Standing in the sprawling new $185 million Jewish community complex just north of Toronto, Taali Lester Tollman sweeps her outstretched arm in a wide arc. “Just a few years ago,” says Tollman, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s vice president of marketing, “all this was pasture.”
Actually, it was woodland, but no matter. On the space now stands one of the most ambitious Jewish projects ever undertaken in Canada.
Spread across 50 acres, the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus is testament to the dramatic growth of Toronto’s Jewish population. The 200,000-square-foot complex, which officially opened last month, houses social service agencies, conference facilities, a Conservative egalitarian synagogue with afternoon classes, a day care and preschool, a theater and art gallery, a Jewish high school (with an elementary school coming next year), a residence for developmentally challenged adults and a gleaming 10,000-square-foot fitness center with three saltwater pools. There is underground parking for 350 vehicles and plans for an infirmary staffed by 10 doctors. It’s all set on grounds wound with pathways and gardens.
“It’s absolutely unique in North America,” said David Sadowski, UJA Federation’s head of Jewish community properties. “And it came in on budget and on time.”
Situated about four miles north of the Toronto city limits in the city of Vaughan, the campus will serve a community that has surged in numbers in the past decade. Greater Toronto, including several suburban municipalities within the York Region north of the city, continues to be the fastest-growing major Jewish population center in Canada.
Toronto’s northern suburbs have become a magnet for newcomers from other Canadian cities, notably Montreal and Winnipeg, and for immigrants from Israel, South Africa, Russia and Argentina. The sprawling northern region is now home to about 80,000 Jews, or 40 percent of the Toronto region’s Jewish population, according to Canadian Jewish demographer Charles Shahar, research coordinator in the community planning and allocations department at Montreal’s Federation CJA.
That’s up from 60,000 in 2001 and only 1,500 or so Jews in 1971, when the area was largely rural woodland. In the decades since, the farms and trees have been transformed into suburban subdivisions, many of them heavily Jewish.
In early 2006, Rebecca Soberman, her husband and infant daughter moved from northern Toronto into a neighborhood known as Thornhill Woods, a short drive from the Lebovic campus, amid the dust and mud of an unfinished development. Her street was finished only 18 months ago.“We did it because it’s a young community and we wanted to be around other young people,” said Soberman, now a mother of two.
Pushing north from the city in search of affordable homes and open spaces, young Jewish families and newcomers to the country already are treating the new Jewish community campus as a hub, according to Tollman.
“They’re no longer looking for cathedral synagogues,” she said. “They want more, and they want it in a one-stop setting. This is how the community is now expressing its Jewishness.”
The provincial government of Ontario contributed a no-strings grant of $15 million to the new campus, and the federal government kicked in matching funds worth up to $15 million. The Lebovic family donated $20 million to the project and promised another $500,000 if the street accessing the campus was named for them. It was. A nearby boulevard is named for Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who perished in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle crash.