This rabbi held in-person services for the first time in nine months

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“We set up our synagogue in the park wading pool”: This rabbi held in-person services for the first time in nine months

Rabbi Aaron Levy founded Makom, a community of Jewish downtowners, in 2009. During the pandemic, its prayer services and other programs went virtual. Now, the community is finally celebrating face-to-face again.

—As told to Luc Rinaldi

“I used to work as the campus rabbi at Hillel U of T, an organization for Jewish students at the University of Toronto. I loved working with students, but there wasn’t a Jewish community that spoke to me or to many of the diverse downtown Jews I met. So, in 2009, I founded Makom, a community that would welcome Jews and their non-Jewish partners and explore Judaism in an inclusive, pluralistic way. It would be rooted in tradition yet imbued with progressive values.

“Over the next 10 years, Makom grew to offer all kinds of programming: prayer services, meditation, Shabbat dinners, lunch-and-learns, pluralistic after-school classes for kids and teens, urban hikes, interfaith couples’ gatherings and much more. Most of that programming took place in our storefront, a cozy spot near Kensington Market about the size of a coffee shop. As our community expanded, we started renting venues like Hart House for bigger gatherings. By our 10th anniversary, it felt like we had hit our stride. Roughly 750 people participated in our programs every year.

“Of course, that momentum evaporated when the pandemic hit. It was so sudden. On a Monday night in March of 2020, we celebrated the holiday of Purim with 350 people. By Thursday, we had cancelled that Saturday morning’s prayer service. We didn’t know it at the time, but we wouldn’t gather again for months.

“Like everyone else, we moved online. I started leading prayer services, adult and teen classes, and community check-ins from home. Our director of education migrated Makom Afterschool classes online. Running a synagogue online certainly has its challenges. For example, in normal times, we joyously sing all together. We learned very quickly that group singing over Zoom just doesn’t work.

“However, there were some advantages to going virtual. Some people in the U.S. started tuning into our services. Adult classes attracted more participants, joining from the convenience of their homes. A woman in India became a regular, even though the classes were at 5:30 a.m. in her time zone. That’s dedication.

“Once it was clear that the public health crisis wasn’t going to end any time soon, I began to worry that people might lose touch with Makom. Would our community members continue participating in online programming, which seemed like such a pale imitation of the real world? This past February, I realized my anxiety was misplaced when 400 people joined our virtual Purim celebrations—50 more than the previous year.

“Last summer, when cases decreased and restrictions eased, I began dreaming of hosting in-person services outdoors. Due to a quirk in the City’s Covid guidelines, we couldn’t gather in a public park. So, I biked around downtown, scouting for a private outdoor space where we could gather. Cycling along Bathurst just north of Bloor, I spotted the courtyard outside St. Peter’s Church. I called the priest, Father Michael McGourty, and asked if Makom could pray outside the church. He graciously said they’d be happy to have us.

“Starting last July, we held outdoor prayer services every other week. Pretty soon, I had it down to a science. I had a ‘go bag’ with a small folding table, photocopied prayers, hand sanitizer and 50 soccer cones to mark where people could safely sit. It was wonderful to see dozens of familiar faces—well, at least the upper halves of their faces—every service.

“Our greatest success during that time was holding outdoor, in-person services for the Jewish High Holy Days in September. Over four days, we ran nearly 30 limited-capacity services, family programs, meditation sits and discussion groups for 250 people of all ages in Christie Pits Park. The weather was gorgeous and the park was full of people. At various points, there were yoga classes, soccer games, kids playing and adults picnicking all around us. Sure, it could be distracting, but it felt overwhelmingly positive, like our spiritual experiences were part of the vibrant diversity of downtown Toronto.

“By mid-November, it was too cold and dark to continue outdoor services, so we went back online. I’ve received a wave of emails thanking Makom for both our online and in-person pandemic programming, telling us how powerful and meaningful it’s been. Each of those messages was a wonderful reassurance that the community was still engaged, just waiting for the moment we’d return.

“That day finally arrived this summer. On a Friday in mid-July, Makom held its first in-person service since last November. Forty-five of us gathered in the St. Peter’s courtyard, distanced with the soccer cones. The mood was different this time. We were all optimistic about the trajectory of the pandemic, and eager to catch up. I must have said, ‘It’s so great to see you!’ dozens of times—and I meant each one.

“The following night, we congregated at Christie Pits to observe Tisha B’Av. Many tragedies throughout Jewish history fell on this day, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. It’s an occasion of great mourning. But when I arrived at the picnic shelter in the centre of the park— which we had reserved—I found a crowd of young people partying. I couldn’t help but laugh. Rather than try to kick them out, I found another spot for us to gather: the empty wading pool. More than 40 participants gathered round while some community members and I stood at the platform in the middle of the pool, leading the reading and chanting. A friend live-streamed the service while hotspotting off his phone—a set-up he’d perfected for his daughter’s hybrid backyard-and-online bat mitzvah. The mood was solemn, yet we were all so delighted to see one another in person again.

“During the pandemic, Makom hasn’t been able to regularly use our storefront, so we’ve invited other groups. In July, we hosted a vaccination clinic for clients of Fort York Food Bank nearby. When they picked up food down the block, they could easily walk over to our storefront and get a shot. Since January, Food Not Bombs, a grassroots organization that feeds about 500 people each week, has been based out of our space. Last week was my first time back working in the storefront, planning this September’s High Holy Day services and the resumption of Makom Afterschool. Even though I had to manoeuvre between bins of donated food to reach my desk, it felt like I had returned home. I can’t wait for the rest of my community to join me.”