A new Chabad center in an unlikely Toronto neighborhood is getting noticed for its unique Hebrew arts school.
Chabad of York Mills quietly opened before the 2007 Jewish high holidays in the northern suburb home to more than 7,300 Jews of various denominations.
“It’s a very tough neighborhood, it’s a very affluent neighborhood,” says Rabbi Levi Gansburg, the 26-year-old rabbi who runs the center on 2427 Bayview Avenue. “There are a lot of Jewish people here, but it’s not a Jewish neighborhood.”
Gansburg and his wife Rivky were told they wouldn’t “survive” in the area, but they have quickly engaged 150 families with their perpetually open house and innovative children’s programs.
Many Jewish kids in York Mills – where, according to the Statistics Canada Census 2006, 82.9 per cent of families earn an income of more than $100,000 – would rather go skiing or to their cottage on Sunday morning than attend Hebrew school.
“Chabad often talks about helping the underprivileged, and I say ‘we help the underprivileged and we have got to reach out to the over privileged as well,’” says Gansburg. “Nobody is exempt from being given the best Jewish education – nobody.”
How did the Gansburgs manage to get kids off their snow boards and into the classroom?
Singing, dancing, theatre, and art helped.
Rivky, 22, was influenced by a Chabad Hebrew school in Natick, Ma that was mixing art with education.
“Learning through arts in general achieves greater education … children are able to retain a lot more information,” she says.
During the inaugural year of the Bayview Hebrew School of the Arts in 2008, 18 students attended classes for two hours on Sunday mornings.
The children learned through art during the first hour, followed by an hour of Aleph Champ – a Chabad reading program modeled after the karate belt system, where children receive colors which correspond to their skill. It’s a way to get kids excited about reading by offering a reward.
The Bayview Hebrew Arts School program was designed by Rivky and Cara Resnick, a Torontonian who creates art curriculums for elementary schools.
“We really did not know what to expect,” said Galina Kroll, a York Mills resident who was skeptical about sending her daughter Rachel to a Chabad school. “We didn’t know if she was going to come home after the first day and say ‘we’re bad Jews, we’re not kosher.’”
But Kroll soon realized the purpose of the school wasn’t to proselytize.
“Everyone comes from different backgrounds,” says Rivky. “We’re teaching ideals, ideas, and Jewish beliefs – just the love for Judaism. Every single kid, from whatever background they come, they learn the love of Judaism, and our beliefs, and our traditions, everything that is so important for every Jewish child to know.”
Rachel – who had previously felt attending Hebrew school a “chore” – came home from her first day and pronounced, “I want to go to Hebrew school everyday.” She now chooses school over birthday parties.
Popular activities at the school last year included making menorahs influenced by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam and constructing heart sculptures that symbolize the Jewish mitzvah “Ahavat Yisrael” – meaning the love for one’s fellow Jew.
“It was an extremely powerful mitzvah for the children to learn,” says Rivky.
The center is also garnering attention for its Make a Difference (M.A.D.) program, where youth meet at the house to give back to the community by doing volunteer work.
M.A.D. has delivered cookies to local fire stations and made teddy bears for children affected by war in Israel.
“They are stimulating the kids by doing fun activities, but somehow they slip in something meaningful,” say Reid Stekel, a parent whose child attends the program. The kids absorb it “without even realizing it and they are walking away learning something.”
An increase in enrollment at the school for the New Year has prompted the Gansburgs to add a second day of classes on Tuesday.
The couple is also tearing down the walls of the center to accommodate more families interested in their expanding programs.
“We definitely needed to double the size so we can become bigger and stronger,” says Rivky. Chabad, she explains, usually rents space at another place, but now that they’ve expanded they have the space to accommodate all their programs.
They hope to make their home an “epicenter” of Jewish life in the neighborhood by offering a host of educational and social programs, beginning with new lecture series that will focus Jewish education and family life, as well as, “courage, unity, and transcending tragic events,” the rabbi says.