Stella Kosta knows the Chabad-Lubavitch center in the Toronto suburb of Markham as a place where her love of Judaism grew and continues to flourish, as home to her children’s Jewish day school, and as a place where she can ask the toughest questions about Judaism and Jewish identity.

With the encouragement of Rabbi Avrohom and Goldie Plotkin, she is building a legacy for her children, Ethan, 5, and Noah, 7, and a communal and ritual base she hopes they’ll cherish as much as she does.

“I don’t think anything has given me as much Vitamin C for my soul as Chabad has,” explains Kosta. “They’ve never gotten frustrated with me, never told me, ‘I can’t deal with your questions.’ They are the most amazing people in the world.”

She is part of a community that has been 25 years in the making. When the Plotkins came to Markham in 1985, they moved into a secular neighborhood and started knocking on doors. They brought people into their home, had a few people coming for services, and tried to build a connection with area families. As they celebrate their 25th anniversary year, they can see the results of their efforts.

Joined in 1990 by Rabbi Meir and Esther Gitlin, today Chabad-Lubavitch of Markham boasts a 13,000-square foot facility with a synagogue membership 350 families strong, a Torah Tots preschool with more than 100 children, a Hebrew School with several hundred kids and a summer day camp with more than 100 kids. It also runs an adult education program that draws 100 at a time for two-hour study sessions. And that’s not to mention the male choir.

“We have a very strong community,” says Avrohom Plotkin.

Programming is focused on breaking down barriers and combating stereotypes unaffiliated Jews may have, for example, of a force-fed Judaism they may have encountered in their pasts.

“We make Hebrew School fun, nursery school fun,” offers Plotkin. “We make synagogue fun.”

Chabad-Lubavitch of Markham runs an original program that holds classes concurrent with Sabbath services, explains the rabbi, so people can come and learn, bring their kids and enjoy an accessible synagogue experience.

“There’s something for the whole family here,” he says. Good food and programs focused on current issues are also key to helping people feel they have an “excuse” to go to synagogue and something to talk about with their friends afterwards, he adds.

Rabbi Meir Gitlin barbeques kosher food for Jewish community members.
Rabbi Meir Gitlin barbeques kosher food for Jewish community members.

It’s all geared toward allowing participants to take ownership of their heritage and the tradition. As community members’ children have grown up, they head to Chabad Houses on their college campuses and feel they’re home.

“We broke down those barriers in a big way and helped people feel a sense of belonging and ownership,” says Plotkin.

In honor of its celebratory year, the Chabad House hosted a concert at Markham Theater that drew 500 people, and honored families instrumental in the organization’s development. Next year, it hopes to hold a dinner to formally launch it into its next 25 years of success.

Paul Klein, one of the congregation’s South African members and a Markham resident, says he values the enthusiasm the Plotkins have brought to the community and the trust they have helped foster. People rely on them for ethically valid, honest perspectives rooted in higher motives, which is getting harder and harder to find, he says.

Klein’s favorite memories of his time in the community are of lunch at the Plotkins’ house and his involvement in the adult educational program. Additionally, he appreciates that though his daughter Talia, now 38, grew up in the community, got married, moved away and started going to a local Chabad House, she still considers the Plotkins her rabbi and rebbitzen.

A Torah class is packed in the Toronto suburb of Markham.
A Torah class is packed in the Toronto suburb of Markham.

“It’s a genuine community, it’s not just a place you go to on occasion,” explains Klein. “People rally together, people come together, people learn together. We learn together and progress together; we all grow together.”

Longtime Markham resident Brahm Taveroff says the community and its leadership has brought him to a higher spiritual level, a higher level of contentment, and a greater appreciation of Judaism.

“I’m inspired by the way they lead their lives and the way they inspire other people to just be a little bit better, and sometimes a lot better,” he says of the Plotkins and Gitlins. “And you really feel very good about yourself, and good about going a little more.”

He fondly recalls the first time he brought his oldest grandson, now four years old, to synagogue, and they danced with the Torah scrolls.

“I think that was a very special experience for him,” says Taveroff, explaining that he can’t wait for his other grandchildren, who live just a few miles away, to have the opportunity to be inspired by the Markham community. “I hope they get a little better understanding of Judaism each day, or each time they go, a better appreciation of it. I think that leads to a great love of it.”