Ottawa’s downtown core will soon have a multi-function Chabad centre, thanks to the efforts of Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein, his wife Lindsay, and Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky, co-director of the Chabad Student Network.
The Finkelstein Chabad Jewish Centre, which will be located at 254 Friel Street, will include a synagogue, library, commercial kitchen, student lounge, and guest suites. The building at the address is being renovated to suit the needs of the Chabad community.
Immediate plans are to have the building ready to host services this High Holiday season.
Finkelstein donated $500,000 for the centre, and he and Rabbi Boyarsky raised nearly $1 million in donations, bringing the total funding for the Finkelstein Chabad Jewish Centre to almost $1.5 million.
Finkelstein first met Rabbi Boyarsky while attending law school at the University of Ottawa in 2005 and said he was “very touched and inspired” by what Rabbi Boyarsky was doing to help Jewish students.
“I went to his house a couple times, and every time it was packed with students,” Finkelstein said. “I was amazed by this man who had no connection to Ottawa or the law school, and yet he moved here to support the Ottawa Jewish community.”
“At that time I had little money, but I told Rabbi Chaim, ‘Look, if I can ever afford to, I want to help you build a real synagogue,’” Finkelstein said.
In 2017, Finkelstein called Rabbi Boyarsky to say he was in a position to help build a centre in downtown Ottawa where Jewish students from the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Algonquin College could congregate.
“I felt strongly that this was the right time to do it,” he said.
Speaking with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, Finkelstein pointed out that there hasn’t been a major synagogue in downtown Ottawa since 2015, “which is insane, because we are a G7 capital.”
At one time, almost all of Ottawa’s Jewish congregations were located downtown. The last of these was Congregation Beth Shalom on Chapel Street, which was relocated from the downtown core in 2015. Beth Shalom rented space for a year at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre before amalgamating with Agudath Israel Congregation to form Kehillat Beth Israel.
Finkelstein said that when he was reaching out to people for donations, he was amazed to hear how many of them had been touched by Rabbi Boyarsky.
“The impact that Rabbi Chaim has had on Ottawa’s Jewish community is far beyond what people realize,” he said. “This man is constantly working behind the scenes to make sure that the Jewish community feels supported.”
According to Rabbi Boyarsky, there are 2,000 Jews, including 300 young professionals, living downtown without a nearby synagogue to attend.
Rabbi Boyarsky said the new centre will be open to “students, young professionals and to everyone in the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Boyarsky said he “never would have dreamt of this idea” if not for Finkelstein. “We thought we were going to be renting classrooms forever,” he said.
Finkelstein said the building is currently undergoing renovations so that High Holiday services can be held there, but that is just the beginning.
“There will be much larger and more ambitious renovations happening over the next 12 to 18 months to ensure it looks great and can accommodate our entire Chabad community for the long term,” Finkelstein said.
He added that for Rabbi Boyarsky and himself, the project is very meaningful.
“The idea that 10 years ago we had this crazy idea to build a synagogue in downtown Ottawa, and we were able to get it to fruition and get it done, is probably the most impactful thing I’ve ever done in my life.
“This is us standing up to say the Ottawa Jewish community is proud of what we have here, and we want to make sure it survives and thrives,” Finkelstein said.
Rabbi Boyarsky says the Finkelstein Chabad Student Centre will be more than just a building.
“It isn’t about the bricks and the mortar; it’s about community,” he said. “It’s about the unity, bonds and the friendships it creates.”
Rabbi Boyarsky added that he is “so thankful to Ottawa’s Jewish community for coming together to make this happen.”