New Reform synagogue set to open in Toronto

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

TORONTO — Two months after her Nov. 30 retirement as director of Kolel: the Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is hyped about her current project: a new shul in downtown Toronto.

The City Shul, to be launched on the High Holidays, will be the first Reform congregation south of Holy Blossom Temple. It will serve people in the area bounded by St. Clair Avenue, Queen Street, Yonge Street and Dufferin Street. Its location is yet to be determined.

Paul Leszner, president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and chair of the URJ Canada steering committee, told The CJN that downtown Toronto, with its many young adults and empty nesters, has become “increasingly in need of a Reform congregation.

“With all the new condos, it has become an area that people are moving to.”

According to UIA Federations Canada's 2009 National Task Force of Jewish Demographics, downtown Toronto’s Jewish population numbers more than 16,000 people.

Leszner noted that there are “a tremendous number” of unaffiliated Jews in the area.

“We’re constantly looking to build Reform Judaism,” Leszner said, adding that in the United States, the Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination, but it is the smallest in Canada.

The City Shul will be the second Reform congregation to open in the GTA in a short period. Neshamah Congregation opened in Thornhill Woods last summer.

Jeff Cipin, who has attended Rabbi Goldstein’s High Holiday services with his wife Aviva for the past 15 years, is on the leadership team of the new shul. He has lived near St. Clair and Christie Street since the mid-1980s. “I was one of those people who was always hoping [Rabbi Goldstein] would do something like this, but it was a non-starter because of her commitment to Kolel.

“Her services are very laid back, lots of fun, very enjoyable, very participatory,” he said. “And it’s obvious she’s a learned person. There’s a scholarly side to her.”

For Rabbi Goldstein – who was ordained 28 years ago and spent three years as assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom and five years as a congregational rabbi in Boston before establishing Kolel 20 years ago – it would be more typical to go to an established congregation at this stage in her career.

But the 56-year-old rabbi, a spinning class afficionado with a mass of greying curls, describes herself as “a starter” who likes grass-roots projects. “God has blessed me with a lot of energy,” she said.

In addition to her current project, she serves as a volunteer rabbi in Guatemala three to four times a year, leads Jewish tours to Israel and abroad, and is working on a book about spirituality and senility.

Rabbi Goldstein, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., also has a passion for downtown living, having moved with her husband and family to the Annex three years ago. “It’s like I’m 10 years younger. I bike everywhere. I walk everywhere. I love it. I’m sorry I didn’t do it 20 years ago.”

Three things influenced her decision to return to the pulpit: her move downtown, her youngest child’s departure for university, and her sabbatical in Israel a couple of years ago.

While there, she was inspired by the small, intimate Reform congregations that she attended. She describes them as “amazing… soulful, with singing and real learning going on. You felt the sense of community.”

She sees the new shul as a “model of engagement that people will be creating together.”

Among the first items on her agenda will be empowering people to lead services and putting together a cadre of people who will be able to deliver divrei Torah.

Her vision includes a monthly service for adults, followed by dinner and Torah-related discussion.

As well, she envisions family services, with “lots of activity, lots of music and real engagement of the kids.” Plans for the younger generation include an afternoon school, with Hebrew taught separately in “cluster groups” for people who live near each other, and a bar and bat mitzvah program that the rabbi would teach.

“We’re like a chavurah meets an adult education centre meets a Jerusalem Reform synagogue… it’s a marriage of a lot of ideas.”

An informational meeting will be held March 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life, 36 Harbord St.

As well, the shul, together with the Al Green Theatre, will hold a concert March 5 as an “awareness raiser” at the theatre. The event, titled “Jewish and Arabic Music in Dialogue,” will feature Lenka Lichtenberg and Roula Said. Tickets are $20. For details, go to or call 416-924-6211, ext. 0.

There will also be a family Purim Megillah reading March 7 and an adult Purim seudah March 8 at the Wolfond Centre, as well as two sample Shabbat services in May.

For more information, visit, e-mail [email protected], or call 647-799-3557.