By David Lipson, lubavitch.com
Toronto developer Mario Romano wanted to give back to the Jewish community that has helped him prosper. But when the 57-year-old donated three acres of land north of the city for a new Chabad center, he never thought the building would bear his name.
“They make me proud,” says Romano, president of Castlepoint Development Corp. “I never expected it to be named after me. I never in a million years expected this thing to be named after me. It blew my mind. I’m not a Jew, I’m a Christian.”
Although Romano is a practicing Catholic, he proudly traces his Jewish genealogy. “The name Romano is an apostatized Jewish name,” he says. In Italy, surnames that denote a location are often indicative of a family’s Jewish roots. Romano didn’t donate the land to reconnect with his ancient heritage. “That’s not the primary impulse of what I did what I did. There are bigger reasons than that,” he says.
After the Second World War, Romano’s family moved from Italy to Argentina “as broken immigrants with nothing,” he says. The family lived smack in the middle of a Jewish ghetto where “nobody had two cents.” His father was taken in by a Jewish textile factory owner named Miguel Levy. Within a few years, Romano’s father became his right hand man. Romano would always remember Levy’s act of kindness.
Romano moved to Canada in 1963. He studied music in school and plays the piano. But land development is where Romano made his name. He started in the business with the help of Jewish developer Joey Tenenbaum. His closest friend and confidant is brick maker Jeff Kerbel.
“For some force of destiny I’ve been surrounded by Jews my whole life – my best friends, my doctor, my lawyer, my accountant,” he says. “It’s (the donation) an expression and token of thanks for all the wealth – spiritually, culturally, and materially that Jews have brought in my life – it’s wasn’t by design, it’s just a force of destiny.”
Romano met with Rabbi Zalman Aron Grossbaum, executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Ontario, and Rabbi Mendel Bernstein to discuss the details of pledging the land. Romano wanted the Rabbi to provide him with a blessing, says David Chapley. Chapley, a former City of Vaughan councilor and friend of Romano who played an integral role in finalizing the donation. Chapley remembers Romano telling Grossbaum: “All I want Rabbi is to be acceptable and pleasing to both man and God,” – a phrase with an uncanny resonance to the Birkat Hamazon, a Jewish prayer recited after meals.
Romano wanted to give a prime piece of land overlooking the entire development. In the end, the Rabbis wanted a different property on the development that sits along a main street. “Romano wasn’t looking for the cheapest three acres, or a throwaway three acres. He wanted to give Rabbi Bernstein the best of the land that he had,” Chapley says. He believes the story is analogous to when Jews would donate their best possessions to the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem).
The Temples might have been destroyed, but the Chabad Romano Centre was recently built. The $3 million stone building was dedicated in January. “The community has received this tremendously,” says Bernstein, who runs the centre with his wife Toby and Rabbi Shlomo Vorovitch.
Bernstein started his congregation out of his basement. It then moved to a larger space in a strip mall. The move from these humble digs to a 10,000 square foot structure means the synagogue can accommodate as many as 450 people on the high holidays. It’s a diverse congregation made up of Canadian born Jews, first and second generation Europeans, and new families from Russia, South Africa, and Israel.
It was Romano who fulfilled this congregation’s dream as an expression of gratitude and respect. “I’ve learned certain things in life that I didn’t even know I learned them until I grew up,” he says. “To have hope when there is no reason to have hope – that’s something I learned from hanging around with Jews. That kind of experience helped me with business, music, marriage, and with life in general – to have faith when there is no reason to have faith. That’s really what counts.”