In recognition of his passionate and longstanding commitment to Ottawa’s Jewish community, Mitchell Bellman will be the 2014 Gilbert Greenberg Distinguished Service Award recipient.
“I am incredibly honoured to be selected,” said Bellman. “It was a complete surprise. I am still surprised. The past award recipients have had an incredible impact on our community and I am really touched to be included as part of that group.”
The Gilbert Greenberg Distinguished Service Award is the highest tribute Ottawa’s Jewish community can bestow on an individual for exceptional service over many years. Initiated in 1980, it bears the name of the late Gilbert Greenberg, a past president of the Jewish Community Council of Ottawa/Vaad Ha’Ir (now the Jewish Federation of Ottawa), who exemplified the qualities of leadership the award seeks to recognize each year.
It is Bellman’s numerous accomplishments at the helm of the Ottawa Jewish community for 15 years, first as executive director of the Vaad and then as president and CEO of the restructured Jewish Federation of Ottawa, that are being honoured with this award.
“He served honourably as the leader of the community and brought much-needed stability from the very beginning,” said Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, who nominated Bellman for the award. “He worked hard, long hours to help make the community work. He cared deeply for the community and oversaw many significant moves forward.”
During his tenure with the Federation, Bellman worked with the community’s beneficiary agencies to ensure their needs were being addressed and was a catalyst within the community, inspiring the involvement and participation of many, motivating and guiding the future leadership of the community.
His ability to work collaboratively with the numerous chairpersons, board members and committees of the Federation, facilitated and enhanced the ability of the community to work through its many challenges and achieve success in many of the initiatives undertaken.
“Everything I did was part of a team of staff, volunteers and donors,” said Bellman. “Whatever we accomplished, we did together. They were inspiring. It was a privilege to work with them. I valued their input and their friendship.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Bellman relocated to Ottawa with his parents when his father accepted a job with the federal government. After one year at Carleton University, he spent a year living on a kibbutz in Israel. On his return from Israel, he enrolled in the political science program at McGill University in Montreal.
A job with MP David Berger brought him back to Ottawa, where he established a working relationship with Rob Ritter, then the national executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee. Ritter encouraged him to apply for a job with the Vaad and, in 1995, Bellman was hired to be director of communications. He became executive director in 1998.
The Vaad, then, was very different from today’s Federation. The organization was housed on Chapel Street in a building that was no longer the community hub. That changed in 1998, when Bellman oversaw the construction and expansion of the new Jewish Community Campus.
“We moved from offices rarely visited to a place that would speak proudly to the whole community,” he said. “We were able to make the changes necessary to meet the needs of the community.”
Other significant community achievements during Bellman’s stewardship include the amalgamation of Hillel Academy and Yitzhak Rabin High School as the Ottawa Jewish Community School; the introduction of such popular events as Mitzvah Day, Choices and Dragon Boat Israel; the creation of the Shem Tov Community Volunteer Award and the introduction of the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education to Ottawa; several highly successful fundraising relief efforts for Israel and other communities in distress; and the implementation and management of the strategic planning process, which resulted in a new governance structure for the Federation.
One of Bellman’s most memorable accomplishments was the Stand with Israel Solidarity Rally on Parliament Hill on April 22, 2002, hastily organized by the Ottawa Jewish community. What began as a local response to a wave of terrorist attacks in Israel, mushroomed into a national event with 20,000 Canadians arriving from as far away as Calgary and Vancouver to show their support.
“It was incredible what a small community could pull off in such a short time,” Bellman said. “It was such an impactful event with a powerful message about our support and solidarity for Israel.”
Bellman regards the late Gerry Levitz, a past president of the Vaad, as a mentor.
“I could go to him about any issue,” said Bellman. “He would always lend his ear and his thoughtful attention. He had a great sense of perspective and judgment. After he died, I would stare at his photo in the board room and wonder what his advice would be.”
As president and CEO of the Federation, it was Bellman’s responsibility to notify the community award recipients they had been chosen. Now the tables have turned.
“I’ve told so many people that they are award recipients and heard the emotion in their voices,” he said. “Then I saw the pride on their faces when they received their awards. It definitely feels unusual to be on the receiving end.
“I loved every minute of the job. I loved the community. I loved the Federation. People would say, ‘You have such a tough job,’ but I never thought so. It was great helping the community. Having such a great job was a reward in itself.”
The Gilbert Greenberg Distinguished Service Award will be presented to Mitchell Bellman at the annual general meeting of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa on Wednesday, June 18, 7 pm, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.