Rosensweig: Out of the ashes of Kristallnacht, a shul is born

Exterior of Congregation Habonim (Eli Rubenstein photo)

The praiseworthy, meritorious character of our people, the thing that nobody can cheat us out of us, is our inimitable spirit – the one that “falls down seven times and gets up,” as King Solomon put it.

The Nazis came and those ruffians, void of any godliness, pillaged our shtetlach and stole and murdered our children. The Spanish extricated us from our homes centuries prior. Austria, England, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Milan, Naples, Portugal and Sicily did the same.

What did our downtrodden do? We Jews lived prouder. We lived harder. We redecorated the desert with citrus, avocados, kiwifruit, guavas, mangoes and grapes, and called it Israel. We created Oz-like communities in the Diaspora, ensuring that Jewish life thrived with gusto and verve.

We built shuls, synagogues and temples. Out of the ashes, German-born survivors like George Spitz, the first president of Congregation Habonim Toronto, and Gangolf Herman, who served as that synagogue’s president for many years, metaphorically scooped up the rocks from Kristallnacht and, per the instructions of Leo Baeck, the chief Reform rabbi of Germany at the time, waited for the day when they could rebuild.

Today, halfway down the block from the original shul on Glen Park Avenue, the recently completed new Habonim building stands tall.

In its splendour, the light shines through the original stained-glass windows, tying the past to the present in the new Esther Ghan Firestone Youth Hall. The illumination reminds us of the survivors who came here from Germany and Austria and decided to create a shul for survivors by survivors in 1954. The new Habonim stands for them.

Inside, one sees a modern building, with open space for Habonim’s constantly growing membership. It’s clear that those involved in the creation of the new Habonim chose to celebrate Jewish life by using superlative craftsmen and materials.

Congregation Habonim (Photo Credit: ARK)

They built high glass windows, which allow the light from outside to illuminate the sanctuary and provide a view of the courtyard where a garden has been planted and Jewish children frolic.

Joanie Smith, the shul’s current president, praised the leadership that came before her, especially Ted Rechtshaffen, the previous president, who ensured the task of building the new synagogue came to fruition.

“I feel a great sense of pride that I have been able to be even a small part of the process that is leading Habonim into a new era,” said Smith.

She is overwhelmed with the results and added that, “I love the clean simplicity of the design. I feel we have been able to maintain the humble beginnings of our congregation in a beautiful new building that speaks to the future.”


To raise the funds required to make this dream come true, Eli Rubenstein, Habonim’s spiritual leader, worked closely with its cantor, Aviva Rajsky. The task of securing the $14 million needed for the new building was mammoth, but so was the motivation.

After the first service took place in the new synagogue, Rubenstein said, “On that momentous first day, I carefully watched families sitting in the rows during the services, facing the bimah and the east window as the sun poured in, with the trees in the background.… Most importantly, I saw children joyously running around the courtyard, racing each other and playing tag.”

The new Habonim also houses an artful Holocaust Memorial Wall, replete with stories that recognize and honour our Jewish brothers and sisters who refused to let the Nazis destroy them.

Instead, they lived with zest. They built Habonim, then they rebuilt it, creating a spiritual and physical masterpiece – a testimonial to the Jewish spirit, which will not lie down.