When Chabad at Flamingo, named for the obscure little road it sits on in Northern Thornhill, opened the doors of the Ernest Manson Lubavitch Center, a 22,000 square foot facility, in time for Rosh Hashana of 1999, it was an act of fantastically high expectations and no small measure of faith. Chabad’s presence in the neighborhood had been established just one year earlier, with the arrival of Rabbi Mendel and Faygie Kaplan, and “here we were,” recalls Sherry Kushner, a founding board member of Chabad at Flamingo, “with this enormous facility, and perhaps a total of 50 Chabad members expected to fill it!”
It was a gamble that paid off, with over 200 Jews from the area joining Chabad for an inspiring holiday that first Rosh Hashana, and has continued to pay off in the years since. This year, Sherry notes proudly, synagogue attendance on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur swelled upwards of 800, “filling the main sanctuary, the social hall, and all available standing room to well beyond capacity.”
Situated some thirty minutes distance from Chabad of Thornhill, Chabad at Flamingo has seen a very rapid, almost exponential growth in five years of reaching out to the Jewish community of Thornhill, a suburb of Toronto. Now home to “more Jews per square mile than any other neighborhood in Canada and most others anywhere in the world,” according to Rabbi Kaplan’s estimate, Thornhill experienced a massive population boom in the mid 90’s when thousands of yuppies and their families-many of them Jewish-established themselves in Toronto and set up house in the nearby suburbs. In Northern Thornhill, huge sub-divisions sprung up, seemingly out of nowhere and almost overnight, the area had become a thriving residential neighborhood.
Chabad’s roots in Northern Thornhill actually go back over thirteen years, when the area was nothing but miles of abandoned farmland some thirty minutes from central Thornhill, the base of Chabad operations in Ontario. In 1990, Ernest Manson, a local businessman and Chabad supporter, pledged a 2 Å“ acre lot north of Thornhill to Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, director of Chabad of Ontario. The property, literally in the middle of nowhere at the time, sat empty for years and most people doubted anything would ever come of it. But when Northern Thornhill exploded several years later with unexpected growth, Ernest Manson’s property was suddenly a prime location in the center of a brand new neighborhood, and the perfect site for a Chabad center in the area. Mr. Manson himself had unfortunately passed on by then, but his children honored their father’s pledge and gifted the property to Chabad.
Today, the Ernest Manson Lubavitch Center is a hectic hub of activity and the center of Jewish life for what is likely one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in North America. Home to the Rose Schwartz nursery school, with over 100 children enrolled, the Robinson Family Institute for Jewish Learning, an adult education center, the Joey and Toby Tannenbaum Family Shul, and the Chabad Flamingo Youth Center under the direction of Rabbi Shmuel Nachlas, Chabad Flamingo is a veritable whirlwind of activity that starts with the first early morning minyan and Torah class and goes on till the last late night lecture or teen party ends. It is an enormous operation, almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of a warm, vibrant Jewish community, drawing hundreds of local families to learn, pray and celebrate together.
Sherry Kushner, who prides herself on being, in fact, the very first member of Chabad at Flamingo, was drawn to Chabad in 1998 when a friend who had recently met the Kaplan’s introduced her to the young Rabbi and his wife. “For the first time,” she recalls, “I had the feeling that I had found something to fill the spiritual void that had always been present in my life.” It’s been a whole new world since then, she says. “You can stop fifty people at the entrance to the Lubavitch Center and ask them what Chabad has done for them, and you’ll get fifty different answers,” she says. “But in all of their lives, without exception, Chabad will have brought more joy and meaning, as it has brought to mine.” Last year, Sherry, an artist by profession, and a friend, Gary Smith, completed a twenty by twelve foot mural of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and presented it as a gift to the Chabad center. It is, by all accounts, the largest painting of the Rebbe and perhaps the largest piece of Judaica in the world, now on display in the foyer of the building. “The greatest privilege of my life,” she says of her work on the mural. “For everything that Chabad here has accomplished in my life and the lives of so many others-it is a wonderful feeling to give something back.”