Jewish Life in Toronto, Canada
I was born in Toronto, Canada to two immigrant parents. Both of my parents were born and grew up in Lithuania, which at the time, was a part of the Soviet Union. They grew up having to hide the fact that they were Jewish, in order to fit in and avoid discrimination. My parents came to Canada for a better life. I grew up as a secular Jewish girl. My family did not keep kosher, celebrate Shabbat, or study Torah. I had no idea what Judaism was about, but the one thing that I did know was that I was Jewish.
I never really had a chance to care about Judaism, but that changed in university. I went to Israel for the first time, on Birthright, and started joining Jewish clubs and organizations on my campus and in my community. I began learning more about my heritage and it has been a tremendous journey. I even ended up teaching my parents a few things about Judaism that they did not know.
Overall, learning about Judaism is very personal, so it is important to take it slow. Do not be afraid to ask questions--rabbis love when you ask them questions.
Toronto was key to my Jewish journey. Home to over 250 ethnicities, Toronto is known for its multiculturalism: 170 languages are spoken in the city. The proportion of the population that is foreign born remains higher than any major city in the world -- 51% of residents in Toronto were not born in Canada.
Toronto is also one of the largest Jewish centers in the diaspora. In 2001 there were approximately 114,000 Jews living in the city of Toronto and another 65,000 in the surrounding greater Toronto area (GTA) municipalities. This figure only continues to grow, so the Jewish community in Toronto is only growing.
It may be hard to find the other Jewish people in the community, but read on to learn about three of my favorite organizations where Jewish students and young Jewish professionals can find a Jewish community in Toronto.
1. Aish Toronto
I joined Aish Toronto during my first year of university, when I found out about their amazing program for Jewish students and young professionals called “Aish Leaders.” This 8-week program includes a class every week, where participants explore a different topic in Judaism, such as happiness, values, leadership, or pleasure.
In addition to the classes (where you get food to munch on!), there are also two shabbatons and a 1-1 meeting with the rabbi to discuss your progress in the class. If you complete the program you earn $400, but the memories, learning, and friendships you make during Aish Leaders are truly invaluable.
After completing Aish Leaders, I continued to stay connected with Aish through other programs they hosted including “Kindness in Corona” and “Parsha Pod.” They even host a class every week just for girls, called “Girl Talk,” exploring topics in dating and modesty. No matter what you are into, Aish Toronto has a program for you, where you can learn something new, make an impact, and build friendships.
Myself and friends at an Aish Toronto program
2. Hillel York
When you enter your freshman year of university, I recommend, wherever you live, that the first thing you do is locate the Hillel because that is a great place to spend your free time as a Jewish student. At my school, York University, Hillel York is the centre of Jewish life. The organization provides unique opportunities for students to explore their own Jewish identities through student-centric programming, including a Jewish Learning Fellowship and an Israel Learning Fellowship.
Hillel York hosts a back-to-school lunch during the first week of classes. Who doesn’t want a free lunch? In addition, the Hillel lounge is filled with comfortable chairs, a coffee machine, tables for studying, and a lot of cool students who could potentially become your next best friends.
Hillel York is known for hosting a variety of events, programs, and socials for students to have some fun, learn new things, and be a part of the Jewish community. Whether your interests lie in Jewish life and education, tzedek and social action, arts and culture, athletics, Israel, leadership development or anything in between, Hillel York has the programs and events to suit your interests.
Myself at a Hillel York social
There is a flourishing community of Jewish students at York University who consider Hillel York a second home. Hillel York even offers internships for students to advance their skills and continue to engage with Jewish students on campus. I served as an intern for Jewski, the Russian-speaking Jewish students sub-committee of Hillel York, where I went on coffee chats with students, and I was able to meet a lot of Jewish students who I would not have otherwise met if I was not a Hillel intern.
I also helped to plan and organize my own events for Russian-speaking Jewish students at York, including making our own crepes and having a tea and chill event. In addition, Jewski is known for their New Year’s party (Russian: Novi God) in which they invite students in Toronto to a buffet style dinner with a dance floor. As the intern, I helped to plan out the details to make sure students would have a great time.
Hillel York is an amazing organization for students to be involved in, so that they can stay connected with the Jewish community and have a break from classes.
Chabad at York is known for their class called Sinai Scholars, which teaches you about Judaism. But, it is really the community at Chabad at York that keeps you coming back. I learned about Chabad at York by attending the Sinai Scholars class, but after I finished the classes I found myself coming back because of the warm, nurturing, and accepting environment the organization created for students.
Although Chabad at York is a religious organization, it is very accepting to Jewish students of all religious affiliations. They host weekly Shabbat dinners, and events during Jewish holidays, to strengthen and bring together the Jewish community. During Covid-19, Chabad at York started doing Shabbat to go packages which included a full meal with candles, grape juice, and challah, so individuals could celebrate Shabbat at home. Both the rabbi and rebbetzin that run Chabad at York are accepting to all students and they love it when you bring your friends to their events.
Carrying Shabbat to go packages, thanks to Chabad at York
These are only three of the Jewish organizations that have allowed me to reconnect with my Jewish roots and meet other Jewish students. I am glad that I got to be a part of these organizations and I will continue to show my love and support for them, for all they have done for me.
Author Bio: Beata Fourmanovskis is a recent grad of the Schulich School of Business - York University where she completed a Bachelor's of Business Administration (BBA) specializing in International Business and Responsible Business. In fall 2021, Beata will start working as a Business Analyst at Deloitte as part of the Finance and Performance Department. In addition to her studies, Beata served as co-head editor of Her Campus at York University and VP of Engagement for Hasbara at York. She loves to dance, read, and write and is taking a mediation course over the summer.