New Reform synagogue opens downtown Toronto

Seen with Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, centre, are City Shul launch co-chairs Sylvia Solomon, left, and Marsha Slivka, as they celebrate the opening of the new downtown Reform synagogue. [Andrea Nietko photo]

TORONTO — A new downtown Reform synagogue opened its doors this week at a ceremony that welcomed the shul into the community and the community into the shul.

“There isn’t a Reform synagogue from Bloor [Street] all the way to the water, and that’s a lot of Jews!” said Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, who was sworn in as the rabbi of City Shul at the launch ceremony.

At the shul’s opening ceremony on Oct. 14, she made a pledge to the community – and they pledged the same thing in return – to be compassionate and have a good relationship.

For 15 years, Rabbi Goldstein led the Kolel High Holiday services, first at the then-Bathurst Jewish Community Centre and later in a North York hotel’s ballroom. As soon as she finished blowing the shofar on Yom Kippur, people would suggest that she also hold services for Sukkot and Simchat Torah. She wanted to see the congregants on a more regular basis as well.

“A lot of families and kids would then join other synagogues for bar and bat mitzvahs, which they should, but I felt like I missed the family,” she said.

The new synagogue’s services will take place in the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life at the University of Toronto.

Rabbi Goldstein said the synagogue is unique for many reasons. For example, it reaches a wide demographic. There are black, Asian, gay and lesbian members. Almost half of all the members of the synagogue have never belonged to one before.

“The paradigm is a very different one,” she said.

The synagogue is taking the approach of building its policies and traditions through its congregation.

“Decisions and policies are now being invented, are now being imagined together with the congregation,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “It’s very much a crowd-sourcing synagogue.”

Even the shul’s name and logo were chosen by the congregants. And after the High Holiday services, the synagogue sent a survey to people who attended to find out which parts of the services they found meaningful and which parts they would like to change for next time.

Unlike most synagogues, this one has no board. Instead, there’s a leadership team working together in a non-hierarchical fashion. Each of the eight members has his or her own portfolio, but they all work together to promote the synagogue and run the programming.

Additionally, instead of committees, there are “task forces.” Those involved on a task force take on short projects, and when it’s done, they move on to another project entirely.

Jonathan Wyman, a member of the leadership team, said he and his wife were really enthused when he found out Rabbi Goldstein would be starting regular services.

“We have daughters who are approaching bat mitzvah age, and wanted to be sure they were involved in a shul and a community,” he said.

He tried attending synagogues in both downtown and midtown Toronto, but never felt as comfortable as he does with Rabbi Goldstein.

“Our personal inclination is more intellectual and less traditionally liturgical,” he said. “She’s very left-wing politically and right-wing traditionally. It’s a lot closer to the Conservative services that many of us grew up with.”

The synagogue attracts people from all walks of life, and Rabbi Goldstein said that ultimately, they’re trying to reach anybody who wants to be reached.

So far, in just a few months, 140 member units, or households, have answered the call and joined the synagogue. Some are Orthodox Jews, others are interfaith couples, spiritual searchers and even people with no Jewish background, she said.

“We have a lot of empty nesters who have moved downtown for the condos,” Rabbi Goldstein said, adding that the shul’s programming attracts a wide range of people. For example, each month, there will be two Friday night services. One is for families with children, with a story and a potluck dinner. The other is for adults and includes a one-hour musical meditation to welcome in Shabbat.

She described the shul’s services as very traditional, especially considering they are based in the Reform movement. Services are mostly in Hebrew, and they do a full, silent Amidah with full repetition in the morning service.

However, they bring out the drums and dance as the sun sets during Neilah, the concluding service on Yom Kippur.

The first High Holiday services took place at Trinity St. Paul’s United Church and Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts.

“It was gorgeous and very spiritual,” said Rabbi Goldstein.

She borrowed a Torah from Am Shalom Synagogue in Barrie, Ont.

“[It was] a kind of ‘let’s help the newest little shul in town’ from a former ‘little new shul’ that now is thriving,” she said.

City Shul is already showing signs of thriving. The Hebrew school is running, with 40 kids currently enrolled from senior kindergarten to pre-bar or bat mitzvah.

For more information about the synagogue, visit