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. The city’s Jewish community quickly realized that the immigrant youth had few recreational outlets. Thus, several small athletic clubs began operating to meet these community needs. The clubs soon became a place for teenagers to meet with their peers and channel their energy in a positive way, which kept them off the streets and out of mischief.
The first documented club that arose was the Young Mens’ Hebrew Athletic Club Ltd., which received its letters-patent in 1901. Other clubs developed by the Jewish community included: the Jewish Girls’ Club; the Jewish Boys’ Club; the Hebrew Literary and Athletic Club; and several others run by philanthropic organizations and synagogues. These clubs provided both athletic and social programming for Jewish boys and girls.
By the mid 1910s, concerns were being voiced in the community about the state of the Jewish athletic movement in Toronto, since no central athletic building existed and there was a great deal of duplication in the services being offered by these clubs. There were also worries concerning the fact that so many Jewish youth were members of Christian athletic clubs, like the Y.M.C.A., where anti-Semitic acts were becoming more frequent and policies banning Jews from the clubs were being implemented. Many in the community believed that the Jewish clubs could function more effectively if they amalgamated into one athletic association, like the Y.M.C.A. Of course, they would also need a new building with proper facilities such as a gym, pool, showers and clubrooms.
Thus, in 1919, a community meeting was held at the Strand Theatre to discuss these issues. As a result of this meeting, several of the 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 Y.M.-Y.W.H.A.
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 (Y.M.H.A.) – 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’ had rented rooms in the Brunswick Avenue and College Street area, 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.
As a result, in 1937, the Y.M.-Y.W.H.A. 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 Y.M.C.A. gym for its basketball teams. The ‘Y’ was staffed by volunteers who were granted free memberships in exchange for their time and expertise. It was entirely self-funded, relying on membership dues and auxiliary funds from dances and yearbook advertising to cover its operating costs.
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 Y.M.-Y.W.H.A. The ‘Y’ continued to promote the same values that were the basis for the original club: providing a sense of Jewish identity and camaraderie through physical, educational, cultural and community based programming.