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Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism

Makom – meaning place or space in Hebrew – is a joyous, grassroots community, revitalizing downtown Jewish life in Toronto since 2009. Makom creates an inclusive space, uniquely integrating arts, activism, spirituality, and learning in ways that are accessible to diverse downtown Jews across the spectrum of identity, including many Jewish young adults and young families who were previously uninvolved in Jewish life. Having grown tremendously in the past two-and-a-half years on a shoestring budget, we now seek significant investment in Makom to propel our transition from initial start-up phase to growth stage, enabling us to develop the infrastructure necessary to make Makom a sustainable and stable organization that continues to grow and transform the landscape of downtown Jewish life now and into the future.


The Need for Makom
In the first half of the twentieth century, the downtown core was the hub of Jewish life in Toronto, but numbers dwindled drastically since the 1950s, when Toronto Jews began migrating northward. Since 1991, the population of Jews living south of St. Clair has expanded rapidly, with nearly 60% growth to 21,000 individuals, representing 11% of all Jews in the GTA today. Particularly, a growing number of Jewish young adults and families are choosing to live downtown, where one now finds the highest proportion of 25-to-44-year-old Jews in the city. However, since most Jewish organizations moved with the initial exodus up Bathurst Street and given downtown Jews’ urban interests, lifestyles, and outlooks, many downtown Jews feel disconnected from organized Jewish life. Consequently, downtown Jews are, by a variety of different statistical measures, the least involved in Jewish life in Toronto. Fusing both Jewish tradition and progressive values, Makom speaks to the ethos of today’s downtown Jews and creates a warm Jewish home that especially resonates with young adults and families who previously did not find spaces to connect with Judaism or each other.

Who We Are
Makom is diverse and welcoming. Our cohesive community includes singles, couples, and families with children; interfaith couples and families; those who are gay and straight; students and professionals; actors, artists, and musicians; lifelong Torontonians as well as newcomers to Toronto; children of all ages; and young adults (Makom’s majority demographic) through older adults. While our primary target population is Jews who live downtown, due to the unique nature of our community, we also attract regular participants from a larger radius within the city and the outlying suburbs.

What We Do
Although Makom has joyful services full of song and prayer every second Friday and on select holidays, we are much more than a synagogue. Rather, Makom is a community that infuses Jewishness into the broad spectrum of life. Our programs respond to the diverse interests and needs of downtown Jews by balancing arts, social and environmental activism, spirituality, and learning, offering such programs as hands-on creative arts for Hanukkah, an interfaith poverty relief prayer vigil at Queens Park, bi-weekly meditation and monthly women’s Rosh Hodesh gatherings, and Do-It-Yourself Judaism workshops, including “Judaism and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance.”

Where We’re Going
As more families with children become involved in Makom, we are creating new programs to meet their needs and reach other downtown Jewish families. We recently began a separate series of creative and substantive programs for “Makom Families” and a specific e-newsletter for that demographic. Makom is also thrilled to be launching the Downtown Jewish Play School – a five-day-a-week, after-school alternative Jewish educational program for junior and senior kindergarteners – this coming fall. Three days each week will be structured as “kid ulpan,” in which the children will play outdoors, do crafts, and other fun activities while immersed in Hebrew. The other two days per week will consist of creatively-conveyed Jewish content, ranging from holidays to Jewish environmental values, social justice to spirituality.

Makom meets a clear need in downtown Toronto, is building a diverse community of Jews who gather for meaningful Jewish experiences, and is changing assumptions about what it means to be a downtown Jew. In the near future, Makom has the potential to impact positively thousands of downtown Jews through all stages of life with creative and meaningful Jewish experiences and in so doing, to transform downtown Jewish life.

As downtown Jewish life changes for the better, it will reverberate among Jews across the GTA, not only in terms of making it more attractive for more Jewish young adults and families to move (or remain) downtown, but also because the creativity and openness of downtown Jews will have a positive influence on other Jewish communities in Toronto.

Goals, Objectives & Measurement: 

A two-year investment from SixPoints JVPF will enable Makom to set up a small office and hire a part-time assistant director, which will permit our Executive Director/Rabbi to focus on fundraising and other functions necessary to make the organization more stable and financially sustainable. All this will allow us to continue to grow our community and programming to meet the expanding needs of the growing population of Jews in downtown Toronto.

Community Growth
Since Makom began, we have tracked our quantitative impact based on the number of individuals who follow us online and who participate in each of our programs. Makom currently has more than 950 individuals on our e-mail list, nearly 350 Facebook group members, almost 400 followers on Twitter, and over 3,300 unique visitors to our website. In the next two years, Makom aspires to increase its online contact by 50% across all platforms through active marketing, both online and through real-world outreach, especially to more families with children.

Programmatic Growth
In only two-and-a-half years, Makom has expanded its programming dramatically. In 2009, we offered 42 programs (averaging 3.5 per month); in 2010, 61 programs (averaging 5 per month); and in the first seven months of 2011, Makom ran 55 programs (averaging nearly 8 per month). Our programs range from small to large, averaging 45 participants on average, with 15 programs thus far attracting more than 100 participants. In 2012, we aim to offer 8 programs per month (96 over the year) and in 2013, 9 per month (108 in total). We will achieve these greater numbers by augmenting our programming in the areas of families, arts, and social and environmental activism. Furthermore, we will start and incrementally expand Makom’s Downtown Jewish Play School, which will connect not only children, but their families with Makom.

Qualitative Measurements
In the past year, we have been working to measure our participants’ qualitative experiences of Makom in order to provide future direction to our community. In August 2010, Makom conducted focus groups among our participants across a spectrum of involvement. Analysis of these conversations indicates that participants identify with Makom’s mission, are generally satisfied with Makom’s current direction, and are looking for greater involvement and ways to contribute. Makom just launched an extensive online survey, intended both for Makom participants and non-participants. The results of this survey will allow us better to understand downtown Jews’ needs, interests, and feelings about Makom and our programming. We will be able to evaluate the quality and quantity of our programming and the impact Makom has on individual participants’ lives and downtown Jewish life overall. We intend to utilize another survey two years hence, enabling us to compare responses to determine our successes and challenges. [One statistic that will be particularly useful to track is the percent of survey respondents who are very active participants in Makom programs, attending at least one program per month.]

Organizational Stability and Financial Sustainability
Since November 2010, Makom has greatly increased and diversified our revenue streams, raising significant funds from donations and grants, as well as program fees. However, our greatest challenge continues to be finding the financial resources to enable us to meet the needs of the growing population of downtown Jews looking for creative and substantive Jewish programming.

In order to grow our community and programming substantially further, we need to enable Makom’s Executive Director/Rabbi to focus more on implementing Makom’s vision and strategic plan, fundraising, teaching, and inspiring more downtown Jews. This will be possible only if we hire an Assistant Director to assist with program planning, grant research and writing, marketing, and administration. Additionally, professionalizing Makom’s operations will require a dedicated office space, which we currently lack. Renting desks at the Centre for Social Innovation is relatively inexpensive and distributes the costs of basic office amenities (internet, copier, fax, meeting rooms, etc.) across many tenants. We will also need to purchase two notebook computers and software (at well below retail cost through TechSoup Canada’s software for charitable organizations program). Until Makom has sufficiently enlarged its donor base and grant-seeking capabilities – which we will do over the next two years – these enhancements to our operations will only be possible with support from SixPoints JVPF.

Opportunity for Involvement: 

Thus far, Makom has been the beneficiary of the generosity of an advertising agency that designed our logo, a graphic designer who created brochures for potential donors, an accountant at a major firm who recently taught our Executive Director/Rabbi accounting basics and software use, a lawyer specializing in charity law who is aiding us in our application for charitable status, and a documentary filmmaker who produced the video we are submitting with this application.

As Makom develops its organizational infrastructure and resources, we would welcome significant involvement of SixPoints Fund members. We could use assistance re-designing our website to make it both more attractive and functional. Someone with strong marketing and PR skills could help us gain greater inroads among downtown Jews and potential supporters across the GTA. We also need real hands-on know-how with regard to business development, entrepreneurship, strategic planning, and fundraising in order to build and maintain a more financially sustainable organization. Makom could also use legal counsel and accounting assistance as various questions or needs arise. With real help from experienced professionals in these fields, Makom could reach many more downtown Jews more efficiently and make a larger impact on the landscape of downtown Jewish life.

Time Frame: 

At this critical stage in Makom’s development, as we transition from start-up to growth stage, Makom seeks a two-year investment from SixPoints JVPF in our innovative organization to support the hiring of a half-time assistant director in winter 2012 and simultaneously moving our non-programmatic operations into the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) and purchasing two notebook computers and necessary software. After one year, the administrative assistant position will be increased to three-quarters time and more desk time will be rented at CSI.

During each of these two years, the Executive Director/Rabbi of Makom will, with the guidance of SixPoints JVPF members, hone his strategic planning, fundraising, and organizational and financial management skills and begin implementing them immediately to build up Makom’s donor base and financial independence. During each year of SixPoints JVPF funding, Makom will increase its revenues from donations and selling “partnership shares” (somewhat akin to memberships) by a total of $10,000 over the prior year. After two years, SixPoints will cease providing funds to Makom, which will then no longer be necessary, as Makom will have enhanced its programming, stabilized its operations, and broadened its donor base, both within its expanding community and among other Jews in Toronto and beyond who wish to support an effective, innovative organization making a palpable difference in the lives of many hundreds of downtown Jews – especially young adults and families – and transforming the overall shape of Jewish life downtown.


Rabbi Aaron Levy, the founding Rabbi and Executive Director of Makom, is a leader in the revival of downtown Jewish life in Toronto. He also teaches percussion and is a sought-out educator on a wide array of Jewish topics, especially ethical eating, environmentalism, spirituality, pluralism, and social justice. Aaron brings experience living and working in a variety of cities and Jewish communities; he previously founded an independent minyan, served as campus rabbi at three Hillels, and led wilderness backpacking trips. He was ordained in 2004 in the first graduating class of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah – The Open Orthodox Rabbinical School in New York City – and is an avid drummer, hiker, vegan, and urban gardener. Aaron, 35, lives downtown outside Kensington Market and is married with two kids, ages four years and five months.

Organizational Structure and Expertise: 

Makom’s founding Executive Director/Rabbi launched our creative downtown Jewish community as a volunteer in 2009, became a part-time staff person in 2010, and moved to a full-time position in 2011. As he has increased his time working for Makom, the organization has successfully grown by all measures: online and in-person contacts, nearly doubling programming, growing the budget considerably by moving from raising $5,600 in individual donations 2009 to $28,500 in 2010. He has also shifted Makom’s programs from operating at a net loss to serving as a revenue source for the organization [to help offset the staffing costs incurred in designing and implementing programs]. His passions and expertise are in teaching in an intellectually engaging and open-minded fashion, creative program planning and execution, shaping meaningful lifecycle rituals, facilitating joyous prayer services, and envisioning new possibilities for downtown Jewish life. He needs to be able to dedicate more time to those endeavours so as to meet the growing needs of more downtown Jews while also developing stronger skills in strategic planning, fundraising, and organizational and financial management.

With support from SixPoints JVPF, Makom will hire a part-time Assistant Director to assist with program planning, grant research and writing, administration, marketing, and communications. This will be a half-time position in 2012 and three-quarters-time position in 2013.

Makom is blessed with an active Board of Directors; these highly dedicated volunteers bring their considerable talents to advancing our community: human resources, quantitative and qualitative research and analysis, program planning, social media, teaching, writing, and project management.

Other volunteers within Makom’s community contribute their time and skills through leading meditation, visual arts, theatre, music, prayer, bicycle repair, creative ritual, and, of course, set up and clean up.

Criteria that Enhance Competitiveness: 

As noted above, an investment by SixPoints JVPF will enable Makom to move from start-up stage to growth stage by allowing the organization to develop the necessary staff resources to achieve organizational stability and financial sustainability by enhancing our revenue streams while continuing to expand our reach and programmatic offerings in a strategic and smart fashion so as to maximize the positive impact on downtown Jews and Jewish life.

In the two-and-a-half years since Makom’s founding, our community has grown incredibly rapidly, as seen through the increasing numbers of participants and programs. With demographic evidence pointing to continued growth of the downtown Jewish population in the years ahead, the demand for Makom’s downtown-based community building and programming will only increase. Makom will enhance its market penetration of Jews living downtown through active marketing and outreach and increased diversity of programming, especially in the arts, social and environmental activism, and family programs. Over the coming years, Makom’s Downtown Jewish Play School will expand into older grades and we will also start a pre-bar/bat mitzvah creative learning experience group. These will not only serve the needs of families already involved in Makom, but will attract more families to our community. In approximately four years, we plan to expand Makom’s operations to include other downtown areas of Toronto (outside the downtown core) with growing young Jewish populations, such as Danforth/Leslieville and the West End/Junction/Parkdale. Support from SixPoints JVPF will enable Makom to scale up our community starting in the next two years and continuing well beyond SixPoints JVPF’s direct involvement, thereby affecting a greater number of Toronto’s downtown Jews.

Financial Leverage
A significant investment in Makom by SixPoints JVPF would not only enable our Executive Director/Rabbi to establish more relationships with potential donors by freeing him from many of the day-to-day tasks that the Assistant Director will take on, but will also lend local recognition and prestige to Makom, helping demonstrate to potential donors Makom’s impressive successes to date and our tremendous growth potential.

The revitalization of the urban core is not unique to Toronto; a similar movement is afoot elsewhere in Canada and the United States. This is mirrored by an increasing number of Jews rejoining the urban centres where their grandparents grew up. But many of these new downtown Jews identify both Jewishly and otherwise in ways that are completely different than their forebears. Although Makom cannot be replicated exactly since it is an organic part of the downtown Toronto Jewish community, it can serve as a model for those in other cities who wish to create unique Jewish communities within their own urban environs. A similar approach – integrating multiple approaches to Jewish life in a cohesive, geographically localized, grassroots Jewish community – could readily be replicated by other communities that facilitate diverse Jewish individuals and families connecting with Jewish life and community. Further in the future, when Makom reaches a more established stage of organizational development, we envision our rabbi and director spending some of his time consulting for other Jewish communities interested in creating grassroots, creative, urban Jewish communities or alternative Jewish educational programs for school-aged children.

Makom is unique in Toronto, Canada and the larger North American Jewish landscape because it integrates arts, activism, spirituality, and learning in an ongoing, grassroots community rooted in Jewish tradition and downtown Toronto’s rich Jewish history. Without sacrificing substance, Makom speaks the language of downtown Jews and creates accessible opportunities for involvement in Jewish life and community. Guided by urban writer and activist Jane Jacobs’ concept that “new ideas need old buildings,” our new community is based in and revitalizing Jewish life in Toronto's downtown core and Kensington Market.

Makom is the first and only Canadian organization listed in Slingshot (www.slingshotfund.org), an annual guide to North America’s 50 most innovative Jewish not-for-profits. We have received an Emerging Models of Jewish Connection grant from the Natan Fund for our Jewish Times/Local Landscapes program series presented in collaboration with Shoresh Jewish Environmental Programs, an Alumni Venture Fund grant from Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel for our Do-It-Yourself Judaism Workshop Series, and a start-up grant from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: The Open Orthodox Rabbinical School. Makom’s innovative qualities have also been recognized in features in the Globe and Mail, CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, Yonge Street Media, Friday Night Magazine, the Canadian Jewish News, and the Jewish Tribune.

While at the vanguard of Jewish social innovation, Makom is connected to groups doing somewhat similar work elsewhere. In 2010, Makom’s board members conducted key informant interviews of the leaders of seven innovative, independent Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel. We determined promising practices for Makom in the areas of governance, finances, fundraising, membership, programming, marketing, and evaluation, and have fused them to create an outstanding, new programming and community-building model that appeals to downtown Jews across the spectrums of identity and interests.