In 2013, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin examined the challenges facing Ottawa’s synagogues. Although many challenges remain, there have been significant changes in the years since.
Several Ottawa congregations were facing existential challenges according to a headline on the front page of the November 25, 2013 edition of the Bulletin. In the years since, Ottawa’s two major Conservative congregations have amalgamated; the flagship modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations have introduced new spiritual leaders; and the largest Chabad congregation has built a new synagogue building.
Perhaps the most significant change in Ottawa’s congregational landscape was the amalgamation of two Conservative synagogues – Congregation Beth Shalom and Agudath Israel Congregation – to form Kehillat Beth Israel.
After a long period of negotiations, and a year of transition during which Beth Shalom occupied temporary quarters at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre following the sale of its Chapel Street building, the amalgamation became official on July 1. With more than 800 family units, Kehillat Beth Israel is both Ottawa’s newest and largest congregation.
The congregation’s new spiritual leader is Rabbi Eytan Kenter, most recently of Congregation B’nai Torah in Atlanta, Georgia. Other clergy include Cantor Daniel Benlolo, formerly of Beth Shalom, and native Ottawan Rabbi Deborah Zuker as director of ritual, education and outreach. Rabbi Zuker returned to the city earlier this year to assume that position at Agudath Israel.
“Our whole focus and direction has really changed,” said Kehillat Beth Israel Co-President Stuart McCarthy, noting that the vast majority of the congregation’s members are older than 50. “We’re now actively focusing on attracting new families and enhancing our outreach within the community.”
The congregation has put a major focus on programming for young families and developed a policy to welcome interfaith families and LGBTQ individuals and families.
In 2013, Congregation Machzikei Hadas, Ottawa’s largest modern Orthodox congregation, was facing an aging and declining membership, and Rabbi Reuven Bulka, its charismatic, long-time spiritual leader, was nearing retirement.
Rabbi Bulka joined Machzikei Hadas as a dynamic young rabbi in 1967. Looking for a new spiritual leader, the congregation again turned to another dynamic young clergyman, Rabbi Idan Scher. Rabbi Scher arrived in Ottawa in 2014 and worked with Rabbi Bulka as associate rabbi for one year before being installed as spiritual leader last year. Rabbi Bulka remains involved with Machzikei Hadas as rabbi emeritus.
The congregation also hired Rabbi Michael Goldstein as executive director and his wife, Stacy Goldstein, as director of family programming (the Goldsteins were the founding directors of the Glebe Shul, a JET outreach program for young professionals). The team has put an emphasis on engaging young families and has attracted 30 new family units over the past year.
Rabbi Scher says Machzikei Hadas is succeeding because it’s providing “various connection points” for people to “come and experience their Judaism,” and it’s through this that the synagogue has become more than just a place that holds prayer services, but rather, a hub for Jewish community life.
Congregation Beit Tikvah in the Craig Henry area – which has been led for 25 years by Rabbi Howard Finkelstein who also serves as director of Judaic studies at the Ottawa Jewish Community School – is another modern Orthodox synagogue that hopes to renew itself by attracting more young families. To help accomplish this, Beit Tikvah President Howard Nadler said the shul hopes to soon hire a director of programming.
“Like most shuls, we have to become more modern and more in tune with what the younger generation wants,” he said.
Three years ago, Temple Israel, Ottawa’s only Reform congregation, was also about to begin a search for a new spiritual leader as it faced the coming retirement of Rabbi Steven Garten, who had been at the congregation for almost two decades.
Rabbi Garten retired in 2014 but – like Rabbi Bulka at Machzikei Hadas – remains involved at Temple Israel as rabbi emeritus. Rabbi Norman Klein served Temple Israel as interim rabbi while it searched for a successor for Rabbi Garten. That successor was Rabbi S. Robert Morais, a Toronto native who had served as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, Michigan. He was installed last year.
Rabbi Morais said he’s been thoroughly enjoying working with Rabbi Garten to guide Temple Israel into the future.
Although Temple Israel President Patsy Royer said there has been a slight decline in membership over the past three years, Rabbi Morais said he’s noticing a much higher engagement rate amongst congregants, with more members turning up for weekly prayer services and shul programming.
Both Royer and Rabbi Morais said they are looking forward to the year-long celebration of Temple Israel’s 50th anniversary. More than 20 special events will take place over the next year, beginning after the High Holidays.
The only new synagogue building in Ottawa in recent years is the Ottawa Torah Centre Chabad (OTC) in Barrhaven. OTC built and opened its new building in 2014 after operating for several years in a temporary structure on its property. According to OTC’s director, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Blum, the new building has helped to facilitate a growth spurt.
“Since we opened [the new building] two years ago, it’s really taken off,” he said. “[We’ve] really grown now that there’s a proper facility that allows us to offer more, such as youth programs and lifecycle events – so it’s made a big difference.”
While Chabad Lubavitch is a Chassidic movement, it is also a religious outreach organization that seeks to appeal to Jews of all denominational backgrounds, and Rabbi Blum believes OTC is growing because membership isn’t required, making it less daunting for people to come in, try it out, and get hooked on what OTC has to offer.
“Our model is a little different …We invite people to participate in Jewish life and learn and get educated and get inspired. The membership is a natural outgrowth of that, but we really do start the other way around from most shuls,” he said.
Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn’s Chabad of Centrepointe also offers a “no membership required model” and focuses primarily on bringing in unaffiliated Jews by offering Shabbat and holiday services and a variety of programs. High Holiday services this year will be held in rented facilities at 261 Centrepointe Drive.
Rabbi Ari Galandauer said membership is stable at Young Israel of Ottawa and the Orthodox congregation in Westboro has been able to attract young families to the shul. However, he is concerned that there are too many groups offering Orthodox services in the area, noting that the Chabad-affiliated Jewish Youth Library, the Kollel of Ottawa, and Hillel Lodge are all within walking distance of Young Israel.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I want to bring everyone together.”
Rabbi Galandauer said he’s spoken with the other groups in the area, but predicts it will take some time before any kind of agreement is reached.
Three years ago, Or Haneshamah, “Ottawa’s Reconstructionist Community,” had just hired Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton as its first permanent spiritual leader.
Rabbi Bolton said Or Haneshamah – which meets in facilities rented from the First Unitarian Congregation on Cleary Avenue – is mainly focused on engaging congregants through providing “various portals of entry” for everyone, which entails a wide array of meaningful programs.
The highest profile program the congregation has launched is the weekly Machaneh Shabbat program, a supplementary educational program based on a camp model. It is Ottawa’s only supplementary program for “children and elders of any age” that takes place on Shabbat.
While membership in Or Haneshamah has gone up by about 20 per cent since Rabbi Bolton’s arrival in 2013, the congregation’s president, Paula Speevak, insists she’s not focused on membership numbers, but, rather, the monthly engagement of the members, which, she said, is quite high.
Adath Shalom is a small egalitarian Conservative congregation that meets on the Jewish Community Campus. Susan Landau-Chark, president of Adath Shalom, said its small size and lay-led structure allows for greater member involvement during services and a more welcoming atmosphere. Since it has no permanent clergy – a rabbi is brought in for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – a little rent to pay, it’s able to keep membership affordable, something that it’s 77 family units appreciate.
However, with an aging and shrinking membership, Adath Shalom is yet another Ottawa congregation planning to take steps to attract young families to its ranks.
At one time, virtually all of Ottawa’s Orthodox congregations were located in the Lowertown and Sandy Hill neighbourhoods. Now, though, there is just one: the tiny, lay-led Ohev Yisroel at 516 Rideau Street. Congregation President Heshel Teitelbaum said members are quite satisfied with the close-knit, familial atmosphere that comes with its small size.
The Glebe Shul, now under the direction of Rabbi Yoey and Smin Shaps, is described as Ottawa’s “shul without walls for young professionals.”
The Glebe Shul hosts biweekly Shabbat dinners, weekly Pirkei Avot classes, and holds larger-scale events about once every six weeks. While Rabbi Shaps said he’s content with their success, he wishes there was a bigger budget that would allow for a third staff person.
“There’s really a lot you can do with this age group, and there’s a lot of interest, so we could do a lot more programming … but we’re somewhat limited based on our budget and being just two people,” he said.
While several of Ottawa’s congregations have maintained the status quo over the past three years, there has been much change with a merger, a new building and new, younger clergy at several others. The stated challenge common to many of the city’s congregations – across all denominations – is to attract more young families.