Finkelstein family donates $500K to help open downtown Jewish centre

Entrepreneur stays true to promise made before meteoric success
Finkelstein-Rabbi Boyarski
Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein (left) with longtime friend Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky. Photo by Caroline Phillips.

Harley Finkelstein, the chief operating officer of Ottawa e-commerce giant Shopify, knows all about paying it forward.

As an award-winning advocate for entrepreneurship, his own success in the business world has inspired his repeated role as an angel investor for the next generation of Canadian startups.

It’s in that supportive spirit that Finkelstein has given back in another way: to the Ottawa Jewish community that’s been so good to him over the years.

He and his wife, Sundae School owner Lindsay Taub, have made a sizable donation of $500,000 to help Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky open a Chabad centre for Jewish students and young professionals living in Ottawa. They now have what they didn’t have before: a permanent place in the downtown core to congregate for Shabbat dinner, religious holidays and other occasions.

“It’s the biggest cheque I’ve written in my life,” said Finkelstein during an interview with Boyarsky at Shopify headquarters on Elgin Street. “What I really hope it does is inspire other people who’ve had some success to pay it forward.”

The new Finkelstein Chabad Jewish Centre is up and running at 254 Friel St. in Sandy Hill. The renovated property features a synagogue, a small kitchen, a student lounge and a couple of small guest suites. There are also plans to build an addition.

Chabad centre
Photo by Caroline Phillips.

For the rabbi, it’s an honour to have the place named after Finkelstein.

“His name is associated with success,” said Boyarsky.

The $1.7-million grassroots campaign received financial support from several philanthropic Jewish families in Ottawa and, in the process, revealed that many Jews and non-Jews have been on the receiving end of Boyarsky’s kindness and inclusivity.

“All these people had been touched by this guy in such meaningful ways,” said Finkelstein, who led the fundraising efforts.

Finkelstein first met Boyarski back in 2005 when he was a young, penniless law student at the University of Ottawa. He was new to the city and hardly knew anyone. The rabbi became one of his very first friends here.

As Finkelstein focused on his studies, earning his law degree and MBA, the rabbi would often check in on him to see if he needed support or someone to talk to. Rather than force religion on others, the rabbi uses Judaism to inspire, said Finkelstein, who is the grandson of Holocaust survivors.

“He doesn’t care what background you are, he doesn’t care whether you’re religious or not,” he said. “It’s quite beautiful.”

Finkelstein watched as the rabbi hosted well-attended gatherings for students in his home and as he rented classrooms and halls to lead services.

“I said to him, ‘One day, if I ever have the means to do so, I would love to help you’.”

At one time, almost all of Ottawa’s Jewish congregations were located downtown. Over the years, however, many members of the community moved to other areas of the city.

The last remaining synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, relocated from the downtown core in 2015.

As a G7 capital, Ottawa should have a downtown synagogue, said Finkelstein.

“It was something that was so lacking and so important, and I’m really happy we’re doing it.”

Finkelstein and Taub, who is also Jewish, live with their young daughter in the downtown neighbourhood of New Edinburgh. With no plans to ever move from Ottawa, they want to continue contributing to the city in meaningful ways.

"Frankly, we have a responsibility to give back."

“Frankly, we have a responsibility to give back,” said Finkelstein.

The public support for the Chabad centre has been deeply humbling for the rabbi.

“The community has trusted us with these funds and we’re going to put our heart and soul into making sure every person we come in contact with has comfort and support and a place to call home,” said Boyarsky. “We take our responsibility very seriously.”