A hot topic in the Jewish community these days is the concept of unity. Many people bemoan the lack of Jewish unity, locally and globally. However, I believe we need to take a closer look at what Jewish unity is – and what it is not – to truly decide if we have a united community.
To define unity within a community, one should look back to when the Jewish people first became one at Mount Sinai. The Torah says that, prior to receiving the Torah, “Israel encamped opposite the mountain.” The Hebrew word for encamped is vayichan, which is oddly written in singular form. Rashi, the famous 11th century commentator, tells us the Jewish people were “one person with one heart” at that moment in time. They were unified.
But here is the peculiar part. There were 12 tribes at that point. How could 12 different groups of people be “one person with one heart”?
I believe the Torah is teaching us an important lesson about unity. Unity does not mean being the same as everyone else, but rather, being together with everyone else. We have a choice: to see the differences in our fellow Jews, or to focus on what we have in common and allow that to bring us together.
A year ago, a generous anonymous donor in the community enabled the Shabbat Project to take place in Ottawa. The brainchild of Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein of South Africa, the Shabbat Project sought to get as many Jews as possible to celebrate and keep the same Shabbat together. From Paula Abdul to Mayim Bialik, more than one million Jews from 35 countries participated in the inaugural worldwide event last year.
Something quite remarkable and unique happened right here in Ottawa: every Shabbat-related organization and synagogue in Ottawa took part. Every single one! From every stream of egalitarianism to every stream of Orthodoxy, and everything in between, we had unity. How did we accomplish this? We focussed on what we have in common, not what divides us.
Each congregation ran its own program on Shabbat – we all celebrate it on the seventh day of the week – and then more than 500 people from every walk of life came together for the Unity Havdallah at the conclusion of Shabbat at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
This is the definition of Jewish unity: doing something we have in common together.
Stemming from the Shabbat Project was the creation of the Shul Rabbis and Leaders Forum – a gathering of every congregation in Ottawa. While most communities bring together their rabbis, they often are missing representation from either side of the spectrum. In Ottawa, everyone was able to meet together.
This is the definition of Jewish unity: recognizing the differences, but still being able to have a conversation with the other and work on common causes for the betterment of our community.
This is something that every Jew in Ottawa should be proud of.
The Shabbat Project is taking place again this year on October 23-24 with a wide variety of events at congregations throughout Ottawa, as well as a community-wide Women’s Challah Bake and Unity Havdallah. See www.jewishottawa.com/shabbatproject for details.
When we leave synagogue on Yom Kippur, let’s resolve to go back on October 24 to experience Shabbat and Jewish unity in action.
Echad Ha’Am said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” This couldn’t be truer today as our entire community unites to celebrate Shabbat in unity with millions of Jews worldwide.
Bram Bregman is vice-president of Community Building for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and can be reached at email@example.com.