The 7-million dollar, 35,000 square-foot full service Jewish community center and synagogue currently under construction in the heart of Hampstead, marks an exciting milestone for the Montreal Jewish community.
Residents who remember the Jewish flight in the late 70’s, threatened by the rise of the Party Quebecois, an ultra nationalist right wing political party, take great pride in the sight of this significant development.
“People were scared of the political and economic changes they thought would be happening to the city,” says Jonathan Gurman, a local businessman and philanthropist, and thousands in Montreal’s Jewish community began a mass exodus from the city. Most fears proved groundless, he says, and as the years went by, the economy improved and none of the feared reforms came to pass.
But by the time the exodus reached a gradual conclusion in the early 90’s, Montreal’s Jewish community had noticeably thinned out, leaving the future of Canada’s oldest, and still one of its largest Jewish communities, somewhat uncertain. Today, however, the stability of Montreal’s Jewish community is no longer in question, and indeed, as the new Montreal Torah Center Bais Menachem Chabad Lubavitch (MTC) proves, it has entered a new era of vibrant growth.
The center, which will house a large sanctuary, social halls, fitness center, café lounge and den and more, is to be the address for thousands in Montreal’s Jewish community who participate in the MTC’s wide range of social and educational activities for the entire family, says Rabbi Moshe New, founder and director of the MTC.
“It’s impossible to know how many individuals have been touched by the MTC over the years,” says Freddie Malamud, a lawyer who has been involved with the center since its inception in 1991. “They have an impact on the community that extends well beyond their formal membership.”
As evident from the large turnout at the center’s groundbreaking ceremony on a blisteringly cold day in early March, and the enthusiastic community response to the building campaign, there are thousands of Montreal Jews who agree with him.
Under the dynamic leadership of Rabbi New and founder Rabbi Itchy Treitel, the MTC has “revitalized Judaism in Montreal, particularly for the youth,” says Martin Sacksner, a longtime member. “Through a wide range of classes, social events, and family programming, they present a Judaism that is alive and meaningful, and thousands are responding.” The center’s mailing list, he says, includes some 3000 Jewish families, all of whom are active in the MTC, and “The Mosaic,” a Jewish publication written and produced in-house, reaches some 35,000 homes before every holiday.
Sacksner, who is serving as project coordinator for the construction of the MTC’s new home, says the center, a grand structure the likes of which Montreal hasn’t seen since the 1950’s, is being designed to reflect the youthful energy and commitment to tradition that have made the MTC so beloved in Montreal’s Jewish community.
Philip Hazan, an interior architect, has been working with Sacksner and the rabbis at the MTC for several months now, designing the building’s interior to reflect that unique blend. “This building is a synthesis of old and new,” he says. The sanctuary, for instance, is modeled after the great synagogues of Europe, with a twist: the paneling is all light wood, and great big windows soak the room with sunlight. “We want it to be traditional but not heavy,” he says. “The building is being designed to exude a sense of light, energy and joy.”
The theme carries through to the rest of the building, where overstuffed armchairs clustered around a fireplace in the lounge meet a state-of-the-art fitness center that will include a sauna, gym and modern, beautifully appointed mikvah.
Complete with an education wing to house the center’s preschool, study rooms for an adult Jewish education institute, play areas and activity centers for all ages, the MTC will have something for every age, says director Rabbi Moshe New.
New, who founded the MTC with his wife Nechama and Rabbi Itche and Zeldy Treitel 11 years ago in rented space of a local shopping mall, which continues to house the center until construction is completed, says the new center is “nothing short of a miracle.” Bursting at the seams for years as activities grew and the synagogue’s membership flourished, New and Treitel bided their time until the perfect, bided their time until the perfect property came up. When it did in late 2001, a large empty lot right in the heart of Hampstead, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood full of young families, not far from their current location, they wasted no time getting the building campaign underway.
Jonathan Gurman and his wife Joanne are the principal benefactors of the new center, which will be named for them. Gurman says the secret to the MTC’s success is the open, warm approach they extend to the community. “If anyone will keep Judaism alive in Montreal,” he says, “it’s going to be the MTC.”
Barbara Seal, a judge and former councilwoman whose involvement with the center goes back ten years, concurs. “The MTC is very well known and loved in this community because of their inclusiveness,” she says. “They have had an amazing effect on people from the entire spectrum of Jewish life.”
A Montreal resident all her life and an active community member, Seal says that despite so many people having left, the Jewish community is only getting stronger.
“The MTC’s beautiful new center is an assurance that the community is flourishing, and here to stay,” she says.