Jewish Community Centres (JCC)

At the turn of the twentieth-century, the Jewish population of Toronto was growing rapidly. Eastern European families afflicted by religious persecution and economic hardship in their homelands were immigrating to Toronto in large numbers. Between 1900 and 1940, most of Toronto’s Jewish immigrants lived first in the Ward and then Kensington Market and the surrounding area. In the city’s downtown core, public space for amateur sports was confined to playgrounds, school yards and inner-city parks. It was there that Jewish youth first took advantage of sporting and leisure activities.

Playground teams, like Toronto’s Elizabeth Street team (the Lizzies), gave Jewish youth an opportunity for physical activity and interaction with other ethnic groups. And while sporting rivalries were inevitable, the infamous Christie Pits riot in 1933 was an example of the antisemitism that permeated the social interactions between Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Toronto during this period, even in the sporting arena.

Beyond the playground leagues, organized sports for Jewish youth were usually offshoots of various Jewish cultural clubs, such as the Judean Literary and Debating Society and the Young Men’s Hebrew Progressive Club. The first documented sports organizations in Toronto were the Young Mens’ Hebrew Athletic Club Ltd., which received its letters-patent in 1901; the Judean Athletic Club, established in 1908; followed by the Hebrew Literary and Athletic Club in 1914. All offered a variety of popular sports, such as baseball, basketball, hockey and rugby.

By the 1910s, YMHAs modeled after the YMCA were already established throughout North America. However, in 1912, the Jewish Times reported that no such facility existed in Toronto despite growing demand. Instead, most young Jewish men were members of the YMCA, which in 1918 had adopted a policy of segregating its athletic groups, encouraging Jewish athletes to seek their own sports facilities.

In 1919, a community meeting was held at the Strand Theatre to discuss these issues. As a result, several athletic and social groups decided to amalgamate. They formed an umbrella organization known as the Hebrew Association of Young Men’s and Young Women’s Clubs, the precursor to the YM-YWHA. The Jewish Y of the early- to mid-1920s brought together over seventy disparate social and recreational groups and clubs. Yet, infighting, coupled with financial hurdles, kept the community from establishing a dedicated YMHA facility.

This association grew substantially throughout the 1920s, but by the late 1920s, programming became more geared towards young boys. As a result, “Young Women” was dropped from the name and it became known as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) – the name under which it was incorporated in 1930. Athletics remained its primary focus, but new cultural and educational programs were also introduced.

For close to two decades, the Y operated out of rented rooms at Brunswick Avenue and College Street, including the basement facilities of the Brunswick Avenue Talmud Torah. By the mid-1930s, these facilities were overcrowded and unable to support the growing membership, particularly when the young women’s programming was reintroduced in 1936. In 1937, the YM-YWHA constructed its own athletic building at 15 Brunswick Avenue, next door to the Talmud Torah, to ease the overcrowding. However, the Y still had to make use of five scattered buildings to meet its needs, including the Central YMCA gym for its basketball teams. Several championship teams and notable athletes emerged from the Y, in sports such as basketball, swimming, boxing, weightlifting and wrestling.

In 1953, a new Jewish Community Centre was dedicated at the corner of Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue, and by the end of the 1950s, the Y was providing services for all ages, ranging from a nursery school to their Good Age Club for seniors. Subsequent decades saw a rise in membership and community involvement in the YM-YWHA. Today, the Y is known as the Miles Nadal, Prosserman, and Schwartz/Reisman JCCs. They are inclusive athletic facilities that continue to promote the same values that were the basis for the original clubs: providing a sense of Jewish identity and camaraderie through physical, educational, cultural and community-based programming.

Archivist Notes

The JCC collection at the Ontario Jewish Archives contains an important assemblage of documents, photographs, newspapers, architectural drawings, and oral histories. The collection is heavily utilized by researchers examining the history of sport and leisure activities within the Jewish community. It’s also one of the most enjoyable collections to browse and explore owing to the thousands of fascinating photographs illustrating the variety of sport and cultural offering of the Brunswick, Bloor and Northern branches. It provides insight into the pivotal role that sport has played in Jewish identity and belonging. It combines both the history of a Jewish institution and the stories of individuals connected with it. This combination of macro and micro history not only gives this collection its high research value but also its resonance with so many individuals in the community.

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