Kehilla program celebrates 25th anniversary

TORONTO — Living in the Avenel, an apartment building near Avenue Road and Wilson Avenue sponsored by the Kehilla Residential Programme, has changed the life of Allen and his three children.

The 51-year-old single father of three teenagers who moved into the building about five years ago, said that after being diagnosed with cancer and then having a stroke, he was barely staying afloat.

“I did babysitting and some carpentry work, but when I had the stroke, I couldn’t even go to the hospital because I had no one to care for the children.”

Things began to turn around for him, he said, when he joined Temple Sinai. “They welcomed us with open arms. The kids started religious school and had b’nai mitzvot, and we’ve remained members. We’ve even had members put up my kids when I’ve been in the hospital.”

When they joined the temple, he said, he was sleeping on a couch in a crowded apartment far from the Jewish community.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t travel to synagogue,” he said.

“We were fortunate, though, that with the help of JF&CS [now Jewish Family & Child], we got into this building. Now, we live on the bus line, and the synagogue is next door.

“As well, in this building, people look out for each other. It is a community within a community. I’m now living with  dignity in the Jewish community, and I can work on other life issues.”

Kehilla, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, is the official non-profit housing agency of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. It promotes affordable housing initiatives in the Jewish community, and its mandates include education and awareness, project sponsorship, development consultation, research and property management.

Its properties include the Avenel, which has 111 units, divided among singles, couples, families, and offers suites for physically challenged tenants; Project Marc, a mutually assisted residential community on Bathurst Street in North York; Habayit Shelanu seniors residences on Kendal Avenue near Casa Loma; 2 Neptune Drive, which offers life lease housing for independent seniors; and the Elm Ridge Group Living Residence for seniors, which is run in partnership with Jewish Family & Child and operated by Baycrest.

Emerging projects include a Kehilla community residential building being planned to be part of the new Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Community Campus in York Region that will include a Reena community residence, and an affordable rent subsidy program in collaboration with UJA Federation and private landlords.

Lisa Lipowitz, Kehilla’s director of community initiatives, was on the development team for the Avenel when it was built in 1992. She said that a lot of original tenants still live there.

“When the building was built, we could pick Jewish clients, but with the demise of the [provincial] social housing program, we are not allowed to do that. We do have a lot of Jewish tenants, but the only thing that is Jewish about us is that we are in Jewish neighbourhoods.”

She said that Kehilla started 25 years ago as a sub-committee of UJA Federation in order to look at housing for seniors. “It is now an affiliated agency of federation, and we are still facing the same issues. Lists are huge, and there is no movement. It is very frustrating.”

Nancy Singer, Kehilla’s executive director, said the agency is always looking for housing possibilities for the Jewish community.

“When federation purchased the property [in York Region for what is now the Lebovic Campus], we invited them to listen to us about our needs. Five years later, we’ve achieved some government funding, and we’re about to build in collaboration with other Jewish agencies. [Our plans] are coming to fruition. It is a very exciting initiative.”

She said that poverty levels in the Jewish community are only slightly below that of the general population.

Kehilla statistics note, among other things, that nearly one in seven elderly Jews in the GTA currently live below the poverty line; almost half of elderly Jewish women who live alone are poor; more than 4,000 Jewish working poor adults live below the poverty line in Toronto; and more than 4,000 Jews living in York Region live below the poverty line.

Singer said Kehilla has a history to be proud of. “Our name is not out there, but people do call us, and we give them leads.”

Oren Levy, a Kehilla volunteer, said he works for the organization because he knows he is “helping Jewish families live with dignity.”