News | Ghetto Shul out of space

Funding cuts come after long struggle to secure a home

A mainstay of the Jewish community at McGill, Ghetto Shul, is now in danger of losing its space in the Plateau, after nearly two years of real estate limbo.

Hillel Montreal, a Jewish students’ association that promotes cultural learning, has cut Ghetto Shul’s rent from its budget.

Jeff Bicher, the Interim Managing Director for Hillel Montreal, explained that the Shul cuts were part of a $185,000 scale-down in the face of the economic crisis.

“In an analysis of expenditures, if we don’t change our spending habits, we’re looking at spending $1.4-million, and we’re only bringing in $1.2-million.”

Ghetto Shul, a student-run and largely student-funded grassroots synagogue, launched a fundraising campaign to make the rent at its location on Clark in the Plateau. According to Erin Kizell, students initiated a phone-a-thon that draws from their home communities for pledges.

With activities now split between the Clark Street Shul and Hillel House, Josh Tal, Public Relations Representative for Ghetto Shul and U3 Cultural Studies, said that Ghetto Shul has suffered drops in attendance, especially since the weather has gotten harsh and cold.

“It’s not just a synagogue, it’s more of an environment and a certain type of community and warmth. We lose that spark that attracts people without our own space,” said Tal.

Jeff Bicher echoed Tal’s sentiments. “Its main group of students are out-of-towners who are living in the McGill Ghetto,” said Bicher describing them as those who don’t have their own home community to fall back on, which makes having a space specifically in the Plateau even more important.

Full access to an independent space is crucial to the services the Shul provides, explained Emily Foxen-Craft, VP Internal, in a written statement to the board.

“Though it may seem materialistic to value a building so much, it really ties together so many elements of the grassroots organization of Ghetto Shul, unifying its members, new and old, to a specific place which they can associate with their private and communal exploration of Judaism,” wrote Foxen-Craft.

The Shul’s latest residential predicament comes after a long struggle to secure its own space. Two years ago, a zoning issue forced the Shul out of a building on Lorne Avenue in the Ghetto, where it had been running its operations since it was founded in 2000. In the following year, it continued its activities out of Hillel House, which hosts Jewish holiday programming year-round on Stanley.

Last August, Ghetto Shul finally got a home of its own when a new five-year lease was initiated at a location on Parc, near Milton. According to Erin Kizell, VP External at the Shul and U1 Arts, the space was acquired with “the generous support of Hillel Montreal.”

After three months on Parc, the group was forced to relocate again after the building next door to theirs was torn down, exposing pipes that froze, broke, and flooded the space. Bicher remained optimistic that Hillel Montreal would soon recover financially.

“We are still looking, connecting with potential donors,” said Bicher. “We aren’t giving up.”

Kizell was sympathetic to Hillel Montreal’s financial situation.

“Funding was never guaranteed by Hillel Montreal; there was no assurance we would be able to maintain the needed or same amount of donor funding.”

Hillel Montreal facilitated the donor funding that was given to Ghetto Shul for their leases and Rabbi salaries. The Shul’s other sources of funding include Central Address for Jewish Philanthropy and Community Service, a Montreal-based organization that works to support grassroots Jewish communities throughout the world.

Tal hoped the Shul would find a new space with a lower rent somewhere in the Ghetto.