L’Annexe is the newest community drop-in centre for young Montrealers—created through Federation CJA’s social service agency Ometz

Cutting the ribbon at the official opening of L’Annexe are, from left, Agence Ometz president Joel Shalit, CEO Dominique McCaughey, award winners Cass Ranger and Jared Roboz, Azrieli Foundation board member Sharon Azrieli and CEO and chair Naomi Azrieli. (PBL Photography photo)

Jared Roboz, a.k.a. J-Rob, did not have many advantages growing up. He was referred to Agence Ometz, Federation CJA’s social service agency, where over several years he received counselling in making the transition to adulthood.

Today he is held up as an inspiration to other young adults who have found an inclusive, safe environment at L’Annexe, a new Ometz centre for those aged 16 to 35, who, for various reasons, need help in finding their way or are just looking for a community. It’s both an informal drop-in site that offers social and recreational events, and a place where professional guidance can be received.

The entrance sign sums up L’Annexe: “Everyone is welcome to be their full self in this space.”

Anyone in that age group can take part, whether or not they are an Ometz client or Jewish. The agency says the long-planned centre fills a gap in services to young adults. More than half of the 500 people that have benefited from L’Annexe in the past year are over age 25.

Located on the second floor of the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA, L’Annexe was officially opened this week—two-and-a-half years after originally scheduled due to the pandemic. Virtual and hybrid activities were held until full operations were possible earlier this year.

Roboz continued his education while pursuing passions in music, art and writing, and learned to live autonomously. He connected with his Jewish identity, became bar mitzvah, and today works as an executive assistant at the Museum of Jewish Montreal, performing in the alternative pop band Saint-Zenon in his spare time.

He volunteers in the Black community, serving as president of a project to revive what was once called the Negro Community Centre in Little Burgundy.

During the COVID lockdown, he led popular spoken word workshops for his peers at L’Annexe. 

Ometz CEO Dominique McCaughey, in presenting Roboz with the inaugural Margaret and Larry Naschen L’Annexe Award, said, “J-Rob works diligently towards a better life in Montreal for both Jews and Canadians of African descent through his activism, his music, and his community-building.”

Roboz told the donors, community leaders and staff attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony, “The people I grew up with were not as fortunate as I am to have had this kind of support. I thank you are making this world a bit more fair.”

L’Annexe users do not fit a simple category. They may be on the autism spectrum or otherwise neurodiverse, come from difficult family backgrounds or have health issues. Some identify as LGBTQ, or are leaving the ultra-Orthodox community.

Ometz consulted with Ada Sinacore of McGill University’s educational and counseling psychology department in developing L’Annexe. It was felt many young adults would be more comfortable in a non-clinical setting. Ometz has traditionally offered services only out of its offices in the federation building.

The manager is Lanya McClintock, who worked for years in the United States with youth with disabilities, the formerly incarcerated, and immigrants.

“We have something to offer all young adults,” she said, “whether you are a neurodiverse 18-year-old hoping to score your first job, a 25-year-old experiencing anxiety in coming out to your family, a CEGEP student wondering if the educational path you’ve chosen is right for you, or a young adult who just moved to Montreal and is looking to engage socially with a diverse Jewish community.”

L’Annexe, an idea around for years, was finally made possible by lead donations from the Azrieli Foundation and Steve Kaplan, president of Reliance Construction, which renovated a large section of the Y’s second floor. A large number of individual donors, as well as the federation and Centraide of Greater Montreal, also contributed.

The spacious, open-concept lounge has large windows overlooking a park. The blond wood flooring and walls and subdued colours were carefully chosen. There is a full kitchen and a fussball table, books and plants to relax with.

Adjoining the main area are meeting rooms, a computer lab, a “chill” room, and offices.

November activities lists include cooking, writing and jewelry making workshops, a baking club, pizza and games nights, drama therapy and a communal dinner. There is a mezuzah on every doorpost and Jewish holidays, like Purim, are celebrated.

“We are proud to have an open, diverse community at L’Annexe where the centre’s Jewish identity is central to what we do and the way we do it,” said McCaughey.

Retired Ometz CEO Gail Small, who was instrumental in getting L’Annexe off the ground, said the ultimate goal is to instill “a sense of agency” in its users, who have a large say in its direction. “Above all, L’Annexe is for youth and by youth.”

Users can avail themselves of as much or as little as they want.

The second L’Annexe Award winner, Cass Ranger, contacted Ometz in 2020 when she struggled with her mental health and dissatisfaction with her job.

At L’Annexe Ranger enjoyed its programming while continuing counseling.  She switched to the field of graphic design, more suited to her interest in art, moved into her own apartment, and is now doing freelance work for small business owners.

“Ometz and L’Annexe have helped me change the trajectory of my life,” she said. “When I initially reached out for therapy, I was depressed, frozen in place and questioning everything. Thankfully, I found the right place to guide me through.”