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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Kol Ami celebrates 25 years

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

TORONTO — A series of activities to celebrate Temple Kol Ami’s 25th anniversary resumes March 1, when Jewish singer/songwriter Alan Goodis participates in Shabbat evening services at the Thornhill congregation.

The following morning, Goodis, who grew up at Temple Har Zion, will teach music at the temple’s Saturday morning religious school.

As well, a gala celebration will take place May 26.

Rabbi Micah Streiffer, who became spiritual leader in 2011, said the congregation, with 170 families, is undergoing a “renaissance” and has begun to grow.

But a lot of people still aren’t familiar with the congregation, he noted. “I think name recognition is our biggest challenge.”

Being a small congregation comes with challenges, but also benefits, he added. “It’s an intimate community, a warm community, a welcoming community, because we’re relatively small.”

To introduce the temple and its religious school to new families, it is running a program called “Taste of Kol Ami.” For $36, children can attend the school on Saturday mornings and Wednesday nights for seven weeks, beginning at the end of March.

On Shabbat mornings, kids go upstairs for classes, while parents stay downstairs for Torah study and then religious services. At noon, the families come together for a half-hour family education service.

For the future, Rabbi Streiffer said, “my hope is that we can continue to build on our program of learning, worship and social action, and continue to be a presence within the Toronto community.”

Kol Ami president Kathy Stein, who joined the congregation with her husband and two children, now 22 and 25, 22 years ago, remembers when there were fewer than 50 families at the shul.

She and her husband Barry, a past president of Kol Ami, became involved early on, and were youth advisers for 10 years.

She said one of the biggest challenges over the years was “meeting people’s expectations” as the shul grew.

One expectation was “a place of our own. That was a challenging time as we evaluated several paths.”

Kol Ami, which had rented space at Leo Baeck Day School in Thornhill for many years, bought land in 2001 at 8777 Dufferin St., but never ended up building there. The land was sold in 2010. There were also plans to move to the Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in Vaughan and partner with Bialik Hebrew Day School, but those fell through.

“In the long run, we decided that … there’s no place like home,” she said. That led to a partnership with the school and the renovation of what is now Kol Ami’s permanent home.

Selling the land at a profit, and creating a reserve fund, “gave us the ability to do what we’ve done at Leo Baeck,” Stein said, referring to renovations in the sanctuary, common rooms, small chapel and youth lounge for both the school and the congregation to use.

She described the congregation as “extremely participatory. Over 80 per cent [of members] either come to services or school, or volunteer… We are not a three-day-a-year synagogue. It’s extremely welcoming.”

Arlene Blostein, a founding member and longtime choir member, recalls attending High Holiday services at Leo Baeck’s former location on Kenton Drive, when the congregation was just getting off the ground. At the time, there were only 13 families, and Rabbi Steven Garten – then the school’s director, and now the rabbi of Temple Israel in Ottawa – led the services.

“I don’t think we had a name yet, and I don’t think we knew whether things were going to continue,” Blostein said.

Rabbi Nancy Wechsler became the founding rabbi after conducting a summer service in a member’s backyard. “That was it, from then on,” said Blostein.

Rabbi Wechsler was with the congregation until 1996. She was followed by Rabbi Daniel Gottlieb, who preceded Rabbi Streiffer, with Rabbi Sharon Sobel serving as interim rabbi for six months before Rabbi Streiffer began.

Blostein said that for her and her husband Barry, and for other young families at the time, the congregation “became our focal point for everything, not just religious needs but social needs and community.”

“I guess I like the fact that we have stayed true to our initial sense of what we wanted to accomplish… We wanted to remain very community oriented, family oriented… and make it enjoyable and accessible to all.”

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