In what was celebrated as a “historic” gathering, more than 450 people, including members of all of Ottawa’s Jewish congregations from across the denominational spectrum, packed the Soloway Jewish Community Centre social hall to standing room only, October 25, for a community-wide Havdallah service and celebration.
“As my 14-year-old niece would say, ‘Shabbat rocks!’” said Andrea Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, the MC for the evening.
The observance of Shabbat on October 24-25 was a celebration of Jewish unity around the world, with more than 212 cities in 33 countries participating in the International Shabbat Project, which started in South Africa last year as a way of unifying that country’s Jewish community.
Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka of Congregation Machzikei Hadas led the Havdallah service, ushering in a new week by directing the crowd in “lighting” their small, electric candles and smelling sweet spices provided as he demonstrated the tradition from the stage. Some in attendance also held their own traditional, multi-wicked Havdallah candles.
“Behold. Look around you tonight,” Rabbi Bulka addressed the crowd. “What a magnificent sight: an entire community gathering together to recite Havdallah and to celebrate together.
“There is a distinction between sitting together and sitting and being together,” Rabbi Bulka added. “Tonight we are sitting and being together. We’re here as a community to show that, even though we have differences, even though we don’t agree on everything, there’s enough we agree on that we can come together to celebrate.”
Bram Bregman, vice president of community building for the Federation, participated in the pivotal meeting of rabbis earlier in October.
“It was something actually quite historic,” Bregman said. “There was this real excitement around the room to do something together.”
The meeting was organized at the behest of a community member who wished to remain anonymous. His donation funded Ottawa’s participation in the Shabbat Project – including the Havdallah event.
The unity of Ottawa’s diverse Jewish community was further emphasized when three community members spoke to the crowd about what Shabbat means to them.
Sari Zelenietz, a Machzikei Hadas congregant, said Shabbat is important to bring people together.
“You hear a lot today about how people feel lost and don’t feel connected,” she said, adding that, when she disconnects from her electronics, Shabbat gives her space to connect more strongly with her family and community.
Ottawa Jewish Bulletin columnist Jason Moscovitz, an Agudath Israel congregant, recalled a special Shabbat dinner organized by his daughters eight years ago in Jerusalem, while Jonathan Miller, a Grade 8 student at Ottawa Jewish Community School, spoke about how Shabbat brings his family closer together.
For Adath Shalom congregant Alan Diener, attending the community Havdallah inspired him to get more involved with the community, especially with his son’s bar mitzvah to take place next year, he said.
“I go to synagogue once in a while, but not regularly,” he said of his Shabbat habits. “Normally I wouldn’t be doing that much.”
“O Canada” and “Hatikvah” were sung before the service in a mark of respect and solidarity following terrorist attacks in Ottawa and Jerusalem earlier in the week, and Diener said it was an emotional experience to sing the national anthems with the community, adding that it is important to maintain the evening’s spirit of unity.
“We have more in common than differences,” he said. “We share common values and common heritage.”
After the Havdallah service, Shtreiml, the Montreal-based klezmer band, took to the stage to perform a lively set of traditional Jewish music and some original songs written by bandleader Jason Rosenblatt. Many in the crowd clapped and sang along, while others spontaneously broke into dance during the set.
Attendees capped off the evening by enjoying a dessert reception.