Shalom Life | March 20, 2015

Top 20 Under 40: Yacov Fruchter

Fruchter is the Spiritual Leader of Toronto's Annex Shul

By: Daniel Koren

Published: March 18th, 2015 in News » World

Photo: Yacov Fruchter showing off freshly-baked Hamantaschen


Shalom Life is proud to present our 5th annual Top 20 Under 40 list. Over the next 20 days, we will showcase 20 individuals of diverse talents and backgrounds that have made a significant contribution to their field both locally and globally. From entrepreneurs to philanthropists, entertainers to doctors, this list places a spotlight on a small sampling of the spectacular, innovative, and passionate Jews that call Toronto home.


In 2011 we spoke to the pink kippah-touting spiritual leader at Annex Shul, a synagogue in one of the trendiest of downtown Toronto neighbourhoods, about what it means to be a young Jewish professional in the city. During our interview, Yacov Fruchter told us that his ambition was to find a place where Jews from different backgrounds could come together, and such was the goal of establishing Annex Shul.

In those fateful few years since we last spoke, the Montreal-born Fruchter's kept busy. He's now the proud father of two girls, Sheelo Netta and Lev Amie, and, the three of them, alongside his wife, Ryla Braemer, are happy living in the heart of the Annex and contributing to the vibrancy of Jewish life in downtown Toronto.

For anyone that has grown up Jewish in the Greater Toronto Area, they'll tell you that the city, while still home to a thriving Jewish community, is not what it once was before many immigrated north to areas like the ultra-religious Bathurst & Lawrence, or areas like Thornhill and Richmond Hill. For the Jews who do in fact live downtown, the majority of us (myself included) are not quite religious, but culturally practicing, which could be why the Annex Shul decided to enlist Fruchter as a spiritual leader, as opposed to hiring your standard rabbi.

Fruchter sporting his pink kippah

According to Fruchter, the Annex Shul is "an entry point into Jewish life in Toronto for Jewish young professionals, and an incubator for Jewish leadership. Though we have the name Shul, we really see ourselves as a Jewish hub or community and a marketplace for Jewish ideas and experiences."

Fruchter also lists the "shul's" greatest strengths, which includes 1) their ability to welcome people with warmth and content, 2) helping Jewish Young professionals feel empowered to make conscious and informed Jewish decisions, and 3) connecting those inspired and empowered through Annex Shul to other synagogues and Jewish organizations in the city.

In the wake of global anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism spreading, I ask Fruchter about how we, in contemporary society, can educate both Jews and non-Jews on the truth about Israel, as opposed to how she's often depicted in the media.

"This is not really our focus at AS," he responds, "But personally, I believe that the same strategies that we employ at Annex Shul in engaging and educating young Jews apply to Israel education. It is all about relationship building and open and honest conversations. One liners and cheap rhetoric don't work. With those interested in real conversations, we have to be open to speaking truthfully and respectfully."

The spiritual leader also mentions a strategy Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is implementing, called "Hugging Wrestling with Israel."

"This engages individuals of all ages in conversations that allows people to express both their love for Israel as well as those things about the current situation that they find unsatisfactory," Fruchter explains. "I am also a believer in the work that CJPAC does, as well as Birthright Israel and March Of the Living. One of the most underrated and impactful program that currently exists is March of Remembrance and Hope which takes a multi-faith and diverse group of influential university students to Germany and Poland each year. There is no greater bang for our buck as a community."

For you Jewish Torontonians interested in getting more involved with the community outside your doorstep, Annex Shul hosts weekly Shabbat dinners, and of course, parties for all the major Jewish holidays, like Purim, for which the Shul just hosted its prohibition-themed party

The shul reaches out via your usual channels, social media, word-of-mouth, etc., and have a built a strong reputation as being a warm, friendly place where you can have a stimulating conversation with like-minded Jewish professionals about pretty much anything under the sun.

Furthermore, Annex Shul is proud of hosting people new to the city of Toronto looking to meet new people and learn about what the city has to offer. "As a Montrealer who moved to Toronto 7 years ago, I too know that it is at times hard to break into the Jewish community here. One of our goals is to make that transition exciting and smooth," Fruchter explains.

The shul also offers a variety of events and services for newcomers and locals alike.

"Annex Shul is a multi-denominational community that welcomes individuals from across the denominational spectrum as well as those who are unaffiliated," says Fruchter. "We offer lively and participatory Carlebach-style services, discussion-based learning opportunities, social gatherings, Tikkun Olam projects, and leadership development opportunities."

Under Fruchter's leadership, Annex Shul has encouraged their philosophy of creating a space where Jews from different denominational backgrounds and ideologies can still daven (pray) and build community together. "We encourage both men and women to play an active role in leading davening (prayer)," Fruchter explains. "One of my favourite annual courses is Jewish Couplehood which invites couples, including interfaith and same sex couples, to think critically about the Jewish lives they want to lead and build together. We also organize panels with presenters from across the denominational spectrum."

To Fruchter, nothing seems to be as important as building and fostering a relationship between young Jews and their relationship to Jewish identity. "Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan taught that each religion (civilization) has developed traditions (folkways) that allow its members to be the very best people they can be," he says. "Without connecting to the richness of our collective history, we are all missing a part of ourselves and denying a fundamental element of who we are. I believe in our institutions today, and in the power of our Jewish community. We are at an exciting moment in Jewish history and I wouldn’t want any members of our tribe to miss out in it. In the words of the Purim story that we just read - 'Perhaps for a time as this you have been put in this place.'"

Meanwhile, Fruchter enjoys living in the Annex, and enjoys being know as "that guy everyone recognizes as the pink kippah wearer."

"My wife and I are excited to be part of the vibrancy and renewal of Jewish life downtown and are proud to be raising our children here," he says.

Learn more about the Annex Shul here.

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