“A Cappuccino and a Rashi, Please”
In a small space above a Starbucks coffee shop in a young, wealthy neighborhood in Toronto called Forest Hill, there were some tables, chairs and sefarim, mostly unused. The space had been leased by Ohr Somayach as a kiruv center, but one of the rabbanim who had given classes there had passed away, and another had moved on.
The lease was almost over, and because there wasn’t much going on in the center, there was the looming question of whether they should sign on for another year or simply let it go. After some debate, it was decided to keep the space and bring in a new couple who would hopefully reawaken the center and give it new life.
And that is how Rabbi Elie and Rebbetzin Rifky Karfunkel, a sincere and dynamic duo serving the small Jewish community in Oshawa, Ontario—a common first pulpit for many young rabbanim in the area—moved to Forest Hill and took over the small space, hoping to fill it with light.
At the time, they had no way of knowing that “light” would indeed arrive, quite literally, in the most unexpected way.
A Dream and a Forgotten Shul
It was not long before the talent of the Karfunkels reaped rewards—and in fact, the couple became victims of their own success. At some point there was no longer room in the space above Starbucks to serve the growing community in Forest Hill.
They dreamed of owning their own place, and with the help of local philanthropists, they purchased a plot of land and began to draw up plans for a building. Rebbetzin Rivky Karfunkel is known for her artistic talent, and she wanted a building that would be far from ordinary. After hashing out various ideas, the Karfunkels decided that their building would be an exact replica of one of the many shuls destroyed by the Nazis, yimach shemam.
It was a beautiful but daunting idea.
Beyond the plan, they had no shul in mind that they wanted to replicate. All they knew was that they wanted the shul to be from a town that was not well known.
When I spoke to Rabbi Karfunkel this week, he explained, “Cities like Minsk and Pinsk, because they were and are important, will have many opportunities to be remembered. We want to be a zecher for a community that otherwise risks being forgotten. We want to show the world that no group of Yidden, nor their shtut, will be forgotten.”
They also wanted to choose a shul that had been central to an entire community, a makom kodesh where a town once came together to daven and celebrate simchos.
“How does one even go about doing research for such a project?” I asked him.
Rabbi Karfunkel explained that after the churban, many survivors compiled sifrei zichronos. Memories of forgotten towns and cities were collected and read, including information about their shuls, rabbanim, schools, even their shochtim and educators; nothing was left out.
And that is what prompted one of the members of the Forest Hill Jewish Center/Ohr Somayach to go to a research library at the University of Toronto, where he discovered a memorial book for the town of Jaslo, Poland. It was a town most people had never heard of, and it was unfamiliar to the Karfunkels.
As they learned more about the town, they discovered that the central shul in Jaslo had indeed been the main shul there, the center of the Jewish community.
The shul was also a perfect fit for the size of the lot in Toronto, 27,000 square feet. The Karfunkels and their philanthropist team planned a beautiful replica, with a mikvah, a wedding hall, and even a usable terrace.
To be honest, I remember that when I first heard about this reconstruction, I wondered why this particular town and shul had been chosen. I would soon find out.
The city of Jaslo has a rich Jewish history. Back in the year 1613, there were already recorded laws against its many Jewish residents.
Some 200 years later, in 1846, anti-Jewish riots broke out in the city, destroying the property of many of its Jewish inhabitants, who made up more than one-quarter of its population.
In 1910, many of its Jews were persecuted and then prosecuted for the odd crime of carrying lit candlesticks.
A few decades later, with the start of World War II, the Nazis invaded Jaslo, and all vestiges of Jewish life in the city were extinguished.
After ten years of planning and building, it was time for the grand opening of the shul in Forest Hill. At that amazing event, several survivors from this forgotten town showed up—some of them unexpectedly.
One man who came had been the last boy in Jaslo to have his bar mitzvah in the shul; another one who flew in from Montreal had been the last child born in Jaslo. He received a standing ovation from the standing-room-only crowd.
No one knew it just yet, but as these survivors stood in the teeming crowd at the opening of the recreated shul of Jaslo, they were about to witness another miraculous revival of a part of their city.