Living in the Downtown Core
"Being downtown has an energy of its own"
By Elysse Zarek, revised by Sarah Bleiwas
Downtown Toronto, roughly defined by St. Clair Ave. to the north, Lake Ontario to the south, the Don Valley Parkway to the east and Dufferin St. to the west, is certainly not homogeneous. Within this urban centre is a blend of commercial skyscrapers, soaring condominiums, retail shops and quaint residential neighbourhoods. As one of the most multicultural areas in the world, downtown Toronto is home to more than 80 ethnic groups and 100 languages.
Nestled into the heart of Canada's busiest cities, the downtown core holds many things a Jewish resident might want, from synagogues to supermarkets to places to work out. However, living downtown and being Jewish also means traveling to midtown for basics like kosher hamburgers. As one resident put it, "If we want something Jewish, we can find it. We just need to get into our cars and drive." Because of the multicultural makeup of downtown, the Jewish community in the downtown core tends to be more secular and liberal.
There are about 21,000 Jews living in downtown Toronto. This profile looks at the Downtown Core divided into four distinct neighbourhoods.
History of Toronto’s Jewish community
Jews settled in Toronto as early as 1832, but the waves of immigration from Eastern Europe didn’t take place until 1890. Arriving poor and with limited English language skills, the new immigrants sought work in the garment factories and congregated in the cheapest area of town, bounded by Yonge, Queen and Gerrard Sts. and University Ave. Synagogues, kosher food shops and schools sprung up in the neighbourhood. By 1914, the community began to creep west to Spadina Avenue and the streets behind it. Four years later, Kensington Market had several
synagogues and an outdoor market. As the decades past, the Jewish community moved west and north along Bathurst St. (Speisman, The Jews of Toronto).
Downtown Core by the numbers
156,795: neighbourhood population*
16,141: number of Jews**
12% increase in Jewish population
25: Jewish institutions in the area
$699,600: median price for a single detached home
$1,550: average rent for a two-bedroom apartment
* 2001 Canada Census
** UIA Canada's National Task Force of Jewish Demographics, 2009
Today, the remnants of old Jewish Toronto are still visible along Spadina Ave. Although most of the Jewish street signs have been replaced by newer ones in a variety of languages, one can still see fading Hebrew letters near the rooftops of some buildings. Two of the original Kensington Market synagogues are still operational, but many other buildings have been torn down to make way for new construction.
Downtown Toronto’s neighbourhoods
From east to west, the downtown core can be carved into the following principal neighbourhoods:.
Yorkville: Named after the Town of York, Toronto’s former name, Yorkville is an eclectic mix of Victorian houses, luxury condominiums, classy hotels and gourmet grocery stores. Housing is pricey in this part of the city and most of the residents are affluent long-time Canadians. On warm summer nights, the city’s well-heeled can be seen tottering in and out of the area’s nightclubs, bars and restaurants.
The Annex: This tree-lined, kid-friendly neighbourhood on the edges of downtown is more than 100 years old. Its residents include families with children, artists, business tycoons and University of Toronto faculty and students. Parking is almost non-existent in the Annex, but public transportation runs through it and the area is minutes away by foot from the heart of downtown.
Kensington Market and Chinatown: Chinatown is defined by its year-round outdoor market and the plethora of Asian restaurants and stores lining Spadina Ave. After English, Chinese is the most commonly spoken language in the neighbourhood. Just west of Spadina Ave. is Kensington Market, with its little fruit-and-vegetable stores and vintage-clothing boutiques. In summer, clouds of incense can be smelled in the market, giving it a 1960s feel.
Queen Street West: Recent condo developments have transformed the old garment district to an upscale urban hotspot. Residents of the Queen West area include soho-style young professionals, university students and businesspeople; children are hardly seen. The city’s largest nightclubs are within earshot, and on the weekends, nightlife lasts until the early hours of the morning. The cost of living in this area is high, owing to the downtown location.
Other noteworthy neighbourhoods include Little Italy, High Park and Danforth and the Beach.
There are over 16,000 Jews living in Toronto's downtown core. A significant number (35%) are between the ages of 25 and 44 and educated. This demographic enjoys being close to school, work and nightlife.
“It’s so close to everything. You can walk everywhere,” says Naama, a medical school student, who chose the location because of its proximity to the University of Toronto and the city’s main teaching hospitals.
At the same time, older couples are looking to retire in the downtown core because it lets them enjoy the city’s arts and culture without worrying about transportation.
“At this stage in our lives, we want to be closer to restaurants, theatre,” says Judy, who retired with her husband to a downtown condo several years ago. “We’re in the retirement age. It’s a good lifestyle for us.”
According to the 2009 Jewish demographics study, the downtown Jewish community has been growing steadily older over the past decade, in part because of boomer couples and retirees and in part because the 30something children of baby boomers are flocking to the city. The 65+ age group has grown 37% in the last ten years.
“Being downtown has an energy of its own,” says Rabbi Shmuel Spero, who has been the rabbi at the Anshei Minsk synagogue since the late 1980s. “It’s more like the pulse of the city. Suburbia doesn’t have much street life.”
Jewish life in the downtown core is enhanced by the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Hillel house – called the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life at the University of Toronto – and the various small synagogues scattered throughout the area.
The Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre is one of the few fitness centres in the downtown area and its renovation, completed in 2004, was part of UJA Federation’s Tomorrow Campaign, a three-stage project to revitalize community infrastructure. Its fitness programs range from tai chi to women’s weight training classes to intramural sports teams, and after-school, pre-school, day care and teen programs attract the youngest crowd. The Miles Nadal JCC is much more than a fitness facility, as it is home to two Jewish schools and runs numerous cultural programs, including a Zionist youth group and Israeli folk dancing.
Given the location, the downtown Jewish community is also more at ease with all kinds of diversity.
The Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School, established in 1997, runs out of the second floor of the Miles Nadal JCC. The only Jewish day school in the downtown area, the DJDS describes itself as a “traditional, egalitarian” school that reflects the downtown mantra of embracing pluralism. Students (kindergarten to grade 8) from both traditional and non-traditional families are welcomed.
The Downtown Jewish Community School is a supplementary Hebrew school with classes from kindergarten to high school. It is also run out of the Miles Nadal JCC.
Parents looking for a Jewish preschool experience in the downtown core can also choose Gan Shalom Preschool, located at the northern end of the neighbourhood, in the same building as Chabad of Midtown.
The Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life at the University of Toronto is also hub for the community. People who drop by are of all ages and religious backgrounds, and everyone is welcome. Jewish programming – parties, study sessions, movie nights – takes place during the academic year. The centre serves U of T’s 3,600 Jewish students and is Hillel’s Toronto headquarters. Hillel also offers nightly kosher dinners, Monday-Thursday, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Two different shuls operate out of the Wolfond Centre. The Annex Shul has sections divided with seating men, women and mixed, and welcomes individuals with diverse religious backgrounds and styles of observance. The Yachdav Minyan, an egalitarian minyan with traditional services, meets monthly and for the High Holidays at the Wolfond Centre.
Nestled in Kensington Market, Anshei Minsk is one of the city’s oldest synagogues and the only one with daily services in the downtown core. Part of the synagogue’s appeal, says Rabbi Spero, is the Kensington locale. It attracts a variety of people, ranging from singles to families, from “bagel-Jews” to Orthodox folks, from students to businesspeople to the homeless. Rabbi Spero also welcomes tourists to Toronto – the shul is listed in Fodor’s travel guide to Toronto – and can help with accommodations and Shabbat meals.
The First Narayever Congregation is a 10-minute walk north of Anshei Minsk. Founded in 1914 by a group of men from the Naraiev region of Galicia, the non-denominational synagogue now caters to liberal-but-traditional Jews from all over Toronto. At the Narayever, women wear head coverings and participate fully in religious services.
“We like to call it a traditional service with untraditional access, meaning access to women to carry the Torah, read the Torah and be part of the minyan,” says one board member.
The Downtown Core boasts two Chabad-Lubavitch locations: Chabad-Lubavitch of Downtown Toronto on the waterfront at Queen's Quay, Chabad of Midtown, located towards the north end of the downtown core (at Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave.). While Chabad-Lubavitch programming is affiliated with the Orthodox movement, it services all Jews with educational programs for all ages.
Other synagogues in the area include Shaarei Tzedek (also known as the Markham Shul), the Kiever Congregation, and the Reichmann Minyan. Shir Libeynu Congregation holds its High Holiday services in the downtown core and sign language is often available at these services. It also holds services the first Saturday of each month at the Miles Nadal JCC.
Two groups in the Annex area focus on reaching out to young Jews. Aish in the Annex offers weekly Shabbat dinners, social events and educational seminars. Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism is a grassroots group meeting every other Friday night at the historic Kiever Synagogue offering innovative programming dedicated to creating a thriving downtown Jewish life.
For those who want to know more about Anshei Minsk, First Narayever Congregation and Kiever Congregation - three of the original Jewish institutions in the neighbourhood - visit the Ontario Jewish Archives' online Toronto's First Synagogues exhibit.
Running through the downtown core are some of the country’s most renowned hospitals. Every hospital has a Jewish chaplain on staff. Kosher meals are available for patients (request at the time of admission), and prepared kosher food can be purchased at the Mount Sinai Hospital cafeteria. Anshei Minsk also provides resources for hospital patients and their families.
Shopping and Services
Downtown Toronto boasts of a wide variety of shops and services. Several major grocery chains cater to the general downtown crowd, including Metro Supermarket, No Frills and Loblaws. Fresh fruits and vegetables can also be found in Kensington Market or Chinatown. Although prices can be better there than the big-box superstores, quality isn’t guaranteed and customer service isn’t always a priority. Expect to root through bins of produce or fight crowds with your elbows to get to the cash register. Specialty spice stores and ethnic foods – Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin American – can also be found in the market.
For kosher meat and cheese, most residents make the trek up to the Loblaws at Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave. or the Metro Supermarket at Bathurst St. and Lawrence Ave. Discount department store Honest Ed’s at Bathurst St. and Bloor St. has a kosher chicken freezer.
The only kosher restaurant in the downtown core is Oasis, in the First Canadian Place office tower. Mt. Sinai Hospital has kosher food, and some cafeterias at the University of Toronto also serve prepackaged kosher sandwiches.
“We make our own Friday night dinner,” says another recent retiree. “We just have to go up to Eglinton to get our challah.”
For general shopping, the Eaton Centre, Queen St. West, Bloor St. and Harbord St. are known for their eclectic and often upscale shops. Honest Ed’s, the discount department store at Bathurst St. and Bloor St., is a Toronto landmark.
Opportunities for entertainment are practically endless in this urban centre. From the special events and festivals which vary throughout the year, to an array of attractions, movie theatres, restaurants, bars and clubs. Picking up a local newspaper or spending a few minutes on the internet will reveal that something is always going on in the downtown core.
The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company is a not-for-profit professional Jewish theatre organization, offering performance as well as cross-cultural educational outreach programs for Jewish and non-Jewish youth.
The Ashkenaz Foundation is famous for its Ashkenaz Festival held bi-annually. They also run cultural programming throughout the year.
The downtown core is well-connected to the rest of the city. By car, the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway will connect drivers to outlying areas of the city. Public transportation in downtown Toronto is fast and convenient, with the Toronto subway line spanning the major routes and streetcars, and buses compensating for where the subway line stops. The subway is open until almost 2:00 a.m. most weekends, and some bus routes have service 24 hours a day.
In the summer months, walking and biking are the two most popular forms of transportation. The entire downtown core is accessible by foot, and it is safe to walk at night in most areas. There are also two major bike paths in Toronto. One runs north-south beside the Don Valley Parkway to Lake Ontario, and a second runs along the waterfront across the city.
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