There is a growing hub of Jewish life just north of the Greater Toronto Area.
The Jewish community of Simcoe County is scattered in pockets across the sprawling region, congregating around Innisfil, Orillia, Barrie, and other towns. The population is varied: Jewish couples who have retired to their cottages, others who moved for jobs or a quieter pace of life. Yet, the past few years have seen a surge of growth—both in population and in programming.
For years, Am Shalom Congregation and Chabad Jewish Centre of Barrie have served the small Jewish community with warmth and dedication. Recently, two new community organizations have been working to further engage Jewish families in the area.
National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Simcoe County Section (NCJWC, Simcoe County) was founded in 2018 by Helen Silverstein—a community leader with extensive volunteer experience with UJA and the Toronto Jewish community. And PJ Library, through the efforts of NCJWC, Simcoe County, just this past summer gained a local Young Family Connector, Allison Sullovey Charland. As a Connector, Allison’s mission is to engage families with young children to create grassroots community.
Allison and her husband moved to Innisfil a year and a half ago, pregnant, and priced out of the Toronto housing market. She finds that the local Jewish community is growing as the move up north becomes an option for many due to COVID-19, remote work, and the high cost of living in Toronto. “There is quite a mix of different ages on my street,” she shared. “There are families with kids of all ages—from newborns up to teenagers.”
Allison is focused on bringing people together across the entirety of the county. “Simcoe stretches from Bradford and Alliston all the way up to Collingwood, so it’s even more meaningful to get all these community members together!” she explained. She plans to hold programs in different locations so that all community members, no matter where they are, feel included. She dedicates time to driving all over the county and dropping off items for her planned activities, in order to create the lowest barrier to entry possible and ensure that she reaches those who can’t drive out.
“The PJ Library Young Family Connector program is about connecting families, building community, and creating programming that brings Jewish children and families together,” Allison said. “Our group is growing and I’m so excited to see where it goes!”
While PJ Library engages young families, National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Simcoe County, provides a welcoming space for women of all ages to come together in a social context to form new friendships and build support systems within the Jewish community. Through its innovative projects, it provides opportunities to volunteer and give back to the broader community within which they live.
“It’s about building bridges,” Helen explained. “We aren’t in the Bathurst corridor—our neighbours are diverse and come from all kinds of backgrounds. Our programs have a double benefit: we connect with fellow Jews while giving back to the community and helping the people of Barrie see the Jewish community here.”
The initiatives are varied, yet each are impactful. The women of NCJWC, Simcoe County built a library for the Barrie Women’s and Children’s Shelter. They worked with the Simcoe County District School Board to provide warm winter clothing for the children of a struggling community. “We’re getting a great reputation in Barrie,” Helen shared. So much so that the Canadian Federation of University Women, Barrie and District reached out to NCJWC, Simcoe County to conduct a joint program for International Women’s Day in 2021.
NCJWC, Simcoe County also brings the Jewish community together for meaningful programs. Members have met every month since January 2019 for a book club, gathering to discuss and review books in a Jewish context. A speaker series—which unfortunately had to be paused due to the pandemic—brought such speakers as Ellin Bessner, CIJA’s Jess Burke, and Eli Rubinstein, a Holocaust educator, writer, and filmmaker to Barrie. These presentations were attended by both Jewish and non-Jewish community members, including members of the Barrie police, Cadres from Base Bordon, and local educators.
Between the work of NCJWC, Simcoe County and PJ Library, there is infrastructure in place for community members to engage, no matter their life stage. “There is Am Shalom Congregation and Chabad Jewish Centre of Barrie and families can now connect with PJ Library,” Helen explained. “And with NCJWC, Simcoe County, there is a vibrant Jewish women’s organization for women looking for peers to socialize with and a vehicle to do good for our community.”
With so many exciting plans for the future, it’s clear that Simcoe County is a growing Jewish area to keep an eye on.
If you are a Jewish community member living in Simcoe County, there is a community ready to welcome you with open arms! Get involved with PJ Library of Simcoe County on Facebook here. Get in touch with the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Simcoe County, at firstname.lastname@example.org.