Jewish things in Hamilton.”
While the former location was owned by the Federation, the new centre is leased from Hamilton-based real estate company Effort Trust, under terms that Rymberg described as “a really good deal.”
The new centre, at 1605 Main St. W., in Hamilton’s west end, is close to the majority of the Jewish population. It includes offices for the Federation, community centre staff, Jewish National Fund and Beth Tikvah, an agency that operates group homes for the developmentally disabled.
Jewish Social Services, the other major community agency, opted to keep its own office space in Dundas, citing recent renovations and an attractive lease.
It was very clear to me right from the start that this community needed a neutral place to meet.
– Gustavo Rymberg
When the renovations are finished, the new centre will feature lounges for adults and youth, homework stations, a large meeting room capable of seating up to 70 people and kosher vending machines for those who need a little nosh.
“I think people in Hamilton were desperate for a place to meet and reconnect,” he said. “Every Jewish community needs a place to meet away from its synagogues, so we want this to be a real centre for Jewish life in Hamilton.”
Rymberg said the JCC will operate in the new location for up to five years, during which the opportunity to build a new centre can be evaluated. That, he said, will mean testing the Hamilton community’s willingness to pay for a new structure.
The new location also offers the chance for community groups to save money by sharing services, such as a reception area, information technology and human resources staff.
“I think we’re going to have a greater connection to the Hamilton Jewish community from this location,” said Beth Tikvah executive director Chris Barone. “We hope for more involvement and another avenue to get our services and message out there.”
That exposure, he added, will be important for the group, which has grown from five staff to 50 and from one home to seven in the last four years.
Founded 125 years ago, the Jewish community centre operated at various rented locations in Hamilton’s downtown core until 1950, when a building was erected on Delaware Avenue, just east of the city centre. The location operated for more than 30 years, until the building in Ancaster was acquired.
That location was sold for $1 million in 2015, to a company that intended to turn it into a soccer complex.
Official openings of the new structure are being planned for donors and members. Programming at the new JCC is expected to start in September or October.