Developer from Iran finds a new home for Toronto synagogue

Lior Barron, second from left, and Phillip Nussbaum, third from left, celebrate their recent bar mitzvah at Zichron Yisrael with Mike Walden and Keith Zauder. (Zichron Yisrael)
TORONTO (JTA) — In late October, Americans saw what happened when anti-Semitism rears its head in the most devastating way.
But while a synagogue in Pittsburgh is the victim of a deadly hate-filled attack, one in Toronto is being rescued with kindness from unexpected quarters: an Iranian-American developer who not only offered land for a new synagogue, but a donation for its construction.
The saga began in May 2017, when the decision was made to close the north branch of Associated Hebrew Schools of Toronto, a K-8 Jewish day school, after 20 years. Administrators found its operations unsustainable and decided not only to shut down but sell its property.
“The impact of rapidly rising home prices, coupled with an increased cost of living, schooling and camp are challenging for many young families,” a PR firm representing Associated explained in a news release.
Associated is the area’s sixth Jewish parochial institution in about as many years to either shutter or lose a branch. Others included Robbins Hebrew Academy, Leo Baeck, TanenbaumCHAT, Toronto Talmud Torah and Etz Chaim.
Meanwhile, private real estate developers purchased the Associated land to build 120 townhouses with underground parking. However, the Format Group was not apprised that within the school, a Modern Orthodox synagogue nearly 25 years old operated on Saturdays.
Rabbi Charles and Lori Grysman have been shepherding Zichron Yisroel Congregation’s 140 families the entire time.
“I was dejected, yet had a strong sense of determination,” Rabbi Grysman said. “At the risk of sounding corny, I had faith a solution would be found.”
Facing eviction, and with no other site to hold services, the synagogue board brainstormed frantically looking for a solution.
One shul member, lawyer Joel Etienne, had some experience in property development and offered to reach out to the new owners. It turns out they had offices two doors down from Etienne and known each other for five years. The Format Group has been operating for 40 years with projects in Canadian malls, resorts and condominiums.
Etienne and the synagogue’s president, Jason Shron, later met with a local official, Ward 5 Councillor Alan Shefman, asking him to serve as a go-between. Shefman had been consulted about city regulations during the Associated purchase phase.
Synagogue members “had been my constituents for many years, and a vital part of the community, and it was important they provide their niche,” Shefman said. “It was very difficult to get land in the area, and land within walking distance for those who are Orthodox. They asked if there was any possibility to purchase some of the land from the developer.”
It was the fourth synagogue construction proposal in which Shefman had some involvement.
“It comes with the territory living with a significant percentage of Jews in the area,” he said.
His area, in the Toronto suburb of Vaughn, has a Jewish population of about 35,000, which he says is the highest in any ward in Canada.
Fortunately, for all involved, “they seemed to hit it off from the get-go,” Shefman said. “It was about creating an environment to resolve and reconcile different interests.”
But it’s not merely a story of desperate attempts by synagogue members to find a place to worship. Neither is it simply a story of negotiation and compromise between a real estate developer and a shul.
Format’s president, Babak Sarshar, is originally from Iran. Irrespective of religious, ideological or political differences, he and his team were sensitive to the synagogue’s plight.
In the last week of October, the parties found a solution: a new synagogue built on the existing Associated campus.
Why did Format Group decide to help a synagogue? Sarshar said he extended his hand because “we try to be good corporate citizens.”
Shron said that the proposed shul, which the developer will help build, will be a three-story, 2,800-square foot structure.
The cherry on top?
“There is a considerable contribution being made by the developers – and all of the other fundraising needs are achievable,” Shron said.
The hope is that the synagogue will open in two years.
“There is no real net benefit to Format. There’s nothing in it for them,” Etienne said. “This is kindheartedness, and pure and simple. They could have said ‘no’ and it was their full right to.”
And now a shul, and community, is saved.
“There’s definitely feelings of relief; a feeling like seeing the finger of God in all of this,” Rabbi Grysman says. “I’m so happy that the congregation’s magic continues. I think this is min hashomayim,” from heaven.