Congregation Beth Shalom left its former Chapel Street building – once also home to Ottawa’s Jewish Community Centre – for its new temporary home on the Jewish Community Campus on Sunday morning, March 29, the culmination of a weekend of farewell events and its final Shabbat services in the synagogue building that had been Beth Shalom’s home for almost six decades. Peter Greenberg, president of the congregation, offers his reflections.
On January 14, 2014, Trinity Investments and Congregation Beth Shalom of Ottawa completed a purchase and sale of the property known municipally as 151-153 Chapel Street, Ottawa. This area had been the centre of the Jewish community for decades until families began moving away from the downtown core. Thus began a series of events that would culminate in the move of our congregation from Sandy Hill to the west end. On March 27, Beth Shalom began our swansong farewell weekend in our sanctuary of almost 60 years – a weekend that would feature smiles, tears, laughs, song, some prayer, and a tremendous amount of family spirit and closeness.
I write this article, not as president, but as a congregant whose family had been one of the founding families of Congregation Beth Shalom. My parents were married in this sanctuary. My brother and I had our bar mitzvahs in the sanctuary. My daughter Amy had her bat mitzvah in this sanctuary and my daughter Brianna was the first woman to chant the Haftarah on the High Holidays in this sanctuary. My sister was married in this sanctuary, and on it goes. Indeed, there is no shortage of personal memories.
I expected an emotional departure as memories were both sweet and bittersweet. Our Friday night Shabbat dinner was the epitome of freilach – an evening of friends and family reminiscing about their experiences in our majestic building, and yet, the true emotion had not yet shown itself.
Saturday morning was Shabbat Hagadol – fitting given its place in the calendar. I had noted almost flippantly that, once again, we were nomadic. Very easy to say while reading my comments in front of our beloved congregants.
For me, the true emotion really came out after the final tour of the congregation, when our chazzan, Cantor Daniel Benlolo, chanted the traditional “Eitz Chaim” as the sacred Torah was returned to its ark for the final time at 151 Chapel. People were choked up, some actually terribly saddened as the memories flowed, and the visions of their long-departed loved ones and truly special memories surfaced in their yontif seats. In all my years at Beth Shalom, I cannot remember being so moved.
Yet, we persevered. We continued the weekend and enjoyed another fabulous luncheon, as has become our practice. More laughs, more hugs, a few tears. Our Beth Shalom family assembled yet again Saturday evening for a night of karaoke, song, some dance, another nosh and a L’chaim or two. It was a party in celebration of ourselves, and we deserved it. Once again, I felt proud to have taken on an important role at this significant time in our history. Yet, while kvelling at the ruach of the evening, I was touched to see one of our long-standing members alone in front of the ark in the main sanctuary, weeping lightly and privately, as we danced the night away in the ballroom.
The enormity of the weekend truly hit home when we commenced our Torah processional. We had a perfect day as we marched our sacred scrolls from our home of almost 60 years to our new temporary home at the Soloway JCC.
What an incredible sight! Our chazzan started the processional through the downtown core, past Parliament Hill, through the LeBreton Flats, up to Carling Avenue, and on to the Soloway Jewish Community Centre. We passed our Torahs from family to family and from member to member. And, yet, while our departure was overwhelming, our welcome was equally impressive: a minyan and a nosh in our new, if temporary, surrounding. How appropriate.
I must admit, I cannot predict the future, nor do I feel it is appropriate to do so at this time.
As a congregational family, we can mourn, but smile, as we have responded to a difficult time with grace and dignity.
As president of Congregation Beth Shalom, I am proud of my colleagues, our members, our clergy and our staff. This event represented an important turning point in our history and, once again, Beth Shalom hit one out of the park with lots of laughs, a few tears, and belief in ourselves.
Yasher Koach, Beth Shalom!