Shabbos Shul Review: Westmount Community Shul and Learning Centre

So I’ve pushed this off for a while (like everything else on this blog), but now I’m finally starting to come forth on this initiative. This is the first Shabbos Shul Review post – for those minyanim here in Toronto and Thornhill.

And where else better to start than the home shul of yours truly – the Westmount Community Shul and Learning Centre.

Bearing in mind this affiliation, I will do my best to avoid any bias while writing this. And since I do have a nice grasp of the shul, chances are this will be most detailed of all the reviews (unless my memory gets better). And since this is the first one, it may be a little cluttered and all over the place… but we’ll see.

If you don’t know the criteria for these reviews, take a moment to refresh your memory here.

First off some background info on the shul:

Offical Name: Westmount Community Shul and Learning Centre
Location: 10 Disera Drive, Suite #250 (above CIBC) , Thornhill
Rabbi: Rabbi Yossi Michalowicz
Nussach: Ashkenaz
Website:
http://westmountshul.com/

Typical service schedule

8:00: Class with Rabbi
8:45: (:30 in winter): Shacharis
9:30: Early Kiddish/Meet & greet **This is a great perk – Men get some herring, crackers and some scotch for 15 mins while shmoozing.
9:45: Torah  Service or Class with Rabbi or Youth Minyan starts
10:45: Rabbis Drash or Youth Kiddish (Joe Boos chicken wings)
11:15: Mussaf or Rebbetzin’s class
12:00: Kiddish

Now, let’s get started:

Building – Location, Look and Ease of Access

The first thing people usually think of when they think Westmount is the location. To say its obscure is an understatement  It’s located in a commercial plaza (aka the WalMart plaza) and no matter where you live; it’ll take at least 10 minutes to get there once you hit Bathurst and Centre Street. You have to head west along Centre until you get to the plaza, than go north on Disera until you reach #10, go up the stairs on the left – it’s on the second floor. You can only go through one door on shabbos because the other isn’t shabbos proof, the elevator is. Once upstairs, you head right all the way down the hall way until you reach the last two brown doors on your right, where you’ve finally arrived.

Inside, the interior is quite marvelous. They’ve done a really nice job of making the place look pretty. There are details abound, with multiple lights on the ceiling, the memorial board and the washing station which is decked out with a marble surface and Jerusalem stone sinks. It’s a very modern looking shul.

There’s a coat room on your right with ample room to spare. There’s an office and classroom on your right, and than a room straight ahead. That room is called the “fireside lounge.” It’s a multi-purpose room where the Youth Minyan and the Rebbetzin’s class takes place (at separate times during the services). It’s also decked out, with a small library, table for coffee/tea/etc. and most noticeably – a fireplace and a big screen TV – the latter being used for classes during the week.

To get to the washroom however, you will have to go back out to where you came in and there you’ll find the public washrooms. There’s a number lock to get in (it’s 2-3-4 enter) but it’s shabbos proof. Inside there’s a three stalls (three urinals for men), brown paper towels. It’s all manual and non-electric. You may have to a bring a Kleenex box in with you, but chances are there’s one already there.

Finally (back in the lobby) on your left, you’ll see two doors, where inside is the main shul.

Shul setup

The entrance is a back-cornered and immediately to the left is the women’s section. For the men’s section you continue going straight. Because of the seat set up, everyone will see you when you walk in.

There are tables and chairs along the back of the shul and two rows of tables from front to back along the side wall.

In all, you could probably fit about 60 people max in the shul. And therefore, space is at a premium.

The siddurim and chumashim are located on the back wall as well as right at the entrace of the shul. Better pick one up. The primary siddur and chumash are the regular brown Artsrcoll and the blue stone Artscroll chumash, respectively. You may find one or two random Sefardi siddur, but you’ll have to dig deep to find it. Some might be lying around and out of place but you shouldn’t have any trouble finding one.

I’d say you can fit three people on each side of the table. The chairs are black and plastic, with a form fitting back and a brown fabric cushion and arm rests. They’re relatively comfy. If all the chairs are filled you’ll have to watch out when pushing back your chair to get out + you’d better stake out your area to stand if you want space for your three steps back etc.

And if you need one, there are tissue boxes on the table.

You can call it packed or comfy – depending on your attitude.

The ark is quite extravagant with multiple light fixtures, funky red glass pillars and more. It’s quite a sight. The bima is in the middle of the room, with a little bit of space between the chazzan’s shtender, which is perked up right against a second elevated shtender (on the bima) facing the opposite way towards the kehilla. This is where the rabbi gives his drash.

At the front, there are tinted grey windows in front of the main windows so you won’t be distracted by what’s outside. You might here a horn honk here and there but it’s not really distracting. On the ceiling there are these neat light brown wave-like panels where the lights are situated. The whole set up also makes for nice acoustics when singing (which you’ll see later, is quite crucial).

The rabbi sits to the left of the mechitza right up front.

The mechitzas are dark brown and made wood, and the top third is a tinted black window screen.  However I find the tint to be ineffective so you can pretty much see the other side quite clear.

The women’s section is tiny, which sucks. You can fit maybe 20-25 (the very very most). That the Rebbetzin’s class takes place at the same time as Mussaf helps clear up the space.

Yes, as you’ve clearly seen, the shul is very nice to look at. And that’s what it’s taken me forever to get through this section.

People

At its core, Westmount is a baal teshuva shul. You will however see kippahs of all types, women wearing hats, shaitels or no head cover at all. It really is a mixed bag – frummies and or not. People are respectful and won’t give you dirty looks like you don’t belong. The people are very outgoing. I’m not saying that because I know everyone and been there for years. People will come up and shake your hand and say hello to you whether or not they’ve seen you before. (Heck some member will even hug each other.) They’ll gladly pass you a siddur or chumash if you don’t have one, or guide you to a seat if you can’t find or need one. They’ll explain to you how things work. Heck, some might invite you on the spot to lunch. If you’re a baal teshuvah or Joe/Jane Frum, you will be treated equally nice. Age doesn’t really matter either – albeit the main demographic is middle-aged families (35-50) with a few kids.

The rabbi will even introduce himself to you if he hasn’t seen you before.

I’m not kidding you on this.

It might be a little more difficult for young people (professionals/university students/singles) because of low numbers, but they do exist – you just have to find them yourselves and be outgoing.

Davening

The shul really takes pride over their davening.

For the most part – no one talks during davening, which is really nice because you can actually have legit kavanah.

The gabbai will let you know where they are in inside, make aware changes in davening and pretty much everything else you need to know. During Torah reading, there’s no Meshberachs in between so it goes pretty quickly. The baal koreh does have a nice and loud voice too.

The other thing that’s a Westmount calling card is the singing. And I mean lots of singing – Kedush, K’El Adon, the parts before and after Torah reading (Ain Kamocha, Ki Mitzion, Be Ana Rachitz, Mizmor L’David, Eitz Chaim He), Ein Keolkeinu, Aleinu + with Venemar and Adon Olam.

If there’s a chance to sing it – it will be sung.

The chazzanim are usually different every shabbos, or with a rotation. Some are spot on, and sometimes it does seem a little forced. But the voices are for the most part good. You won’t hear exaggerated oy and yeshivish dialects either.

Now if you like that, that’s great. But if not, then get ready for a marathon davening.

Rabbis Drash

Now I need to be careful with this section, I will try my best to summarize without being too critical (if necceassary).

First off, like everything else, the drash is long – half an hour long. You won’t however, fall asleep. That’s because the rabbi knows how to get his point across. He will raise his voice, which to some might be a little too much – but it works for the kehilla. It can be a little hell, fire and brimstone, which let’s be honest, we all need once in a while. So brace yourself. The rabbi is however an amazing storyteller. We’re talking impactful stories you’ll probably be what you remember the most post-drash.

 

Kiddush

Finally the category you’ve been waiting for…

At the end of all the services, everything (bima, mechitzas, tables) is pushed off to the walls + the divider between the lounge and the shul is opened, and kiddish is set up. The setting up doesn’t happen until after everything is said and done, so it’s not like you’re davening and all of a sudden stuff is being moved around and you’re space has been annexed.

It also means you’re standing for kiddish. There is however an option to sit at the tables against the wall – really great if you have young kids. And obviously, it’s a mixed kiddish.

The cholent is pretty good – for a pareve one (sorry meat lovers). It’s pretty warm too, since it’s been sitting on the hot plate in the kitchen behind the back of the shul. There are massive pieces of kisha in there as well. The kugel is pretty good as well. I’m not sure where it’s catered from based on what I’ve had at other local Thornhill shuls – it stands up better than most of them. There’s a single-file lineup for it with some paid helpers serving – and they give generous servings. Plus they’re really nice people – do say thank you after being served.

On tables all around there are President’s Choice soft drinks, water, egg salad, baba ganoush/hummus with carrots, couscous salad with tomatoes, tam tams, fruit salad, carrot cake and some other things I’m forgetting but that’s pretty much what you get. It’s a solid kiddish.

Extras + Other signature perks

Because it’s such an opening shul, there is a character or two who may be a little disturbing. But at least it’s not littered with kids running all over the place.

Like morning services, Kabbalas Shabbos is full of singing and two (yes two) rounds of dancing. It’s a Carlebach davening. Yedid Nefesh, the second and fourth tehillim (Shiru L’Hashem – followed by dance, Mizmor Shriu), Mizmor L’David, Lecah Dodi sung all together – followed be dance, V’Shamru and Magen Avos – are all sung.

Because of that (plus the rabbi talking for 10 minutes between kabbalas shabbos and maariv – no bameh madlikin) it’s also quite long – 1.5 hours.

As for Shalos Seudos… Let’s just say it’s unlike any other. Why?

They do it in the dark.

Yep. The dark.

There’s a timer system that has the lights turn off as time goes on – it doesn’t do so until after you’re done eating. The purpose is to really feel the final moments of shabbos without sufficient distractions. The rabbis likens it to placing your hand over your eyes while saying Shema.

It really makes for something special – especially with the singing. Hopefully you know the words.

Once shabbos is over, the lights come back on.

– – –

In all, it’s a pleasant shul. A niche shul. If you really want it, you will have to go out of your way to get it. But if you do like it, than it doesn’t really feel like you’re going out of your way.

So there you have it, my first Shabbos Shul Review. Please comment and leave feedback. I want to know how I did + stuff I missed (I apologize for not discussing youth programs), or how I can do better.

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Posted on January 14, 2013, in Reviews, Shabbos, Shabbos Shul Review, Shul, Westmount Shul and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. AWESOME! good job! thorough and kosher!

    Like

  2. I must add that Rebbetzin Gail’s “drushes” are also out of this world. After a tiring week-long week of work, I usually go to shul for the sole purpose of re-igniting my soul through her positive-energy and dynamic but always insightful words of wisdom.

    Like

  3. I just came across this blog. Great idea. For the Westmount shul review, I’m glad you mentioned the Rabbi’s unique style and content. If you are the type of person who only wants to hear a drasha that you can get behind/agree with, this may not be the place for you unless you share the Rabbi’s approach/opinions.

    Like

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