When Rabbi Elie Karfunkel was approached by John Kaplan to start a traditional synagogue in Forest Hill, one family showed up on opening night: the Kaplans.
"And half of them told me they were moving away!" the rabbi says.
For a year after that night in 2000, they couldn't even make minyan (a quorum of 10 Jewish men) for prayers, and had to crowdsource from the coffee shop below.
But the congregation gradually grew every sabbath and by the time 2007 rolled around, it was a crowd.
With more than 100 families in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue, Mr. Karfunkel and Mr. Kaplan knew it was time for a new venue. The small space above the Starbucks and across from a dentist's office was bursting at the seams, the rabbi says. "I always think, like, this is probably people's impression of the services: it's like going to a dentist."
They wanted something more for Forest Hill, something "regal," Mr. Karfunkel says.
He's wearing a hard hat, standing in the marble entrance of the Albert and Temmy Latner Forest Hill Jewish Centre, only days from Monday's parade celebrating its opening. The $20-million synagogue on Spadina Road is named after the late, prominent Toronto couple. Albert Latner donated $3-million to the project for it to be named after his wife, but when he died shortly after, the centre decided to add his name.
There's a lot to accomplish in the few days preceding the parade, and even more in the weeks before the high holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year – carpets need to be laid, landscaping done, electricity hooked up, seating installed and finishing touches applied to the piece de resistance: the ark, the structure that holds the Torah.
The centre won't be finished, but it'll be ready for opening day. "We're working day and night," operations manager Kamran Hashmi says.
The centre – the synagogue – couldn't be newer, but "new" isn't exactly the right word for it. It's a replica of the Great Synagogue of Jaslo in Poland, one of hundreds destroyed by the Nazis in 1939.
It took three years to draw the plans before ground was broken in 2011. It was the fall, a season that holds many milestones for the centre in Forest Hill, as well as the one it is modelled after: The Great Synagogue was built in September, 1905 on Rosh Hashanah, and destroyed by the Nazis in September 34 years later.
A grand opening is also scheduled for this year's Rosh Hashanah – beginning Sept. 13 and ending Sept. 15 – which the rabbi says is no accident.
So why Jaslo?
The idea of a replica came to the rabbi's wife, Rifky Karfunkel, and worked with the notion of fitting in with the neighbourhood, the "majestic" Forest Hill. And they wanted it to be an inclusive space. The synagogue was named "centre," so that everyone can feel welcome, the rabbi explains.
The fire department saved Jaslo's old synagogue when the Nazis first attempted to burn it down, but they were unable to save it the second time.
For Mr. Karfunkel, the shul's symbolism is twofold: "The message [that] the Jewish people are eternal and not going anywhere … but also the message [that] not everyone in Europe is bad. People have risked their lives to help the Jewish people," he says, referring to the hardships the Jewish people have endured, including the Holocaust.
While it is regal, the rabbi and his colleagues wanted to make the synagogue feel like a house. The many rooms – including offices, classrooms, a weekday chapel – and somehow intimate feel of the three levels of seating manage to give off that feeling.
The marble entranceway the rabbi is standing in does, too. The doorway is small and leads to a round marble floor, whose pattern is matched by the one of the lower ceilings in the building, which towers over the neighbouring brick homes. One of them is soon to be the Karfunkel family's; it is on one of the four lots purchased to build the synagogue and was originally intended to be an extension of the parking lot, but was not needed. That works out for the Karfunkels, as they await their 10th child.
The lobby leads to the shul's main prayer room. It reaches from the ground floor, up three storeys and seats about 500 "tuchuses," Yiddish for bums.
Two floors of balconies overlook the sanctuary – an architectural trait of historical Eastern European shuls, according to the rabbi. The galleries almost make you feel closer to the ark, because of its height. At 10 metres, it stands tall compared with others.
"When you have a small ark, on the second balcony, all you can see is the dust on the ark. Here, you're on the third balcony and you get to see it," the rabbi says.
It's not the largest synagogue built after the Second World War, despite what some at the centre believed, but "it's the most complicated," said Doron Klein, who flew to Toronto from Israel to help finalize the project. Though it is not a perfect replica of the old ark in Jaslo, the rabbi calls it a "poetic licence." A blurry picture of it found through Google led Israeli designer Avraham Fried to research historical synagogue architecture in Poland to come up with its closest interpretation.
Below the sanctuary is a 3,890-square-foot banquet hall with a five-metre ceiling. "If you don't have a good banquet hall, then really, how are you going to get the weddings and the bar mitzvahs?" the rabbi says of the basement, which warrants a building unto itself.
Adjacent to it is a private mikvah, a small pool of holy water observant married Jewish Orthodox women are required to dip themselves in once a month.
To Mr. Kaplan, who grew up a block from the synagogue he commissioned, the centre is unique because of its placement in the neighbourhood.
"The Jewish life experiences have traditionally occurred on Bathurst Street … so this centre offers the opportunity to kind of be like your congregation close to home," he says.
Asked to explain how so many Orthodox Jewish families from Forest Hill populated the congregation within a decade, Mr. Kaplan says they may have switched from other shuls. For many young families, he adds, the Forest Hill Jewish Centre is their first shul.
"We're sort of the little synagogue that grew," Mr. Kaplan says.