Eighteen years ago, Rabbi Rafi Lipner founded an organization called The House for young Jewish adults in Toronto.
But on April 13, just before the start of Passover, he sent out an email announcing The House would be closing its doors.
Rabbi Lipner launched the effort in September 2004, providing a space for Jews of all denominations between the ages of 22 and 35 to celebrate their shared culture, heritage, and religion. He picked the name because he wanted to evoke the familial environment at the heart of the transmission of Jewish tradition.
“If we created a caring, home-like environment that shared with each visitor the depth and relevance of a vibrant and transcendent Judaism, free from the boundaries that divide, we could inspire a generation of emerging adults to see the beauty of our heritage and strengthen their connection to live it, to lead with it, and to embody its values,” Rabbi Lipner wrote in the email announcing the closure.
The House was hit hard by the pandemic, and forced to move its programming online, like so many others. But Rabbi Lipner says it pivoted well to quarantine life and that the organization was not a casualty of COVID.
Instead, he decided the time arrived to end the project after a conversation with a mentor.
“I think there is a limit to the platform of what The House was capable of doing,” he said. “If I’m going to look back 20 years from now and say, ‘Wow, (did I make) a massive difference, using whatever God-given talents I have?’ So this rabbi, my mentor… he said, ‘whatever you’ve done today, I’m sure it’s important… but you always have to view life as, what does it position you to do next?’”
Over its nearly two-decade run, The House engaged thousands of young Jewish people, inspired future leaders in the Jewish community and was even responsible for hundreds of marriages, according to Rabbi Lipner’s email. It hosted all kinds of events, from small, intimate conversations, to its flagship event Jewish Ethics Defined, or JEDx.
At its last live incarnation in 2019, the JEDx audience of over 1,000 people saw successful Jews such as Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro and JSwipe founder David Yarus speak about what Judaism means to them.
In the 2018 annual report, the most recent year available, The House raised $885,000. It was the first year in what it said was “an ambitious five-year growth plan.” About half the revenues came from a capital campaign, while another 38 percent came from event fundraising. UJA Federation’s allocation accounted for three percent of The House’s annual revenue.
But by the end of The House’s life, Rabbi Lipner did not feel like it was bringing the depth and profundity of Judaism that he had envisioned. It was verifiably successful at bringing young Jewish people together, and he does not take that for granted.
Lives were changed for the better because of The House’s programming, and many people enjoyed attending and meeting new people at its events until the day it closed.
However, at the end, Rabbi Lipner does not believe it was reflecting the best of his own talents or goals.
“I think there’s been an evolution and exchange of The House subtly over time based on the factors of reality, of who’s around and what culture is like and what interests are and attention spans stuff and things like that. And I think about the things where I felt the impact was very profound, I think that that’s changed a little bit,” he said. “I think the depth of conversation (was missing), the beauty of saying, ‘let’s explore.’ Let’s explore the depth of Jewish thought, let’s look internally towards who we are.”
Although the closure leaves a void in Toronto’s Jewish community, Rabbi Lipner says there are many people who can do comparable work—and probably even better than him.
“It’s been great, but if you ask the question, if I would start exactly what The House was today, who I am, in this environment, in the way that it was? Well, of course not,” he said. “I think that, like anything, something has to break down before something better can build up.”