Shopify’s Harley Finkelstein is ready to revamp Ottawa’s Chabad centre to better meet student needs

Harley Finkelstein, wife Lindsay Taub and family.

Four years ago, Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein orchestrated the opening of a new Jewish community centre in downtown Ottawa.

Today, after taking some time to observe the way people used the centre and what it most lacked, he is leading a large project to expand and renovate the space.

The building, which is called the Finkelstein Chabad Jewish Centre, is in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood, which its namesake called “the epicentre for students in the city of Ottawa,” who are mainly from Carleton University, University of Ottawa and Algonquin College.

Finkelstein and his wife Lindsay Taub originally donated $500,000 to the centre and helped raise over $1 million more, which included generous donations from the Shabinsky and Hart families. For this next round, Finkelstein is quadrupling his initial donation with a further $1.5 million, and, along with local businessman and philanthropist Ian Shabinsky, is helping to raise the additional $3.7 million needed for the construction.

In 2005, when Finkelstein was a student at University of Ottawa’s law school, he would attend Chabad events. He promised the local emissary Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky to help Chabad’s vision, if he was ever in a position to do so. At the time, Finkelstein was struggling financially—but by 2018, after Shopify’s success, he was in a position to make the initial donation. Now, after seeing how popular the new Jewish centre has been among students, Finkelstein felt compelled to keep giving.

“What happened was fairly dramatic. We thought it would be a place where students would stop by, that would have events, that would have some Jewish programming,” he said. “But we pretty much figured out right away that this was something way more than that. This was becoming a magnet of Jewish life in Ottawa.”

Architectural rendering of the renovated Finkelstein Chabad Jewish Centre in Ottawa

The demand for the building was much higher than everyone had initially anticipated. Instead of “just a couple of students dropping in here and there,” over 100 students were showing up for Shabbat dinners, and the space got so crowded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that they needed to put tents onto the sidewalks to accommodate everyone attending.

Another consideration that arose, and was especially exacerbated during the pandemic, was being able to provide secure spaces for all kinds of needs, from day-to-day chores such as doing laundry, to COVID-safe ways of connecting to combat loneliness, to even providing sleeping arrangements for students who might be between moves or seeking respite from a bad situation.

It was only after Finkelstein observed the patterns of usage over the first few years that he committed the additional $1.5 million, because it afforded everyone a better idea of where the demand lay for the student population who frequented the centre.

“The key to this entire story is that we didn’t necessarily have a set-in-stone policy or strategy or design for what this building would be. It was, let’s just put a building here. Let’s invite any Jewish student, Jewish young person, or anyone for that matter, who needs a place to go or wants to get themselves deeper into Jewish life and Jewish tradition and Jewish community. And let’s see how it gets used.”

The new vision for the centre is also all about flexibility. The original layout was too specific, and did not allow enough adaptability depending on what role the centre was filling on any given day. The new plans will allow the space to be converted as needed—for example, to fit in several hundred people on Rosh Hashanah.

Some other major changes are an expansion of the size, the addition of a mezzanine and an open-concept floorplan.

And, for this married couple, their donation has a personal significance. Their first encounter was at a Jewish event similar to ones set to be a fixture of the renovated building.

“And then the effects of it, we certainly can see in our lifetime. We actually get to see it every Shabbat when we attend these dinners at the centre, we see the impact it’s having on people,” Finkelstein said.

“(This project) has made me far more emotional and emotionally attached to the Jewish community here in Canada.”