When Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton became spiritual leader of Or Haneshamah (OrH) in 2013, she brought many “firsts” to Ottawa. She was the first permanent clergy at Ottawa’s Reconstructionist congregation. She was Ottawa’s first female rabbi and Ottawa’s first openly gay rabbi.
To add to those accomplishments, Rabbi Bolton is on the 2016 list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis,” which is produced annually by the New York-based Forward newspaper. The Forward selects rabbis based on nominations received from congregants. There are 32 rabbis on this year’s list drawn from across the denominational spectrum, and Rabbi Bolton is the only Canadian.
OrH congregants contacted by the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin spoke highly of Rabbi Bolton and were happy the Forward selected her for the list.
“Rabbi Liz encourages us to find our own Jewish voice. Using our hearts, bodies, minds and souls, she inspires both deep exploration and lighthearted joyful Jewish experiences,” said Paula Speevak, OrH’s incoming president.
Long-time congregant Heni Nadel has worked closely with Rabbi Bolton to plan educational activities for the congregation and said she’s astonished by the rabbi’s passion and creativity.
“She has lots of ideas and is very easy to work with,” Nadel said. “She’s also very flexible and very open, welcoming all suggestions from the members and working well with all age groups.”
Sarah Waisvisz, a Bulletin columnist, said OrH benefits from the “plurality of gifts” Rabbi Bolton brings to the table.
“I’m inspired by Rabbi Bolton’s engagement with tikkun olam through her commitment to social justice, her relentless defence of equality for all and her understanding that the future of Am Israel depends on a Judaism that is inclusive, diverse and welcoming,” Waisvisz said.
Since Rabbi Bolton became OrH’s spiritual leader, the congregation has seen a 20 per cent increase in membership. Rabbi Bolton believes the increase is due to the wide array of programming she organizes, ranging from her spiritually uplifting Shabbat and holiday services to her community-oriented social justice initiatives.
A program she’s particularly proud of is the weekly Machaneh Shabbat, which Rabbi Bolton describes as “camp on Shabbat.” She said she designed it based on trends she was seeing in Jewish education.
“It’s not Sunday school on Shabbat; it’s camp. It’s a real experiential learning program where our young members and their parents, and any member of the congregation, can learn in a real hands-on and joyous way about prayer; and about history and all sorts of things that get to be experienced.” said Rabbi Bolton. “We’re just thrilled with how it’s going and really hope that the community comes by and takes a look at it and sees how we’re approaching it.”
Rabbi Bolton hopes she inspires people through the authenticity and passion she brings, not just to her role as a community leader, but to life itself.
“I bring my whole self. There isn’t a separation of what I do as a rabbi and how I want to be in the world,” she said.
As a professional singer before becoming a rabbi, Rabbi Bolton drew several parallels between the performing arts and her role as a community leader.
“I think that performing artists have to really be passionate about showing the truth in what they’re doing and that’s what I strive to do by integrating the personal and the political, the spiritual and the cultural,” she said.