In 1995, I was invited to begin a relationship with Temple Israel and Ottawa’s Jewish community. In July, I will transition from my role of pulpit rabbi to that of rabbi emeritus. So this marks my final From the Pulpit column. These two decades have brought many wonderful changes to Jewish Ottawa. A new Jewish community centre and a new home for the Jewish aged were built and our community school was expanded to include high school. New congregations offering individuals unique perspectives on Jewish religious life were established so that diverse Jewish souls could be nurtured.
The number of institutions of Jewish religious learning has increased. The Kosher Food Bank and Jewish Family Services’ Tikvah program were begun and have flourished.
Our community’s relationship with the State of Israel has grown. Many will remember when Ottawa sent three buses of pilgrims to Israel during the Second Intifada with rabbis and cantors of all denominations travelling as part of a united Jewish community. Programs such as Partnership 2Gether led to a powerful relationship with Etzbah HaGalil, the far northern finger of Israel. And there are many more community initiatives worthy of praise.
Yet, there is one memory I cherish and which reminds me of what we could have achieved and what we could have become.
In 1999, the new director of Jewish Family Services urged the community to respond to the needs of the Jewish poor. There was an initial reluctance on the part of the organized community to respond to new initiatives, but the director was insistent. So, committees were struck, research was commissioned and, after a period of contemplation and consideration, every beneficiary agency of the Vaad (now the Federation) gathered at Agudath Israel to consider recommendations.
Following an evening of discussion, two remarkable events occurred. The various agencies voted unanimously to act with a united sense of urgency and commitment. And, more symbolically, the two rabbis in attendance led the gathering in kindling and blessing the Chanukah menorah. As one of the rabbis, I clearly remember a participant saying under her breath this was the first time a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi publicly participated in affirming a mitzvah in Ottawa. I do not know whether her statement was true – but it has not happened again.
That Chanukah evening, our community dedicated itself to the fulfilment of our people’s highest values. We set an example for future generations and made a very public statement to those not affiliated with the community that there was something special about the Ottawa Jewish community, which superseded the normative divisions that plague Jewish communities.
Perhaps time has magnified the importance of that evening and the subsequent actions that resulted from it. And perhaps others in attendance may remember the evening differently. But it was the seminal moment that helped me understand what great potential could be realized, if only the protective barriers separating us are let down.
This week, we observe Yom HaShoah. The day has many connotations, but certainly one of its most powerful implications is that we, as a people, remember the past only so that we can march forward with hope and promise.
I look forward, as I move on to the next stage of my rabbinic career with hope and promise, to watching how this unique Jewish community responds to the challenges of the next two decades.