Ghetto Shul students keep spirit alive

Aryeh Canter

MONTREAL — Although they no longer have a place of their own, no rabbi and no budget as such, the university students who consider the Ghetto Shul their spiritual home and community have decided to carry on.

McGill University student Aryeh Canter, one of three directors on its interim student board, told the CJN that it has been decided to preserve the Ghetto Shul, which is an incorporated nonprofit organization, and rebuild it as a grassroots, volunteer-run group.

At the end of April, the Ghetto Shul, which was created 11 years ago, closed its synagogue on Park Avenue and its spiritual leader for almost its entire history, Rabbi Leibish Daniel Hundert, left.

Canter said the Ghetto Shul has embarked upon a “joint venture” with the historic Congregation Beth Shloime, better known as the Bagg Street Shul.

The students have been invited by the congregation’s lay leader, Michael Kaplan, a retired McGill engineering professor, to daven at its monthly Friday-night service.

An average of 75 students were attending Shabbat services at the Ghetto Shul, Canter said. At their first Shabbat together, Canter said there was an interesting blending of the generations, and it was evident the students will provide new blood for the historic Bagg Street Shul (which actually fronts Clark Street in the Plateau Mont-Royal), the synagogue in the longest continuous use in Montreal.

“We are doing something really beautiful, building a community together, which is amazing in a time when there is a lot of disenchantment with religion,” Canter said.

The students like the lack of “hierarchical” structure at Bagg Street, which like the Ghetto Shul, has an informal membership and no rabbi of its own.

An Orthodox orientation will be maintained, but Canter said he’d like to see more participation by women to the extent that modern Orthodoxy allows, perhaps a women’s minyan or Torah study.

“We see the Ghetto Shul as a communal space, there’s a need to find a place for women, to empower them,” he said.

The students have also been given the use of Bagg Street’s kitchen, enabling the Ghetto Shul to continue its tradition of preparing Shabbat dinners for fellow students.

No legal merger between the two entities, however, is planned, Canter said. Autonomy is important to the Ghetto members, who want to be in control of their own programming and destiny.

The Ghetto Shul has had to raise its own money for the last couple of years since Federation CJA reduced funding to the Hillel student society, through which the shul had received money. (It has no formal relationship with Hillel today.)

Rabbi Hundert said he had to raise $150,000 annually to keep the shul going, including paying himself a modest salary.

The Ghetto Shul now has far less overhead without the rent for its former two-storey premises and no staff.

Under Rabbi Hundert, the shul developed an adult board made up mostly of its major donors.

Yvonne Margo, who describes herself as the shul’s largest patron, said that the board’s membership is now in flux, but she intends to remain involved and new members are being sought.

Bagg Street is a few blocks further away from the McGill campus than the Ghetto Shul’s Park Avenue location, but Canter doesn’t think this will discourage students from showing up.

“Although it’s not in the McGill ghetto, the shul is actually closer to three of the major student residences, including McConnell, where many Toronto Jewish students live,” he said.

Canter, a third-year student in McGill’s sustainability, science and society program, is, like many of those involved with the Ghetto Shul, from out of town. In his first year, the religiously observant San Franciscan found a warm, welcoming community at the Ghetto Shul.

With the school year over, the Ghetto Shul has entered a dormant period, but Canter said plans are being made to return “with a bang” in the fall. Members are thinking of holding a “Gefilte Frosh” during McGill’s frosh week in September.

The idea is to bring Jewish students together and perhaps attract some to the revamped Ghetto Shul.

Canter is hopeful that the Ghetto Shul will receive a grant from Federation CJA’s Gen J program for specific projects and continue to get support through the Student Society of McGill University. The Ghetto Shul has the status of independent student organization, which means it has the right to use space at McGill and perhaps to such amenities as an office and mailing address. Canter believes the Ghetto Shul will also be able to call upon its private donors of the past.

Some programming will likely be held in students’ apartments, he added.

Margo, who has been a supporter since 2004, became aware of the Ghetto Shul through her son, then a student. Curious about where he was going every Friday night, she joined him one week and was touched by the warm atmosphere and camaraderie she found.

“The Ghetto Shul is filling a need, not only for the out-of-towners, but for young people here, too, who would not go to a regular synagogue. Besides, there is nothing downtown, other than the Chabad House,” Margo said.

“It also is important socially [that] young people meet each other. Some find partners. They are performing community service, such as volunteering for [Combined Jewish Appeal] Super Sunday.”

She finds it encouraging that they want to do things on their own. “This is how leadership is formed and that’s good for the community’s future. They work together like a big family.

“Michael Kaplan has been very generous, and the students are giving Bagg Street new life. It’s a very good match right now.”

The shul’s website is